John Hilllcoat reflects on translating Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winner to the screen.
29 Jan 2010 - 11:28 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

When filmmaker John Hillcoat first heard about Cormac McCathy's apocalyptic novel The Road, his heart sank. A bleak and poetic work, the book concerns a man and his young son, and their journey through a land wasted by some unnamed disaster that has completely destroyed life as we know it. Their trip is full of peril; there is despicable weather, and little food. It's a world of suspicion, despair and flesh eaters.

“I was a big fan of McCarthy's,” Hillcoat tells SBS from his home in Brighton, England. “And that [last man at the end of the world scenario] is not one of my favourite genres by any means…all these cinematic clichés came flooding in.” Anyone familiar with the cheesy extravagances of The Omega Man or even the recent I Am Legend, couldn't blame Hillcoat for worrying. “But then I read the book I found it took you into a really different headspace to those kinds of stories,” he says. “It's actually a very intimate piece.”

An uncommonly serious filmmaker, Hillcoat makes no apology for his vision. Still, in conversation he is modest, very funny and self-deprecating, often making jokes at his own expense. He frequently interrupts himself to make a sardonic and insightful remark about the vagaries and fortunes of trying to make 'difficult' material through the studios at a time when popcorn pictures and franchises appear to be more powerful than ever. He often sounds stunned to find that The Road got made at all.

Producer Nick Wechsler secured the rights to The Road when it was still in manuscript. It later won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2007. Hillcoat says what helped clinch the movie deal was that McCarthy was a fan of the director's superb 2005 Australian 'western' The Proposition, written by Nick Cave. “And of course a big influence on us for that film was McCarthy's Blood Meridian.”

Starring Viggo Mortensen as the Father and Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee (Romulus, My Father) as his son, The Road, adapted by Australian Joe Penhall, was shot in the US in early 2008 on a modest budget (by US standards). Still, Hillcoat and his crew including – Australian designer Chris Kennedy (The Proposition) and veteran cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk To Her) – have delivered an epic look and big 'feel'. The Road has the visual sweep and grandeur of a mega-budget sci-fi, but without the bombast.

Praised lavishly by many reviewers in the US as a faithful and soulful adaptation of material that is 'difficult' – for its downbeat nature – and 'scary' – for its potential as a Grand Guignol sub-splatter feast of gore and blood, The Road takes its aesthetic cues from Hillcoat's own Proposition. Which is to say, it is 'quiet', intense, and when the violence comes, it does so with a sharp jolt. Hillcoat has found in McCarthy's muse, room to explore his own obsessions and interests. “[The adaptation] was about stripping things back to their essence,” he says. “That's why I like extreme environments – characters under pressure – where your comfort zone is removed.”

For Hillcoat, McCarthy seemed to tap into the collective anxiety about the state of the environment and the rise of poverty in first world nations. He mentions one of the film's dominant images derived from the book, a shopping trolley packed with possessions being pushed down a roadside, “that's so simple but that's the homeless in every city.” Instead of using art works, and similarly themed films as visual references, Hillcoat and Kennedy used documentaries and photos as key notes; they studied shots of the devastated New Orleans after Katrina wiped it out.

The Road has a hallucinatory feel that seeps through every shot. Partly, this is literal; occasionally we are swept abruptly into the thoughts and memories of the Father as he recalls the life he had with his son and Wife (Charlize Theron) before the global crisis. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish what is 'real' and imagined, and Hillcoat deliberately blurs the definition. It's part of what gives the film its power since the screenplay's dialogue is so sparse and terse. It's like we've tapped the characters dream life: “That [ambiguity] is a tricky one to navigate, especially in America!” he says laughing. Still, there is an austere quality to The Road that's unique. “I like restraint,” he says. “Even with actors, restraint is something that I work on the most.” He says cast like to get demonstrative but when that happens “you knock out interpretation and possibilities. It's more emotive when you hold back and it's a good way to get different layers happening.” Still, Hillcoat graphically depicts the coruscating effects of malnourishment on his heroes, an effect he says, that was achieved by the combined effort of Australian wardrobe designer Margot Wilson and a dedicated cast. “She created over-sized outfits,” he says, “and Kodi is at that skinny age and Viggo avoided exercise and went on a diet of red meat and dark chocolate, which I would not recommend.”

For Hillcoat the core of the film was the father/son love story. He watched The Bicycle Thieves as inspiration. “I felt that [at its core] The Road was all about trying to preserve the last vestige of your humanity when all the odds are against you.”

Right now Hillcoat is preparing a raft of projects, including one, a gangster film, written by Nick Cave, he believes is an advance on The Proposition. Meanwhile, some observers have touted The Road as a contender for Oscar, “but I have my blinkers on about that,” he says. For all its harshness, The Road is an uplifting experience –since love prevails and restores Faith in a place where such ideals, no longer seem possible. For Hillcoat The Road is a hopeful vision: “and I think that's why it will find an audience.”