Yesterday, in Part 1 of my exclusive interview with Walter Salles and Jerry Cimino, I wrote about the movie On the Road, a collaboration among Francis Ford Coppola, Walter Salles and Jose Rivera based on Jack Kerouac’s book, “On the Road,” and the journey to bring Salles’ donated 1949 Hudson to its new home, the Beat Museum in San Francisco, CA. The film is a 25 million dollar production that deals with the spontaneous cross-country trips and situations encountered by Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty and friends as they sought to satisfy their lust for experience. In Part 2, we focus more on the film itself. Specifically, can a film based on a book set in the 1950s and published in 1957 remain relevant in today’s world? Will the book’s themes, translated into film, resonate well with audiences?
I went looking for answers and approached director Salles and Beat Museum director and founder Jerry Cimino. They were both extremely gracious with their time and provided me with incredible insights. Cimino never rushed me through our detailed conversation. Salles took the time to answer my questions despite being on vacation in his home country of Brazil for the first time in 18 months due his dedication to working on the film. Initially, I focused the discussion on the relevance of the Beats in today’s world but it was inevitable we would end up exploring the process and expectations that come from interpreting a book into film, as well as talking about the film and cast.
I turned to Cimino first to help put into context the book’s relevance in today’s world, particularly for those who may just be discovering Kerouac and the Beats.
“On The Road” speaks to a timeless issue; it’s about a quest for authenticity. It’s about a quest for living life and looking for joy in the world. It’s timeless in the sense that every person lives and goes through these moments,” he says. “I think Kerouac’s way of writing and his style and the way he portrays his characters is so endearing to people because people see themselves or their friends in the characters.”
He considers the book to be an archetype of spiritual quest and shares that notion with others as part of the educational aspect that inherently comes from running the Beat Museum. “A lot of people think it’s all about the sex, the drugs, the jazz, rock and roll, or the music and that’s fine; that gets them in the door. Once they get here, we try to help them understand this is really about finding out who you are in the world. It’s about finding in your own voice, your own level of authenticity and what’s important to you.”
Cimino points out the influence of the Beats is pervasive at so many levels today because 50 years ago they were already fighting hard for many of the freedoms we take for granted today—especially in regards to major social issues such as environmentalism, racial and gender equality, as well as gay and lesbian rights.
“The Beats were the non-conformists of the era and made it okay to be different. Ginsberg made it ok to come out of the closet. Kerouac said ‘I want to be a writer; I don’t want to go into a factory.’ They made it ok to choose an alternative path. Today, you can see it playing itself out in lots of various subcultures within America. These guys blazed those trails and made it ok to be unique and that’s one of the reasons why I celebrate them.”
While the Museum provides Cimino an educational platform, it also provides the opportunity for dialogue with visitors and Beat enthusiasts. It led us to discuss the skepticism some feel about “On the Road” being made into a movie and I brought up the fact that so many people are unaware Kerouac wanted the book to be made into a film (evidenced in the famous letter he wrote to Marlon Brandon in which he said how they ought to shoot the film and he needed to play Neal).
Cimino elaborated on even more specific details of Kerouac’s intent. “Jack fully expected the book to be made into a movie. They attempted to sell the movie rights while Jack was still alive. They offered something like $100,000 and his agent was trying to hold out for $150,000. It didn’t get picked up and Jack was angry when the agent didn’t sell it,” Cimino explains. “Jack understood that films are not books, it’s a different interpretation. That there are certain things you do in a book and when you make a movie, things change. It’s just the way it is and Jack understood that.”
In Hollywood years, the film has been forever in the making but Cimino is enthusiastic about the potential of the Coppola-Salles project. “I love the fact that it was Coppola who had the project because he just seems to be the kind of guy who is going to do it right or not do it at all,” he says. “Walter Salles knows as much about Jack Kerouac and the Beat generation as anybody I’ve ever met in my life and I know everybody. If they are in the Beat world, I’ve met them and I know them. Walter is right at the very top of the people who understand this stuff. If there is anybody in the world that can make “On the Road” into a great film, it’s this team of people. You got dedicated actors, box office draw and people who are hip to it before they were attached to the project. ”
I shared Cimino’s comments with Salles and his reply wasn’t what I expected but it’s also not the usual canned response filmmakers in similar circumstances tend to provide. Salles’ answer is a well-thought reply filled with his characteristic sense of respect, humility and sincerity as it touches upon the relevance of the Beats in today’s world.
“Firstly, we’re all honored by Jerry’s trust… he’s such a connoisseur of the book and of a generation that redefined not only who we are, but also the way we live. On the other hand, I strongly believe that a film adaptation should first and foremost create the desire for the audience to return to the original source, that is, the book. We can interpret it, but only Kerouac can tell us how the journey really was. He did it by blending seamlessly what had been lived with what he had imagined. That is, by juxtaposing the “objective truth” and the truth of imagination. And he did it brilliantly.”
I can’t help but think about how Cimino’s and Salles’ responses reflect the great admiration these two men feel for one another. Their respect for the material and the movement permeates throughout their words. Furthermore, it reveals their bonding over their intent to keep the Beat legacy alive for future generations.
I was anxious to start discussing the filming of the movie and I know how lucky I am to be able to relay both Salles’ and Cimino’s thoughts on it. Outside of the movie’s crew and staffers of its production company, MK2, Cimino is one of the few individuals with the historical perspective of the book and the process to bring it to the big screen. He also has significant insight regarding the actors’ level of preparation and commitment to the project.
We began by talking about his interactions with Salles and the film’s actors during their visits to the Beat Museum and at a fun evening of chatter with Riley, Hedlund, Sturridge and Danny Morgan at the world-renowned bar, Vesuvio, one of the classic San Francisco Beat hangouts.
Hedlund was the first On the Road cast member Cimino met when the actor visited the Beat Museum in 2007. It’s quite a story as it begins with Cimino receiving a warning from a staffer. “You’ve got to come meet this guy, he’s finding everything on Neal Cassady.” Cimino spies the stack of books and other things Hedlund picked out and tells him, “Damn, you’re really a Neal freak!” Hedlund explained his interest was due to being involved with a project and Cimino connected the dots. “As soon as he said that, he’s such a good looking guy and is so striking in his mannerisms, it hit me,” Cimino said, seconds before asking, “You’ve been cast as Neal Cassady, haven’t you?”
A conversation followed about how Hedlund isn’t supposed to talk about the project but Cimino grabs him by the arm to show him “stuff he’ll never see” (a stash of rare videos showing Neal at parties and such). After talking for about an hour and a half, Cimino goes solemn on Hedlund. “Garrett, I know you’re a young actor but you’ve got to know that this is a career making role, right?’”
Hedlund looked him in the eye and replied, “I’m perfectly aware of that and I’m determined to do it right.”
We now fast forward to 2010 just as filming for On the Road is about to wrap up in San Francisco. Hedlund stopped at the Museum and had Riley with him.
“I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and instantly I recognized his voice was different and his mannerisms were different. Of course, he’s a couple of years older at this point,” Cimino points out. He teleports me next to his get together with Riley, Hedlund, Sturridge and Danny Morgan at Vesuvio. “The four of us are sitting there drinking and they’re telling me their stories of what it was like to film the movie. I really could see Garrett who’s the only one that I’ve ever met prior to that night in a different light than I had seen him years ago. He had really sunk into this role. I even commented to a friend of mine, he’s taking on these mannerisms as Neal. I just saw Garrett becoming this guy.”
Cimino is quick to clarify he was still a kid when Neal Cassady died in 1968, but is knowledgeable about him from seeing him on film and listening to the stories the Cassady clan has shared with him. He then adds, “Knowing Garrett the way I do now, he’s so invested in this. I mean, he loves this project and he’s had a lot of time to be involved in it because he was the first one cast. And then, the movie was ready to get made and then they had to pull back from that for a couple of years and he stuck with the project and he became more and more like Neal, frankly.”
Salles also sang high praises for Hedlund and his dedication to his Dean Moriarty role. “A few words about Garrett: I’ve rarely seen an actor devote himself to a role like Garrett did. You know, he’s not only a very talented actor, but he’s also a musician and a poet in his own right. He was so immersed in Dean’s world that he even bought an old Hudson for his own personal use. During the shoot, Garrett could drive that Hudson like Mario Andretti drove a Formula car.”
I haven’t seen Hedlund driving around like that but I’ve heard him sing and recite some of his poetry, and we’ve discussed On the Road. Those conversations were and will remain personal but I can attest that this project is, indeed, very dear to his heart.
Since Cimino keeps mentioning what a great time he had at Vesuvio with the actors, I followed his lead down that discussion path. Besides, aren’t stories that take place at a bar the best ones, anyway?
However, this wasn’t just one more evening of guys out drinking. It was an important night for the actors and Cimino put the evening in context. “I happened to be with them on their last night together after filming for two and a half months. It was interesting because Garrett was flying out the next morning. There was one more scene to take, from what I understand, which is Garrett driving over the Bay Bridge in the Hudson, and then he was flying out the next morning to LA to go to the Tron (Legacy). So, this little family that these people had formed was breaking up.”
The sense of camaraderie among the four young actors was pretty strong, as was their sense of pride of being involved with the film. “Each one told me this was the greatest project they had ever been involved with in their lives, but they also said I can’t imagine ever being involved in a greater project. And this is what Walter brought off the table, he assembles this group of people but he brings together people who either already have it or can pick up this infectious state and they work well together. I could just tell they were so pleased to be in each other’s’ companies. They were respectful and so complimentary of everybody else they worked with.”
A while ago, I saw the movie Control with Sam Riley so when I found out he was going to be in On the Road, I was curious about how he would characterize Sal Paradise so I asked about him next. “Sam is a happy guy. I really like talking to Sam. It was a little weird in the sense he talks in his own natural voice so he has a British accent although I understand you’re not going to know he’s not a native born American during the film. Walter told me he tired Sam because Sam is such an amazing listener and it comes across on screen.”
As Cimino tells me how much fun he has with the four guys, I’m surprised to learn Sam was the most boisterous but it was for a reason. “There was excitement in the air. You’ve got to understand it was their last day of their shoot and they had just spent two and half months together. Sam and Garrett seemed inseparable to me. They were buddies, they were great friends. They would finish each other’s sentences.”
Cimino shares other interesting tidbits of their conversation. The 20-something actors were blown away about working with Viggo Mortensen -“It’s Aragorn from Lord of the Rings!” They talked about how they traveled to Argentina and shot scenes in the Andes (passing as the Rocky Mountains) because Walter insisted in shooting with real snow and cold weather. Somehow, we ended up talking about the craziness when Kristen Stewart was mobbed at the airport in South America and what the actors experienced. “All these teenage girls chasing her, freaking out. The girls were going nuts. Sam was with her and he says, ‘Yeah, I was her body guard you know? Nobody knew who we were; we were just trying to escort her through!’”
Then I asked about Danny Morgan who plays Ed Dunkle.
“Danny was a good guy and I’m sure he’s going to do great job in this role but Sam was the one relating all the stories,” Cimino says.
It sure sounds like Riley did a lot of talking that night! We only have Tom Sturridge left to discuss at this point. He plays Carlo Marx (who Kerouac modeled after Allen Ginsberg) and I ended up learning some cool things about his involvement in the film that I hadn’t heard before.
“I really liked Tom a lot and the reason is because he seemed to be very introspective and he had a lot of involvement behind the scenes. I don’t know if he did any of the shooting here in the San Francisco but I know he came along anyway just to be a part of it. He was involved with a lot of the ideas that they would come up with because a lot of it was spontaneous. Of course they had a script but they would do a lot of things impromptu and spontaneous because that’s the spirit that Walter wanted to capture.” With excitement, he also adds, “These are people who have really done their research. They had to execute in a hurry because all of a sudden, the money and their schedules came together. Part of their methodology was spontaneity but how can you make On the Road without spontaneity?”
Cimino’s tone of voice changed again as he shared an anecdote involving Sturridge that really struck him. As they passed each other in Vesuvio, Sturridge confided in him. “I just want you to know that if I’m quiet tonight, it’s not because I’m not excited to be here. I’m really kind of blown away by everything that has been going on. I’m a young actor that has been lucky to be cast in a particular role but I’m in awe of the story and I’m awe of the people that we’ve met. We’re meeting Carolyn Cassady tomorrow night at the party. We’ve met all these people in the Boot camp; we come to your museum and we see other people. We see what it means to so many different folks. It kind of knocks me out and I’m pinching myself that I’m playing Allen Ginsberg in this film.”
I’m also sort of blown away at hearing the collective sense of dedication from the cast and crew—not only at the material but of their level of awareness at what it means to so many others. As our conversation comes to a close, Cimino summarizes well the approach and methodology for On the Road: “The thing I love how the way Hedlund has approached the role and the way Walter and everyone else involved in the film have approached this film; they are respectful of the heritage and the lineage of all of this. They understand how much it means to so many people and they understand this is their vision of something that so long has been anticipated by so many. They understand it’s an important thing.”
I couldn’t end the article without asking Walter Salles the question whose answer would yield the equivalent of hitting the jackpot in Vegas: “Can you provide a general update on where On the Road stands from a post-production standpoint?”
“We just finished the edit and the mix in Paris. There are still a few steps left until the film is completely finished (designing titles and credits, getting the digital workprint back to 35 mm, etc.),” Salles answers. “The independent company that produced the film, MK2, is now working on the site and trailer. As for release dates, they tend to vary from country to country when a film is distributed independently.”
I don’t hit the jackpot and although I still don’t know when the movie will be released in the US, the timeline for the trailer, or the film’s website launch date, Salles is so eloquent and personable in his responses that I’m happy with the information I’ve received. However, there’s more to Salles’ answer. “In the case of The Motorcycle Diaries, it took from six to nine months for the film to be launched once it was done. It premiered in early January at Sundance, and then went to Cannes. Europe and Latin America launched the film before summer, while Focus, who acquired the rights for the US, opted to release it in the fall.”
The Motorcycle Diaries is his 2004 Academy Award nominated film and although I don’t want to start rumors, I think we can consider it a possible blue print for a timeline for the release of On The Road. From an award consideration standpoint, the timeframe is great. As I wonder if I should have insisted more about dates, I hear from Auréliano Tonet, the editor-in-chief of MK2’s Trois Couleurs magazine. Tonet shares with me some exciting details about the special Beat edition of the magazine which is coming out in mid-March. Their reporters have travelled to Paris, Brittany, California, Lowell, New York, London and Berlin to track down the most vivid stories associated with Kerouac’s life, as well as his work and legacy in the fields of literature, cinema, music, the arts and society. Expect the edition to be at least 132 pages long; it will also contain exclusive content related to the movie such as interviews with the director, actors, producers, set designer, photographer, screenwriter, composer, etc. In it we can expect a special treat: a portfolio of photographs taken by Walter Salles before, during and after the shooting. The details for making the magazine available in the States are still being worked out and more information will be available soon.
As I wrap up this two-part article, I can’t help but think about how Kerouac envisioned “On the Road” being made into a film. Wherever he is, he should be happy because the “On the Road” journey is one that doesn’t end; it lives on and very soon will hit the big screen.
All photos © 1995-2012 The Beat Museum, MK2 and Chronicle/Mike Kepka.
Lend your support to the Beat Museum by visiting http://www.kerouac.com/.
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