John Hillcoat has seen the apocalypse and knows what it feels like. It’s cold, mostly. And grey. And there are gangs of zombie-like cannibals. Hillcoat, an Australian director with just one major motion picture under his belt, was tasked with the extremely tall order of bringing of Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Road, to the big screen. Starring Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, the book and the movie tell a powerfully simple story about a man and boy walking through the ashy remains of a desolate world, just trying to stay alive. We caught up with Hillcoat while he was still putting the finishing touches on the film, which will be released October 16.
This is McCarthy’s best known and most celebrated novel. Was he especially involved in the process?
I had lengthy conversations with him before we started filming. He’s has a close relationship with a lot of impressive scientists at the Santa Fe Institute and is interested in this idea that we are a species that will one day be gone. It’s not as simple as conquering nature and mastering the environment—in fact, it’s a great illusion that could one day prove fatal.
One of the great conceits of both the book and the movie is that the event is never actually depicted. Did you talk about that with him?
I did. I asked: “Just between us, Cormac, what was the event?” He won’t actually give away his answer. He did have certain things worked out in his mind, but one of the most brilliant aspects of the book is that it’s not explained. If it ever did happen, your priorities would change in a nanosecond. Working out what happened isn’t a part of that—everything becomes about your own survival and the survival of the people closest to you.
Which makes sense, seeing as the book is dedicated to, and inspired by, his son.
Exactly. There was a moment when he was in a motel traveling with his little boy and he was up in the middle of the night and there was this eerie distant sound across the desert. He was looking out the window and thought “my God.” And that moment blossoms into The Road.
At its core, it’s a story about fathers and sons.
There’s a deep emotional truth to that, and it’s why it relates to so many people—we’ve all had fathers, and there’s that sense of things being lost, and how precious things are in life. It’s so different from any post-apocalypse story that’s ever been told, it sort of taps into the psyche of all our fears in this moment in time. The timing of the film does seem fortuitous. Were there specific, apocalyptic events you could draw on for your research?
The big thing was looking at Katrina, and the recent bush fires in Australia…Hiroshima and Chernobyl, too. We had the most incredible road trip of America through of all its apocalyptic zones, which include driving through the complete economic meltdown of certain cities like Gary, Indiana, and pit mines in Pennsylvania.
How much of this ended up in the film?
Not just the mines, but the urban stuff around Pittsburgh. There’s a place called Breezewood not far from the city that had eight miles of abandoned interstate that had been closed since the late 1960s—stuff like that is just too good to pass up. And Mt. St. Helens, which is just a phenomenal landscape. When you see natural disasters on that scale, it’s very hard to find the words.
Watching the film it is hard to believe that these landscapes actually exist. We’re so use to computer-generated images (CGI)…
The irony there is a lot of people think it is CGI. There’s a scene in the film with ships resting on the freeway—that’s sourced from 70-millimeter IMAX film that was shot post-Katrina. We even used a huge mass of billowing clouds that is taken from 9/11. We were trying to tap into the authenticity of the book, really, over and above everything, because even though it’s about the future, it’s everything from our past and things we’re currently experiencing.
On that: What did the actors have to go through during production? Did they consult with survival experts?
They did, but I have to say the performances really came out of the environment we shot in. It was almost like enforced method acting. We had to shoot in the winter because there’s no sun, no life, and the cold was ferocious. It was stressful, and a real survival situation. Both Kodi and Viggo had to be very thin for their roles, and we had to supervise and watch that very carefully for obvious reasons. They could get hypothermic, so we had heat packs on hand and were constantly throwing heavy coats on the boy after every take.
Having to live with this bleak, desolate world you’ve spent at least three years creating, what has it taught you? Have your priorities changed?
You know, this story is bleak, but hopeful. There’s an incredible spark when we transcend animals and the darker forces in us. It’s what the boy encapsulates: that leap of faith of trust and hope and humanity. Really, at the end of all this, I just want to spend more time with my family and my son.