Some movies provoke the mind and intellect and leave audiences thinking long after they have left the theater. Add The Road to that list. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Cormac McCarthy, who also wrote the book on which the Coen Brothers film No Country For Old Men was based, Australian director John Hillcoat’s The Road is a starkly told post-apocalyptic tale about an unnamed father and son traveling across an America given to roving bands of murderous gangs and individuals all in search of the most bare human necessities.
Set in the near future, The Road concerns a wholly righteous and doting father, played by Viggo Mortensen, caring for his young son after a worldwide cataclysm, which has left buildings standing—albeit without electricity or any social services—but has laid waste all animals and crops, leaving every person to fend for himself. Partially told in flashback sequences where Mortensen and his wife (Charlize Theron) are leading an idyllic farming life before the catastrophe—which is only alluded to but never seen in full or explained—The Road is equal parts love story, travelogue, and tense drama as the abandoned father and son try to reach the ocean in hopes of a better life.
Without question, Hillcoat’s directing career and natural fit for undertaking the assignment of The Road was elevated with the completion of The Proposition, a Western set in the 1800s Australian outback. “It had a long gestation period,” Hillcoat, 48, said of his 2005 revelation as a filmmaker. “I had always wanted to make a Western and I loved the genre. I had been researching a lot about the conflict between the British and Aboriginal culture in Australia and the lawlessness at the time.”
Starring Danny Huston in what may be his best career role, this time playing a ruthless outlaw, Arthur Burns, The Proposition also featured Guy Pearce as Huston’s likeable brother and Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley, the lawman trying to bring order to the region.
With the similarities in the basic settings of The Proposition and The Road, Hillcoat was able to get key meetings in Hollywood. “I met with the producers in L.A., and I mentioned how No Country was a big influence on The Proposition,” he said. “The producer remembered that, and got the unpublished manuscript of The Road to me. We share extreme environments that bring out the best and worst in people. With The Road, you’ve got a whole other dimension that was expected in terms of the personal and emotional love story. I don’t think I’d be on it if it had already been published and gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize.”
Given the similarity with the new film and his last outing, Hillcoat drew natural parallels in his preferred themes. “I am drawn to extreme worlds because they bring out the best and worst in people,” he said.
Nonetheless, despite the downbeat nature of The Proposition, one can see The Road as an ultimately positive story about finding the essence of humanity in an unwinnable situation. Unlike other post-apocalyptic tales, including I Am Legend and The Road Warrior, Hillcoat’s film is far from an action-adventure story and is more metaphoric for many modern issues. “It was really the reality of the book—having all of your possessions in a shopping trolley that conjured images of the homeless in every city,” he said. “That made it stand apart from the normal apocalyptic genre. It wasn’t about the spectacle. It was about survival. It felt weirdly familiar, like we had already glimpsed it because our references were apocalyptic mini-events such as Mt. St. Helens, the Twin Towers, Hiroshima, Katrina or wherever.”
Trying to recall those tragedies, Hillcoat carefully selected several critical sites throughout the United States for his shooting locations. “It’s a road trip, so we wanted the change of geography,” he said. “Production designer Chris Kennedy has a keen eye and loves research, so we referenced a lot of events such as mining in Pennsylvania and the grey sand in Oregon.”
Spanning 55 shootings days, somewhat expanded due to the short days required when shooting with a minor, principal photography on The Road included at least 50 locations with some actual footage of recent disasters. “There were four states that we went to—Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Washington and Oregon,” said Hillcoat. “Many of the locations were in and around concentrated areas in Pittsburgh. It gave it the look, and we were able to do that because of the simplicity of the story. There was actual footage from after Katrina hit. We just replaced the sky because we couldn’t have the sun. The mass of smoke billowing up in the background is the actual footage of 9/11 smoke. We just kept referencing the photos of the aftermaths of these events and went to these locations.”
To create the verisimilitude that he needed, Hillcoat built as few practical sets as possible, choosing instead to modify real locations. “We always tried to start with a live location,” he said. “[Visual effects supervisor] Mark Forker came from photography originally, and the visual effects are coming from real locations, enhancing that world and making it all flow. They were sourced from real things. There were also a lot of practical things achieved with visual effects like getting rid of jet streams in the sky and birds. No matter how dead a location is, life is buzzing around. We had to do that with sound as well.”
With the cast of The Road, including veteran Robert Duvall and Hillcoat mainstay Guy Pearce, the director had another key challenge in casting the boy. “My biggest fear with The Road was getting a boy who could work,” he said. Hillcoat eventually settled on young Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee.
To help create a believably forlorn group of characters, makeup expert Toni G was brought in as makeup department head. “Toni was a great help in transforming Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce,” said Hillcoat. “We wanted them unrecognizable and fully integrated into the world.”
With the film in the can and finally debuting for audiences this fall, Hillcoat feels a responsibility to the material and author which have each gone on to create a wide impact in the time since the director became attached to the project. “I had no idea the book was going to have the impact that it did,” he said. “It hit me when I first read it. There were certain people like Nick Cave [Hillcoat’s collaborator on The Proposition] who didn’t want to go near it and take that risk of entering the world of Cormac McCarthy.”
For his next film, Hillcoat is sticking to his basic themes but is decidedly switching genres. “We are very close on the next one—a rural Goodfellas,” he stated. “I’d love to do a gangster film. That’s another great American genre, but I do want to make something with more energy.”
Reflecting on The Road, Hillcoat hopes that his film affects audiences the same manner in which the book affected him. “Hopefully it will make you look at your own relationships and value what we take for granted,” he said. “It’s looking at ourselves and our own relationships and what makes us human at times of duress. I hope that it has a lingering effect on people the way the book has.”