Interview: On the Road Director Walter Salles

One of the most culturally significant works of American literature, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has been eyed for the big screen for decades. This week, Walter Salles’ take hits theaters with a cast that includes Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarity and Kristen Stewart as Marylou.

Written in 1951 and finally published in 1957, On the Road details Kerouac’s own adventures traveling across the US and Mexico with Neal Cassady and his beginnings of an interoperation of spirituality fueled by jazz, alcohol and all forms of experimentation. sat down to speak with Salles, best known for his work at adapting the similarly historic travelogue The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004. In the below interview, Salles discusses his ultra-realistic take on Kerouac’s words, the distinction between this film and an ever-growing number of features based on Beat works and a previous attempt at adapting On the Road that would have set the action against the backdrop of the fall of the Soviet Union.

CS: One of the charms of Kerouac’s text is that it’s both spiritually and historically resonant. Your take feels like it falls on the very realistic side. Can you talk about how your interpretation came about in that sense?

Walter Salles:
I think that the book is a wonderful blend of what has been lived and what has been imagined by the brilliant mind of Jack Kerouac. We tried to be faithful to this characteristic of “On the Road.” We tried in every single scene to instigate the actors to move freely within the space and try to find different ways in every single take to give life to that scene. I think that the whole film was nurtured by this desire to capture what we would eventually call moments of truth. This was a direct way to be faithful to the book. This is why we never touched the makeup of the actors in-between takes. This is why you see the sweat on their faces and the wrinkles in their shirts. The journey in the car really has an effect on you, as it does in real life. We had to be faithful to that experience and we were, ourselves, living the experience as we were driving and drifting in search of that last American frontier that Kerouac talks about in “On the Road.”

CS: There have been other film versions, not of “On the Road,” but of other Beat poets. Kerouac as a character plays a supporting role in David Cronenberg’s take on “Naked Lunch,” for instance and you’ve got Viggo Mortensen playing Burroughs in this film. Did you have a stage in making this where you took in other filmmakers visions of these works?

I think that those films are so particular that — while I have to see them — there’s no way I should even think about replicating the choices that such different directors made. I think that, in preparing for the film, we saw some early Cassavettes films liked “Shadows.” We went back to other films of the period, some of which had been under the radar for decades. We saw, numerous times, the jazz series by Ken Burns. We made use of the interviews that I had conducted during the documentary in search of a possible film based on “On the Road.” Alternately, all of those led us to make the choices that we made. Every single film inspired by these men and women who ended up changing the cultural landscape in America are all different from one another. The material that Kerouac and others created is so rich and polyphonic that the takes are going to be absolutely different from each other.

CS: There are only a select few narrated passages from the book in the film. Is that something that you made a point of staying away from?

No, I think that we were so taken by Kerouac’s voice that we wanted to see it on the film. There’s a great version of the book read by Matt Dillon. We played those CDs continuously during the prep. It’s impossible not to get enamored by that jazz and bebop-infused narrative. We knew since the start that we would, at some point, incorporate voiceover. If I recall, though, the first draft didn’t contemplate voiceover because “The Motorcycle Diaries” had that device in its architecture and we wanted to see if it was possible to create something completely distinct. But if we had to do the whole film without voiceover, we would have had to create dialogue that wouldn’t have been offered by Kerouac to start with. We wanted to be faithful to that voice, which is the reason for the narration.

CS: There are scenes in the film that play out without dialogue that fans will still recognize. “We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel,” for instance.

We tried to actually create a narrative that is written with non-verbal scenes and scenes that have dialogue that is suggested by a book. The transitional moments are the moments where the narration comes in. Just like at the end of the film where Kerouac fathers “On the Road” and gives birth to his child, how could we not include that in the film? For me, it’s one of the most resonant passages in literature. At the same time, he’s severing his relationship with Dean Moriarty. The narrator is severing the relationship with Dean Morarity. He is, at the same time, allowing us to understand that the character will stay forever alive in the literary realm. In literature. It’s not an accident that that novel ends with the reiteration. “I think of Dean Moriarty. I think of Old Dean Moriarty that we never found. I think of Dean Moriarty.”

CS: It’s such a great ending in the book and it’s changed a bit for the film. You’re using the names from the published version and then dropping some of the lines that aren’t in the original scroll. The bit about, “Don’t you know God is Pooh Bear?” is gone.

Yeah, the scroll version is slightly different from the 1957 Penguin version. In writing that last monologue, Jose [Rivera] blended moments and sentences that are in one moment of the book or instead in the scroll version. He put the best of both worlds in there.

CS: Could you imagine taking the same story and telling it in a contemporary setting?

That’s interesting because, among the many persons that I interviewed for the documentary was Francis Ford Coppola. He was very generous and talked at length about the attempts that had been made at American Zoetrope to adapt the book into a film since 1979. He said that, at one point, someone came up with the idea of translating the narrative to Russia when the Soviet Union was breaking apart. I said, “Was this seriously considered?” He said, “Just for awhile.” For me, what makes it truly unique is the fact that these young men and women are really finding he possibilities of a future at a moment where there’s a very conservative political system that doesn’t allow you to do so. The fact that these young men and women are colliding against that — there’s a word in Portuguese that transcends the word “conservative” — doesn’t allow them to live fully. Nowadays, these frontiers are less-visible whereas, at that time, they were very topical. There were Presidential speeches by Truman that were present in the McCarthy trials. They echoed in the radio and in different situations that reminded you that these young men and women where truly trespassing boundaries. The film, for me, had to be a part of that. It was also about the desire to physically find the last American frontier. The American dream. Is it still there or not? The fact that it was descriptive of that era but still resonated today was primordial to Jose and to me.

On the Road hits theaters in a limited release on December 21.

(Photo Credit: Ian Wilson /


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