On the fifth floor of the Hotel deLuxe in Portland, Oregon, Walter Salles seems content to talk at length about cinema. But alas, two publicists, worried the loquacious “On the Road” director will miss his train up to Seattle for another round of press and screenings of his latest film, a long-in-the-works adaptation of the seminal beat novel by Jack Kerouac, had to cut the conversation off. As I packed up my recording equipment, Salles took the opportunity to politely discuss the proper sound levels for projecting the film to the two publicists.
He noticed at the prior night’s screening that the sound wasn’t right, and bemoaned the near ubiquitous use of digital projection at multiplexes these days. The soft-spoken Brazilian filmmaker is meticulous in his request that the sound be right the next time. Salles has invested a lot in “On the Road,” not least of which the many years he’s devoted to its fruition, and his attention to every detail is not lost on the publicists.
Now that the film is starting its slow roll out across the U.S. this Friday (check out our review), we wanted to share what we learned from our most recent interview with Salles, which we’ve summarized below:
Salles found a personal connection to the adaptation in the father leitmotif that he discovered in the original scroll.
“That’s something that’s always been at the heart of the films I’ve opted to do,” he said, noting he lost his father in 2001. Upon traveling to Kerouac’s birthplace in Lowell, MA, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera were lent a “perfect facsimile” of the original “On the Road” scroll. They noticed obvious differences right away in this rawer, more complex version, especially the first line, which was different than the one that had been published in 1957.
It centered on the death of Sal’s father, then meeting Dean Moriarty. “This triggered a whole different screenplay, and the story started to find its path then," Salles said. "The path became a little more clear."
The other important themes to Salles – the ode to freedom, the passage from youth to adulthood, and the creative process – have their place in the film, but mostly stem from this search for the father. The characters, he added, are in search of Dean’s father, and they’re trying to be fathers themselves. Sal is trying to father a book and Dean is literally struggling with being a father. “An adaptation is first foremost about research and electing the themes that are important to you.”
We will get to see the full-length version of the documentary “In Search of On the Road”…eventually.
“I just need two months to work on it” Salles said, laughing. This documentary, about his process in bringing the book to the big screen that includes footage from the many road trips he and crew members re-created, interviews with creators of the Beat generation, personal reflections and archival footage, screened in a work-in-progress hour-long cut at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival (you can read our coverage right here).
“I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “The number of interviews with unique minds that we recorded in those 120 hours is something we’ll never be able to replicate. There’s historical value to that footage as well, since some of them are not with us anymore.”
He provided no other details as to when or how we will get to see the finished documentary, but we’re certainly keeping our eyes peeled for it.
Shooting the film in black and white was deemed too obvious.
Though he’s been quoted as saying he planned to shoot the film in the more classical, colorless style, Salles said he was citing a friend that said it always had to be filmed in black and white. Though he did mention that he “would have liked to do that,” noting that it would have been simpler to shoot in 16mm black and white (like his second film “Foreign Land,” which you should check out if you have the chance), he discussed this at length with DP Eric Gautier, who said they’d be replicating what photographer Robert Frank did with his book "The Americans."
They ultimately determined they would never reach that palette, because it wasn’t out there anymore. Other crew members, whom Salles has a long working relationship with, also chimed in with their opinions. Production designer Carlos Conti, for instance, suggested that shooting in black and white would be an “obvious path.” Instead, they looked for the colors in every specific moment and set off on the visual scheme you can see in the finished film.
His very underseen, previous film, “Linha de Passe,” was offered U.S. distribution, but Salles ultimately decided against it.
We’ve always been curious why this excellent film was never distributed here, but now we have our answer. Salles was offered distribution “at a time when ‘On the Road’ became ripe” but t didn’t make sense to him to launch a film without being able to support it.
So, unfortunately it’s been distributed everywhere else in the world, but the excellent “Linha de Passe” never got a proper U.S. theatrical release. The film made the festival rounds, where this writer was lucky enough to see it at TIFF ’08 (read one of our reviews here). It’s a real low-key gem of a film, akin to Luchino Visconti’s classic “Rocco and His Brothers.” It’s never been released on Region 1 DVD either, but anyone with a region free DVD player can find the film out there.
Salles said he carries a lot of affection and heart for the film, which he made after his most commercial (and weakest, in this writer’s opinion) film, the J-Horror remake “Dark Water” starring Jennifer Connelly. The crew on "Linha de Passe" was young and inexperienced. “It was a very urgent and fruitful collaboration,” he said. “The experience will never be replicated by us.” He noticed a similar passion for cinema and creation when he saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” earlier this year.
He said “Linha de Passe” was a breath of fresh air coming off of “Dark Water.” “It’s important to try new things and stay fresh, and I also like to keep my passport very close to my body.” Every time he drifts away from Brazil, he wants to go back, saying it’s fundamental he go back to Latin America after he works outside his home. “So get ready for something in that vein next,” he said, smiling.
What about those other three collaborations with screenwriter Jose Rivera?
In October, we wrote: “Though the public only knows ‘[The Motorcycle] Diaries’ and now ‘On the Road,’ Rivera said he’s written three screenplays for Salles that have not been produced. One of them is an adaptation of Junot Diaz‘s ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao‘ for producer Scott Rudin.”
Though he was a bit obscure in his answer to the question, it appears that Salles is through working with Rivera. Here’s what he had to say: “I always start development with the aim of finding the film. You’re imaging it on the screen before the writing process begins. There are times when you have the impression that you have attained a certain degree of maturity, and the screenplay is ripe to be reinvented on the set, and there are some times when it drifts away from you. So I think 2 out of 5 is a pretty good average (laughing).”
Salles said he’s a fan of Rivera’s work. “I think he’s a great theater writer. He’s interested in directing himself. Maybe one of those stories we weren’t able to do together, maybe Jose will take on as director.”
Salles is more interested in original stories after “On the Road.” He also loves and misses books about filmmakers, written by other filmmakers. He wants to write a book about Jia Zhang Ke (“Still Life”) in 2013. “We kind of started it a couple years ago. One of my plans next year is to go to China and dive into that exchange and conversation. Maybe you’ll see that book. He’s the most important filmmaker alive. You can learn more about China by watching one of his film then reading ten different issues of the Economist.”
“On the Road” opens on December 21st in limited release and will continue to roll out to other cities through January.