BYT talks "The Road" with Director John Hillcoat

Since the success of No Country for Old Men, filmmakers and studios renewed interest in Cormac McCarthy’s seemingly un-adaptable fiction.  And just in time for Thanksgiving, The Road tells the story of a father and son struggling to survive in a dreary post-apocalyptic hellscape. Along the way, they encounter marauders, cannibals, and above all starvation. In some ways, The Road is the most challenging McCarthy novel to adapt. It’s written with esoteric prose, and a highly episodic structure.

Director John Hillcoat is nonetheless a good match for the material. His previous effort, The Proposition, was partially inspired by Blood Meridian, another McCarthy novel. The Road was slated for a 2008 release, but delayed so the final cut could match Hillcoat’s vision. The result is a powerful experience, one that should not be considered lightly. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with Hillcoat about The Road, and what McCarthy thought of the final cut.


How closely does The Road’s final cut resemble what you imagined as you read the book for the first time?

Oh, God. When I read the book, it wasn’t a concrete finished film. At that point, I just had an emotional reaction it. I started to imagine [the film] – it was all coming alive in my head. But I didn’t know about Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, or Guy Pearce. Viggo Mortensen did come at an early stage, but even as I read it, I had no sense of the final cast. That’s too big a leap. In terms of capturing the feel of the book, I’m pretty happy with the film. Still, it becomes something else when different people come in, and you go to the location. Anything you imagine will be always be different than the physical reality. I’m not weaseling out [of your question], that’s just a tough one.

What challenges did you face in adapting  the novel?

The book’s episodic nature was a real challenge. It worried me. Then again, when you distill it down, there are key turning points. Beneath [the book’s episodic nature], there’s a strong and simple story about a father and son. It starts with the father as the teacher, and then the son becomes the teacher. There is a clear shift, a clear journey. They come against clear and dramatic obstacles. Even though the book is episodic, there’s a real narrative structure. In a book, repetition can be an amazing rhythm in your head, bouncing around  for dozens of pages. On film, the repetition is magnified by one hundred. Because it’s physicalized, the audience is eager to move on. A book has a different sort of head space. The original script encompasses a lot more. The movie started at four and a half hours. We had to boil it down to its essence. As soon as things felt repetitious, they had to go. In a real pragmatic way, that’s all we did.

Will any extra scenes be included on the DVD?

Yes. We will include whole chunks. Some of the scenes were left out because I felt they may have been misinterpreted. There’s a certain graphic scene in the book I fought like hell to put in. I said, “Look, if we’re going into this film, we can’t shy away from anything.” I ended up fighting like hell to have it removed.  At that point in the film, the scene was totally redundant. It took focus away from the old man, and how the father and son swapped roles. The scene took us back to the beginning of the film. Visualizing the scene in your head, it had a taboo power. On film, it’s like, “Give me a break.” Really, it took the spotlight away from the film’s central relationship.


The scene with the thief crystallized the father/son role reversal. What do you think Michael K. Williams brought to the role of the thief?

Well, I loooove The Wire. Let me digress for one second. HBO and television have gone to a place that’s beyond television and beyond cinema. Anyway, cut to Michael K. Williams. He’s an extraordinary actor – very versatile. What he brought was a specific persona. Garret Dillahunt, for example, personifies a rural, white trash feel. His inspiration was Deliverance. And what Michael K brought, even though it was out in Lake Erie, was a guy with an urban sensibility.  It brought in this whole dimension of people moving around, trying to survive and make ends meet. Also, the initial fierceness of his reaction was something he completely brought to the role. Then as the kid pleads with his father not to kill him, you see a real transition into vulnerability. He brought that whole dynamic shift in an original, visceral way.

How collaborative are you with composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis?

Very. We go back a long way. I’ve known Nick Cave since I was teenager. He’s scored every film I’ve worked on, and he’s written for me. And I’ve worked on Nick’s music projects. Warren Ellis is one of Nick’s great collaborators, so I’ve also developed  a relationship with him. We start talking about the score sometimes even before there’s script. That’s how Nick Cave got to write The Proposition. We talked so much about this score for an outback Western. We were both fed up with the time it was taking to write the screenplay, so I asked him to give it a try. It’s a very organic collaboration because it starts so early. There’s preparation and discussion, of course, then they watch the film afresh. I don’t show them rushes or anything. That’s what they react to, and that’s when the score takes shape. It’s an unusual process – nothing like the way films are traditionally scored.

Has Cormac McCarthy seen the movie?

Oh, yeah. A few times!

What did he think?

Well, I am a huge fan of his. Blood Meridian was the main influence on The Proposition. In our first conversation, he helped release the burden from me. He understands the difference between a book and a film. He  didn’t ask for a script, I didn’t volunteer one. He said, “I’m just here to help in any way.” He came to set with his son, who was calling him, “Papa.” [McCarthy’s son] clearly co-wrote the book. It was all building to this point where we’d show him the film. It was a nerve wracking experience. Joe Penhall, the screenwriter, and I flew to New Mexico and showed it to him. The lights came up, he mumbled something about going to the bathroom, and he disappeared for, like, twenty minutes. Joe and I thought, “That’s it. We’re finished. We’ve jumped off the cliff and we’re  gonna smash to pieces.” Then he came back and said he loved it. We had a seven hour lunch, and he drove us to the airport in his old, beat-up Cadillac. He didn’t miss anything from the novel other than four lines of dialogue.

What were those lines?

The boy asks, “What would you do if I died?”
Then the father says, “I’d want to die, too, so you could be with me.”
“So I could be with you?”
“So I could be with you.”

It was a beautiful thing to say, and prefigures what’s to come. You know, there’s a reversal later in the dialogue. He also helped with the voice over. He’s so precise – his notes talked about single words. He didn’t miss the fetus scene or any of that stuff. He recognized the movie worked in its stripped-down form. Yeah, he’s seen it a couple of  times. I’m going to San Antonio tomorrow to spend the day with him. It’s humbling because I know The Road is such a personal book for McCarthy.

Given the movie’s oppressive tone, what was the mood like on set?

A lot of black humor. Whenever possible, the whole crew encouraged Kodi to behave like a kid. The locals thought we were in insane because we’d be cursing the good weather. There was a lot of perversion, which is what you’d expect.

Sure. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me!

You’re welcome! This has been fun.

The Road opens on  November 25th.