“On the Road” director Walter Salles talks about filming an “unfilmable” novel

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Since its release in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s “Beat Generation” semi-autobiographical novel On the Road has become an American literary classic. It is also one of those rare novels that seemed untouchable for years to turn into a feature film, documentary, mini-series, television series, or any medium where it could be viewed on either a big theater screen or a big-screen television.

The legend of people wanting to turn the novel into film is one that started shortly after the novel was published: Kerouac sent a letter to convince Marlon Brando to play Dean Moriarty; Kerouac could play Sal Paradise. Brando never answered the letter. Skip to 1979 where writer/director, Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the novel. Over the years, he wanted various screenwriters, directors and actors to bring the novel to life on screen. At various points, actors such as Brad Pitt, Colin Ferrell, and Ethan Hawke were attached to star, novelist Russell Banks was going to write the screenplay, and directors Joel Schumacher and then Gus Van Sant were going to direct the film.

While Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, still owned the rights to the book, nothing actually happened until Coppola saw the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries by Brazilian director Walter Salles (Foreign Land and the Oscar-nominated Central Station). The Motorcycle Diaries is a biopic about Ernesto Guevara (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) along with his friend Alberto Granado, riding across South America in the early 1950s, before Ernesto became Marxist commander Che Guevara. Coppola, impressed, hired Salles to direct On The Road.

Salles spent five years working on the script, finding funding, and assembling his cast, which some of whom committed in 2007, and then the 50-year wait of turning the iconic novel into a film finally ended when production began in August 2010. The film was shot in San Francisco, New Orleans, Denver, Argentina, Chile, Calgary, and Montreal.

On the Road premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and a few months later at the Toronto International Film Festival (in a shorter cut by 13 minutes). In early November 2012, Salles came to the Twin Cities for a free sneak preview at the Walker Art Center. On the Road opens this Friday, March 22, at the Uptown Theatre.

During his visit to the Twin Cities, I sat down with Salles, 56, to discuss his film about aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley, best known for playing singer Ian Curtis in the Joy Division biopic Control), as he hits the road with his hard-drinking, dope-smoking, womanizing friend Dean Moriarty (Minnesota native Garrett Hedlund), along with his wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) exploring their newfound freedom in postwar America.   

Who are some filmmakers or artists that influenced you to become a filmmaker?

A few films that brought me to cinema were Antonioni’s The Passenger and Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities and Paris, Texas. That’s when I wanted to be a filmmaker. But way before that, I lived in France for many years in my early adolescence; underneath the apartment we lived in was a theater that only played double features. This is where I discovered the works of the whole Italian neo-realism [movement], [John] Ford, [Howard] Hawks, Godard, and Truffaut. In the school I went too, there was a Godard cine-club and a Truffaut cine-club, and if you went to one, you didn’t talk to students from the other one. I felt keen to both filmmakers, where one was exploring language in Godard, and Truffaut was doing films so much to do with our lives dealing with affection and personal relationships with moments of pain and bliss.  I think I was the only in school that went to both clubs. However, I think my first love was with Chaplin in The Great Dictator and the first I really the first images I saw in cinema.

You saw these earlier films in Brazil?

Yes, but I also saw these when I lived in the U.S. from two to seven years old in Washington, D.C. My two younger brothers were born in D.C. Then my father transferred to Paris, and then that was when I had a wider experience in cinema.

I’m sure you’ve heard before that many people felt On the Road was an unfilmable book, and there has been talk about making it into a film for close to 30 years. How did that change? 

It took actually longer than 30 years. The book was published in 1957 and there were continuous attempts to take the book to the screen, much earlier on. There is a complex endeavor to translate an impressionistic narrative into a film script, but it has to do with the natural of the material itself. It’s about entering forbidden terrain, it’s about allowing yourself transgression, and to explore all forms of freedom, including sexual freedom. We use drugs as a way of understanding the world, and all of these themes were taboos at that time; in many ways, they still are. The jazz infused, the be-bop infused, the writing may not be easy for the cinematic translation and the themes are complex and challenging.

Were you familiar or had you read On the Road before coming onto the project? 

I was 18 when I read On the Road for the first time, and we were living under military dictatorship in Brazil. There was censorship in all forms of cultural expression; cinema, theater, and music—and worse than that there was exile, there was torture. So when I read On the Road it hadn’t been published and translated in Brazil yet, since there was censorship in literature as well. We read it in English, as we were entering University. What was striking to us, was those characters in search in all forms of freedom were actually managing to really find a future and we were not. They were allowed to become what they wanted and we didn’t have that opportunity. The whole idea of investigating the forbidden was exactly what was not offered to us. I remember the book traveled from hands to hands in class, and when it came back to me, it had writing from other students and I still keep this copy.

So when you became attached to direct On the Road, and you knew you would be working again with your Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Motorcycle Diaries, Jose Rivera, how comfortable were you turning this iconic novel into a film?

I purposed to American Zoetrope to do a documentary in search of a film based on On the Road and I did that intermittingly for five years. I retraced the paths of the book, interviewing people who gave birth to the characters, and finally interviewing writers and musicians, filmmakers, who were affected by the “Beat” culture and that was a fascinating process. I’m editing the documentary now, and hopefully I’ll be done with it in the spring. This also allowed us [Jose and I] to access information and to be constantly inspired [as] we were building the screenplay.

Talk about the cast—and how Roseau, Minnesota native Garrett Hedlund, got the part of Dean Moriarty.

He drove all the way from Minnesota to Los Angeles to do his test audition. When he arrived, I hadn’t seen what was by then, the small bodies of film he had been in, I think I had only seen him in Four Brothers. When he read for the role, I was deeply impacted and so was everyone else in the room and there was such electricity in air after his audition and it never left. He had also written a journal, a la Neal Cassady, on his way to Los Angeles and shyly after the end of the audition—he was the last one of the day—he asked if he could read something he had written and we had no idea what was coming. What he revealed in reading his prose was a sense of observation but also, an original perception of reality that was uncannily in the same vein that these guys [Beat writers] had. They had a sensibility but curiosity about ever manifestation of life. Along the way, Garrett stopped at nude bars and gas stations along the way, and characters [who] would remain possibly unperceived by others, became the central characters in his narrative. They were so alive, it became clear that here was a guy who not only understood the scenes in what we were looking for, but also understood the nature of what we were trying to do. And from that moment on, he became our choice to play Dean.

So other casting took place very early on in 2006-07, and the film was almost green lit by 2008 until the economic crisis interrupted and it affected independent film and funding was completely blocked. It took us three more years to put this all together and by then, the actors we had selected had become known for other films. Garrett was so faithful, and he would phone when he got another part and asked if the film was ready to go before he committed to another project. Kristen Stewart was invited to be in the film when I saw her Into The Wild in 2006, and I had no idea the Twilight saga was about to dominate, but she remained closely tied to it for many years. She did say she was thankful it didn’t happen around filming the Twilight films; she had read On the Road and understood Marylou’s character, but also said that it would had been hard for her to get all the layers right for her character since she wasn’t mature enough.

This is a famed novel and people have their doubts and expectations for the film, but for people who have not read the book or who have not seen your previous films, what do you hope audiences take away from the film?

When you do an adaptation, similar to what I did with The Motorcycle Diaries, the first aim that you have as a director for audiences is that they enjoy the experience of the film and this is one that should touch the senses. It all about heightening the senses and experiencing life at its fullest. If people haven’t read the book, I hope people have the same pleasure of discovering it and enjoy it as much as us who made the film. Only Kerouac can speak on Kerouac; what we are giving is an interpretation of it, we have put all our honesty and passion in trying to do it. Ultimately, we hope the book will be discovered or reread, so that everyone would have their own perception of Dean, or Sal, or Marylou. For those who know the book, and have been impacted by it, we hope that people enjoy our interpretation of the film. For those who haven’t read it yet, I hope they will discover, what I think is one of the most beautiful narratives about youth and the transition into adulthood. Also, it’s one of the most interesting narratives about the creative process because this is also a story about a book being written, and what we do looking for inspiration.