Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and based on the iconic novel by Jack Kerouac, On the Road tells the provocative story of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a young writer whose life is shaken and ultimately redefined by the arrival of the free-spirited and fearless Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his girl, Marylou (Kristen Stewart). As they travel across the country on a personal quest for freedom from the conformity and conservatism that engulfed many during that time, the duo encounter a mix of eclectic individuals who forever change them. The film also stars Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Dunst, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Elisabeth Moss and Alice Braga.
At the film’s press day, director Walter Salles talked about developing the look and feel of the film, deciding which themes to explore and what to change or cut from the book, what led him to cast Kristen Stewart back in 2006, before her fame from the Twilight franchise, that enough was cut from the film to have a very rich extras section on the DVD, and how he’ll likely return to original material for his next project. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
WALTER SALLES: The book is an ode to youth, to freedom, and also the possibility to live every single experiment on the skin, in the first person, and not vicariously, as we do many times. So, we wanted the film to have that same kind of urgency and immediacy. We wanted it to have the texture that you don’t see in many films today because they’re shot digitally and you lose the grain and the imperfections of life. In film, you never know exactly how the image is going to be formed because it’s formed by the grain and the light that comes in. So, we definitely opted for film, as opposed to digital. We also tried to respect that sense of jazz-infused, bee-bop, improvisational quality. That had to be translated from a directorial standpoint while not defining exactly what the actors were going to do, specifically. Normally, when you’re staging a scene, you say, “Well, why don’t you start there, and then come here.” We would give that same freedom that the characters in the book had. We would light the place, and then the camera would try to grab the shot, almost as if it was a documentary. It was about giving a sense of what was being lived, in the moment.
Sometimes the camera is trying to capture something that is not going to happen again. That’s what we call moments of truth. The whole film is impacted by the desire to capture that. Another element in there was that we didn’t want the faces to look pristine, so there weren’t any make-up changes during the day. For instance, with the party scene in the film, the people started to dance one hour before we actually started to film because we wanted the wrinkles and we wanted the sweat on their faces and we wanted the clothes to feel used. And then, I said, “Okay, let’s start to shoot,” and the make-up artist wanted to [do touch-ups on the actors], but we wanted to do it, as is. You can see their red faces. It was about really trying to recreate a moment that was being lived, and capture that as organically as we could.
Did you get any pressure from the ratings board to tame down the nudity and sex, in the film?
SALLES: I never thought about that. It was about being faithful to the idea that these characters were in such of all possible forms of freedom, in order to enlarge their understanding of the world. They were really trying to redefine the sense of a future and, in that, they were exploring different areas, and sex was one of them. We tried to enter into this arena without any form of exploitation, but also trying to do it as organically and faithfully to the characters and where they were in a specific moment in the story, as we could. But, I never thought about ratings. I actually don’t know anything about ratings.
SALLES: I went through a similar angst in doing The Motorcycle Diaries because Ernesto Guevara is such a mythic character in Latin America, and other parts of the world. In doing that film, what we were trying to do was find the internal voice of that character. With this film, we were actually lucky to have a number of family members, of the characters that are being represented here, come to talk to us. John Cassady, Neal Cassady’s son, came to Montreal where we were preparing the film for several weeks before the shoot, and he said, “Please remember that this is not about the Beat Generation that would surface in 1955. That was eight years after On the Road starts. The narrative starts in 1947. This was about the first steps of that generation. They are trying to find answers. They have questions, but they don’t have the answers to those questions. So, don’t let these characters be informed by what they became afterwards. They have to be in search of something.”
That truly nurtured us. It was about the desires that they had, but also the uncertainties that were in there. So, we made a few changes, but we kept, very vividly, the idea that this was a story about a unique friendship. This was a story about searching for all different forms of freedom, but searching also for understanding and meaning and enlightenment. Drugs were not seen as a recreational instrument, but as a way to expand your consciousness and your understanding of the world. So, we did make certain choices that reflected the scenes in the book that we ended up using. We also tried to be very faithful to the improvisational quality that is in the book. We improvised, but we did so in the spirit of On the Road. We did select the themes that would allow for arcs to exist in a narrative that is quite episodic. We needed to pick what the themes that would echo throughout the journey, while being faithful to the spirit of the book.
What was it about Kristen Stewart that led you to cast her as Marylou?
SALLES: The casting started very early on. When I was invited to pursue this, my first reaction was, “Let’s do a documentary, in search of a possible film based on On the Road, just to see if this is feasible or not.” So, we interviewed family members and the characters who were still alive and we met the Beat poets from that generation who were still going. They were the youngest 80-year-olds that I’d ever met. We also talked to filmmakers and musicians that were influenced by them. At the same time, we were conducting casting sessions because we didn’t know whether we would find those actors. Kirsten Dunst was the first person who I invited, in 2005. And then, in 2006, two friends went to see the first cut of Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s beautiful film, and they said, “You know, we saw Sean’s film. It’s wonderful. In that film, there’s a young actress that’s really luminous and has something mysterious. She reminded us so much of Marylou in the film, that you should definitely contact her.” So, they gave me the name Kristen Stewart and I remember writing it down, not to forget it.
When I saw Into the Wild, I understand why they had been so impacted by that performance. It was quite unique. In meeting Kristen, in 2006, I was impressed by the knowledge that she had of the book. She knew it intimately and she understand that Marylou was 30 years ahead of her time. She was colliding against a very conservative society and she was trying to find her own path in that world. I felt that she would be perfect for that, so I invited her on the spot. It just happened that the film took so long to get financed that other films surfaced and she became a really well known actress, but that wasn’t the case [when I cast her].
Behind the casting of this film was the passion that the actors had for the characters and the book. When you do something as complex as this, you need to create a family. And if you’re going to drift for 60,000 miles, as we did, you better be a united family and not a dysfunctional one. Kristen had the talent, but also the passion for this, so it was quite wonderful to collaborate with her. Obviously, actors carry the imprint of the roles that they have done in the past, but talented actors are always redefining themselves, and I think that Kristen has that desire. I’m not just saying that because of On the Road. With the other choices that she’s made, there’s a common denominator. They’re characters that push the boundaries of what is acceptable or not acceptable, in their time and age, and On the Road falls under that. She has made choices that were as courageous as this was.
SALLES: I think that she’s such a mature and serious actress that [it wasn’t an issue]. Although the character is very different from who she is, herself, she understood the logic of the character.
With so much material to explore, how much of this did you have to leave on the cutting room floor?
SALLES: Less than for The Motorcycle Diaries, which we had the longest shooting schedule for. But, there is enough for a very rich extras section on the DVD.
Do you know what you’ll be doing next? Are there any other literary classics you’d like to turn into a film?
SALLES: I try to go back to original material, after an adaptation. I don’t think I’ve ever directed two adaptations in a row. I’ll probably got back to original material next. On the Road was a very difficult, epic, complex journey, but also one that was a work of passion. You have to find that same kind of internal desire to fuel the next step, so I don’t know what it will be yet.
On the Road opens in limited release on December 21st.