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The Road - John Hillcoat interview

The Road

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Hillcoat talks about some of the challenges of making The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, finding the right child actor in Kodi Smit-McPhee to handle the difficult material…

Q. The look of The Road is vastly different to your last film, The Proposition, and yet there are similarities. Landscape plays a massive part. What drew you to this project?
John Hillcoat: Yes, they’re polar opposites and yet they’re both extreme worlds, which I guess is the common denominator. I’ve always been interested by extreme environments and the way they impact on people. My first film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, was all interior. But it’s as simple as that, where it’s a character for the other actors to react to.

Q. How demanding is working in such an environment?
John Hillcoat: Oh no, I love travel and I love to unwind on a cold, middle of winter Pennsylvania [set]… no, honestly, it is a bit gruelling logistically. It does add pressure but I hope the performers react off of the environment in a positive sense and that it helps to add a reality. For [a young actor like] Kodi [Smit-McPhee] it’s a lot easier to be a bit cold than to act cold on top of all the emotional stuff. Also, for the crew, it helps focus everyone on what sort of world we’re trying to enter into. For me, working in a green screen studio is a much harder leap.

Q. Where did you shoot?
John Hillcoat: We used Pennsylvania for the abandoned freeways and the deciduous trees that lose their leaves in winter-time. But we also went to New Orleans for the aftermath of the Katrina clean-up, and Mount St Helens, as well as Oregon for the grey beaches.

Q. You’ve made subtle changes to the novel in adapting the screenplay with Joe Penhall. How did you go about deciding how to do that?
John Hillcoat: Well, the theme of loss for The Man, and having to hide that from The Boy, raises the stakes. It was an incredibly tricky thing to manoeuvre for Viggo… to have that [sense of] loss without actually talking about it with his son. On occasions they bring it up, but he has to carry that all the way through. So, we wanted to build on that and remind us of how precious and special those things were to him.

Q. Some of the scenes are very disturbing. How did you approach that with your child actor, Kodi Smit-McPhee?
John Hillcoat: Well, that was my single greatest fear with Viggo. We loved the material… when I first read the book it floored me. But then I thought: “How the hell are we going to find this kid? And how are we going to protect him?” I was thinking about shooting it in a way where the kid would never actually see half of the stuff that we’re shooting. I started from that protective point of view. Viggo and I discussed at length how we’d work with that situation. But what happened was incredible. Kodi comes from a very special, close-knit family and half of them are actors, including his father.

Quite late in the day, friends had mentioned I had to check out this kid from Australia. They sent an audition piece that I never asked them to do. I asked Kodi to do something quite neutral in order to get a sense. But they did additional scenes, which included Kodi’s father playing The Man for real, and teaching him about how to put a gun in his mouth. So, that was basically his message to me to say that his kid could handle the material…. or they were completely insane! The thought did cross my mind – but I had to check it out. By the time we got it down to four kids, Viggo came in and we worked together on the relationship with each kid to see how it worked.

Kodi, at that point, had already had the entire book read to him by his father, which meant our strategy went out the window. But here was a kid who was incredibly grounded and basically mature beyond his years. He was still a kid and yet he had this instinctual understanding of what storytelling is. At the time, he was 10 and just turned 11. So, that was a great blessing. He was fantastic.

Q. Do you view The Road as an optimistic book and film?
John Hillcoat: Well, as Cormac has said, the whole point of the story is about human goodness. Blood Meridian was about human evil. [The theme of] carrying the fire can work whether it’s as primeval as cavemen being terrified of the dark, a symbol of civilisation, the human spirit or a spiritual interpretation – the whole point is that we all have to face our own mortality and there’s another generation coming along. Actually, I think the whole setting of the apocalypse is a metaphor to highlight a moment of hope, or grace under pressure… and the greater the darkness around it, the more special and precious that is.

Read our review of The Road