The Road - Director John Hillcoat
Director John Hillcoat © Weinstein

Director John Hillcoat vividly brings Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the post-apocalypse, The Road, to the big screen.

The movie tells the frightening and poignant story of survival and humanity, as a father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel west across America hoping to find a warmer climate, always in danger from scavengers and hunters.

The film seems likely to be nominated for several Academy Awards, and I spoke with John Hillcoat about his experience working on it.

I know Viggo brought a immense talent to this, but what else did he bring to this that nobody else could?

The Road - Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee © Weinstein

A physicality; the way he worked off the elements, I’ve never seen anything like it. So there’s a commitment where there’s no holding back, and that’s something that’s special. He’s an intense guy and yet there’s also an incredible every man’s face about him.

Was it his idea to lose all that weight, because he was really thin in it?

Yeah, we talked about that, we actually mutually agreed that we didn’t want to go too far with it. What we didn’t want with this story is for people to just be so conscious of that, that then they’re thinking, ‘Oh that’s Viggo Mortensen, God he really lost weight for this.’

As opposed being that, it’s all real and you’re a part of this world and you’re in this journey, but not to that degree of, ‘Jesus, what diet was he on?’ It was a balancing act.

It was tough working in those conditions and to be doing that, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I don’t know where Viggo got the idea from, he ate red meat and dark chocolate – that was it. And he got us all addicted to dark chocolate.

Can you talk about finding Kodi?

The Road - Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee © Weinstein

Kodi was a great gift. I wanted a kid that was going to be emotionally able to do this. I had a short list of amazing kids from America, Canada and Britain. I had friends in Australia who said, ‘You’ve got to check this kid out.’

The scene I was most worried about was teaching the kid how to kill himself with the gun. To me no kid can even be aware of what this film is about.

They’ll never read a script, they’ll never know what that licorice stick got extended into with visual effects and they won’t see the reverse shot. Kodi did an audition tape, his father’s an actor and he did the gun scene with him. I thought, either this is a message saying my kid can handle this or the guy’s crazy and it’s time for child services.

The great thing is sometimes there are kids that are mature beyond their years, and he was. He was totally unaffected by the material. And yet when he worked the scenes he was natural, instinctual, and he had a maturity, but he knew it was all about a make believe extreme world and this is what drama is, and you’ve got these obstacles and these conflicts.

What did you do to protect him – this is a very grown up, depressing scenario for a child?

I’ll always come back to say it’s also a beautiful love story. That was actually my biggest single concern, over and above the legacy of Cormic McCarthy, what happened with that book, how do you translate it, how do you create that world, all that was irrelevant compared to that very question. To the point where that was the only thing where I wavered about should I make this?

This was before it was published. And the only thing that pushed me over that hump was I just went back to my own emotional reaction, how many books or films have had this affect on me? And I thought I have to do this.

It was an extreme story, it must have been an extreme shoot.

The Road - Director John Hillcoat
Director John Hillcoat © Weinstein

We tried to shoot at Mount St. Helen’s at the end of May and it was 20 feet under snow so we couldn’t even get there, but we knew we needed it because everyone has seen urban decay and urban apocalypse, but we wanted to see where nature has done the same thing, and it’s unbelievable. The force of nature to us was critical to get and it helped shape the journey, so we had to go back later in July.

We did go to New Orleans and that gave a real poignancy as half our crew had survived Katrina. The shopping malls in New Orleans had very little dressing; they are still cleaning it up.

The actual post had some CGI. It was just taking traffic out of the background and adding fires in the distance.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.

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