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‘Lawless’ Director John Hillcoat: The American Film Landscape Is “Tough”; Television Is The New Medium For “Character & Drama”

'Lawless' Director John Hillcoat: The American Film Landscape Is “Tough”; Television Is The New Medium For “Character & Drama”

4 Things Learned From Our Interview With The Director & The ‘Lawless’ Press Conference

Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat has steadily built upon his career as an auteur known for brooding and unnerving pieces of work ever since his neo-western “The Proposition” started making the rounds in 2005. The picture offered viewers a refreshing take on the western genre, and a haunting tale of a crooked lawman who apprehends a notorious outlaw and gives him just nine days to take the life his older sibling or see his youngest brother executed. It certainly wasn’t safe material, and while Hillcoat moved on to bigger budgets and loftier ambitions with his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” he managed to hold on to the commanding and unique voice he established even before “The Proposition,” with films like “To Have & To Hold” and “Ghosts…of the Civil Dead.” While “The Road” didn’t exactly become the sort of acclaimed masterpiece we’d have hoped for, it still was another notch in the belt of one of the best rising filmmakers, whose latest effort may just bridge the gap between critical acclaim and box office heft.

Lawless,” which debuted at Cannes over the weekend, has been picking up strong attention, including that of our own writer who said “as far as top-tier storytelling goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.” The film boasts a highly respectable cast of Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHann and Jason Clarke, with frequent collaborator in screenwriter and musician Nick Cave also on board (you can read what he has to say right here). Adapted from Matt Bondurant’s book about his family of Depression-era bootleggers in Virgina, Hillcoat had a lot to say about the film at both the Cannes press conference and a one-on-one interview we had with him, all of which we picked apart to compile the best nuggets of information here. And you can see the film when it opens on August 29th.

1. Hillcoat says the landscape for American filmmaking is “tough,” with television being the medium where good drama has retreated to.
While his film “The Proposition” was set against a very specific Australian landscape, and “Lawless” is a very traditional American tale, Hillcoat believes that “I have always thought of films as stories for the world.” But telling those stories is becoming difficult in this increasingly tentpole-driven world, with the director lamenting, “…the state of things is pretty tough, as everyone here knows. Particularly in my world, which is films that have medium budgets, and are films that have ‘characters and drama,’ which are words you cannot use in the United States at this time. So, that I find quite distressing.” Though he’s hoping for a “movement against that,” citing “television, HBO, etc., has really picked up the ball on exciting characters and drama, and I hope that can filter back into film once again,” The TV/film debate rages on, but in the meantime it seems like Hillcoat is slightly envious of the freedom currently found on the small screen.

2. “Bonnie & Clyde” was an influence on “Lawless”
With a special repertory screening of master filmmaker Sergio Leone’s 1984 film “Once Upon a Time In America” playing at Cannes this past weekend, Hillcoat was asked whether there were any significant gangster film influences on his movie, which led him to state that while he was a “huge Sergio Leone fan” that “the references really with this were more about, ‘Bonnie & Clyde‘ was a big one – Arthur Penn’s – but it was more about photographic and historical, and about the Appalachian area and the history. Just to get under the skin of that world.”

3. The story of prohibition is one that Hillcoat believes carries many contemporary parallels
Hillcoat believes that “Lawless” reflects on our current time and issues, stating that “We are in a time of a lot of instability and insecurity, there’s a lot of parallels to today with the economic crisis, the political crisis, and the war on drugs.” Initially the director and Cave intended to go as far as to point directly to these parallels, stating that “at one point we even had a montage at the beginning of the film that started with what was happening with the Mexican cartels, then rewound through the ‘80s and the Cubans and cocaine, heroin in New York, then went way back and landed on Prohibition – where it kind of all kicked off, that was the birth of serious organized crime. It’s been going ever since, so it feeds into all those things that are going on today, hence you have movies about it – and TV.”

4. Hillcoat was attracted to the oddball family structure of the Bondurants in “Lawless” 
Hillcoat believes that themes of family ties and relationship echoes throughout his work, but as far as drawing him to “Lawless,” those themes were only “one aspect of it.” It was the prospect of attempting a new genre that Hillcoat says drew him to the project, stating “I was looking for a new take on the gangster film, and to me that book was the book, and it was so brilliantly written and we have shared mutual interests, but, let me say one thing about the [Bondurant] family: it’s also an oddball family.” In fact, it’s the Bondurants’ non-traditional setup that he found enticing. “…they’re brothers without a father, mother, and sisters – but the older brother becomes like the matriarch and enters into this family,” he explained. “So, what I liked about the family story in this case was that it was sort of a family of misfits as opposed to just blood line.”

Hillcoat also added, “I think it’s human nature that if we don’t have our own family, we will create a family, because it’s human nature, and it’s that element of trust and dependency and love and all of those sort of things.”

– Elements of this piece from an interview with Simon Abrams

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