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The Conversation with Hillcoat
One day, at the beginning of November 2007, while I was shooting a film in Mexico, the script of The Road arrived in my hands. Its cover said it was based on a Cormac McCarthy book. This important fact and reading the first paragraphs opened my eyes not only to a good story, but also to a great photographic challenge. In addition, John Hillcoat, the director of this project, had written some notes especially addressed to me. In them, he explained how he wanted the movie to be. It was a very precise text. He revealed his vision to me while, at the same time, making me share in a huge concern. "Everybody says that this novel can´t be made into a film."
When I met with him a few days later, he asked me about all kinds of technical solutions to transform this particular literary text into images. My answers were ambiguous. I wasn't certain about anything that could be done. Nothing about the apocalypse Cormac McCarthy proposed is fanciful. Hence, for me, its enormous difficulty. Creating truth in fiction is very complicated. What I did do was to introduce him to my ideas on the subject with hope and enthusiasm. I spent four hours with him that were crucial for me getting a contract. And I had the feeling of not being very convincing. Though, in spite of that, John Hillcoat was very generous to me. He showed me a thousand and one images, hundreds of references, and asked me question after question. All of them could be summed up in this one: "Do you think we'll be able to do it?" I always answered, of course we can. Four weeks went by before John Hillcoat decided to make the film with me. That was great news for me. I was certain I was being offered a great opportunity. My big break. The Road was a film different from anything I had done before. And it was my first film on American soil. A total dream.
Pittsburgh, Operations Center
The first day of January 2008, I travelled to LA. It was a frenetic start for the year. There I met again with John Hillcoat and his friend Chris Kennedy, also an Australian, who was his Production Manager (the Art Director in European cinema). This artist had already made The Proposition with Hillcoat. We had our first meetings. The first reflections in which phrases were used like: "Green can't exist"; "Neither can the sun"; "This film can only express what Cormac writes." We saw pictures of possible locations. Apocalyptic fields, contaminated rivers, damaged woods. The remains after the passage of Katrina. Pictures taken in Arizona, Oregon, Indiana, Washington... We seemed condemned to cover many miles in this project. But, good sense prevailed. We ended up concentrating almost all the shooting in Pennsylvania, which seemed to be suitable for most of the locations. That was how Pittsburgh became our Operations Center. Even so, New Orleans and Oregon were waiting for us later on.
Pittsburgh is a city that has gone downhill in recent years. Its downtown is very gloomy. And on the outskirts of town there are half abandoned neighborhoods and steel mills without any activity. When I was there, I remembered Cimino's The Deer Hunter, that film in which this place was at its best. Now, these streets are what The Road needs, because they are devastated and their houses are half destroyed...A long way from the city center we found other interesting scenarios: a highway with no cars, the waterfall, the cave for the first sequence, the Lake Erie shore... It's been a wise move to come here, though it would be very difficult to live in a city like this. That's what I think when I go to work every morning and try to protect myself from the icy polar gusts that lash my face.
The Shoot Begins
Monday, 27th February We started the shoot. It wasn't quite dawn and John Hillcoat and I had already decided on camera positions. The sky was cloudy. Viggo Mortensen arrived. His appearance was perfect. His hair, make-up and wardrobe made his situation as a man who lives in the open believable. We greeted each other with a big hug and wished each other luck. The other lead actor, Kodi, Viggo's son in the film, was also dressed as someone very well prepared for the difficulties of survival. The sequence we had to shoot was an easy one. The Man and the Boy approach an abandoned gas station. Inside the shelter where the gas pumps are, Viggo attempts to get a few drops of gas, while his son is rummaging among the dust and leftover pieces of junk.
On this first day, we all are a bit tense. For many of us, it's the first time we've met. This is my baptism in American cinema. There's too much that's new to me. Even so, all is going well. No conflicts or indecision. After finishing the first sequence, the convoy moves on. We have to change location. We're going to shoot in another part of the city. Under a bridge, there's an abandoned car. The Man and the Boy get in the car to spend the night. The evening light is dull, grey. The wind is powerful. Circumstances help me in these early stages of the shoot. We say goodbye until the next day with these words, "Big day and very good day."
"The sun is my enemy"
Why not say that the sun is the enemy of this film. The struggle I had with this. As much as I talked about my personal duel with the sun, the production people couldn't get in their heads that if we had sun we had to look for a cover set, an interior place away from the "inclemency" of a bright sunny day. To them, it was the world turned upside down. If it rained, we were making the movie of our dreams. If it was sunny, we were ruining it. Eventually, they ended up understanding this apparent contradiction.
In almost every movie there are cursed sequences. Impossible or difficult to work out. In The Road, there´s one - among several - #127. The Father and the Son are taken by surprise by an earthquake in the middle of the forest. It is night and the trees are falling over them with extreme violence. How to light up a forest at night? How to avoid the fake image of artificial light on the trees? I was feeling especially frustrated because this sequence could spoil the natural character I wanted the film to have. I spoke to John Hillcoat about my nightmare. He understood my reasoning and we changed night for what we usually call "the witching hour." That time of the day when it's almost twilight. Although there's still light, everything has a ghostly air. This effect has diverse names in different languages. "Dusk" in English, and a wonderful French expression, "entre chien et loup," that translated refers to that moment in the day "between dog and wolf."
So, I worked on the forest atmosphere as if we were in that crucial hour even though we always were filming in daylight. Sometimes, I achieved an atmosphere that looked more like a dog than a wolf. That is to say, an atmosphere of more clarity. And on other occasions, more of the wolf than of the dog. Almost like night. This, according to the time of day and the hourly behavior of the clouds. But what I remember vividly was the filming of the falling trees. Sometimes, we attached the cameras to the trunks so they would accompany them in their fall. Other cameras we sank into the ground in special boxes. The trees crashed into them. We got spectacular images. While we were shooting this scene, I understood the kinds of risk American productions like to take on. Not those of lighting, certainly. They sacrifice what is necessary to obtain spectacular action scenes. We spent three days in that forest. Many trees were felled and although it was twelve noon and the sun was beginning to show through the clouds, among all that fallen timber, my deck held only two cards: one with the figure of a dog and the other with that of a wolf.
Viggo Mortensen is an actor who doesn't do things by half measures. I have never seen anyone who surrenders himself to his character with such passion. I can assure you that his only limits are those of his own life. His physical ability as well as the world of his emotions. Viggo emptied himself out, always. He'd be exhausted at the end of a hard day. He gives everything. In The Road, we met for the first time, he and I. Viggo knew about me from his contacts in the Spanish cinema. In the first weeks, we kept up a relationship that, while never cold, was overly respectful.
I like actors to trust me. To know that I fight for them as well. To know that I take risks to the extent that they do also. I also like there to be an atmosphere of collaboration. Here, perhaps because of the nature of the film, my initial contacts with him were limited to the context of filming. To the moment when the camera was ready to roll. In those moments, Viggo's concentration created an immensely serious atmosphere. There wasn't a single joking remark. Only silence and concentration. And at the end of the day's work, Viggo disappeared, seeking - I thought - peace.
One day, after wrap, he invited me to have a glass of wine in the makeup trailer. I was surprised to find in the space of a wide trailer hundreds of photographs stuck next to the mirrors. They were funny images of Kodi, of him, and many people. The entire film crew, practically. Some were cut up to compose amusing puzzles. I also appeared there as one of them. In one of the closets, there were bottles of wine from different places. And packets of chocolate, their brands completely unknown to me. There were also pennants and emblems from San Lorenzo de Almagro, the soccer team for which Viggo is a fanatic supporter. That room breathed the taste of your own home. The home we always long for. We opened an Australian Syrah. And we talked about a little of everything. There I suspected that it was me - maybe because of shyness - the one who had not wanted to approach Viggo´s world. One look at everything surrounding me at that moment - photographs, music, the laughter of the makeup people, Kodi in the other corner, happy, telling stories - made me understand that I was the weirdo.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is an eleven year old kid. His clear eyes radiate sweetness. His gaze is honest. He´s got a high-pitched voice. Still that of a child. Born in Australia, it's his first time as an actor in a country that is not his own. In spite of his young age, he already has experience in movies. To me, he is a child destined to be a great actor. He never loses his cool and one of his assets is his naturalness in the way he moves and talks.
Kodi impressed me very much during the shoot. There were moments when we all became infected by his distress and pain. As well as his joy. Viggo, who was his father in The Road, was also his father during the shoot. He treated Kodi as an actor, not as a child. "You are the best in the world," he would say to him. What's certain is that the special relationship between Viggo and Kodi kept on growing along with the movie. So it happened that in the most painful scenes the pibe´s tears flowed effortlessly.
For him, reality and fiction were separated by seams made of a very fine thread. His feelings, in and out of the scene, were mixed together. This way, Kodi could offer in this film all the love a son can feel for his father.
Robert Duvall. As in the movie, life in film-making travels along uncertain, dark, although also dazzling roads. One of the most brilliant we owe to Robert Duvall. His commitment with us was for two days. And I believe that his presence carried as much weight in the movie as if he had spent much more time on set. Portraying a very old man, Duvall conveys the truth of his character. The scene in the night, around a campfire - it's unforgettable. I was very thrilled to meet this actor whom I had always considered mythical. Robert Duvall speaks adequate Spanish, also with an Argentine accent, though he sounds less like a porteño than Viggo. It is his admiration for the tango that has led to his study of our language and of things Hispanic as if they were his own. In The Road, in a forceful portrayal, Duvall, the "old man, " is a wise man capable of surviving where few people can. And blind, he walks and walks with no other destination than an impossible future.... I see him now in my memory. Leaning on a rudimentary walking stick, his steps transmitting the energy of one who knows himself as an actor and enjoys what he does.
The Tracks of Katrina
Lake Erie is almost a sea. Its waters extend to Pennsylvania and it borders on Canada. During most of the winter, the lake's surface is an immense block of ice. We made use of the sandy beaches for filming sequences with our central characters as if they were really in front of a sea, the Pacific, in Oregon. The thief sequence, for example. And others that I don't want to reveal, especially the emotional ones.
In this location, Spring caught up with us, although the groundhog returned to his den this year, warning us with this gesture that winter would last a few more weeks. The spring buds started to emerge from all directions. And we escaped the green menace by sheer luck. We finished our work plan and went to New Orleans, where music, jazz and also the shadow of the passing of Katrina co-exist. Two opposing realities in the same place. Joy in the streets of the city's downtown, with its endless nights. Disaster in an extensive area somewhat farther away, in which the tracks of Katrina are still visible. We were obliged to rummage around in this misery. Here The Road saw itself in its own mirror as the camera followed the footsteps of Viggo and Kodi among the destruction and accumulated dust of inexplicable abandonment.
We came across a huge movie theatre utterly destroyed. No one had dared, after the tragedy, to look into that big lobby with its box office pulled apart, in which were resting, lost in time, the remains of machines that would have dispensed tickets for the next showing or made popcorn...We went through lonely, naked streets, their houses destroyed by the powerful winds. That must have been something! A bit of Katrina would be remembered through The Road. It was an inevitable meeting between a reality and our fiction.
The expedition of our two characters towards the sea had the Pacific as its final scene. An ocean that in this part of the U.S. west coast looks grey, cold and bleak. I felt helpless before such a vast, dramatic landscape. For The Road, it is the end of the path. For us, a place of tragedy for the Father and his Son who on arriving here, where the road ends, see their hopeful dream shattered. We settled down in a small town nearby called Astoria. At this time, the first days of spring, there aren't many people out on the streets. I guess it will be more cheerful in summer. And the sun will turn those endless beaches, that seem terrible today, into more human places.
The Author's Visit
Cormac McCarthy just visited us in that open and windy place. He came with his son, who is very close in age to Kodi. Seeing that kid along with his father, I understood the inspiration for this story that we spin out. Cormac is a man of few words and extremely respectful. He doesn't want to be a bother. He positions himself behind all of us and doesn't miss one detail of what happens. I discovered him taking a photo of me with one of those box cameras and he looked at me with the expression of someone caught doing something wrong. In the end, the two of us smiled. The days are long. Rainy days. Icy wind.
Cormac never abandons his observation post. At the end of the day, he asks me for the call time for the next day. Very early, as always. You don't need to wake up at the crack of dawn, I tell him. He says he doesn't mind. He'll show up then as if he were one of the crew. It surprised me. That second day, we filmed the scene where Viggo tries to find medicine for his son in a ship stranded some hundred meters from shore. I think the temperature wasn't even up to 8°C. And the wind was whipping our faces. I didn't intend to tell you this, but behind the cameras we were all bundled up in our parkas, with our Gore-Tex hoods; in front of them Viggo, completely naked, was entering the freezing waves. At the end of that day's filming, back at the hotel, Cormac talked about his impressions of the filming. It had been a good experience for him. He also told me that he was currently living in New Mexico. I agreed to send him one of my movies. And so I did, from Madrid. One day, somebody will wonder how titles like El Sol del Membrillo or Mar adentro ended up in this writer's library.
Unforgettable Charlize. Already we are almost at the end of the filming. Only three days remain and the whole convoy of technicians gathers in Portland. It is there that Charlize Theron appears. Her role is limited to "flashback" sequences, recalled by Viggo throughout the film. Charlize, besides being a very beautiful woman, is pleasant and sociable. She likes to joke around with everyone. Always smiling. For me, and I think for everyone, her appearance was like a breeze of fresh warm air that flooded the last stages of filming. The truth is that we were all exhausted, with our heads elsewhere. And Charlize woke us up. We were seduced by her enormous vitality.
And these three days, in which we almost never left the four walls of a house, turned out to be unforgettable. What amazes me about this woman is her great ability to alternate dramatic situations with other, more relaxed ones. As Viggo's wife in The Road, she was able to simulate childbirth, to discuss with him the possibility of her own particular death, and to enjoy the happiness of life when it was possible. She is the central figure in the most colorful and brilliant images in the film. For me, she represents the earth, its vital essence, before the catharsis takes place that turns it into a devastated and terminal place. Also Charlize is the key to scene 48. Another one indicated with red pencil in my notes. One of the hardest, most terrible, and dark scenes in the film, which was worrying me exceedingly. I recall now her determined and elegant walk into the shadows of the night...
On Top of the Volcano. Although the film was supposed to be finished in Oregon, we still had one scene left to cover. Maybe the most impressive and spectacular. Furthermore, we were close to Portland, but the depth of the snow made it impossible to access while we were filming there. I'm referring to Mount St. Helens, a volcano located in the south of the state of Washington.
For that reason, I had to return from Spain to this emblematic place. In May of 1980, an eruption took place at St. Helens that was the most catastrophic on U.S. territory. The explosion of its interior, of incalculable power, caused the deaths of 57 people and thousands of animals and involved the annihilation of an enormous expanse of land, transformed under a thick layer of ash and volcanic mud.
That mountain and the devastated area surrounding it were keys to The Road. In only one day of filming, we got invaluable images. I rejoined Viggo, Kodi, John Hillcoat and my closest colleagues at the foot of the volcano. It was an exceptional day in that the weather cooperated. The sun didn't dare to appear from behind some thick clouds and, like the first day, it was a good traveling companion. Mount St. Helens is present in The Road as a huge leading character. The film takes on another dimension with the presence of its devastated roads. With its petrified tree trunks still standing. Or the images of Spirit Lake, its water covered with dead wood. It's a landscape that invites us to reflect. It's a foreboding image that can help us react to the deterioration of nature.
The die is cast. Once the shooting is over, there's some work left for the head of cinematography which he cannot neglect. When the editing is clearly defined , when the music is already mixed and incorporated into the edited film, the final copy remains to be done. And during that process we get ourselves, one more time, into the film. It seems like the die is cast. The images were already captured during the shoot. But there's still much to do. It's attention to detail, to texture, to colour...And The Road again begins to walk, this time closer to your feelings as creator, looking for its sea. Its final destination which, to me, is a dream. Possibly the same one I had when the pages of the script passed through my fingers for the first time.