Given that the source material was once described by Truman Capote with the immortal epithet “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” and has generally been considered as “unfilmable,” it’s not surprising that it’s taken the best part of half-a-century to make a film of Jack Kerouac‘s beat classic “On the Road.” Plans were in the works as early as the publication date in 1957 (Kerouac wanted to co-star in the film with Marlon Brando), and documentarian D.A. Pennebaker came close, but it’s Francis Ford Coppola who’s been the driving force, developing the project since the release of “Apocalypse Now” in 1979.
And finally, the film has been finished, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last week, thanks to Coppola, who ended up producing the film, and Walter Salles, the director of “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The helmer has assembled an impressive cast, including Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Garret Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, and Kristen Stewart as Marylou, and while reviews have been middling (including our own), most agree that it’s as strong an attempt on the novel as could have been made. Playlist correspondent Aaron Hillis sat down with Salles over the weekend as part of a roundtable interviews at Cannes. Below, you’ll find highlights from the conversations (and for more from Salles on his upcoming projects, have a look here).
Salles has been planning the film for eight years, and prepared by making a documentary about the book.
Salles has been a familiar face in world cinema for a couple of decades now, but it was his 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries” that saw him become the obvious choice to helm “On the Road.” As the director says, “we started to talk about this in 2004 after ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ premiered at Sundance, what became clear to me is that being passionate for the book for so many years, I discovered it at 18 and I fell in love with it immediately.” But Salles wanted to truly immerse himself in the material, and had “the idea to do a documentary following the paths of the book, interviewing the characters of the book who were still alive…and the poets of this generation that then became the beat generation. We interviewed Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane de Prima. We also interviewed artists who were influenced by Kerouac or by the beat generation in general, [people like] David Byrne. This took four to five years. The initial years were ones where we were in and out because I was also doing other things. But we were diving into this social political historical context to better grasp it. At one point it became so fascinating that I would have been completely satisfied if the quest had ended there.”
Earlier versions of the script had been done by Francis Ford Coppola and Russell Banks, among others.
After “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Salles was invited, through “Moonrise Kingdom” co-writer Roman Coppola, to go and see his father, Francis Ford Coppola, who’d held the rights for many years. A number of scripts had been in the works, even before Coppola was involved (including an early version which “ended up with the punishment of the Dean Moriarty character, [who] would die in a car,” inspired by the recent death of James Dean). Coppola got involved in ’79, and according to Salles “got back to the source, and the adaptations became much more truthful to the original text.” Coppola also brought in other writers: “Barry Gifford (‘Wild At Heart,’ ‘Lost Highway’) wrote a beautiful adaptation, and Russell Banks (‘The Sweet Hereafter‘) wrote an adaptation that actually started quite differently from the book because it was Kerouac at the end of his days who reminisces about his youth.” But Salles went back to the newly released, unedited version of the book for his own take, and the script was written by ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ partner Jose Rivera.
Viggo Mortensen typically went above and beyond the call of duty, losing weight for his role and bringing his own authentic costume.
Many reviews have pointed to Viggo Mortensen‘s cameo as Old Bull Lee (the surrogate for William Burroughs) as one of the film’s highlights. As ever, the “Lord of the Rings” star arrived on set having deeply immersed himself in research. “Viggo arrived in New Orleans,” Salles said, “and he had not only lost 30 pounds to play the role but he also had made such extensive research in what Old Lee would wear. He brought the whole costume with him. The hat, the typing machines, there was even a second choice if we didn’t like the first hat.” The actor had even worked out the books that Burroughs would have been reading at the time, as it happens, about the Mayan Codes, and the work of French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine; an improvisation on the latter made its way into the final movie.
Salles cast Kristen Stewart as Marylou after seeing her in an early cut of “Into the Wild.”
The casting of “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart in the film might have raised eyebrows, but Salles had made his decision long before the vampire franchise came into being, after being given her name by a couple of friends and collaborators. “Kristen Stewart was kind of a roll of the dice. Two friends, Alejandro González Iñárritu (‘Amores Perros,’ ‘Babel‘) and Gustavo Santaolalla, the composer of ‘The Motorcycle Diaries,’ were invited by Sean Penn to see the first cut of ‘Into the Wild,’ and when they came back from Northern California, they said ‘Listen, for Marylou, stop looking, because there’s this great young actress that we’ve never seen before, and she’s really unique, and very talented. We both think she’s right for the role.’ I remember writing down the name so I wouldn’t forget, I had never heard the name. Then I met her and she was so passionate about the book and she knew it so well, she was so intelligent and sensitive that it became clear that she was right for the part and she was ready to really explore every single territory that that character does plunge in.”
If Salles could learn anything about more about Kerouac, it would have been about his time in the jazz scene in New York in the 1940s.
Salles has obviously become something of a Kerouac expert in recent years, but there are still elements of his life that remain a little mysterious. When asked what he would ask the writer if he got the chance, Salles responded that he’d like to know more about a relatively unknown period. “I would have loved to know from him what brought him in 1941 to accompany his roommate at Columbia, a guy called Jerry Newman, to go to places like Minton’s in Harlem and hear the first African-American jazz men playing the solos for the first time. Because when all of those great players, great musicians got to the Village, the word got spread and everybody had access to that. But to begin with, they were one of the very few to be there, and Kerouac was helping Jerry Newman who was a precursor of bootlegging, he was recording all of those artists as they were improvising for the first time. How was it to see the burgeoning of that extraordinary movement that would transform American culture? You know, we’re in 1941. This comes way before the arrival of Jackson Pollock and the action painting, it’s before the Actors Studio, it’s before the new journalism of the Village Voice, and precedes the drawings of Jules Feiffer, this is a moment where accidental art was bifurcating somewhere else, and he witnessed that. How incredible was that? I would have probably asked him about that. There’s even a Dizzie Gillespie song named Kerouac. But if you got to Gillespie’s biography which is 557 pages long there’s not one word about Kerouac.”
Interview by Aaron Hillis