Interview with one of our favourite directors of all time…

Director of THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES & one of our favourite ever movies CENTRAL STATION, we caught up with Walter Salles earlier this year in sunny Cannes. 

What drew you to ON THE ROAD?

Walter Salles: Well I had a very personal relationship with the book, in the sense that I read it when I was the exact same age as the characters, I was 18. It was 1974 in Brazil, during the military dictatorship. The book wasn’t published at that time in Brazil; we were going through censorship in publishing, music and cinema and of course, political censorship of all sorts. I was very taken with this story where the characters allowed themselves all forms of freedom, where movement was a way to perhaps understand better who you were, but also to trespass the boundaries that were set for you. I was very taken by the way that sex or drugs could be described as a way to amplify your view of the world and of course by the jazz infused narrative; this idea of the cult of improvisation and the cult of spontaneity. I was very taken by this and I went back to the book several times. I had read Salinger before and several other writers, but I had never felt such a direct connection. Many years later, I read an interview with Allan Ginsburg who said ‘we were trying to write as we spoke between us’ and maybe this sense of immediacy also created the link to the book.


Many tried to make On The Road and didn’t succeed, what made your adaptation work?

WS: The way I entered the project was after The Motorcycle Diaries premiered at Sundance, American Zoetrope had some people in the room and then a meeting was set and we started to talk about a possible adaptation. I was coming from a road movie [laughs] that had been very important for me and I knew that, in order to consider On The Road – which hadn’t crossed my mind up to that point – I would have to immerse myself into that different culture that is not my own. Therefore the idea to do a documentary in search of a possible film, retracing the route of Kerouac and talking with the people who inspired the characters in the book who are still alive, like Carolyn Cassady, but also the poets from that generation who fought for the same ideas at that point and, years later than On The Road, created what was known as the Beat Movement. John Cassady came to visit us before the shoot and he said ‘Just pay attention to the fact that this is not about the Beat Generation yet, this is about young men who are 16 years old, 17 years old, 18 years old and have no idea of who they will become. It’s just that they lived in a society that was very self-sufficient, very conservative – they were in the McCarthy years – and they will fight to amplify the possibilities that they have in front of them. So this is the beginning of a movement, this is the first step of a movement that will then have importance. It took us five or six years to get to a screenplay that could be filmed. Then there were several economic crises; I thought the film would never get made and then in 2010, MK2 in France fell in love with the project and that is how we got to go. Even the cast, which we had identified in 2006/2007 when these actors were very young, they were upcoming, Garret Hedlund had done very few things at the time, Kristen Stewart had done Into The Wild by Sean Penn.


How did you cast Sam Riley?

WS: Control was the film that created the desire because we were trying to find an actor. We tested so many people and we wanted to find an actor who had the sensibility and the intelligence to really convey the world and at the same time, write about it, and behind the eyes you could see what he was thinking. Sam Riley’s performance in that film and the test that he did with us just after the film was really the factor that made us go in his direction.


Do you think the film will speak to today’s youth in the same way the book spoke to you?

WS: The book talks about the necessity to live every single moment at it’s fullest, to experience things in the skin and not vicariously through a television screen. I believe that the only way really to create a social conscience and eventually change things is to experience them, and this is what the book is about. Barry Gifford, who did one of the adaptations of the book, he told me that in the 80s and 90s, Kerouac books were difficult to find in bookstores in America, because in those conservative times you wouldn’t find interest for that. Today there are three adaptations being made of Kerouac books. So it may be that what creates the link with today’s society is that this is one of the best accounts of the passage from youth to adulthood, with everything that comes with it. When the book was launched it was very well received by some of the critics, not very well received by the writers; Truman Capote said ‘This is not writing, this is typing’… So the book was very criticised by writers, but also criticised by the fact that the quests go in very different directions, and I think this is a great description of youth, because in youth you truly search in different directions when you don’t know where you want to go. What gives a direction to the book is that it is also about a young writer trying to narrate that story, and that’s the Sal Paradise character.


What did you have to change from the book?

WS: Jean-Luc Godard has a great sentence for almost everything; he said that ‘cinema and literature are like two trains whose paths cross constantly into the night’. There are adaptations that are extremely faithful to the book and then there are adaptations that are extremely free. Kerouac sent a letter to Brando in 1958, in which he said ‘Forget about all those different journeys, let’s just do one’ and I think that we were actually more faithful than that idea. What interested us was the fact that there was also the call of the wild, the call of the road, the desire to follow the igniter of the story – Dean Moriarty – but there was also the impulse to go back to the mother, the house of immigrant that was striving to survive in America. That constant division between drifting and learning about the world on one hand, but also coming back and being there for the lonely mother was very descriptive for me, and that’s why we kept it. The book is not constructed in a traditional manner; it is a very impressionistic structure. It is constructed layer by layer, and we tried to keep that quality in the translation. For us, as we were filming, in order to be faithful to the book, we also had to be faithful to the idea that the cult of the spontaneous had to be there, improvisation had to be there.


What do you feel is so cinematic about the road?

WS: The films that brought me to cinema to start with were road movies. I wouldn’t have done films if I hadn’t seen The Passenger or Alice in the Cities or Bye Bye Brazil. What I really love about road movies is the fact that you are always following characters living existential crises and as they depart, they understand better where they come from, who they are and, eventually, where they are heading. Conceptually, it’s a very attractive narrative form, but there is a second reason; the shoot itself becomes the point of encounter between a documentary and fiction because with a road movie you have to incorporate whatever you find on the day that you shoot, it’s never going to be what you thought it would be. If it snows, you have to incorporate snow, and if it rains, you have to incorporate rain.


Do you feel there are parallels between the crises the characters are going through and the crisis of today?

WS: It’s the beginning of a behavioural revolution. It’s about finding what family can be, it’s about really finding interpersonal relationships, it’s about really opening ourselves to American culture and Jazz, which would later translate into the action painting by Pollack, new journalism, living theatre… All of that would come later, but this was the first steps of that. You see today, the first steps of many things you see the awakening of the Arab Spring, you see the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York… The state of youth has to be a state of quest and desire to alter things, and the film centres on characters who are interested in altering things and not to live like their fathers lived. In this sense there is a correlation between what’s going on today. It’s also about the idea that they were allowed to invent a new future; it’s not easy to do that.


This is the second road movie that you have done, and both are like origins stories in a way. What do you like about the beginning of stories?

WS: I am much more interested in looking at these characters as they have more doubts than certainties, as they start to discover the world, than when you take them at a time when they have already completed a cycle of their history. It’s really the rite of passage from youth to adulthood and the elections you have to make that are of interest to me. You could say that The Motorcycle Diaries is about the social and political awakening of two young men who discover the physical and human geography of Latin America and those discoveries will change them forever. Here, it is about a young woman and man who also live a little bit, apparently, aimlessly and will end up laying the basis of what will later become a behavioural revolution, but it is just the very beginning of it; it’s just the very initial steps of it. I don’t think you can compare Kerouac to Guevara at all! [laughs]


Did any of the family members have reservations about the film?

WS: I met several of them and they were very helpful in allowing us to understand the cultural background for all of this. The Beat Museum saw the film and they actually posted their own review of the film and they liked it very much; they thought it was very faithful to the original. The director of the museum has no link whatsoever to the film but The Beat Museum is the Mecca for all of those who go there. I have to confess that I was very nervous about their response. That was a very important one [laughs] because of course you do films for the public, but when you adapt a story you have a second layer of responsibility which has to do with the people who have lived it… Although this is a fictional account. The beauty of Kerouac – and a lot of times this is not perceived – he is talking about what partially he has lived but also about what he has imagined. The story is not a documentary, it is not about only what he has experienced as he went along, but it is about what he created based on those experiences… To the point that William Burroughs went public many times and said that Kerouac had a wonderful imagination and none of it happened, but it truly didn’t matter if he didn’t have an Orgone Accumulator in New Orleans because he had one in his Texas farm where he planted marijuana. What [Kerouac] did was to blend information that he had received from those characters in other times and somehow blended them with what he had truly lived. In doing, for instance, the research for the film, I had a very hard time to find in Algiers – which is very near New Orleans – the house of Bull Lee, because Kerouac describes it in the book as an enormous, old decaying mansion, and the address is of this little white, perfect house where an old couple lives now and it has nothing to do with the description in the book. Then I saw a metal plaque saying ‘This is where William Burroughs lived’ and this is an ode to Kerouac’s imagination, because if he could see an old Southern mansion here, it really shows that he reinvented the book several times. This is also why we didn’t keep the names Burroughs or Ginsberg or Luanne Henderson or Neal Cassady in the book; we kept Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty because it is a fictional account.

Words – Brogen Hayes 

ON THE ROAD is now showing in Irish cinemas