Here is a transcript of an interview with John Hillcoat, director of Lawless transcribed by myself having attended the Press Screening in London’s Haymarket on the 4th September 2012. The interview contains some minor spoilers.
John you were working on the production of The Road, and the end you lamented the passing of the Promised Land, which was this movie… Can you tell us how the Promised Land became Lawless, and how the project got revived?
It was actually called the Wettest County, based on the novel The Wettest County In The World. In Case people were wondering what happened to the title, the distributers around the world didn’t understand it, the idea of wet and dry around the world, particularly in France is not understood, not in those terms. So we began looking at a simpler more generic title. The film in 2008 when we looked at it coincided with the global economic downturn. And the studio in this case Sony, when we were preparing it with a different cast said “we can’t make these kind of films anymore”. Sadly it’s almost still true of all the big studios. So we went back to the drawing board and years later, we finally pieced it together with a whole new cast, and different financiers.
You say a new cast, was Shia LaBeouf always a constant?
I know Shia gets a bit of a hard time out there, but he was the first one on, and wouldn’t let go of it, and he helped get it reincarnated. So he is a kind of partner in it.
The original characters for the role were Ryan Gosling and Michael Shannon is that correct? Back then you could not get a film funded with those guys these days people don’t care that much.
We had Amy Adams, Scarlet Johansson, Paul Dano, Ryan Gosling, it still bizarrely…. This is how bad it was, we could not get a single distributor to even get involved in the P&A, by giving them the film for nothing. There was no audience for a period film, and no audience for any kind of rural set movie; I had offers on the table if we reset it into a city. I tried to analyze that, but it was just that classic thing of what was more familiar, the Capone’s, the Broadwalk Empire in Atlantic City was the crime scene we knew. This sort of thing (Lawless) had not been done since Bonnie and Clyde some years ago.
What that the chief appeal? I read you wanted to do a Gangster movie, to do regardless of the subject matter?
That’s correct, but I didn’t want to do a Capone story, and I was looking at a contemporary gangster story, and to me Goodfella’s and The Soprano’s were the final word on the Mafia. So I was actually hunting for something different. And also I was looking after the road, I was desperate to do something that had more range in both colour, emotions, humour, romance, all those things deliberately. I was kind of itching to find a different palette, I love the father and son love story is still very dear to me, but it was a hard film to make. Sorry bear with me I’m still jetlagged.
That was a long digression; it was the fact that it was a different world, the people that created the Capone’s, behind the scenes.
You mention that Shia was a constant, but when it comes to the other brothers, how did you balance the casting of the right actor? But also getting the right chemistry so they seem like brothers even when they are falling out? And as a supplementary and related question in the credits it said, thank you to Terrence Malick.
Yes, Terrence Malick had a movie that had the title Lawless, and Terrence was incredibly generous and gave us the title. He’d been very supportive of my work, so I think he understood my situation, and was very generous.
With the casting, it’s always a tricky balance, with the cast. What I saw in Shia was that he could not sit still and was incredibly ambitious, and had this youthful energy to him. And this was very much like the characters on screen, he admires actors like Tom Hardy, and worships people and in particular Guy Pearce, so much so that onset whenever Guy was filming, Shia would roll up every day just to watch. So it was that kind of eagerness that suited that character, and it was actually him that got in touch with Tom independently, being a huge fan of Bronson, and I coincidentally had ran into Tom when he was promoting Inception, and so to get to the situation, I had a very similar circumstance when I was making the Proposition where I had brothers, Guy Pearce and Danny Huston could not physically look more different, but then I realized with my own brother that we look like complete opposites, and the only thing that draws us together was the voice, so I thought if they spoke with a similar voice, which I know is difficult to understand, then it might bridge the gap.
Did they have to go on brother’s chemistry training; did they spend much time in rehearsal?
There was that whole thing, Shia and Dane Dehaan who plays Cricket was like a whole other part of this dysfunctional family, so they went on a road trip together and chased and disappeared with the Bondurant family in Virgina for quite some time.
Tom is remarkable, he did his own approach, which greatly unsettled me, and to be honest we were all anxious about what Tom was doing, I realized his choices were incredibly audacious, but I have enormous respect for him and think he is one of the bravest actors out there. I will just explain that briefly, in rehearsals he announced that his approach to Forrest was that he was an old lesbian. What he was talking about, was that Forrest was the matriarch of the family, hence the cardigan, and darning socks, he was really getting at this guy could not articulate he feelings, but was like a mother hen protecting his nest.
The violence in the film is very realistic when it comes and has great impact, the two sequences that made me squirm was the throat slitting scene, and the castration scene, it seems that the Bondurant’s were capable of taking to extremes and dissolves a touch of psychosis, yet you underplay it because at the same time they are just normal guys, who were trying to contain who they are and what they are. Does the realism come from the book, or did you add it for the movie as its staggeringly unsettling?
Unsettling was the key to what I was trying to do, it is true it is based on Matt Bondurant’s accounts, although he embellished dialogue. In every book there is license to change the story when it moves to the film, but all the key events were true, what fascinated me about these guys, and a lot of these people often they get a sense that the stakes are so high, it is so extreme, they get a feeling they are immortal having survived so much, its like they are flirting with death. And it’s that, and these brothers had a reputation of being invincible, but as we know nobody is, and everyone is mortal. For me two things I loved about the ending, is that these guys traditionally go down in a blaze of bullets, these guys did, and what happened in reality when that line between the law is blurred and corruption sinks in, in this case the Bondurant’s, survived and went on to have families and business. Shia was trying to idolize that power, have that threat, but never could, his character was pushed to that extreme on the bridge we did want him to play it, where he was looking very unsettled and shaken in a way the other brothers never were, they were shockingly efficient, and could sleep at night. The intention of Shia’s arc is that he is pushed to that extreme, but is never comfortable, so finds his comfort zone back with his family, he was more of a businessman, and was not like his brothers. Sorry if I’m not really answering the question. In respect of psychosis, Forrest was always haunted by the violence, and it made him drink insanely, and he really did think he was invincible, and never could form a real family, his beautiful relationship with Maggie who was also damaged, they secretly got married, and its perhaps poetic justice that he went out of the world in a far more innocent way.
Was Jack always a way into the story from the audience point of view?
I love ensembles, so it was always about harnessing that. It’s difficult for genres, the western and the gangster film to find roles for women. The true story of Maggie and Bertha we really cherished, I always wanted to get a balance between Forrest and Maggie, really for us it was about Forrest, Maggie, Jack and Bertha. The others fit in around them.
You said that you struggle to get this made, yet this era and subject matter and era grips audiences, why do you think that is?
I think history has a habit of repeating itself, and there has been a huge economic unrest, the war on drugs is still an epic failure, as was prohibition, there’s enormous greed and corruption, there are these parallels, the difference with the great depression is that a lot of those bankers were behind bars, nobody was ever held accountable for this epic pillaging of money, across the world, so people share the frustrations in this inequality the divide between rich and poor is the exact same now as it was in 1920.
Was Nick Cave involved from the start?
I’m very lucky to have somebody who can help you begin with the script, and end with the music to have someone who can do both is a real treat. We talked about the music at script stage, he loved the book and had never adapted a book before, for him it was something new, but we both share a love of this part of American history, the music and the culture, the blues and out of that spring allsorts of musical genres. We were also keen to utilize song to tell the narrative of the story that was reflected in the song, so the songs were meant to comment on the story. The obvious example was White Light, White Heat, I terms of the question that song was written by Lou Read and was about another substance, at another time, but when Ralph Stanley sings it, it suddenly sounds like it was about moonshine. The idea was to get the iconic voices of country, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, and have nick and his collaborator Warren Ellis do there own kind of country punk.
My biggest regret on the whole project is not recording the conversations that went on between Nick, Warren and Ralph Stanley. It was like two different languages, Ralph hated what Nick did and refused t play to it so he did his own version, which you heard at the end of the film, and it worked out brilliantly. It got to the stage that Ralph would not speak to Nick or Warren directly, and had his long-term guitarist translate. In the end Ralph just did free form in his own style.