Some movies provoke the mind and intellect as much or more so than the eyes and ears, and keep audiences thinking long after they have left the theater or turned off the TV or DVD player. Add The Road to that list. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Cormac McCarthy, who also wrote the book on which the Coen Brothers film of No Country For Old Men was based, Australian director John Hillcoat’s The Road is a starkly told post-apocalyptic tale about an unnamed father and son traveling across an America given to roving bands of murderous groups and individuals all in search of the most bare human necessities.
Set in the near future, The Roadconcerns a wholly righteous and doting father, played aptly by Viggo Mortensen, caring for his young son after a worldwide cataclysm which has left buildings standing – albeit without electricity or any social services – but has laid waste all animals and crops, leaving every person to fend for himself. Partially told in flashback sequences where Mortensen and his wife (Charlize Theron) are leading an idyllic farming life before the catastrophe – which is only alluded to but never seen in full or explained – The Road is equal parts love story, travelogue, and tense drama as the abandoned father and son try to reach the ocean in hopes of a better life.
Without question, Hillcoat’s directing career and natural fit for undertaking the assignment ofThe Road was elevated with the completion of The Proposition, a Western set in the 1800s Australian outback. “It had a long gestation period,” Hillcoat, 48, said of his 2005 revelation as a filmmaker. “I had always wanted to make a Western and I loved genre – trying to find a new approach. I had been researching a lot about the conflict between the British and Aboriginal culture in Australia and the lawlessness at the time.”
Starring Danny Huston in what may be his best career role, this time playing a ruthless outlaw, Arthur Burns, The Proposition also featured Guy Pearce as Huston’s likeable brother and Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley, the lawman trying to bring order to the region. “That had quite a strange [development] period as well because he [Huston] was originally approached to be the Ray Winston character. There was quite an opposition to Ray playing that part because he was such a brute and Danny is such a cerebral guy with a visceral quality. Danny wanted to play Arthur [the eldest brother] and not Stanley. By a twist of fate, I managed to get Ray on board. I was very fortunate with the casting of that film. It was such an amazing team to work with.”
With the similarities in the basic settings of The Proposition and The Road, Hillcoat was able to get key meetings in Hollywood. “I met with the producers in L.A., and I mentioned howNo Country was a big influence on The Proposition,” he said. “The producer remembered that, and got the unpublished manuscript of The Road to me. We share extreme environments that bring out the best and worst in people. With The Road, you’ve got a whole other dimension that was expected in terms of the personal and emotional love story. I don’t think I’d be on it if it had been published and gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize.”
Given the similarity with the new film and his last outing, Hillcoat drew natural parallels in his preferred themes. “I am drawn to extreme worlds because they bring out the best and worst in people,” he said. “It’s an intensive stressful activity, making a film, any film. I’ve heard stories of behind-the-scenes making romantic comedies which make working on The Road andThe Proposition an absolute pleasure. It’s the essence of drama in a way – it brings out conflict in how people behave in the choices that they make – that there are no limits on human behavior for the better or the worse.”
Nonetheless, despite the downbeat nature of The Proposition, one can see The Road as an ultimately positive story about the finding the essence of humanity in an unwinnable situation. “Cormac said that The Road is about human goodness,” the director noted. “There is a real love story [in The Road] as in The Proposition between the captain and the wife. It’s the loss of things we take for granted: the relationships in our lives and the gift of being able to eat and enjoy the weather. How rare and special that really is – in the greater context. This is a very special love story between a father and son – the crux of the story.”
Unlike other post-apocalyptic tales, including I Am Legend and The Road Warrior, Hillcoat’s film is far from an action-adventure story and is more metaphoric for many modern issues. “It was really the reality of the book: having all of your possessions in a shopping trolley conjured images of the homeless in every city,” he said. “That made it stand apart from the normal apocalyptic genre. It wasn’t about the spectacle – it was about survival. It felt weirdly familiar, like we had already glimpsed it because our references were apocalyptic mini-events such as Mt. St. Helens, the Twin Towers, Hiroshima, Katrina or wherever. It’s not on a global scale but may as well be if you are in the middle of it.”
Trying to recall those tragedies, Hillcoat carefully selected several critical sites throughout the United States for his shooting locations. “It’s a road trip, so we wanted the change of geography,” he said. “Production designer Chris Kennedy has a keen eye and loves research, so we referenced a lot of events such as mining in Pennsylvania and the grey sand in Oregon. It was a matter of making up the world in real environments. It was a creative choice that made it feel free.”
Spanning 55 shootings days, somewhat expanded due to the short days required when shooting with a minor, principal photography on The Road included at least 50 locations with some actual footage of recent disasters. “There were four states that we went into: Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Washington and Oregon,” said Hillcoat. “Many of [the locations] were in and around concentrated areas in Pittsburgh,” said Hillcoat. It gave it the look, and we were able to do that because of the simplicity of the story. There was actual footage from after Katrina hit. We just replaced the sky because we couldn’t have the sun. The mass of smoke billowing up in the background is the actual real footage of 9/11 of the smoke tower visible from space. We just kept referencing the photos of the aftermaths of these events and went to these locations. It also added poignancy to the crew who were local – it gave it a whole other level.”
To create the verisimilitude that he needed, Hillcoat build as few practical sets as possible, choosing instead to modify real locations. “We always tried to start with a live location,” he said. “[Visual effects supervisor] Mark Forker came from photography originally, and the visual effects are coming from real locations, enhancing that world and making it all flow. They were sourced from real things. There were also a lot of practical things [achieved with visual effects] like getting rid of jet streams in the sky and birds. No matter how dead a location is, life is buzzing around. We had to do that with sound as well. We infamously were known to the locals in the way our mood was at a low point when there was beautiful sunshine. We were elated when things were grim. It’s an adventure to be on location and is like a forced method – the cast and crew get what world we are making. Creatively it’s very exciting.”
With the cast of The Road, including veteran Robert Duvall and Hillcoat mainstay Guy Pearce, the director had another key challenge in casting not only the adults but this time needing to find the perfect actor to play The Boy. “My biggest fear with The Road was getting a boy who could work,” he said. Hillcoat eventually settled on young Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee.
To help create a believably forlorn group of characters, makeup expert Toni G, who had done much the same for Charlize Theron in Monster, was brought in as makeup department head, coincidentally getting to work with Theron again. “Toni was a great help in transforming Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce,” said Hillcoat. “We wanted them unrecognizable and full integrated into the world. The Road was about not enough sun and too much cold.”
With the film in the can and finally debuting for audiences this fall, Hillcoat feels a responsibility to the material and author which have each gone on to create a wide impact in the time since the director became attached to the project. “I had no idea the book was going to have the impact that it did,” he said. “It hit me when I first read it. There were certain people like Nick Cave [Hillcoat’s collaborator on The Proposition] who didn’t want to go near it and take that risk of entering the world of Cormac McCarthy. As time went on, that pressure kept going. Once that started, I focused on the task at hand. Cormac was hugely helpful pointing out the obvious as to what a different medium the two are. He was very encouraging. He loved the results. That was a saving grace for me. He never wanted to read the script, and we never gave it to him. That was a mutual choice. He was happy to see how it would be at the latest stage. The writer [Joe Penhall] was very adept at adapting difficult material and very eclectic material. He was well-versed in the intricacies of the movie from one medium to another.”
Of note, McCarthy did ultimately see the film with naturally unpredictable results. “We went out to Santa Fe to show Cormac the film, and we were absolutely shattered initially as he walked out and disappeared for 15 minutes,” Hillcoat revealed. “We were totally crushed, but he just had to go to the men’s room. But he loved it, and we went for a seven-hour lunch. He went on to a great range of subjects. We talked about film but in more general terms about general subjects. He had come to the set and brought a fantastic 10-year-old boy who was half responsible for The Road – his inspiration in writing the book. He was saying that his son wrote half the book.”
For his next film, Hillcoat is sticking to his basic themes but is decidedly switching genres. “We are very close on the next one – a rural Goodfellas,” he stated. “I’d love to do a gangster film – that’s another great American genre. But I do want to make something with more energy. I have a wide range of stuff that I’m looking at. There’s several different genres that I’d be interested in doing. I’d like to find a science-fiction, but I love films that have a human element to them. They don’t have to have that degree of extremity. I hope that I’m not pigeonholed.”
Reflecting on The Road, Hillcoat wished that his film affects audiences the same manner in which the book affected him. “It hopefully will make you look at your own relationships and value what we take for granted,”
he described. “It’s looking at ourselves and our own relationships and what makes us human at times of duress. It’s very timely in that regard. I’ve always loved to go on journeys with films and get transported into other worlds, and think about it for days to come. I hope that it has a lingering effect on people the way the book has.”