The long, difficult journey from page to screen for Jack Kerouac‘s “On The Road” has been well-documented over the years, and one thing that has been consistent throughout is the passion and love evinced for the novel by all involved –particularly the godfather of it all, Francis Ford Coppola, who acquired the novel’s rights back in 1978 at the height of his success.
Now, fifty-one years after the novel was first published, we’re on the eve of the film adaptation’s unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival. Little word has spilled about the final product, however, the cast and crew’s experience is seemingly personified (for better or worse) by an email sent by Walters Salles when things had wrapped, which explained that “being in a movie is like being in a war: when you come back home, it is difficult to tell that story to others.”
Perhaps most indicative of just how long the journey for this movie has been, is that actress Kristen Stewart signed onto Salles’ film before her successes with the ‘Twilight‘ franchise. By the time production was ready, she was about to start filming the last installment(s) of the series ‘Breaking Dawn‘ and was going from a healthy $20 million paycheck to, as THR reports, about $200k for “On The Road” (or to to put it another way, a little less than how much AMC paid for The Beatles song on “Mad Men” on Sunday).
With Cannes around the corner, THR have further detailed Salles’ film and its production, which we’ve summarized below as five things we learned about the making of the movie:
1. Salles requested that Coppola let him make Beat Generation doc ‘Searching For On The Road’ before the actual adaptation.
During preliminary dicussions with Coppola about adapting Kerouac’s novel, Salles had one single request: that he be allowed the resources and time to make a documentary on Kerouac, the novel and the Beat Generation to assimilate himself (a South American) with the culture and the era. “He immediately understood that making ‘Searching For On the Road’ was necessary for me to grasp the complexity of the jazz-infused prose and the sociopolitical climate that informed the period,” Salles explained.
The doc details Salles’ journey as he travelled “thousands of miles for months and months” hunting down Kerouac locales and characters. Among those who were interviewed and will hopefully appear in the final product? Carolyn Cassady (wife of Neal, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty), Al Hinkle (the inspiration for Ed Dunkel), Johnny Depp, Gore Vidal and Wim Wenders. A work-in-progress cut was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2010.
2. Salles and writer Jose Rivera battled the Coppolas (Francis Ford and his son Roman) over the script.
“On The Road” saw Salles reunite with his “The Motorcycle Diaries” scribe Jose Rivera who based his writings on the legendary scroll by Kerouac (he wrote the book on one long uninterrupted piece of paper) rather than the novel. The scroll was notably different from the subsequent published book. For instance, Rivera revealed that it begins with “I first met Neal not long after my father died” rather than “I first met Dean [the Neal Cassady surrogate] not long after my wife and I split” which “helped [him] realize that this was in part a search for a spiritual father for Jack and an actual father for Neal.”
There were arguments to be had, but between Salles/Rivera and Coppola and his son Roman, who evidently had significant involvement in the project when it came to the script. Rivera originally took a lean approach to the story, which didn’t sit well with Roman Coppola, who intervened and requested certain elements such as Sal’s romance with migrant Mexican Terry (played in the film by Alice Braga) be added. Other elements, meanwhile, had to be removed, including a scene where “Ginsberg has oral sex with Kerouac” which the Coppolas “weren’t comfortable with.”
It seems like Salles and Rivera had the last laugh. The final cut is reportedly just over two hours long with several scenes cut including one where the protagonists run into Jesuit hitchhikers and scenes involving Braga’s Terry.
3. Salles was introduced to Kristen Stewart by filmmaking friend Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
“‘Look no further,’ ” Salles recalls Inarittu telling him “‘I’ve just seen the first cut of Sean Penn‘s ‘Into the Wild,’ and there’s this 16-year-old girl you’ll fall in love with.'” Luckily for Salles, Stewart was also a big fan of the novel, and after signing up, stuck through the extended development period and remained faithful to the project during the entire time that the film sought funding.
Her fame drew a lot of unwanted attention for the production, though, as “wherever Kristen went, the blogosphere lit up with the specifics of her movements,” producer Rebecca Yeldham added. A lot of effort had to be made to avoid paparazzi and fans, particularly for Stewart’s topless scenes which were shot on a closely guarded set. The actress was fairly comfortable with the scenes, revealing that she “was so shocked at being able to do it…I didn’t feel naked” though Riley, who featured opposite her, didn’t share her ease, noting the pressure of it made him “sick with anxiety.”
4. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” were screened as part of the Beatnik boot camp.
Salles screened Godard and Cassavetes’ films to the cast as he wanted to exhibit the “freewheeling feature he envisioned.” This was all a part of the Beatnik camp the cast atteneded, which included talks from characters like Neal Cassady’s son John and Luanne Henderson‘s daughter. The actor with the most difficult pre-production task was Sam Riley who was forced to learn how to use a typewriter — a task made much more difficult by the actor’s dyslexia.
Riley previously explained that the boot camp’s purpose was to “get together and hang out with a lot of experts and biographers from the Beatnik generation, who came in to talk to us. We would watch films from that time and listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie while doing push-ups and picking our fingers. I learned to type and I learned to speak French Canadian with a Quebecois accent. It was a full schedule.”
5. The production faced many hurdles including drug wars, blown engines, crazy weather and…improvisation?
An 80-day shoot across Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Louisiana, Arizona and San Francisco was always going to pose some problems — and it did. Upon consulting security experts, the cast and crew were forced into a last minute shift from Torreon to Arizona as a result of a deteriorating drug war. Mexico was also the location where Riley’s character was simply driving “to this house to get marijuana, and the engine just blew up. That’s in the finished film.” The actor feels that “some of the best moments in the movie were ones where things went wrong.”
A real-life blizzard generally warrants an exit from the area and/or country, but Salles, Garrett Hedlund and a bare-bones crew headed straight into it in Argentina to film a scene where the actor drove with his head out of the window. “It was freezing, and I couldn’t see a thing,” Hedlund recalled.
Riley, meanwhile, still couldn’t catch a break. Tasked with improvising with Viggo Mortensen, he feared the well-read actor “might ask me something about Nietzsche, like, ‘What do you think about the Ubermensch?’ The night before he arrived, I spent hours Wikipedia-ing Jean-Paul Sartre and others just in case he threw me a curveball.” The actor stressed out for nothing, though, as Mortensen kept it simple.
“On The Road” premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on March 23rd and will hit theaters later this fall through IFC Films and the Sundance Selects.