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Interview: John Hillcoat Talks The Top 5 Influences For His Prohibition-Era Gangster Movie ‘Lawless’

Interview: John Hillcoat Talks The Top 5 Influences For His Prohibition-Era Gangster Movie 'Lawless'

This past summer, “Lawless,” a gripping, based-on-a-true-story gangster movie from Australian director John Hillcoat, opened and closed without much fanfare, despite its uniformly excellent cast (included: Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LeBeouf, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman) and the fact that it was a really terrific movie. Thankfully, if you missed it in the theaters, you have a second chance as “Lawless” debuts on Blu-ray, DVD and iTunes this week. To mark the occasion, we got to speak to Hillcoat about the top five films that influenced his thrilling film.

1) “Bonnie & Clyde” (Arthur Penn, 1967)
Unsurprisingly, Hillcoat’s first choice is Arthur Penn’s immortal “Bonnie and Clyde,” a similarly dusty look at old timey outlaws. “I’ve always been very inspired by that film,” Hillcoat confessed (and, now that we think of it, you can see bits of the film in his debut, the settlers-versus-aborigines epic “The Proposition“). “The way that it just got under the skin of those characters from that time and the way that it played with mythology and violence. I loved the way it was looking at those people at a time of major change in America.” The film is nestled between two of Hillcoat’s greatest cinematic pleasures. “My two favorite genres are the western and the gangster film, and it was great to see the gangster film in the country,” Hillcoat said. “It was a very different sort of film focusing just on that one mythic couple. But the way that it deconstructed the myth but also added to the myth was also amazing and inspiring. And you just sort of felt like you were in those times and with those people.”

We then asked him about what he assimilated from the film’s use of violence (there are more than a few moments of shocking violence in “Lawless” that had us squirming). “The violence is very explosive and very harsh and brutal,” Hillcoat explained. “[But] the violence, when it does erupt, is not gratuitous and is very truthful.”

2) “White Heat” (Raoul Walsh, 1949)
Next up on the hit parade is Raoul Walsh’s gangster classic “White Heat,” made for Warner Bros. near the end of the forties (in 2003 its importance was solidified when it was added to the National Film Registry). “To me it’s the high point of the classic gangster genre,” Hillcoat said. A lot of this has to do with the film’s lead. “The great thing about [James] Cagney was that no matter how goony he was, he was always truthful.”

“What’s amazing about ‘White Heat’ is that, even for its time, it’s very truthful in the way it deals with violence,” Hillcoat explained. “It’s shockingly visceral.” What’s also incredible is how the genre was still in its infancy when “White Heat” came along and made its mark. “You can see the birth of this genre and it’s kind of defined by that movie in so many ways,” Hillcoat said, noting that it provided direct inspiration for at least one character in the film. “That was a great inspiration for the character of Rakes [a villainous law enforcer played with lip-smacking gusto by Guy Pearce] and the kind of Chicagoan from those times,” he added.

3) “Prohibition” (Ken Burns, 2011)
For the rest of his influences, Hillcoat chose documentary films. The first of which didn’t even air until Hillcoat was well underway with production on “Lawless.” No matter. “The Ken Burns documentary came out as we were making ‘Lawless’ but I love the research that he did,” Hillcoat said, reverentially, of the multi-part documentary that originally aired on PBS. “The footage was amazing.”

4) “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” (Philippe Mora, 1975)
More directly making its mark was the documentary “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?,” which is comprised almost entirely out of newsreel footage and film clips from the Great Depression, along with audio from the period as well (everyone from Walt Disney to John Dillinger to George Burns are featured). “It’s a documentary that’s just made up of newsreel footage from the time, plus radio from the era, and it was hugely influential,” Hillcoat noted.

5) “Public Enemies: The Golden Age Of the Gangster Film” (2008)
Somewhat surprising is Hillcoat’s last selection, a documentary called ‘Public Enemies’ that was featured in one of Warner Bros’ many gangster movie DVD box sets and narrated by Alec Baldwin. “This documentary charted the Warner Bros. gangster film all the way up to ‘GoodFellas,'” the director said. Hillcoat was obviously playing with truth and myth in “Lawless,” and how the two intersect and diverge, and Martin Scorsese‘s flim was one Hillcoat looked to.

“What was so amazing and inspiring about ‘GoodFellas’ was that it showed the foot soldiers; the people more at the bottom as opposed to focusing on the godfathers and the guys at the top,” Hillcoat said. “It was so masterful and brilliant in its depiction of violence and in the way that it showed, very different from us, a world – the music, the suits, the culture. ‘GoodFellas’ is kind of the ultimate gangster film in the sense that you really understand that world that you’re entering into – why do guys enter into that world and what it’s like to see it from the outsider and insider’s perspective.” Hillcoat then detailed the ways in which “GoodFellas” and “Lawless” are similar, in terms of the richness of their respective “worlds.” “It’s all about the family, the suits, the music, and the food,” Hillcoat said. “Whereas in our world it’s about the music, the way that country/bluegrass is literally like the white man’s blues. It was all those things.”

“Lawless” is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and iTunes.

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