Huge thanks to Elle (@tELLErized) for translating the article. 

On the Road: An Interview with Walter Salles

The anticipation is over: On the Road, Walter Salles, competes for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes, the most famous among film festivals. The Brazilian title [Na Estrada] is a literal translation of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, which influenced the behavior of several generations of young, anticipated the 1960s hippie spirit and revolt and lead the way to inspiring most writers of the second half of 20th century – and not just in the United States.

It fell on Walter Salles to bring to the screen adaptation of such NorthAmerican but universal journey of On the Road with its three young characters: the writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), whose life begins to boil with the the arrival of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) , a young libertarian from the West and his girlfriend of 16 years Marylou (Kristen Stewart). The film’s cast includes such names as Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi and Brazilian Alice Braga and it premieres in Brazil on June 15th.

On multiple instances, studios had attempted to adapt this important novel to the big screen. To be exact, there have been ten attempts and they have all failed. It comes to us now at the hands of this Brazilian, who is so fond of road movies that he’s made multiple movies in this genre such as Foreign Land, Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries. Now leads, as director, the genre prototype,  a project full of challenges as he describes in the interview below, exclusive to Caderno 2.

Interview beneath the cut

Let’s start at the beginning: the novel. Critics say it was a revolution in American culture, of the same extend of The Catcher in the Rye, or even greater. Do you agree? Why?

Yes, it was a shock. On the Road was a watershed due to the radical freedom that its characters announced, the narrative rhythm of jazz and the bebop, the drugs used as a means of increasing knowledge of the world, the way sex was experienced and described with such intensity. On the Road laid the roots of a behavioral revolution, the beginning of the American counterculture, and marked the arrival of a new generation of brilliant writers. But the book was far from unanimous. Truman Capote, for example, said that it was not literature, but typing. Gore Vidal was the same way, as John Updike. The same split occurred with critics.

How was the challenge of filming the “American institution” which had been attempted to be taken to the big screen since its release in 1957?

Its significant than more than ten projects have been developed and shelved all these years, and that no U.S. producer has ventured in this task. The Beat Museum in San Francisco is doing a seminar next month on the theme “On the Road X Hollywood” to understand the reasons for this mismatch. The film ended up being possible thanks to the French independent production company MK2, which financed the project with the help of English Film Four and small independent European distributors who pre-bought the film. The Zoetrope is the co-producer of the film, and it was through them that the invitation came shortly after the screening of The Motorcycle Diaries, in 2004, at Sundance.

Did you feel, as a Brazilian, the freedom to deal with the novel, ultimately so deeply American? Or did you think there were universal points of interchange? If so, what would they be?

When I was approached, I wasn’t sure whether to accept it or not. I was deeply touched by On the Road which I read for the first time in 1970. The book was totally different from what I had read so far, unlike the world in which I lived. Nothing else would be as it was before. But that wasn’t a passport to adapt it, and that’s why I proposed to Zoetrope make a documentary that began in the search of On the Road and Kerouac’s legacy. This process was fascinating, to make a documentary in search of a possible movie, and filmed intermittently over the past six years. One of our interviewees was the poet and political activist Amiri Baraka. Baraka reminded us that On the Road was first of all, the story of young children of immigrants in the United States, which came from Quebec (Kerouac), Eastern Europe (Ginsberg), Ireland and Germany (Neal Cassady). These young people didn’t have a place in the American conservative culture of the postwar period, and came into collision with her. The understanding that the works of Kerouac and Ginsberg are “between cultures” opened up, somehow, the possibility of seeing the country from outside.

There is certainly something that attracts us to the road movies as evidenced Foreign Land, The Motorcycle Diaries and also, of course, Central Station. These films are about displacement, both physical and existential. Your familiarity (and preference) with them prepared for the On the Road and in what way?

The question of the search for identity is perhaps the common thread to most of the movies I’ve made, and road movies yield themselves to this thematic. Moreover, the films of the road are those in which the improvisation is required at all times. If it snows, you change the script to incorporate the snow. If we arrange for a young guide to shows us and tells us Cuzco of the Incas and the unable (Spanish), in The Motorcycle Diaries, we incorporate it into the narrative. The road movie is the meeting point of the documentary film, where I come from, and fiction.

Another thing was the documentary that you previously did, and we saw a stretch, Searching for the On the Road. How did you prepare to face the challenge of Kerouac’s fiction?

I wouldn’t have made the film without going through the documentary. It allowed us to find the book’s characters who are alive, allowed us to find several poets of the generation Kerouac who formed the Beat movement, and artists who were influenced by the work of the writer. Each one of these people, we asked what was the movie that they want to see based on On the Road. These responses were guiding us, opening track, allowing to understand how this story neared Rashomon. For every fact, there was a series of possible versions of how to interpret it. It was a fascinating process that fed us through the entire time.

How did you do the casting? And the technical staff?

Most of the cast was asked early in the process, five years ago. Kirsten Dunst was the first person I was talking to for Camille. Garrett Hedlund appeared to the audition, coming directly from the farm where he lived in Minnesota, near Fargo, the city where the Coen brothers filmed. He brought a text about the trip he had made. It was as remarkable as his audition. Sam Riley also did a great test after I’ve seen Control, and was charmed by his performance as Ian Curtis. Kristen Stewart was invited almost as soon as Kirsten Dunst, thanks to Gustavo Santaolalla and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who had seen the first cut of the film by Sean Penn, Into the Wild. They said to stop looking for Marylou, because we just saw a girl of 16 years that was perfect for the role. I remember I had to write at the time the name of Kristen.

When the film became a reality, we ended the casting process and that’s where actors like Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi and Alice Braga joined the movie. Viggo arrived with the clothes of the character, the typewriter, revolver identical to the one used by Burroughs. He also suggested a series of additional scenes, which improvise in New Orleans. Amy Adams is an exceptional actress, of the same caliber as Viggo. And Alice entered with heart and soul into the film, giving life to a luminous character, just as I had imagined.

The technical team is largely the same as the Motorcycle Diaries. The screenplay by Jose Rivera, light and camera Eric Gautier, art direction by Carlos Conti and soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla.

How do you solve the problem of translating into the big screen the rhythm that one feels when reading Kerouac, that fast pace, frenetic rhythm?

It’s a film that alternates moments of acceleration with moments where the time seems to stand still to accentuate the pain felt by the characters. It was essential to do justice to the spontaneity, improvisation featured in the text. The writer Roberto Muggiati says that the typewriter was, for Kerouac, an extension of his own body. And he dedicated himself to it through long periods just like saxophonist improvising. It was necessary to replicate that intensity in the movie.

The book is symptomatic of that time, 1950, immediately after the war, a generation lost, the beatnik age, the pre-hippie, pre-political movements of 1968. How do you think that this material binds to our current era, which seems more about lukewarm disillusionment than anger?

On the Road preaches the importance of living intensely, with a bare soul, and not by proxy. The opposite of reality-TV. It still makes sense to move, see with your own eyes a moment in which time and geography implode,  like Jia Zhang-Ke shows splendidly in “The World”? One possible answer: In recent years, several times I went to Patagonia to shoot or do locations. I experienced the cold, the dryness, I felt infinitely small in the middle of that immensity. It all this creates an unforgettable relationship with that environment, the opposite of what would have happened if I had had the experience of geography by looking at that screen television. Nothing replaces experience.

How did you choose the locations, which seem to be really important in recreating the ambiance of those years and that type of mentality? 

It was far more difficult than for The Motorcycle Diaries, because Latin America is still, in many respects, a last frontier. To make On the Road, we had to film three or four times more, and longer. In total, 100,000 kms to try to find a virgin geography, who could convey the idea these young people were in search of the last American frontier. For this, we needed to constantly divert urban centers that today seem all trivialized by Wal-Mart and McDonalds.

The beats planted the seeds of a behavioral revolution that somehow created the world we live in today. Is  their message not to be diminished int his world of ours, already aged and that isn’t astonished by anything? Or do they retain their power of corrosion?

On the Road started a revolution whose behavioral reflection can be felt today. Eduardo Bueno is right in remembering there would be no Bob Dylan without On the Road, there wouldn’t be Leonard Cohen nor Neal Young without the Beat poets. As of lately, we live the same culture of fear as during the years of McCarthyism. Are we really so far away from that era? In some ways, yes, in others not. It was this insight that made us pursue a movie that wasn’t placed in a distant time, and that was  contemporary.

In terms of international distribution: it’s part of the Cannes Film Festival, does the  film already have a world premiere date? And in Brazil?

The film opens in France and several European countries on May 23. Other premieres will take place until late September, when the film comes to England. In Brazil, the debut will take place on June 15.

Do you think the film will be understood differently in the U.S., in Europe and Brazil?

Yes, the same way that The Motorcycle Diaries was understood differently depending on the latitude. The interpretation of Diaries couldn’t be the same in Argentina, Cuba or the United States. Similarly, one should imagine the interpretation of On the Road to vary widely from Europe to the United States, or Latin America. It is important to note, however, that countries like France and Italy embraced early Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beat poets, as they also did with the jazz musicians of the 40s, when those same poets were not yet recognized in its country of origin. More specifically with respect to Kerouac, writer Barry Gifford, author of an excellent oral biography called “The Book of Jack” reminds us in the late ’70s and early ’80s was hard to find books in bookstores Kerouac U.S. . In Europe, the opposite happened.

As an author, did you have total freedom to do the film how you deemed best or did you have any pressure the production side?

The film was independently financed by French producer Mk2,  by Film Four (the same company that had independently funded British Motorcycle Diaries) and the pre-purchase made ​​possible by several small European distributors. In the same way it happened with Dairies, I made the final cut of the film. The greatest difficulties were linked to the budget available to make such a complex movie like this one, but often these limitations worked in favor and not against the movie.

Source 

On the Road interview with Walter Salles
Laura
20 Apr, 2012



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