I spoke to John Hillcoat, director of the apocalyptic new film, “The Road,” based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. We do not know what caused the cataclysmic damage that has wiped out most forms of life on earth and left everything covered in ash. All we know is that there is a father (Viggo Mortensen) trying to protect his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from the physical and spiritual consequences of the devastation.
NM: Do you see this as a spiritual film?
JH: It can definitely be read that way. Yes, absolutely. I never wanted to be heavy-handed about the approach. I wanted it to be open to interpretation according to your own belief systems. It’s certainly got a kind of ancient, Biblical parable feeling to it. There’s a morality tale there. But in terms of essence of humanity, that’s really brought to the fore because everything’s stripped bare. There’s nowhere to hide. So it definitely has those dimensions to it. There are many spiritual aspects, but the whole idea of carrying the fire is an ancient one.
NM: I do not diminish the power of the film at all when I say that it seems like an exaggerated version of what every parent goes through in trying to both protect the children and give them the survival skills they will need when we are not here to protect them.
JH: Yes, absolutely. Knowing Cormac and his son, he calls him “Papa,” like the boy in the story. It’s obviously a personal work and that personal relationship is definitely embedded into the text and that’s also why it strikes such a deep cord, even thought it is set into such an extreme scenario. There’s a truth to it.
NM: For me, one of the most wrenching scenes in the film is when they return to the house the father grew up in, and it is only there that the father truly realizes that his son has no frame of reference to understand what life was like.
JH: Where does he learn? How does he become this amazing being? It’s like a scientific experiment. That drive to keep going and the hope they create in this idea of going to the coast. Every parent starts from scratch, but this story just makes that more stark. Ultimately, the boy becomes the teacher. That is something all parents see.
NM: I was very surprised to find Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall in the film. I did not recognize them at first.
JH: We tried to quite change their appearance quite a lot.
NM: The New York Times said that Kodi Smit-McPhee, the now-twelve-year-old who plays the boy, was so shocked by the cold water he was dunked in that he began to sob for real, but that he kept acting and you did not know how distressed he was until the scene was over. Is that true?
JH: Yes. It was actually a real turning point, early on in the shoot. My job was also to protect the boy. But Kodi was such a consummate professional. He didn’t tell anyone how cold he was. And afterward, we had an understanding that if there was any time that he felt real uncomfort that he’s got to tell us. He was so determined to get the best for everyone and the best from him as a performance. The most incredible thing was his maturity; he really understood what the story was about, what each scene was about. His instincts were razor-sharp. And yet, as soon as we stopped filming, he became this kid, joking around, playing. And we really encouraged that.
With that scene, I was about to call cut, and then I heard the dialogue, and everyone’s glancing around at each other, and we see that Viggo is actually responding totally. It’s this incredible thing of being real, Viggo’s concern for Kodi, and playing their parts. That was a great gift and I wouldn’t mess with that. Luckily, we shot it on two cameras, so that was it. And when we were done, Viggo kept holding Kodi. None of us had put two and two together to realize why he was so upset. I had spoke to him about coming out of shock. Kodi’s father was there; he played one of the cannibals. Viggo started to hand Kodi over to them but he stepped away. Kodi knew he was there but he and Viggo from that day had this incredible bond.
NM: Tell me how you achieved the look of the film. It is so bleak and stark and powerful.
JH: The spark for that came when I read the book. I was always trying to be true to the spirit of the book. Usually the post-apocalyptic films are about the big event and they feel so much like a spectacle and there’s no real human dimension or spiritual dimension or any other dimension really other than the roller coaster ride. So it was that feeling of authenticity, really simple things like pushing the shopping trolley with all your possessions in it. That’s the homeless in every city. And the dirty ski jackets. So it felt familiar. It’s almost like I’ve seen this before, not as a vision or a premonition, but we’ve actually witnessed these elements, just not on a local scale. That is what led us to those locations, and the locations were the key to the look. The bulk of what we got was in camera. We filmed in the winter in places like Pennsylvania like where all the mining leftovers are, the ash piles in the winter time. Where are the trees are bare of leaves. We had the aging and the muted colors of the wardrobe. There’s a strange beauty in these desolate locations. Then it also gave a real poignancy to working in a place like New Orleans, where the post-Katrina clean-up was still happening. When half your crew has lived through that, it really added focus. It also became something that the actors could really react off of, so it was like there was a third character working with Kodi and Viggo the whole time. We went to Mount St. Helens. We went to Oregon, the gray beaches. It was a patchwork tapestry of man-made and natural disasters that have already occurred. We added physical effects like spraying biodegradable ash and paper, but whatever we couldn’t get in the camera, CGI took over to eliminate signs of life, green pine needles, birds, jet streams. It was more to take out or put in. The challenge was when it was beautiful blue skies and sunshine, because we had to block the sun. There’s a shot of two ships sitting on a freeway. That’s 70 mil. IMAX footage from two days after Katrina. We had to replace the blue sky and green grass in that shot, but everything else is real. Even the smoke billowing in the background we took from was from 9/11. We deliberately used images we have all seen to make it more real and to give more poignancy and a warning sign and to surround it, because that’s what the book is about, grace under pressure. When you’re surrounded by your real fears, things that you know are possible in some way, it makes hope all the more special. The light shines brightest when it is surrounded by dark.