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Lawless - John Hillcoat interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Hillcoat talks about some of the many challenges of making Lawless, his Prohibition-era gangster thriller, including the disappointment of having to find a new cast after having the plug pulled on the first version.

He also talks about working with his young cast, including Shia LaBeouf’s dedication to the project and Tom Hardy’s decision to play his character like an “old lesbian”.

Q. How did The Promised Land become Lawless, because this is the second incarnation of this film, isn’t it?
John Hillcoat: Yeah, actually it was originally The Wettest County, based on the novel The Wettest County in the World. And in case people were wondering what happened to the title, the distributors around the world didn’t understand it – the idea of wet and dry, particularly in France, meant it got changed. So, we were looking at finding a simpler and more generic title rather than 100 different titles around the world. Sorry, that’s a little digression. The film, in 2008, coincided with the global economic downturn and the studios in America… it was a Sony film with a whole different line-up of cast but Sony said: “We can’t make these films anymore.” Sadly, it’s almost still true of the big studios. So, we had to go back to the drawing board and years later we finally pieced it together with a whole new cast and different financiers.

Q. Wasn’t Shia LaBeouf a constant?
John Hillcoat: I know Shia gets a bit of a hard time out there but he was the first one on and wouldn’t let go of it. He helped get it reincarnated. So, he’s a partner in it.

Q. The other cast members were Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon and Amy Adams back in 2008/9. Back then, you couldn’t get a film funded with those guys but these days…
John Hillcoat: Yeah, we had Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Dano, Ryan… and bizarrely, this is how bad it was. We couldn’t even get a single US distributor without P&A. We were offering it for nothing just for P&A and no one would take it. I think the two key things at that time were that there was no audience for a period film and no audience for any kind of rural setting. I had offers on the table to make it if we re-set it in a city. I started to try and analyse that and realised it’s that classic thing of what’s more familiar. The components of the city… Boardwalk Empire in Atlantic City… it’s that whole whatever is familiar. And I guess the rural crime scene of that period hasn’t been done since Bonnie & Clyde, which was a long time ago.

Q. Was that one of the appeals to you, the idea of doing a rural story because I’d read you were looking to do a gangster movie at that point…
John Hillcoat: Yeah but I didn’t want to do another Capone story and I wasn’t looking at a contemporary film because, for me, Goodfellas and The Sopranos are the final word on the Mafia. So, I was actually hunting for something different. Also, after The Road I was desperate to do something that tonally had more range and colour and emotions and humour and romance. I was itching to find a different palette. I love the father and son love story in The Road and it’s still very dear to me but it was a hard film to make. So, this was a different world.

Q. You mentioned that Shia was a constant but when it comes to casting the two other brothers how do you have to balance the casting of the right actor while also ensuring that they have the right chemistry so that they could seem like brothers?
John Hillcoat: With the casting it’s always a tricky balance. What I saw in Shia is he couldn’t sit still. He was incredibly ambitious and had this youthful energy to him, actually very much like the character is on-screen. He admires actors like Tom Hardy and worships people like Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce, so much so that when on-set Guy was filming Shia would roll up every day just to watch. So, it was that kind of eagerness and youthfulness that suited that character. And then he actually got in touch with Tom, being a huge fan of Bronson, and I had coincidentally met Tom when he was promoting Inception.

I had a similar situation with The Proposition with brothers [being] very different sorts… I mean Danny Huston and Guy Pearce couldn’t physically look more different. But I realised with my own brother, we look like opposites but the thing that draws us together is the voice. So, I thought if they spoke with a similar voice, which is I know difficult to understand and apologies, that it might. And there were three very different energies we were after – Forrest had a much more distilled, explosive quality and Jason [Clarke, aka Howard in the film] is very extroverted and slobby.

Q. Did they have to go on brothers’ chemistry training?
John Hillcoat: There was something like that. Shia and Dane DeHaan, who plays Cricket, another part of this dysfunctional family, went on a road trip together. Jason disappeared with the Bondurant family in Virginia for quite some time [laughs]. Tom is remarkable. He did his own… his approach greatly unsettled me. I have to be honest, we were all anxious about what Tom was doing. I realised his choices were incredibly audacious but I have enormous respect for him and think he’s one of the great actors out there. I’ll just explain briefly… in rehearsals he announced that his approach to Forrest was an old lesbian like the grandmother in Tweety Pie. In other words, what he was talking about was that Forrest was like the matriarch of the family. He has the cardigan and he wanted scenes of darning socks. Really, what he was getting at was this guy couldn’t articulate his feelings but had enormous love and was like a Mother Hen protecting his nest.

Q. The violence in the film is hard-hitting. The Bondurants were capable of taking it to its extremes. Does the realism of that come from the book or was it heightened for the film? It is unsettling…
John Hillcoat: Well, thank you. I think unsettling was the key. It is true. It’s based… Matt Bondurant obviously embellished dialogue and every step when you dramatise in a book a real story there’s licence taken and likewise, when you adapt a book into a film, so there’s all of that. But in terms of those events, they were all true. And what fascinated me about these guys, and I’ve met a lot of these people as well because my first film was about a high security prison and I spent years researching violent crime and behaviour and I take it very seriously. So, I think what’s interesting about these guys is often they get a sense… because the stakes are so high and it is so extreme, they get a feeling like they are immortal because they survive so much. It’s almost like they’re flirting with death and beating death.

These brothers did indeed get a reputation as being invisible but, as we know, no one is. For me, two things that Nick [Drake] and I loved about the ending of the book and the real story is that these guys… traditionally in gangster films, when we go on this rollercoaster ride with these sorts of characters, they go down in a blaze of bullets, which these brothers did, but they never get up again. And that’s a moral thing that I think traditionally plays out in gangster films so that we can feel good about walking away. What happened in reality, when that line between the law is blurred and corruption sets in and people make up their own laws, in this case the Bondurants actually survived and went on to have families and businesses like a lot of these people actually do.

The intention of Shia’s story was to show how he idolised his brothers and wanted to have that power and ability to control the fear so that he could have that threat, but he never could. His character, even though he was pushed to that extreme on the bridge, we did want him to play it where he was shaken and unsettled in a way that the brothers never were. They were shockingly efficient and could sleep at night, whereas the intention of Shia’s arc is that he is pushed to that extreme and doesn’t feel comfortable and finds his comfort zone back with his family. He was more of a businessman. He was not like his brothers, as much as he wanted to be. But I think Forrest, particularly, was always haunted by the violence. Howard drank insanely. But Forrest really did think he was invincible and never had a family. His beautiful relationship with Maggie, who was equally damaged… they secretly got married. I think perhaps it’s sort of poetic justice that he kind of went out of the world by slipping and falling into the puddle as opposed to a blaze of bullets.

Q. You said that you struggled to get it made initially but this era does grip audiences. Why do you think that is?
John Hillcoat: Well, I think history has a habit of repeating itself. There’s economic unrest, the war on drugs is still an epic failure in the way that Prohibition was an epic failure, there’s enormous greed and corruption. I think there are these parallels. The difference in The Great Depression and Roosevelt… a lot of those bankers went behind bars. But no one has been accountable on this epic pillaging of money across the world. So, I think people share a frustration about those kinds of inequalities. The divide between rich and poor is exactly the same as 1920, which was the tail end of the industrial revolution. Obviously, there’s many differences as well. But I think also gangster films and Westerns, but gangster films certainly… every generation has its gangster story and I think they’re all inter-connected. And that’s what I love about genre.

Q. When did Nick Cave come on board?
John Hillcoat: I’m very lucky. It begins with a script and ends with the music and to have the one person do both is a rare treat. We talk about the music at the script stage. He loved the book and he’d never adapted a book before, so it was something we both share a passion for this part of American history and culture… the music in particular; blues and country and out of that sprung all sorts of musical genres. We were also keen to utilise a song as part of the story, to tell the narrative. To have a narrative that was reflected in song. So, songs were meant to comment on the story. The obvious example is White Light, White Heat… in terms of the earlier question. That song was also an attempt to make that point. White Light, White Heat was written by Lou Reed about another substance and another time, but when Ralph Stanley sings it, it suddenly sounds as though it’s about moonshine.

Read our review of Lawless