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James Franco & Joseph Gordon-Levitt Auditioned For The Leads In ‘On The Road’ & More From Screenwriter José Rivera

James Franco & Joseph Gordon-Levitt Auditioned For The Leads In ‘On The Road’ & More From Screenwriter José Rivera

While the screenings were canceled last evening because of Hurricane Sandy, BAMCinematek’s IFC Sneaks was in full force on Friday and Saturday nights. Playing seven IFC Films pictures that won’t be in theaters until later this year or 2013 (Abbas Kiarostami‘s “Like Someone In Love” and Olivier Assayas‘ “Something In The Air” for example), on Saturday night, BAM and IFC Films unveiled the New York premiere of Walter Salles’ “On The Road.” Salles’ long-time-coming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novel was a five year work in progress, and on Saturday evening BAM screened the newly edited 124 minute version (the iteration that ran at Cannes was 2 hours and 20 minutes and some of the main criticisms of that version was its longwinded approach) that will open in theaters in December.

Starring Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley as Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise (stand ins for Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac), the picture also features supporting appearances by Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge, and actors Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and many more as various members of the Beat Generation circle, their wives, girlfriends and random travellers they meet while on their journeys of self-discovery.

While Walter Salles wasn’t able to attend, arguably just as enlightening and gregarious was screenwriter/playwright José Rivera. The pen behind Salles’ celebrated “Motorcycle Diaries” (the film that convinced producer Francis Ford Coppola that he was the right man for the long-gestating “On The Road” project), Rivera was both forthright and entertaining, candidly sharing stories about the making of the film.

“It was a tough one. Just the sheer baggage that the book comes with is really huge,” Rivera admitted about adapting the influential novel. “The episodic nature of the book was a huge challenge, it has tons of digressions, secondary characters that never appear again. Finding a throughline was hard to sustain. The book is iconic, obviously and [also] one of the biggest challenges was just leaving the iconography of the book as far from the writing process as possible. To not be crushed by the tremendous love this book has generated over the years and its expectations. My first job, really, was to forget the entire body of criticism and adoration and controversy that the book brought with it and just examine the book as passionately as possible.” Here’s six highlights from his discussion about the movie below.

1. Rivera and Salles’ first decision was to not adapt the book, but the original, unedited Kerouac scroll that went on to become the basis for the published “On The Road” novel that most people know and cherish.
Rivera said one of the reasons they made that decision was because it would distinguish themselves from the previous eight versions of the screenplay that had been written — one by Coppola, one by his son Roman Coppola, authors Russell Banks, Michael Herr, Barry Gifford, and so on. But the main reason was the scroll, in their minds, was much more definitive of Kerouac’s intentions, and much less sanitized than the published version. “The scroll was far edgier, it had a darker side to it, it was sexier,” he said, noting that some of the voice-over in the film comes straight from the original version. “Both the gay and straight sex in the scroll was far more intense than the published version. The drug use was more. Walter and I felt the scroll was the key into this whole thing.”

There was also the personal edge of the death of Sal Paradise’s father, mostly absent in the published version. “The scroll began with the death of his father, the known version began with a divorce and we thought the father [story] had a much more compelling emotional energy to it,” he explained. “So in a lot of ways, when we were constructing the film — the search for fathers, what fathers meant, Dean is looking for his literal father, Sal looking for a surrogate — we thought that was the stronger emotional hook into the story.”

2. While IMBD lists “On The Road” as the second collaboration between Rivera and Walter Salles, it’s actually their fifth.
Though the public only knows ‘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. “I know, I know,” he said with a laugh when some of the audience sounded audibly wowed. “Please write to Scott Rudin and tell him to make the fucking movie.” The other two unproduced screenplays were an adaptation of Philipp Meyer‘s “American Rust” (announced in 2009) and a continuation of the Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid story.

“One of Walter’s big dreams was to tell the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in their South American years,” Rivera said. “They fled the law and went to South America and were in Argentina in Patagonia. And so for five years or so they tried really hard to go straight. No bankrobbing, they raised cattle and chilled out in Argentina.” But hardships forced them to change their plans, including the economic collapse of the cattle trade in Agentina (still a big part of that country’s infrastructure) and the fact that Sundance’s wife Etta Place was stricken with cancer. “So suddenly they needed money and they started robbing banks again,” he said. “So my screenplay was about a U.S. Marshall [Martin Sheffield] who goes to Argentina to arrest them and bring them back.”

Another obstacle to getting the movie made, might be that the story was very recently brought to the big screen in “Blackthorn” starring Sam Shephard (our review here).

As for “American Rust,” Rivera compared it to a Cormac McCarthy novel and said it’s set in depressed steel-town in Pennsylvania that’s now full of meth labs and trailer trash. “Walter is very interested in examining the underbelly of the American dream, the rotting of the dream,” he said. “And that book really captured that.”

3. Joseph Gordon Levitt and James Franco are among some of the actors who auditioned for the lead roles in the film.
In the works for 30 years (spearheaded in the late 1970s when Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights), arguably everyone in Hollywood auditioned for “On The Road” over the years including Brad Pitt, Ethan Hawke and many more (Joel Schumacher once had a version with Billy Crudup and Colin Farrell as the leads). But what about the version that Salles was hired to make in 2005? Rivera, who said he was lucky to sit in on the auditions, said he and Salles saw hundreds of actors for many of the parts. “I was there when James Franco came in looking all Jack Kerouac,” he laughed. “And he didn’t get cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt came in. We had a lot of great actors audition.”

“That’s unusual for a screenwriter,” he underscored about being able to sit in during casting. “Most directors I hand in a screenplay and we never see each other again, and then I go see the film and go, ‘What the hell was that?’ But with Walter I still get that ‘What the hell’ feeling, but at least I was deeply part of the process.” Rivera said he was invited into the editing room for “Motorcycle Diaries” and rewrote voice-over while he was there. “Walter is incredibly collaborative and open. He’s great that way.”

4. Rivera candidly suggests that what he wrote and what Salles shot are quite different and while he took natured-jabs at his director friend, he seemed genuinely at ease about the filter that screenplays go through before hitting the screen.
“Good question. It’s really different,” Rivera said with a long pause and a chuckle when asked how his screenplay differed from Salles’ cut version of the film. The screenwriter said, unfortunately, due to U.S. distribution, the film had to come in around 2 hrs and also noted that Salles contract stated that he would lose final cut if it came in over a certain length. “So he cut the shit out of this,” he said candidly. “It’s really cut. For instance, my screenplay begins with the death of Sal’s father in the hospital…he’s got a catheter coming out of his stomach dripping black goo into a bucket. And Sal’s smoking a cigarette watching his father die. And obviously we have nothing like that here. The second scene is the funeral where the Allen Ginsberg character [played by Tom Sturridge] comforts Sal so you immediately see that bond. That’s not there. So a million things like that are not in the film.”

Rivera also frankly spoke about some of the elements that bothered him, but always with a smile and good-naturedly. “There’s a couple, really annoying improvisational moments in the movie,” he laughed with a mix of confusion and dismay. “Ad libs that are like, ‘Why is that in the film?’, but that’s how it goes. At one point Ginsberg says, ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’ I wouldn’t write that! Not in eighth grade would I write that. That’s how it goes, but Walter also stuck pretty close to the script.” He also explained that Salles, coming from a documentary background, loves to capture ad-libbed moments on the fly. “Walter once said, ‘If worse comes to worse, we’ll shoot the screenplay,’ ” he said with a smile. “It pissed me off to no end. You directors! But his philosophy is that the written language doesn’t feel spontaneous enough.”

5. Rivera is trying to mount his own directorial debut based on one of his plays.
The screenwriter says he recommends that all writers direct their own work to understand the challenge and said he has a feature-length adaptation of one of his one plays in the work. But it’s been a struggle to get the, dreamlike and tragic love story set in L.A., off the ground. “I have a play called ‘Cloud Tectonic’ which I’ve been trying to find financing for literally seven years, to turn into a film that I would direct” he said. “I directed a music video, it’s a start,” he smiled. Rivera did not mention “Celestina” a film project that he was set to direct in 2011, so who knows what happened there.

6. There will be even more to discover from the novel and the making from the film down the road.
Coming sometime in 2013 (and screening in L.A. soon according to the screenwriter) is Salles documentary about the Beat generation, “In Search For On The Road” which he shot before making “On The Road” as a way to immerse himself with the generation beyond the source material (which you can read about here more in depth). Rivera says for hardcore “On The Road” fans or fans of the movie, the picture is going to be a great in-depth trip. “He interviewed everyone from Beats themselves or people who were highly influenced by the Beats,” he said. “Wim Wenders, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, [American poet] Gary Snyder. It’s very rich with information.”

“On The Road” opens on December 21 in limited release.

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