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Interview with John Hillcoat, director of "The Road"

 

It's Thanksgiving Day, time to get the family together and see -- what?

Piss, shit and fart jokes in "Old Dogs?" A multiply addicted and deranged Nicolas Cage abusing people as he tries to solve the mass murder of an immigrant family in "Bad Lieutenant?" Ninjas severing limbs, lopping off heads, disemboweling bad guys and in general filling the screen with screams and gouts of blood in "Ninja Assassin?" The end of the world as a CGI spectacular in "2012?" Or the end of the world as a vast expanse of ash, ruins, and gnawed-on corpses in John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road?"


Before you take the easy way out and opt for Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" you might reconsider "The Road." I mean, how bad can your own life be compared to that of a guy (Viggo Mortensen) living out of a shopping cart trying to protect his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from being eaten by roving bands of redneck cannibals? This movie will make you truly thankful.

So stop your complaining, finish your cranberry sauce, and get in the car.

That's what John Hillcoat would tell you.

And here's what he said to me when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago.

PK: Last year around this time, fans of "The Road,"  the book and also of  "The Proposition,"

 

your movie, were distressed because the film was postponed to some future date. What exactly was going on around that time?

JH: Well, I mean the released date - the original release date-I wish that they had never mentioned it because it was way over ambitious. I mean we were still filming. Well, just several things were going on. One of our locations at the end of May shooting was 20 feet under snow so we had to go into post-production and then go back.

PK: Was that Mt. Saint Helen's?

JH: Yeah. And then go back in July and film in July so that kind of delayed things. It would be been such a mad rush. It would have just completely sold the films short in every aspect. There were many occasions when we needed visual effects to come in whether it's jet streams or birds all that kind of stuff and there's this incredible delicate balance of the story because it's not an everyday sort of narrative, it's a simple narrative but it's a road trip. It's episodic. There's repetition that's much more pronounced on film than it is on page in print, so that' something we had to get right. So we did finish it much earlier, but we didn't want to release it in summer. We missed, we were literally in post[production] and cutting things together and when that release date came and then they realized where this film was at, they realized it was impossible.

PK: Did you do preview  screenings or things like that?

JH: Oh there's always, there's a strange way of working here of test screenings. I mean I think it makes sense for comedies or where it's just 100% horror. Something like that where you could hear the gasps or hear the laughter. With drama, it's-

PK: When you get the laughter it's usually a bad sign.

JH: Well, it's just a poor system. I mean it's always great to screen it for an audience, there's no doubt and you can feel the vibe in the room whether things are working or not, that's all very invaluable. But there's just a testing pseudo-science in this country that's gotten way out of hand. Luckily we only did two preview screenings.

PK: You seem to have survived it pretty well. Is this pretty much what you had in mind.

JH: Yeah, absolutely. The good thing is - the one thing we all were striving for was being faithful to the book and what kind of film it was going to be.

PK: Harvey [Weinstein] didn't intrude very much?

JH: No, a lot of these kids....but actually it's more of Bob's [Weinstein] baby. It's a Dimension film. It stretches, it pushes into other, it incorporates other genres. It's an adventure, it's a love story between a father and son, it's an apocalypse, obviously, it has elements of horror. It's quite an unusual film for a Dimension film.

PK: It's shot in the Pittsburgh area; is that an homage to George Romero?

JH: Umm, well it's an homage to the end of the world. No Pittsburgh is actually beautiful, especially in the fall, it's stunningly beautiful. That was pure logistics, of where do you find these locations that can look like the end of the world and surprisingly you can find them all over the country. So the reason Pennsylvania came up was the number of barren landscapes from strip mining and in the winter, the deciduous trees losing their leaves, the abandoned freeways - there's one such  interstate with tunnels - and there's all those things. But we also went to Louisiana  for the post- Katrina clean-up that's still going on; we went to Mount St. Helen's, as I mentioned, where there was so much snow, and Oregon. So yeah, four states.

PK: Why not California? It's pretty much burned down.

JH:  We were thinking of coming down to California, there was debate. We thought it was a little bit, no, it was impractical and also, yeah.

PK: Like you said, a lot of the end of the world imagery is all around us, like. Certainly 9/11 comes to mind with all the ash in the movie. But I also read that one of the more striking images, the blood in the snow, came from footage you had seen from Bosnia?

JH: Yeah that's right. There was actually just a photo from Bosnia, all the hundreds of bloody footprints in the snow. I mean the book felt really familiar. It didn't feel like a futuristic kind of fantasy. It was much more realistic and that's what was quite fresh and confronting about it.

PK: One thing about the book and also the movie that was quite powerful is you don't explain what happened.

JH: Yes. And that's again, look when you think about if you survived Katrina or the 9/11 towers and you're in the middle of that sort of stuff, it's a long, long time before you can work out what actually happened. Once the media contextualizes it from the safety of, you know.

PK: And there's no media, obviously, in this.

JH: Yeah, there's no media, and there wouldn't be - if it was a global thing, there wouldn't be any kind of media discussion and also your priorities all change, the second you're past that event, it's all about the here and now and how do you get through the next day.

PK: Yeah, the explanation and the causality allows you to distance yourself from the situation.

JH: Yeah, and it also puts the spotlight on a human relationship of father and son and it's really that love story

 

that the book, and movie hopefully - you know in a way everything else is just backdrop and obstacles to put pressure onto the father and son and see how they deal with it and it reveals more and more about them, it shapes their whole journey and, as Cormac said, it's about human goodness.

PK: Whereas if you got the cause, the focus would be on making this a cautionary tale about global warning or nuclear war or something like that. But in one of the trailers, didn't they have hints as to what the...?

JH: Well yeah, I mean that was frustrating, from my point of view. I would never want footage in a trailer that you've never even shot or you've never even considered putting in your own movie. The thing is I kind of understand it from a pure marketing point of view. They were thinking of people that have never read the book or don't know anything about the film to contextualize it in a very short or punchy way. But, you know, I think it can be, as I say, it really is about this father-son journey. So, there you go.

 Next: Remember the Titans, and what's with the missing thumbs?

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