Interview: Lawless Director John Hillcoat


Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat has had a long-standing working relationship with musician Nick Cave, the two of them having collaborated on three films–two of which Cave wrote–and following Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the duo decided to stay in America for the period crime-thriller Lawless.

Based on the 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, itself based on the real story of his own grandfather and great-uncles who were illegally running moonshine in Franklin County during the Depression, the movie stars Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as older brothers Forrest and Howard Bondurant and Shia LaBeouf as younger Jack. The latter wants to get into the family business just as it starts to get more dangerous with a city deputy named Charlie Rakes (played by Guy Pearce) arriving in town to take the Bondurant Family down. The movie also stars Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. got on the phone with HIllcoat last week to talk about the movie, which is arriving on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, November 27. We spoke a couple years ago for “The Road” and at the time, you and Nick were already working on adapting “The Wettest County.” Having worked together for so long, what got you both interested in making a movie about the Bondurants?
John Hillcoat:
It was during post-production on the film we had just finished and we just love collaborating and working together. The script is the starting point and the music is the end point and for that to be one person is extra special, and we both loved the reality that was in the book, the detail from the research. Nick loves the surprises you get from the real characters and it’s full of that kind of detail, the language. We both have a love of blues and country music and the story and literature reflected the likes of Cormac, Flannery O’Connor, all those great writers, Faulkner, etc. And Nick’s been very influenced with his music from that world of blues and country and folk. So it was just too irresistible on all those grounds.

CS: Did you have to do a lot of your own research beyond the book about those times including finding locations that would work for the story?
Yeah, I’m always looking at other (things) and I sort of feed the research to Nick as he loves getting caught up more in the imagination of what these characters would do and what they’d be like, but I’m the one that does the research, so I just find those shiny bits to pull out and throw his way and he’ll either work out a way to use it or he’ll throw it in the trash can and tell me to go back to the drawing board. So it works like that. My production designer gets very involved in the early stages as well and we’re always trying to be truthful to the spirit of the thing, but as Nick says, it was all there on the page.

CS: You guys optioned this and started working on it a while ago, but then along came
“Boardwalk Empire” which really brought this Prohibition era, in a completely different way, to mainstream audiences. Has that helped or hindered making this movie?
It did help in terms of what slowed us down was the fact that every single studio and financier and even distributor in this country said no to the project because fundamentally, they believed no one was interested in periods films and particularly period films set in the countryside. We did have one or two offers to make the film if it was set in the city, the point being that people were so reactionary with the economic downturn that they took it to ridiculous degrees. Luckily, “Boardwalk Empire” helped prove them wrong. Also there’s this video game called “Red Dead Redemption” that became one of the biggest-selling video game in the world, that was set in the West. I was told that Westerns are completely… and this was before “True Grit” came out as well. So yeah, I think there is a tendency in Hollywood, when under financial pressure, they take less risks and hurt themselves as a result.

CS: How did you go about finding the locations where to shoot it? Did you have to build a lot of stuff or did you find places that would work?
Yeah, that whole Blackwater Station was all completely built from scratch in a remarkable time of four weeks, so it was based by my production designer on pictures from the time. Luckily, that time of the great Depression, there was a whole government team of photographers that would drive across America so there’s loads of pictures to refer. The location, with films unfortunately it’s all down to rebates. We were crushed on the budget and had to then find out which rebate state would give us what we need. So yeah, that’s an unfortunate reality, but we were lucky that Georgia had the Appalachians and the same kind of terrain.

CS: You seem to be drawn to these movies set in remote areas, which was definitely the case with “The Road” and “The Proposition.” Why do you think that is?
It’s just that thing that I just never forgot that feeling of being a child and wanting to walk to other lands and other places and I love the way that these other worlds would often create conflict and higher stakes, and I just like to see and deal with humans that are under pressure because that brings out the best and worst in people. What’s always fascinated me is what makes those big questions about what makes us human. That’s why these extreme worlds appeal because they test us so much and when you’re out on all those locations, it really is a forced method and everyone, including the crew–not just the actors–we all see what kind of film and world we’re getting into and that’s very inspiring. I don’t know how people do the green screen thing. I find that the environments are equal to the main characters. One reacts off of the other, but having said that, I would also love to do something contemporary in a big city. I would love to do a sci-fi. Yeah, so it’s just that thing and all these genres have these certain rules that are great to then reinvent. You get interesting characters, so that’s kind of what I love about American cinema is these great genres and it’s getting more and more critical to keep up those characters.

CS: I do want to ask about Guy Pearce’s character, because you’ve worked with him quite a bit over the years. Was his character based on a real person or someone from the book? How did you develop that character and his quirks?
It was really that Guy and Nick Cave and I kind of created that character. Actually, Deputy Rakes was a real character and there was a shootout on the bridge. He did kill Cricket, but he was actually a local corrupt deputy and what we wanted to do was bring out the conflict between the city and the rural, and let Guy off the leash a bit and make the character more interesting from that perspective. We built it from there. Guy had some great ideas–the shading of his eyebrows was pretty chilling–and there’s something anal about this guy. I think discovering the character, what we all learned from it was that this guy, to do what he did, is somewhat of a sociopath and it’s assumed that all borderline sociopaths, what they all have in common is that they have no empathy for anyone else and they’re so self-involved, they can’t relate to someone else so they don’t feel anyone else’s pain. With that level of detachment from humanity, you easily unleash a monster, so that was our thinking and hence the narcissism and the vanity and the repulsion of contact with others, especially the textured world of the countryside, so he was always wearing gloves and he would wear the suit like armor and the collars and the perfumes to drown out those smells, so it all came out of this discussing who this character would be. Guy is brilliant at working from the outside in, talking about things like the hair and the suits and that opens the whole door.

Unfortunately, that’s all the time we had with Hillcoat, so we didn’t get to ask about the rest of the movie’s great cast or its intriguing soundtrack which includes bluegrass and country versions of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.”