One of the many films premiering at that 2013 Sundance Film Festival this week is writer/director Michael Polish‘s Jack Kerouac adaptation Big Sur. The film is a wild ride as we’re taken through the author’s struggle with alcoholism and depression in the years following the publication of On the Road. Tackling the character of Kerouac would’ve been a daunting prospect for any actor, but Jean-Marc Barr brings an intimacy to Kerouac’s manic tendencies in the film that convey to the audience exactly what’s going on in his head.
I had the chance to speak with Barr earlier this week in Park City about his work in the film, and he talked about Kerouac’s influence on his life when he was younger, nailing down all the rhythmic Kerouac dialogue, how the principles behind the author’s beatnik movement are lost on the younger generations of today, and more. Barr also talked quite a bit about working with Lars von Trier on the much anticipated Nymphomaniac, describing the film as an ambitious working tackling all facets of sex. Read on after the jump, and click here if you missed by interview with Josh Lucas and Radha Mitchell about the film.
JEAN-MARC BARR: Well, I’m 50 years old, when I read it in the 70’s at college, leaving home and discovering the universe of education and the writers that I was going to discover later on, of course On the Road was the first I read and that affected me a lot because I left America after that. I went to England for 10 years, I went to France and basically live in a suitcase still. So when they offered me the job I had only really read On the Road and so it gave me the chance to delve into what he had done and also research the character, and the more I did the more I realized that there was nothing to play [Laughs]. Plus I think my being half French helped because America is all immigrants.
What he was bringing to America and to literature and in this work it was a true evolution, when he was writing On the Road it was much more influenced by Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust and his work with [William S.] Burroughs and [Allen] Ginsberg. I mean they were really involved in…not counter-culture, but just as a generation after World War II could not see the sense of going into a tranquil state that was offered by Eisenhower’s America at that time. Many people were affected terribly by the war and I think their desire to question was essential and that’s what I’ve been doing most my life as an artist. So it was very reassuring because I realized that this group and also Kerouac influenced me terribly.
It had to be kind of a daunting prospect to take on such a beloved figure and a beloved property.
How did you go about preparing for the role? Did you want to stick to the script and just find everything there or were you looking into Kerouac’s life itself?
BARR: Age gives you a chance to appreciate more than when you’re younger. If I would have done On the Road I think it would have been very difficult, first of all for the age, but also On the Road is so close to so many people. So that, I think, would have been a daunting task. Here you have a writer who, like many writers, was tragically caught in his image and this book is about declaring a slow suicide with alcohol, and in my life I’ve seen many people in that state, so that wasn’t difficult. What I think was essential for this role, because all it was was me with a very cheap wig (laughs) but the language was, for me, so big. When I read the book Big Sur for the first time this is like Proust, wait a minute. (snaps fingers) The rhythm of the text, and the changing of words, and that kind of revolutionary idea of communication. So I think the voiceover was the essence of that character because he’s a poet.
For me he’s like an American Rimbaud, not Rambo, Rimbaud. and the 20thcentury was not involved with that kind of romanticism in America. Right now we’re at a period where our society is at the end of a cycle, where all the sudden the values that we were told were important don’t seem to have that much importance today. I think with Kerouac and that group of beatniks the self-reliance they imposed upon themselves gave them a freedom that I really kind of cherish myself. Because I don’t need the definition of society, I’ll just do my little thing in my corner and I’ll be satisfied. I think that’s important today and I think young people like yourself, your generations have been brought up on values that are the opposite of Kerouac and we’re hoping with this film that it inspires-it shows the danger of freedom, it shows the extreme danger of freedom, but it shows the necessity of freedom.
No, I definitely agree and I think that through your performance, you kind of get the feeling that he’s longing for this other time period, but he’s also living in this really dark head space, was that difficult to stay in for the period of the shoot?
BARR: I looked on YouTube and saw a lot of the pictures and videos of Jack, and from my experience in my life I found someone who was trapped in alcohol; who was a genius, and who needed that alcohol, needed that Benzedrine, that was his mode. But there’s a price and that price – for me, that moment when he sees the cross is a big letdown because his fight and his revolt were destroyed by that alcohol I think. That he had to just give in. I think that truthfulness is important to see because freedom is dangerous, life is dangerous, but if you feel it on those terms, you’re living. (Laughs) I think that’s the darkness that I was talking about. Today we are forced with so many things in life in society that all of the sudden we are no longer in tune with our soul, and if you can find a channel to that soul, its dark, and you’ve got to be able to look at it, with joy, because you’re willing to look at it. I think Jack is like that and that’s the kind of hope he gives to young people.
You also mentioned the dialogue. The Kerouac dialogue is so specific and like you said it has that rhythm, was there any room to improvise at all on set or was it very much nailing down exactly that script?
BARR: No, because Michael really used jacks words for the dialogue and of course the writing and the structure of those sentences is sometimes quite heavy, but accessible. I think also I set the tone a little bit because I had done a bit of work on the language and stuff like that. And really you’ve got to know that this film, it’s so rare today, this film was made for nothing and everybody was there for the charity and for the love of what Kerouac meant for them. Sometimes when a film gets together it can be great, and this was really a privileged moment where I came on movie and all the sudden we found the financing, a month after that we started shooting, and it just was like a bomb. It was like a bomb and all the sudden you realize the magic of cinema when you put the right people together, at the right time, with the right kind of project, where they’re not worried about their salary, they’re not worried about their caravan. It’s a movie. And that what I try and do. Many of Lars von Trier’s movies are like that. One of the reasons I stay a lot in Europe because you can still find that mentality, because in America it’s getting so hard, everything is so defined by the gimmick and the hype that it’s very difficult to get access to the kids without doing action or…whatever.
A lot of people are very interested in this project, and Lars von Trier is such a singular voice and he is doing something so different than everyone else out there.
BARR: Well he is someone who asks the question, “How can I make a film and not just be entertainment? How can I provoke humanity in the spectator by making him question himself by making him come out of himself to ask himself questions?” Nymphomaniac, after what happened at Cannes a couple years back, which was a circus, and I was afraid because even the Danish police called him in to be questioned on what he said at Cannes. It was getting so ridiculous. And Lars has the wonderful character of relying on his art and I think that Nymphomaniac is going to—it could either be a huge flop, huge, because the chances he’s taking with it are huge. But it’s a film that is philosophically, it’s humor approaching I think almost all the facets of sex, and it’s never been seen. And that’s what’s great about Lars and what proves that he’s a great artist is you know, you’ve got Shia [LaBeouf], you’ve got Charlotte Gainsbourg, you’ve Stellan Sarsgard, you’ve got Willem Dafoe, people want to work with the guy because he’s not just there to fucking entertain (laughs). Thirty years ago that was the norm, but now it’s not the norm so were old hat now.
Can you tease a little bit about who you play in that?
BARR: How can I say this? If I said what I did it would sound horrible so I would rather not. (laughs)
I totally understand.
BARR: No, because I have to put in context and explain it to you and you couldn’t write it down. The things is that really Lars was hit on the hand in Cannes that year and it could have been dangerous and what’s great about it is he’s coming back five times stronger.
Click here to catch up on all of our 2013 Sundance Film Festival coverage thus far.