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John Hillcoat, director of 'The Road,' on adapting the Pulitzer-winning novel

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T.S. Eliot predicted that the world would end with a whimper rather than a bang, but this month it will have ended with both onscreen. Just weeks after the release of the destruct-o-thon 2012, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grim and muted postapocalyptic novel The Road hits theaters Nov. 25. And where the former revels in the anonymity of pulverized cities and massive explosions, Hillcoat’s film faithfully relates the very personal tale of a father and son wandering the barren landscape of earth’s postscript. The book garnered nearly every accolade under the sun when it came out in 2006 and has topped a number of greatest books lists, including our own. Shelf Life spoke with the director about his experience adapting such formidable source material.

When I saw your first film, The Proposition, the first thing that came to my mind was that it was semi-apocalyptic. So you seemed like a good choice to adapt The Road.

Well, The Proposition was influenced by [McCarthy’s] Blood Meridian, which is somewhat apocalyptic itself.

So I guess you were a big fan of Cormac McCarthy from the start.

Oh, yes. Definitely.

How did you get involved with The Road?

Well, it was because of that connection. I wanted to do a film in L.A. and I was talking about what authors I liked, and this was before No Country for Old Men, and I said that I loved McCarthy. So then I was very fortunate when I managed to get my hands on the manuscript of The Road before it was published. This was 2006. We actually even tried for the rights to the No Country material, lost that, and was then kept an eye on what whatever was coming next from Cormac. Of course, the studios were terrified of it. They looked at the manuscript and they were like “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Not the happiest Hollywood material…

And yet it’s really all about hope.

Being such a fan of McCarthy, was it hard for you to take it and make it your own?

When I heard it was a postapocalyptic tale about a father and son, my heart actually sank. Because I had it in my own head that it’s one of the genres out there that’s been embedded so deeply with all its clichés. So that made me nervous. And then when I read it, of course, it hit me like a ton of bricks and I saw I was totally wrong. It simply doesn’t go on about what happened. Then it also had this incredible emotional dimension that even his other novels didn’t have. So I couldn’t say no. But I was nervous. There was the legacy of McCarthy, the “I don’t want to f— this up.” And on top of that, there was having to find someone to play this kid. Because the kid’s in every scene. But I thought, “Well, I’ve got to take the risk.” Because that’s what filmmaking for me is all about. You can’t just take a safe path.

When the book came out and McCarthy starting having popularity beyond belief, did that change how you were approaching it?

I tried not to think about the Pulitzer Prize and No Country for No Men and all that. I was just reassured that the book had struck a chord. I just kept thinking, “No, I can’t let that affect me.” And when talking to the writer [Joe Penhall], that’s what we talked about: the legacy of Cormac McCarthy. The first conversation we had was not to be intimidated. And yet, of course we were at times. We were just trying to put our blinkers on, focus on the task at hand and the more we focused on that the easier it was to do.

Reading the book, I think the word “ash” is mentioned something like 400 times. The book itself almost has a color…

You almost want to just shake it to get all the dirt and ash out.

How did you go about transferring that imagery onto the screen?

It was certain key things. The shopping cart, all the possessions, the dirty ski jacket. That’s such a precise view of a familiar thing that we all know, that is, the homeless we all see on the street. We looked at actual photos of smaller postapocalypses that have happened, like mountains blowing up or Katrina. Whether it’s 9/11 or Hiroshima or any of these things, man-made or natural, that’s the imagery that came to me when I was reading the book as opposed to any of the CGI spectacles of the film genre. So we ended up not referencing postapocalyptic films at all, but rather looked at films like The Bicycle Thief, which is a father-and-son film.

And a survival film.

Everything’s stripped back. They’re under incredible pressure, and all their comforts are gone. It’s about survival but it’s also about stripping bare humanity under pressure. Also, The Grapes of Wrath was an influence, reading about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. The dust hit New York, and it was from the Midwest. That’s how far and fast it went. The book itself is very apocalyptic; it’s got the dust storms and wild cats everywhere and houses full of bats. It’s really extreme. So, it was almost more about going into the past to get that authenticity. And going to the real locations. We did our own apocalyptic journey.

You followed the path down the Eastern seaboard?

Well, you don’t know the exact route from the book. We went to eight different states. The zones, whether they’re man-made, like the mines in Pennsylvania, the abandoned freeways. Or in Oregon, where the beach is grey volcanic sand, and Mount St. Helens, where the mountain blew up. Amazingly, also places like Gary, Indiana, where the downtown is mostly deserted, like a ghost city. It was a real eye-opener. Because all the imagery that we usually see is from the city centers, you know, L.A. and New York.

Part of what was scary about the book was the fact that it doesn’t talk about the event that much. That it could be anything makes it feel almost inevitable.

And it’s also that, when something that big happens, you’re stripped back to day-to-day survival. Hanging on to your humanity and your survival is paramount, so what actually happened is totally irrelevant. I mean, no one would know anyway because there would be no media context. That’s the absurdity in why so much of the postapocalyptic genre is about the Big Event in some media or abstract point of view. It’s just news reports. There’s always this reporter there on TV explaining it as the world falls apart in the background.

Even on a smaller level, and this is again where Cormac’s very truthful, the violence in the book is so sudden and chaotic and confusing. It’s like in life, where you analyze it after, but when it’s happening it’s very disorientating and chaotic. He’s got the precision of a scientist in terms of being totally unflinching and digging below the surface of things, and yet he’s also a great poet. I think that’s what makes him so special.

How did you go about casting the little boy?

That was for me the greatest fear. Taking on the legacy of McCarthy and the book was nothing in comparison with my worry about the boy. Because if that didn’t work, it would all be over. It was just casting a big web across America, Canada, and Britain. And then I got tipped off about this kid from friends in Australia. He had just done this film and I looked at the trailer. I think there were two great gifts that I was given: One was the material and, two, was finding Kodi Smit-McPhee.

Did you get to meet the author?

Oh yes, many times. He came to the set with his son, who called him “Papa,” just like in the book. The book is about him and his son, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Because that’s really what it’s all about. The rest is just an extension of fears and things. And it made it really poignant for us, as we were making the film, to see before our own eyes the relationship that inspired the story.

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