The Road - John Hillcoat interview
Filmmaker John Hillcoat tells Kaleem Aftab about adapting Cormac McCarthy’s much loved Pulitzer Prize winning 2007 novel The Road
John Hillcoat says his favourite road traverses the Simpson Desert in the outback in Australia. Not such a surprise given that he was born in Queensland in 1961 and that both his previous directing efforts – prison drama Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1988) and The Proposition (2005) had the country’s wilderness as a backdrop.
It’s a more figurative road that we meet to discuss as Hillcoat has spent the last few years adapting the Cormac McCarthy novel about a father and son heading south across a post-apocalyptic America, a book which appeared on The List’s ten best reads of the past decade.
What the world will look like when humans are facing extinction is a popular topic amongst filmmakers. So it’s no surprise when the director explains, ‘My main ally in adapting the book was production designer, Chris Kennedy. We were talking about visualising this world and we took our cue from what felt familiar about the world. There is no date in the novel, yet it didn’t feel like the future, it’s post-apocalypse now, now. The shopping trolley – that’s the homeless in every city. Initially we referenced worldwide stuff like Chernobyl and man-made natural disasters, extreme landscapes like in Iceland. However, we gradually realised this was a film about America and so we looked more in and around America and it was full of all these locations.’
Cormac McCarthy was even on-hand to give advice when needed. ‘After we established the locations and set up the pre-production office I started having these telephone conversations with Cormac. He never asked for a script and we never volunteered him one. He explained he’s done the book and now it’s over to us. He loved the idea of using real locations, because that is where he gets his inspiration from as well. He was very supportive and allowed us that freedom.’
Two people possibly not so enamoured by the use of real locations were the lead actors, Viggo Mortensen and young upcoming Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee. The actors have talked about the tough working conditions in interviews and Mortensen hasn’t acted since. So did Hillcoat put the actor into retirement?
‘He’s a broken man!’ jokes the director. ‘No, actually he’s just very particular about what he does. When the right thing comes up I’m sure he’ll work again. I saw him recently and he’s looking healthy; put on some weight. We discussed his weight on-set and thought it important that he didn’t get too skinny, because we agreed that it can pass a point where the audience becomes more concerned with how he got so thing, than with what is happening on screen.’
As with the novel, the cause of the apocalypse is not revealed. Yet the dystopian nature of the story had the director thinking not just of environmental catastrophes but also his own room 101. ‘That’s my idea of hell up there on the screen. To me this is kind of a parent’s worst fear and human kind’s worst fear. Humans are the biggest factor. I know the power of going to St Mount Helens and to see that level of devastation is quite something; the power of tsunamis, etc. But it’s human cruelty, the base level of humanity that scares me most.’
Hillcoat wants us to be afraid, very afraid.
The Road is on general release from Fri 8 Jan.