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ON THE ROAD

Interview with Walter Salles
by Aurelanio Tonet

Do you remember how you felt the first time you read On The Road?
I read the book at a difficult time in the life of Brazil, the leaden years of the military regime. There was little freedom of the press, and ON THE ROAD hadn't been published in Brazilian. I read it in English. The initiatory narrative was a breath of fresh air, the exact opposite of all that we were feeling in Brazil. The book was vibrant with the free spirits of Dean, Sal, and the other characters. They were in constant motion, experimenting with sex, jazz, and drugs. It was like the reverse angle of what we were living. So it made a profound impression on me, and on many other people as well. I was 18, a university student, and the book was passed from hand to hand. It was symptomatic that ON THE ROAD was published in Brazil in 1984 just when the country was moving back toward democracy. The book was so emblematic for me that the idea of adapting it for the screen didn't even occur to me. It was only after Zoetrope Studios issued the invitation, when THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES had screened at Sundance in 2004, that the project gradually came to life.

More largely, what are your affinities with the Beat Generation?
I was a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For people of my generation, it wasn't difficult to understand that most of the liberation movements sweeping our consciousness had their roots in the generation of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, di Prima, and Baraka. They had quite simply redefined the way we were living, or the way we wanted to live. Poet Michael McClure, who was part of the movement, expresses it more clearly than I: "The other day, a young guy about 21 asked me what happened to the Beat Generation. He dressed the way he wanted, wore his hair the way he wanted, was against the war in Iraq, and interested in ecology and Buddhism. I asked him the same question: "Yes, where is the Beat Generation?" It was in him... Sometimes it isn't easy to explain that to people; there's no need to, in fact."

In your unreleased documentary "Searching For On The Road," you talk about all the research you did before starting the shoot. Why was this such an important step for you?
When Zoetrope Studios contacted me in 2004, I didn't feel ready. The possibility of the adaptation was so complex that I was determined to shoot a documentary first, following the roads Kerouac and the rest of the group took. The idea was to understand the odyssey described in the book a little better, and whatever remained of it in post-industrial America. I was also trying to gain a better understanding of the issues facing that generation, the historical context of the fights it fought: trying to absorb its drift in a country that was foreign to me. Lastly, I shot the documentary because I wish I'd filmed what we'd experienced when we were scouting locations in Latin America for THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES. There are unrepeatable moments. It's as simple as that.

Which version of On The Road did you and your co-writer José Rivera use for the screenplay?
In Lowell, Massachusetts, a town where Kerouac spent much of his childhood and adolescence, we met John Sampas, Jack's brother-in-law. He showed me a copy of the original Scroll, which was published only recently. I was immediately struck by the urgency and bitterness of this version. The first sentence already heralded a different type of narrative. The version published in 1957 began: "I met Dean not long after my wife and I split up." The Scroll begins differently, "I first met Neal not long after my father died." The hero of the Scroll has just suffered a loss that compels him to go forward. The search for a father is a vital theme in the Scroll, even more than in the version published in 1957. It is a theme that has always interested me, and it became one of the motors driving the adaptation. For five years, José and I worked with and talked about many different versions. We tried to respect the book as much as possible. Sometimes we deviated from it -- betraying it to be more faithful to it. An adaptation should incite the audience to return to the book, the original version. And, to construct their own versions of ON THE ROAD.

Kerouac writes in a lush, lyrical, and opulent style. How far did you stray from Kerouackian language?
ON THE ROAD is sometimes seen as a purely documentary story, a report about a trip. But, I am one of those who believe the book's originality is related more to a coexistence between what was experienced and what was imagined. For example, Kerouac describes William Burroughs's house in New Orleans as a decadent old Southern colonial mansion. In reality, the place where Burroughs hosted Kerouac and Cassady is quite a different type of building: a small prefab home on a quiet street. It didn't contain an orgone accumulator or any of the other tangy furniture described in ON THE ROAD. But it doesn't matter, because these items were part of other tales about Burroughs that Kerouac had heard, and he integrated them into the book. So the book transcends the factual report. It is the product of an ability to link experience with elements created by a free and thriving imagination. This is the spirit we tried to be faithful to.

On The Road is full of contradictions. Radical freedom is touted on one page, whereas the next may be far more conservative. In particular, the book has been criticized for misogyny. How did you overcome this dichotomy?
Like all great books, ON THE ROAD elicits different reactions, depending on the reader's outlook. I participated in many discussions about the book, and met people who felt the book was somewhat misogynistic. But I also spoke to young women who see the Marylou character as a feminist ahead of her time, a teenage girl who explodes the sexual taboos of her time, acts that were forbidden in puritanical postwar America. Others see Camille/Carolyn as a mute heroine, the woman who supports a whole family while Neal is adrift on a quest for the unknown with Sal. If the female characters are more present in the film than in the book, it is precisely because of this controversy.

Your films, like many other road movies, often involve two people traveling together. How did you set up the Sal and Dean duo?
The book gives you a pretty clear understanding of their relationship. Dean is the instigator, the incendiary, the "Western wind" who upsets all the convictions held by the group of young intellectuals. Neal/Dean is so intriguing that he is the central character not only of several books by Kerouac, but also of Go by John Clellon Holmes, and of several of Ginsberg's poems. Sal is the medium, the one who expresses in words the new breath of freedom Dean brings, enabling us to share it. In this regard, while I was making the documentary, I sometimes heard people criticize Neal for selfishly taking advantage of his friends. But one might wonder who took advantage of whom, ultimately. In fact, the question is in the film.

The wide-open spaces are a prominent part of ON THE ROAD. How did you and Eric Gautier plan the cinematography?
Physical geography is at the heart of the book, but less than what might be called the characters' internal geography. In one of her essays on ON THE ROAD, Ann Charters says that the book can also be understood as a story about the end of the road. The United States were defined on the basis of this westward journey. It's no accident if the western is the quintessential North American film genre. The settlement of the territory signaled the beginning of the end of the American dream, and the characters in ON THE ROAD carry this dichotomy within themselves. We were especially interested in filming this desire to reveal what was unknown to them, alongside their inner conflicts, the beginning of the sunset on the dream. From the beginning, Eric Gautier, with his keen insight, understood the paradox. He is on the lookout, camera in hand, for the characters and their oscillations. As Eric pointed out, shooting ON THE ROAD in black and white would have been mere fulfillment of expectation, like copying Robert Frank's THE AMERICANS. I'd rather keep black and white for a contemporary film -- something I did in FOREIGN LAND, a film about the 1990s in Brazil, shot during an emergency regime.

Your adaptation of ON THE ROAD follows a rhythm similar to the one in the book, alternating down time and acceleration. Could your film be regarded as a "making-of" about itself?
The book contains the same duality. On the one hand, you have the urgency of a generation blazing trails, exploring all the senses, living to zippy be-bop and Benzedrine tempos. On the other hand, you have the contemplation and introspection unique to Kerouac. We've tried to express this to-and-fro motion in the film. During the shoot, we experienced everything: moments of happiness, doubt, joy, and despair. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES was not easy, but ON THE ROAD was ten times harder. For one thing, the scenery in South America is still intact, whereas the North American frontier has been polluted with Wal-Marts and suburban sprawl. We had to go a long way, sometimes a very long way, to achieve the sensation of clearing a territory. In film, everything that happens behind the camera is expressed one way or another in the negative. APOCALYPSE NOW is a prime example of that.

Although jazz is the lifeblood of ON THE ROAD, it has influenced generations of rockers. Do the characters in your film do the jitterbug, or pop their fingers to be-bop?
For THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, composer Gustavo Santaolalla had worked upstream, and suggested themes that assisted us a lot with the shooting. During certain takes, I could listen to his music, and it was very inspiring. But ON THE ROAD got off to a sudden start thanks to MK2, so quickly that we didn't have time to prepare the soundtrack beforehand, except for a Slim Gaillard song. So Gustavo went to work after the shooting, when we were starting the edit. The process creates a gap between the image and the music, which I find more interesting. For the music, Gustavo worked with brilliant musicians like Charlie Haden and Brian Blade, and the recording sessions in Los Angeles were interludes of bliss. I'm very fond of the Liberation Music Orchestra Haden leads, and Charlie is a pretty incredible storyteller...

ON THE ROAD tells the story of youth joyfully burning the candle at both ends -- reflected in the exuberant dance sequences. How did you make sure the actors' playing brought out these waves of energy?
That's the power and drama of the characters in the film: they burn, burn, like Roman candles... How can this energy be represented onscreen? In the throbbing of bodies and gestures, constant motion, dancing. But we also had to find interludes of silence and contemplation, to contrast with the quick-paced sequences and bring out their speed.

How did you approach casting the film?
Starting in 2004, the cast was constituted over the years. Kirsten Dunst was the first actress I spoke to, with Camille in mind. I always find her exactly right... For Kristen Stewart, it happened in an unforeseen way. Gustavo Santaolalla and Alejandro Inárritu had just seen a first cut of INTO THE WILD, and they told me, "Don't look any further for Marylou. The girl is in the new Sean Penn film, and she is fantastic." I met Kristen just before the TWILIGHT madness started, and she stayed committed to the film during all the years of uncertainty. As for Garrett, he came in for a test. He asked to read a text he'd written while riding a bus from Minnesota to Los Angeles. By the time he'd gotten half-way through, I knew he would be Dean. He was another one who waited for years. Whenever he got an offer for another film, he okayed it with me first. A friendship emerged from the trust we had in each other, as it did with Gael Garcia Bernal. When I cast Sam, I'd seen him in CONTROL, where he'd been brilliant. His tests showed sharp wit and great precision.

You decided to have the actors playing the leading roles gather in a "beatnik camp" prior to the shoot. Why?
It's an experiment we've been carrying out since FOREIGN LAND. The idea is to create a community before we begin creating the film. Barry Gifford, who has written extensively about Kerouac and ON THE ROAD, came to the camp to talk to us about the book and characters. Barry interviewed LuAnne Henderson, and listening to the recordings he made with her was a big help to Kristen. LuAnne's daughter also visited. It was very moving. Just as when Neal Cassady's son John came to see us. He was incredibly generous with Garrett, and communicated something fundamental to us: ON THE ROAD is not a story about the Beat Generation. It's an epic about young men, 18, 20 years old, who don't know they're causing a revolution right at the moment they're doing it. It's the moment before the eruption, the lava forming and boiling under the surface, about to emerge... This is another parallel with THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES.

In your opinion, where does Kerouac's modernity lie?
In the desire to explore everything, to feel, smell, live and taste everything in the raw, not vicariously, on a screen. He never refuses the moment. While I was shooting the documentary, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I were driving around San Francisco. He looked at the jammed up Bay Bridge to Berkeley and uttered a sentence I will never forget: "You see, there's no more away there." When ON THE ROAD was written, the world had yet to be mapped completely. Borges used to say that his greatest pleasure in literature was naming things that had yet to be named. Today, we get the impression everything has already been done or explored. Jia Zhangke does an amazing job of expressing this implosion of space and time in his film THE WORLD. It ends, symptomatically, with the suicide of the young hero and heroine. ON THE ROAD is like an antidote to this immobility. That's what fascinates me the most about the book.

The Hudson is one of the key characters in ON THE ROAD. It is the setting for arguments, desires, encounters, etc.
Ah, the Hudson . . . It really is a full-fledged character, like "La Poderosa" in THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, the 1947 Norton that Alberto and Ernesto ride. The Hudson is big enough inside to accommodate a small film crew. We covered over 4000 miles with her, nonstop, driving around the United States for the second unit shooting. On the road, people recognized the car, and came up to us to talk about it. The car has a cult following, and that enabled us to meet some unique individuals. Many of them were colorful mechanics, let's admit it... I've always loved Steve McQueen's films, partly because of his highly intelligent restraint as an actor, but also for his awesome skill as a driver. Garrett has some of his qualities. He is one with the car, so we were able to shoot scenes with the actors moving at speeds that were... how can I say it... not exactly legal.

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