Australian director John Hillcoat may not seem the most obvious choice to direct “Lawless,” a Prohibition-era thriller set in the American South based on Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World.” But Hillcoat has more ties to the U.S. than expected: He grew up in Canada, and every year as a kid he drove with his family down through the Southern states where the film is set to Key West, Florida.
Though Hillcoat moved back to Australia to attend film school in Melbourne, the American mythos stayed with him: You can readily see it in his powerful studies of violence and survival “The Proposition” and “The Road.” His new film “Lawless,” which will have its world premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival Saturday, May 19, stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as three bootlegging brothers in Virginia trying to break into the criminal big leagues. The Weinstein Company will release the film in late August.
Hillcoat talked to Indiewire about being influenced by Kent State and the work of Sam Peckinpah, playing with classic American genres and why he’s a moralist filmmaker.
Your previous films have a good amount of violence, as does this new one, apparently. What is your interest in violence?
It’s a big theme, and it’s interesting to me because it’s that incredible extreme that people are pushed to; that fascinates me the most. I actually take it very seriously. I was in America and Canada growing up in the late ’60s and ’70s, so being in America while the civil rights riots were going on, I absorbed it. My parents were swept up in it; there was Kent state, the Kennedys, Malcolm X. And in the later years, there were a lot of incredible films about violence, like “Taxi Driver,” even “Nashville,” with the assassination in that film. So I was very influenced by that. I also love the American South. It has quite a violent history, but it’s incredibly expressive and soulful, and the music is incredible: blues, bluegrass, country.
What do you think you bring to violence that’s different?
I’m very sensitive to the way violence is represented. When slow motion was used in “Bonnie and Clyde” and Peckinpah, it had a real force. But since then, it’s used in a way that’s changed its meaning. Now it’s more sensational and gratuitous. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed and been a victim of violence, and it’s messy, chaotic and very unglamorous, so that’s why in my films you see very much the aftermath. You see the consequences, whether you’re the victim or the aggressor. There are no winners; it’s not black and white, and no one walks out without consequence. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a moralist, and it’s those consequences that I’m interested in examining — how it affects you physically, psychologically, and psychically, and also how that reverberates all the way up to nations and empires.
“The Road” in particular left a lot of viewers emotionally wasted.
Well, I blame [author] Cormac [McCarthy] for that. I must say I do like having characters pushed to the extreme, because it does reveal a lot, bringing about the best — and the worst in people, unfortunately.
Do you see something similar happening in “Lawless”?
It’s very timely in terms of the huge economic upheaval of that time, with the Great Depression and the whole frustration of corporate greed vs. the common person. So there are a lot of those themes that I was attracted to. I also love those classic genres, the American western and the gangster film, and this seemed to be a great mix of both, where the West ends and the gangster begins. I’m always trying to find an angle to make a genre fresh again. For the apocalypse genre [in “The Road”], it was the incredible realism and humanity in there that was unusual for that genre. With “Wettest County,” it was these incredible characters, and the incredible history.
“Lawless” is a much bigger film — with bigger stars — than your previous films. What was the biggest challenge in making it?
It was the schedule and the budget. It started as a bigger genre film at Sony and ended up, because of the 2008 global crash, being shrunken down. And yet the script and the story expanded. The big action-scene climax was shot in four days. That was the single biggest challenge: the time frame.
It may strike some as odd that you’re an Australian shooting a deeply American story, but it turns out you have very close ties to America.
Even Nick Cave [the musician and the film’s screenwriter] hasn’t spent much time in America, but he was very influenced by the same things I was. We were both drawn to the Blues, Folk, and those great American genres. Appalachia is such an amazing point of reference. And also, in a weird way, Australia is more like America than Europe, with its harshness of landscape, and there’s a strong connection between the light.
Those barren landscapes are so prevalent in “The Proposition” and “The Road.” How does landscape figure in the new film?
Well, “Wettest County” is a bit mountainous and it’s a bit dusty, but there’s more seasonal change and a real stunning beauty, and more color than in “The Road” and “The Proposition,” because of the nature of the story. Tonally, it has more shifts. But environment is very much integral to me, because people are shaped by their environment, and I’m very sensitive to that. I think the landscape and the environment should be an equal character in the film.