I had the great pleasure of sitting down and talking with John Hillcoat on the phone last week about his latest film Lawless. And by great pleasure I mean that I had to do everything in my power not to turn into one of those teenage girls you see in early videos of Beatles concerts – think Bride of Frankenstein screams married with an immobilizing case of delerium tremens. Hillcoat made The Proposition. He converted Cormac McCarthy’s The Road into a fantastic motion picture. And better still…. he made one of this year’s best films Lawless.
Other than what we personally talked about last Tuesday, one interesting thing I learned about John and his ofttimes collaborator Nick Cave, (I was snooping in on the previous interview) is that Nick sees many more movies, and is a much bigger film buff than John Hillcoat, while Hillcoat is a much bigger music aficionado than legendary rocker Nick Cave is. Which might be why their film partnership is such an interesting one.
Though he was in the process of moving, and could only do the interview over a temperamental Skype phone, we still had a nice chat about his work.
Here’s what we talked about:
John Hillcoat: My wife and my puppy are going nuts. We’re in the middle of packing up.
JR: So are we. My wife is giving me dirty looks, like: Why are you on the phone right now? So John… I loved Lawless.
John Hillcoat: Great!
JR: It was one of those movies I had to take my brother to. I’ve got two brothers, and when you and Nick Cave get together it seems like you make these three brother movies. We both totally ended up totally loving it. When you do music for Lawless, how do you get to a soundscape for a film like this? One of my favorite scenes in the movie is in the church, and you guys have got this crazy gospel music playing. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
John Hillcoat: Well, it’s a form of of music called shape note, or sacred harp, music. It’s sort of a primitive kind of form of music that was developed in the South. My music supervisor Dave Sardy actually told me and educated me about it – I do a lot of research. There was a fantastic scene in the book that described this unusual love scene – which is one of my favorite scenes in the film as well – but not being able to hear what was being played in the book, I did further research about this form of music called shape note music, which was developed by people that couldn’t read music. It’s very popular amongst remote, religious, Southern communities.
JR: So in this scene you’ve got this music and they’re washing each other’s feet, and Shia LeBeouf’s character is almost overpowered by the atmosphere – or is he? Why does he have to leave?
John Hillcoat: Well…. he has been drinking moonshine…
John Hillcoat: I don’t know if you picked up, but in the scene before he tries to drink it and coughs a sputters, and he’s not like….
JR: His older brother.
John Hillcoat: …who drinks it like water. So he’s got Dutch courage. He’s seeing this girl that he’s keen on. So when he staggers up to the church it’s just really a combination of the intensity of being drunk on moonshine, and being so head over heels for this girl, and having this extreme musical presence surrounding him.
JR: One of the things I really like about Nick Cave’s writing – or when you guys collaborate – there’s this scene where Tom Hardy is confronting those guys out of that speakeasy, and he’s got this great speech about birds flying and how they don’t notice that the world is changing under them – I think you only get something like that from Nick Cave.
John Hillcoat: Actually… big surprise here, that’s from the book. Which is what I think drew Nick to the book. It was full of dialog and language that made Nick feel like he had found a long lost brother in Matt Bondurant.
JR: It’s extremely lyrical.
John Hillcoat: I think it’s partly from the South. Going back to the music too – it’s the same with the writing as well. Writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy… Matt Bondurant is from that community. He’s from the South – from music like blues, country, and bluegrass which is like white man’s blues. Nick’s always been inspired by that stuff, so I think that it’s no coincidence that he likes taking that portion of the book about a flying bird conversation – which is actually from a totally different part of the book now that I think about it….
JR: The way I remember it is that you have this scene with beautiful, lyrical writing in it… and then it ends in brass knuckles.
John Hillcoat: That conversation actually happened elsewhere in the book, so I guess that was something that Nick Cave brought to that specific scene. That was Nick’s idea to put that conversation in that moment. So it was an editorial decision on his part to put that dialog into that scene and make it more like a Nick Cave moment. Which is that swing from going from something beautiful and lyrical to sudden, and extremely shocking violence – which is something we both share an appreciation for, Nick and I.
JR: Exactly like Cormac McCarthy’s work. Do you think that Blood Meridian’s ever going to get made?
John Hillcoat: I hope so. I hope so. I think the problem that we have now is that it seems like television is the last domain of really, kind of ambitious, nuanced, extreme other-worlds. It seems like movies are extremely polarized now, where you have low-budget – which can be very adventurous – or it’s the big franchises. I think the cost of making Blood Meridian – and this is the world I’m stuck in actually – is a really ambitious world that costs a whole lot of money to do it right. Increasingly financiers and studios are scared off of doing them. Which is a real shame. I think in this climate, no chance. But I’m hoping that the climate will change.
JR: Other than the inclusion of Guy Pearce in your last three movies I’ve picked up on some similarities in your films. I’ve noticed that you get this old school triple-A acting talent like John Hurt in The Proposition, and Robert Duvall in The Road, and in this movie it’s Gary Oldman, and you give them some of the best scenes in the film. One of the complaints I heard the most about Lawless was that there wasn’t enough of Gary Oldman in the movie.
John Hillcoat: The importance of those roles is so paramount. The thing about this character, Floyd Banner, is he had that kind of magnetism and gravitas – actually he’s emblematic of the gangster that we all fall in love with. And the idea was that Jack – Shia’s character – is like the audience in his seduction and naivety, he falls for this guy – as we all do. To find an actor that could actually fulfill that role of that emblematic – not only on a literal level, in that he’s the guy between the Capones in the big city and these hard-bitten country guys, and has to carry that kind of weight in this role. And there’s the realism in that, but there’s also a mythic quality that your actor has to bring in, so your choices are suddenly very limited as to what actor can pull that off. But I’m glad you say that because the whole idea that we wanted from Floyd Banner was that you want more, but get less. And we’re left feeling like Jack Bondurant…. if only we could be that cool.
JR: When you’re reading these scripts and you come across these scenes are you thinking: “Wow, Robert Duvall would be great in this.” And then you got to go to him and say: “Listen I’ve got ten minutes in a movie that you would be perfect for.”
John Hillcoat: It’s always a challenge doing that. I guess I’ve been very lucky. But these actors have also been able to see the value – that the role isn’t about screen time. If you managed to add up what Gary Oldman contributes to Lawless, or likewise, what Robert Duvall contributes to The Road – which is the only interaction with a fellow human being that this father and son get to have – the magnitude of what that does ripples across the rest of the film. For me it’s not about the screen time, which is how I explain it to them. With Duvall it was simply that – that this is the first and only encounter with a fellow human being who has shared the same experience that they’re going through. By the time there’s an equally important encounter with Michael Kenneth Williams’ character later in the movie the father has actually lost the ability to even have a conversation, so there’s no shared humanity there. Likewise with Gary, I did explain the importance of what this guy represented to – not just the audience – but to Jack Bondurant. That brief encounter is what changes Jack’s life and makes him want to be that guy. It’s a turning point in the film, and those actors are smart enough to get it, and bold enough to make the choice to do it, thankfully.
JR: Another thing I noticed too, is that, at least starting with The Proposition, and this is how I wrote it in my review for Lawless – I wrote that you put “porcelain dolls in ungovernable country.” You get these beautiful actresses to play these beautiful characters, and the world around them has completely gone to hell – or is heading there in a big hurry. You cast Emily Watson in The Proposition. Your screenplay for The Road added Charlize’s character. And now you have Jessica Chastain in Lawless.… is this a conscious decision on your part?
John Hillcoat: It’s hugely important. But I would add one thing, those three characters are incredibly strong. Jessica Chastain’s character, for instance one of the ideas I love about her character is that she’s more powerful than even Forrest – Tom Hardy’s character. Forrest bought into his own myth and she could see right through it. She also has to carry this terrible secret to protect Forrest. Because she knew what it would do to him, and what path he would then go on if it ever came out. So along with Emily and Charlize’s characters, Jessica’s not just beautiful and powerfully charismatic – she’s also extremely strong. I like to try and get a bit of balance because these worlds are so much about these alpha males. In this gangster world of these hard-bitten guys competing over scraps it’s hard to find something other than the typical gangster moll, so I’m always on the look-out for that balance.
JR: Do you know Andrew Domink John? Is there a relationship there? I’m seeing his movie this week.
John Hillcoat: We have a lot of mutual friends. He’s worked with Nick Cave. I actually knew Andrew back in Melbourne way back when. We have similar interests as well. We like these worlds of crime and the American west. We’re both interested in working with actors to create real worlds. He’s got his own take and style, but he’s a hugely talented guy and I can’t wait to see Killing Me Softly.
JR: Neither can I. Okay John I’ve got one last question for you – have you seen anything that you really liked this year?
John Hillcoat: I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s going to knock me over and change my life, and I’ve seen every single one of his movies…
JR: Who’s that?
John Hillcoat: Michael Hanake’s Amour. That’s going to be the one for me this year.
Lawless is out on Blu-ray and DVD today. Don’t miss this amazing film – or anything by John Hillcoat really.