By Katherine Tulich on November 5, 2012
When John Hillcoat sits down for our interview at the Cabana Restaurant at the Four Seasons, he immediately relaxes when he hears a fellow Aussie accent asking the questions. Now living in Los Angeles with his family, the filmmaker is making some concessions to his new Hollywood lifestyle, even ordering a soy cappuccino. (“That’s very Californian, isn’t it?” he laughs.) Despite his peripatetic childhood in Australia, Connecticut and industrial Hamilton, Ontario, his fondest memories are of film school in Melbourne amidst the thriving pub rock scene that gave rise to some of Australia’s most internationally recognized bands like Midnight Oil and INXS. It’s where he forged his early bond with Nick Cave (a laser in Melbourne’s post-punk music scene in the late ’70s, first with The Boys Next Door and then The Birthday Party, before moving to London in 1980 and forming The Bad Seeds) and where he made his mark as a young filmmaker editing and directing music videos.
Hillcoat made his memorable first film, Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, in 1988, which featured Cave in the cast. The lacerating drama set in a maximum-security prison was applauded in Australia for its veracity, powerful storytelling and imagery. It went on to earn nine Australian Film Institute nominations, marking the arrival of a groundbreaking new talent. A meticulous director who can spend years researching a film, he didn’t make another one until 1996’s To Have & to Hold, set in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. In the meantime, he was also forging a career as a risk-taking music video director and moved to the UK, working with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Depeche Mode, Suede, Manic Street Preachers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Placebo and Muse.
“I get lost in the research and that’s where some of my wilderness years went,” he says. “But I realized: to be a filmmaker you have to have many different ideas out there and hope one takes off.”
Screenshot from Grinderman's "Heathen Child" video, Directed by John Hillcoat, courtesy of Anti-Records
For Hillcoat, that idea was 2005’s The Proposition, an Australian Western that pit the notorious lawbreaking bushrangers against the rigid British colonial authority in the unrelenting and dusty 1880’s outback. Violent, visceral and emotionally startling, it married Hillcoat’s uncompromising vision with Cave’s poetic ability to write not only a haunting musical score (with longtime collaborator Warren Ellis) but also a devastatingly riveting script.
The critically acclaimed film finally placed Hillcoat on the international cinema landscape, and it was no surprise that author Cormac McCarthy handpicked him to direct the film version of his searing-but-bleak post-apocalyptic drama The Road. The story of a father and son struggling to stay alive while at the same time wondering whether such diminished lives are even worth fighting for, the film—also scored by Cave and Ellis—reached audiences worldwide, broadcasting its director’s status and ability.
Now, teaming again with Cave on score and script, Hillcoat’s new film, Lawless, plunges him directly into the lexicon of American genre films, with its mint cast of Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce and Mia Wasikowska. Based on author Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized account of his family, The Wettest County in the World, it tells the story of three bootlegging brothers caught up in the violent world of Prohibition-era Virginia. Here, Hillcoat and Cave talk us through their individual processes, histories of violence and wordless anti-heroisms.
John Hillcoat on the set of Lawless, courtesy of The Weinstein Company
A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN HILLCOAT
You lived in industrial Canada from age 8 to 17, an odd place for an Aussie to grow up. How did you get interested in film in the middle of nowhere?
I was in awe of cinema. My parents always went to the cinema and dragged us along—inappropriately, I might add. I remember seeing 2001 when I was 8 years old. It was the ’70s and the era of great maverick filmmakers; it was a pretty wild time to see films. I remember the Robert Altman film Nashville was on the cover of Newsweek—if it was released today, it would be in a small, art-house cinema. That was the time when the divide between culture and art and commerce was not so severe. The ideas of art house and mainstream were not as defined; it was before we had the idea of blockbusters.
How did you start doing music videos?
I went back to Australia when I was 17 and ended up in film school in Melbourne. I had taken up fine arts and animation in Canada and I thought that’s what I would do. It was an amazing time for music in Australia with bands like Midnight Oil and INXS. Music videos were a whole new medium for filmmakers. I discovered one of my skill sets was editing; it was through editing I met Nick Cave, in The Boys Next Door—which became The Birthday Party. My first editing job was [The Birthday Party’s] “Nick the Stripper.” I started directing for bands like Australian Crawl and INXS. My favorite was INXS’ “Melting in the Sun.” I shot a live concert in Perth and we deliberately wanted to have the moments you are not supposed to cut into the video, when the band was looking not great and clearly not heroic—an anti-music video. Michael Hutchence loved it.
How did your friendship with Nick Cave develop?
After “Nick the Stripper,” he saw some short films of mine, but what he liked most is that I inherited my parents’ entire vinyl collection from the ’60s from America. I had about 1,000 albums of great American blues and folk. Nick would come to my place so I could make him tapes. We began talking about projects and I had this idea for a documentary about prisons, which eventually became my first film, Ghosts...of the Civil Dead. He did a little bit of the writing—it was the first time he ever tried to write for a film. We also invented a character for him to play that was very apt, and he also did the score for the film. Out of that experience, Nick and I really clicked creatively and as collaborators. It was after that I moved to the UK and started doing music videos for him.
Is that how your music video career took off?
I got involved with Oil Factory, which was making great videos for Eurythmics, Queen, The Cure and many others. It was the mid ’90s; to me, that was the golden age of music videos. In the ’80s they were such a new art form but they were so overblown, with too much money and too many substances behind them. But in the ’90s they were doing really exciting ones that still hold up today. They were more conceptually bold; they were more like short films and that’s what I liked. I was still doing a lot of Nick’s videos but also Depeche Mode, Manic Street Preachers, Suede and Muse. I only [shoot videos] now for friends like UNKLE or Nick when he had Grinderman. The budgets aren’t really there anymore, and if the budgets are there, then the ideas aren’t.
The Proposition, Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Let’s talk about 2005’s The Proposition, which really put you on the map as a filmmaker and Nick Cave as a scriptwriter.
I had this idea to do an Australian Western. I was researching the British Empire and the Australian bushrangers and I said to Nick, “Why don’t you try and come up with a storyline?” He said he didn’t know how to write scripts but I pointed out that his songs, especially his early works, were littered with characters. He came up with the three brothers and how one would have to take the life of the other. He started writing and he would give me pages every night. He couldn’t stop; it just poured out of him. It was an incredible collaboration on that film with a great ensemble of actors—Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and Danny Huston. We were filming in heat in Australia as high as 125 degrees and everyone was counting how many flies they were spitting out of their mouths.
You seem to like extreme environments for your films.
We went from one extreme to the other—from heat and sun to cold winter and no sun in The Road. I am very drawn to big genres and extreme worlds. I think that goes back to when I was watching films in the ’70s—that experience of being transported to another place and time was very important when you are living in a miserable place like Hamilton.
How did The Road come about?
Nick and I were going to do another film project together and then The Road landed in my lap because Cormac McCarthy had seen The Proposition. I had found inspiration from his book Blood Meridian and I think he recognized that. I saw The Road as basically a love story about a father and son. But here I was in the US, making this love story, and my then-7-year-old son was back in the UK with my wife. It made it very difficult for me emotionally to make the film because I was spending all this time away from [my family].
Is exploring family structures in your films important? There are three brothers in The Proposition as well as your new film, Lawless.
The three brothers has been more coincidental because Lawless is based on a book. But I’m definitely drawn to fractured, dysfunctional mixes, even like The Road where the family is falling apart. I like to portray people under extreme pressure and [explore] how that affects those bonds. It’s showing the best and worst in people and that is a continued obsession.
What attracted you to Lawless?
I always wanted to make a gangster film but all the material seemed overly familiar. Even going back to the days of Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy, they are all urban tales. Then along came this book, The Wettest County in the World, about this family history that signaled the end of the Western and the beginning of the gangster. I wanted to see it not from the Capones in the city but from the guys in the woods. So that was the key for me, and then I took it to Nick and he loved the story and was keen to write the script.
The film project actually started quite a few years back, didn’t it?
It started as a big studio picture called Wettest County back in 2008. The financial crisis hit and the studio couldn’t justify making those kinds of films anymore but Shia [LaBeouf, who was signed on in the role of Jack] really stuck with the project. By the time I met Shia, Transformers had already hit and he was so desperate to do something different; he said if he had to do one more line to a green tennis ball he would explode. He was instrumental in getting Tom Hardy interested. Tom is incredible. He brought a whole new element to the Forrest character that was never on the page. He made some audacious choices that really helped elevate that character.
And was Guy Pearce channeling a little Nick Cave to create the character of the corrupt special agent, Rakes?
Guy took the initial character of a nasty, corrupt deputy and made it his own. He threw out some wild ideas, like the eyebrows—he sent a picture with them shaved and this hairstyle with way too much product. In a way, he was inspired by the way Nick dyes his hair black all the time and the fancy suits he wears, so there is definitely a little Nick in that role.
How does Nick integrate music into the film? Do you discuss what tracks you will use?
Usually in a film you start with a script and end with music when you are editing, but Nick writes music cues in from the start. I think it gives the film an incredible cohesion. We decided we wanted to avoid doing something like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which really nailed the standards from the Appalachians. We wanted to find music that was contemporary and comment on what was going on but not be so obvious that it would draw too much attention away from the story.
Is there anything about the Prohibition era that you think still resonates today?
It was the birth of the gangster and organized crime; it definitely reminds me of this current situation. We had a montage that we never filmed in the beginning of the Lawless script, all in reverse-motion, that literally started with the Mexican cartels where the heads are rolling in reverse into the bags, and you go back through the ’80s with people doing lines of cocaine in reverse, injecting heroin in New York in reverse and all winding back to the moonshiners. It’s basically a case of supply and demand and how that encourages lawlessness—but that’s also where the lines get blurred and you find that the authorities get so corrupt, often just as bad as the outlaws they are meant to be policing.
Nick says he likes the way you portray violence in your films because it happens fast but has a devastating effect.
I take it very seriously. I think it’s morally responsible to see the consequences of violence—the actual physical impact and the psychological consequences. That’s what makes it more grueling than the actual act. I have experienced violence in different ways—with my parents I witnessed the turmoil of the ’60s, then I saw it more close-up. There were some gang problems at the high school I went to in Canada and I was attacked quite severely; my jaw was broken and my mouth was wired shut for some time. On film I like to keep it very close-up, personal, fast and messy, but it’s more about the aftermath and blurring those lines between what you traditionally see as “good” and “bad.” I believe it’s something we all have in us. Every single person has the capacity for goodness or badness and we are all mixed in this soup of gray. That’s what I love about these genre films where these extremes are explored.
The Road, Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
We Call Upon the Author Inside the Bloody Film Business of Nick Cave
He may have mellowed slightly in recent years, but Nick Cave’s notoriety for reducing journalists to a crumbling mess with his sharp tongue and biting wit still precedes him. However, when it comes to talking about his fellow Aussie, good friend and close collaborator John Hillcoat, he is effusive and enthusiastic. In addition to writing the scripts for both The Proposition and Lawless, Cave—joined by his other longtime collaborator and (red) right hand man, Warren Ellis—also composed the films’ scores. Lawless features a collection of “contemporary songs done in an old-style way” with guests like Emmylou Harris, Mark Lanegan, Ralph Stanley and Willie Nelson. Cave is currently in the South of France at the historic La Fabrique studios preparing a new Bad Seeds album.
Describe your working relationship with John Hillcoat.
Nick Cave: Well, he kind of dragged me into the movie world. I haven’t quite forgiven him yet but it seems I am entrenched in it now. I’ve gone from being one of the foundation stones of modern music to a second-rung scriptwriter and it’s all because of John Hillcoat.
Yes, seriously, it’s been a great experience. When he got me to write The Proposition I really had doubts I could do it, but he was so encouraging. I think we have very similar ideas about things and we work very well as a team. Basically, I write my pages in the daytime and email what I’ve done in the evening and he reads them and we talk about it. I love writing scripts for him because of the very strong involvement he has in the scriptwriting process. He has a particularly despairing worldview and I feel I am a facilitator for his world-weary ways.
How do you share that view?
There is a real, true, visceral excitement we both feel around the depiction of violence in film and especially the sudden shift that can happen in the story when an act of terrible violence happens. For me, it’s an exciting and textural thing that I can do quite well in scripts, and I think that is something that really brought us together as collaborators on these films.
What was Lawless like to work on as a screenplay?
Well, this was different because it was based on a book. I loved the book. It’s full of great dialogue and beautiful scenes. It was such a pleasure to write this [script]. In all of John’s films there is a wonderful struggle that happens in art and commerce, in every frame—a push and a pull. His films are borderline entertainment and art at the same time. I’m very proud of John’s work in this film because it’s very beautiful and strange but at the same time it’s something that can have a greater appeal. That is a difficult thing to do.
Do you find you have a musicality or rhythm when you write scripts?
I think a musicality does come through. It’s only natural. But sometimes I have to draw myself away from that so people talk the way they really talk rather than like they are speaking poetry all the time. Sometimes they just have to say what they have to say [laughs].
Let’s talk about the music for Lawless. What was your vision?
We knew very early on the direction the music would take. We wanted to do something that was raw and had a gutbucket feel that would sit within the context of the film. We made a list of songs we felt we could redo with a kind of faux traditional feel. We thought that some of the issues in the film, in particular Prohibition, were still relevant today. Prohibition of alcohol was a failure then as much as the prohibition laws of today in relation to drugs are a failure. We wanted to take contemporary songs, some of them about drug-taking, and do them in an old-style way by using people like Ralph Stanley or Emmylou Harris. So, time got stretched across from the present back to the past and there was some kind of continuum with what the film is actually about.
You have been writing all your film scores with your bandmate and other great collaborator, Warren Ellis. Could you talk about that relationship?
We have worked together for 20 years or so now on different things and we have a shorthand language where we can go in and get things done very quickly. We understand each other very well. We have an unconventional way of going about doing film scores and I think that can be worrying for people, but they are learning to trust our process a little more as we do more of these scores.
We come out of rock and roll, and it’s a different approach to recording than people who generally do film scores. For a start, we don’t write anything down. Everything is done on feel and we have a distinct distaste for session musicians of any kind because we would rather do it ourselves. Scores are usually very structured, but we do it more like jamming.
You must enjoy it—you are working on other scores, including Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Pinocchio.
I love it. The difficulty about being a musician, or doing what I do, is writing songs. It’s where all the anxiety is and where all the time is spent, wrestling with tiny ideas and trying to squeeze them out in some way. You have to give birth to these little ideas and that can be a bloody business. With scores, first of all, there are no lyrics that you have to worry about, which is one great problem out of the way [laughs]. So, you are free to just make music that is appropriate and serves the film. It’s an absolute pleasure. F