A maverick with a lens

talks to John Hillcoat about the production of his just released film The Road and questions the relationship between passion and commerce

Director John Hillcoat on set, courtesy of Dimension Films

Director John Hillcoat on set, courtesy of Dimension Films

The towering, bald-headed John Hillcoat, though an unmissable figure, had been fairly inconspicuous in the mainstream film industry until the January release of ‘The Road’, a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel. Hillcoat had already begun to gather a more global following with his third feature, ‘The Proposition’ – a Western set in the Australian outback. However, having now tackled a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, he has burst onto our radar. Expectations were high for him to match the success of the Coen Brothers’ McCarthy adaptation, ‘No Country for Old Men’. So far, having been acclaimed “intelligent” and “powerful”, the film is faring well.

His Canadian/Australian drawl sounds completely relaxed as we speak days before the general release of his greatly anticipated feature, but he assures me it is not an easy wait: “I’m relieved but I’m also anxious about the marketing because so much pressure now is on not so much the reviews but how it does at the box office. This is always an anxious period because you have no control over this element, and how it does.”

‘The Road’, is a desperate tale about an unnamed father and son travelling through post-apocalyptic America carrying their few possessions in a shopping cart and fleeing cannibal gangs in a bid to survive. Hillcoat admits his production team were hard-pressed to resist judgement from McCarthy’s readers: “When you do a book that’s so beloved, people have a lot of expectations, they come in with often quite negative expectations. Cormac himself really sees that they’re two separate mediums, I hope people give it that space”.

The director himself is one of these readers, and so too were the entire production team – Nick Cave, composer of the music, reportedly said, “I don’t fuck with the master,” on first hearing the project idea. However, the excitement of achieving the rights to make the film overrode the pressure of doing justice to McCarthy’s work.

Hillcoat, however, was not initially part of the mob of film makers to race forward to grab the piece: “I used to think of an idea and get a writer to write it for me, but in the case of ‘The Road’, the book came to me. I never planned to make a post-apocalyptic film, but the producer thought I would be good for it.” Once on board he tackled the project with great intent. The film consequently remains faithful to all elements of McCarthy’s own work. In spite of the Hollywood-type resources available to them, Hillcoat asserted the gritty personality of the piece, which many have seen as making up for the loss of McCarthy’s poetic written word. And this is exactly what was needed for a post-apocalyptic story relevant today, described by Hillcoat as, “a heightened realism of stuff we have already seen”.

Unlike other post-apocalyptic films that highlight the tragedy of the impact of climate change, Hillcoat is eager to stress that the desolate setting frames a poignant love story between father and son, struggling to survive in such a severe climate: “over and above the visuals and the background and stuff like that, it’s a love story between a father and son which is what I thought was most special”.

Courtesy of Dimension Films

Courtesy of Dimension Films

Determined to capture this authenticity, Hillcoat, along with production designer, Chris Kennedy, roamed the landscapes of America with the transporting power of Google Earth to find real life locations for shooting.

“Post-apocalyptic films tend to be much more about the big spectacle and special effects, and not that kind of intimate reality. It is deliberately done using real apocalyptic locations that have occurred on a small scale like Katrina in New Orleans, and Mount Saint Helens in Washington State. Most of what you see is in camera, even the smoke in the sky was footage from 9/11, and the boat was an Imax footage shot taken 2 days after Katrina had hit.”

By locating realism in the melodramatic subject matter of the world ending, Hillcoat reaffirms his individuality within the slick world of American film, averting the danger many had predicted. They appeared, however, to be all on board with Hillcoat’s creative decisions. “He got very excited when he heard we were filming it that way because he felt that was more truthful to the book and what it is really about, like the experience of the homeless, and stuff that we have already seen. It’s meant to be more of a human story than just a fantasy.”

This aversion from the norm of commercial features has gained Hillcoat much recognition, and as he stumbles over words when asked what it is that he does, exactly, it is clear that this is a heavily ingrained passion that he has never quite found the need to put into words. The heavy tones of his voice are sparked by enthusiasm as he verbally sifts through descriptions to try to arrive at the most appropriate way to communicate his role: “I kind of realised there’s something to be found in taking a genre and finding something new in it. It’s almost like combining the two sensibilities: the European style within the Hollywood system of genre.”

Having taken an interest in film from a young age, his specialist knowledge rolls effortlessly into conversation, as he builds a list of names, titles, and movements that shaped his own creativity. “I grew up in Canada so I saw a lot of American films from big commercial directors like Coppola with ‘The Godfather’ and Arthur Penn’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, and I also loved the more maverick guys like Casavedes and Robert Altman.

Courtesy of Dimension Films

Courtesy of Dimension Films

“Then at film school I discovered world cinema like Kurosawa and Ozu, and European films…” He spirals off into a world of artistic musings, and one cannot doubt his passion. “That’s what got me into film, that experience of being taken on a journey and having a passport into worlds that you’d never be able to enter otherwise – like an actor playing a character, it’s that same kind of liberation.”

All his films have taken place in his native Australia, but he has yet to turn his attention to England, where he has now lived for over 20 years. “I’m meeting with a bunch of producers in January specifically to talk about that, to try and find something in England and Europe. I don’t feel nationalistic or just interested in Australian films, it depends on the subject of the film. It’s really about finding ways to turn clichés on their heads, it helps you lose yourself in it and makes it more creatively stimulating.”

This creative style now has his name soaring around the world on buses, staring down from billboards. Rather than being a name tagged to McCarthy’s already recognised innovative story, he is the innovative style in which the story is delivered.

To Hillcoat, however, with this achievement comes not as a comfortable perch, but more a need to sustain his position in order to gain freedom within the notoriously tricky film business. “The problem with the industry is that you’re pigeon-holed very quickly. My danger is that I’m going to be pigeon-holed as ‘that dark independent film maker’”. His previous films all share a gritty nature, and given the bleak, intense temperament of ‘The Road’, (“it’s quite challenging dramatically, not overtly commercial”), he is fully aware of the accuracy of this observation. “Career-wise, if I don’t do a more commercial film, something more accessible, I’m going to be put in a ghetto of ‘dark indie films’, which are really hard and really tough to finance.”

Commercial accessibility, what Hillcoat claims will give him liberty within his own medium, comes in the form of clear plot lines, and familiar faces. “The bigger the budget, the bigger the star needs to be. You’re given a shortlist to pick from because certain people can finance certain films and the real catch is once you’re up to 30 million there is only a small handful of people you’re allowed to pick from who are being offered every film on the planet.”

The experience of being taken on a journey and having a passport into worlds that you’d never be able to enter

Even with a major film reining in the millions, Hillcoat’s tone turns solemn contemplating the impossible hurdle that only a few filmmakers can overcome before a film can be guaranteed a smooth run. “It’s heartbreaking, that’s why it is such a soul-destroying business, because the commerce versus the art, and the passion, and what you put in is a brutal equation.”

This topic greatly frustrates him, as he must tread tactically. “Recently marketing has become more and more important and it’s hijacking the business to the point where that has to all change somehow. It is an age-old struggle and has been since the beginning.”

He feels difficulty with a film such as ‘The Road’ is unnecessary. “I think there has been a real dumbing down where people expect movies to be pure escapism and fluff and to me the extreme worlds and stories need to be told. I just hope that it can survive because it’s really about human kindness and this love story between father and son. To me there’s no such thing as a depressing movie; to me the only depressing thing is really bad films: it’s not depressing if there’s something interesting or engaging in it.”

Fortunately he doesn’t adamantly reject the demands of the film world: “I have quite an eclectic range: I want to do a romance, I’d like to do a film that’s female driven, I’d like to do another big ensemble film (I love working with actors), I’d like to do a science-fiction film, I’d like to do a gangster film…they’re all areas that interest me.”

Surely, with so many avenues to explore, the constraints placed upon the industry can hardly hold him back. He ends our conversation with a light and fluffy, “So anyway! Fingers crossed, we’ll see what happens!” Despite the crumbling prospects of the film industry and the bleak topic of his recent film, Hillcoat’s future looks optimistic, with a career far from apocalyptic set to soar far into the future.

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