Immediately following difficult periods in history, people often turn to liberation movements in order to fix society. That determination is emotionally shown in the upcoming adventure drama ‘On the Road,’ directed by ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ helmer Walter Salles. Based on the best-selling classic 1957 novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, the film, which was written by Jose Rivera, shows the historical context and the motivations of Americans living in the late 1940s. Led by a talented young cast, the movie gives a clear understanding of the characters’ relationships and their struggles to overcome their internal struggles.
‘On the Road’ follows young New York City writer Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley), whose life is ultimately redefined by the arrival of Dean Moriarty (portrayed by Garett Hedlund), a free-spirited, fearless Westerner. Dean and his girlfriend, Marylou (played by Kristen Stewart), are living a carefree style, and urge Sam to join them on a personal quest for freedom from the conformity and conservatism surrounding them. They travel across the country in search of themselves, through the use of drugs, jazz and poetry in the aftermath of World War II.
Along the way, the trio’s pursuit of the pure essence of experience is continuously shaped by their interactions with the people they meet along the way, including Camille (portrayed by Kirsten Dunst). Dean ultimately marries and has children with Camille, feeling that he should settle down, but still continues to live his care-free lifestyle with Marylou and Sal.
Salles generously took the time to sit down during a roundtable interview in New York City recently to discuss filming ‘On the Road.’ Among other things, the director spoke about the research he did into the Beat Generation, how the music of that generation influenced the film’s story and the casting of the lead actors in the adventure drama.
Question (Q): You cast the film in 2004, and it took a long time to get it made. Would you still have cast Kristen Stewart after the ‘Twilight’ phenomenon?
Walter Salles (WS): We did (cast Stewart in the beginning of the ‘Twilight’ series). Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, the director of ‘Babel’ and ’21 Grams,’ is a friend of mine, and he had just seen a rough cut of Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild.’ We had dinner that night. He said, “Sean’s movie is so beautiful, and there’s this incredible young actress who you should consider for Marylou in ‘On the Road.’ There’s something very impactful about the film. She appears int he last third of the film, but there’s an echo of her presence that’s long lasting, you should meet her.”
I saw Sean Penn’s film, which I also loved. I met Kristen, and she was so knowledgeable about the book, and knew so much about the character. So I invited her to do the film, if it was going to be made. That was a big question, also. It hadn’t been made for so long, that we never knew if it was going to be a reality.
Then, of course, it took us five years to get the financing, which came from independent producers in Europe. All those years, she remained tied to the project, and to do it, says a lot about her, I think.
Q: What kind of research did you do into the gender relationships?
WS: We did very extensive research that took us six years, between 2004 and 2010. I shot a film in Brazil with non-actors between ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ and this. But in doing the research, the characters of the book were still alive. Or we met with the families of the characters, who are not with us anymore. Meeting, for instance, Carolyn Cassady was very helpful to inform the Camille role of Kirsten Dunst.
Carolyn’s a woman of great knowledge and sensitivity. I wanted her to be played by an actress who would not only be extremely talented, but would also have the same degree of intelligence, so I forwarded the invitation to Kirsten. Kirsten was the first actress who signed on for ‘On the Road.’ That was very early on, in 2005, I think. Then Garrett and Kristen and Sam, a little bit later. Everyone was very passionate about this book.
The research allowed us to understand the complexities, and eventually go on beyond the book. When you listen to 50 hours of interviews, who was the person who inspired Marylou in the film, you start to realize there’s so much about her that could be part of the film. Kristen incorporated a lot of that material. Even the voice is influenced by that.
Of course, Garrett met with John Cassady and the whole Cassady family. There were so many hours of interviews with them, and he read all of the Cassady letters, so he was informed. The research was so extensive, they had a better understanding of who the characters were than when we started the film. That allowed us to sometimes improvise some of the characters.
Q: The music really helped with the energy of the film. Was there any music you were listening to while you were in pre-production?
WS: Kerouac was a jazz aficionado, and was really knowledgeable about jazz. His room at Columbia, when he went from Lowell and landed at Columbia, a guy named Jerry Newman took him to Holland. It was a time when these great musicians were 18, and were surfacing, and this was 1941. The book is full of references of great music, because he knew everything so intimately. It was a jazz-infused beat-bop. The music we composed had that intensity and urgency.
Q: There are images of the end of the road in the film, which really represent the time after World War II. The atmosphere of today has this feeling that we’re going nowhere. Can you talk about the relationship between the story and today?
WS: One of the best Kerouac biographers wrote in some of the editions of ‘On the Road’ that was released, that ‘On the Road’ is an ode to youth and freedom. it’s a book about the literary process and the love of the road, and the end of the American dream. This group of young men and women, they’re seeking for all forms of freedom, to really find their future. They became a generation who became very influential to future generations. Talking about their legacy, what I think they offer to us is the understanding that you need to experience things to truly expand your knowledge.
You can go to Google Earth and travel vicariously to Patagonia, but will you ever be there, truly? It’s about the necessity to live the future everyday. The book’s about the importance of entering into territories you don’t know about, just to have an idea of what they really are.
There’s a great piece in The New Yorker by Oliver Sacks, in which he says to live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient to human beings. We need meaning and understanding and a sense of the future, and the understanding and to get there. In fact, he was talking about his own experiences with drugs, but he was also talking about the universe of ‘On the Road.’
But the legacy of that generation is about living in the moment, don’t refuse the moment, see how it is, as opposed to living vicariously. So we have the option today of one thing or the other. Kerouac invites you to have experiences you might not have if you’re in front of your screen 24 hours a day.
Q: Did you feel like you had a certain responsibility to the book, or did you want to capture an essence of the book, but still go off page a little bit?
WS: The only way to serve the book is to capture the essence of the book. That’s what we tried to do with ‘The Motorcycle Diaries,’ to find the essence of that book. But we improvised a lot on that film. We also improvised on a constant basis here. We realized this was the best possible way to make this very improvisational-inspired narrative.
Q: Before you began shooting, you had Kristen, Garrett and Sam prepare for a month together. Did that help build their relationships for when you began shooting?
WS: It was so important, because this was about the liveliness of it. You need to be so informed about the characters if you want to improvise in the logic of the characters. So it was about being as informed as they could, and then forgetting everything and finding their own paths. It’s very similar to what we did with ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’ We did those four weeks of rehearsal.
Q: Did you do chemistry tests with them as you were casting?
WS: Well, we invited Sam, after I saw ‘Control,’ which is an incredible film. I said, well, here’s the guy who has the intelligence of a writer. I wanted to see how the chemistry would work with the cast we had already selected. So we came to New York-New York was very central to the film. We were in a very small theater in the Village, and they met for the first time and tested. They met the night before, and had a few bottles. (laughs) They must have had a few bottles, which we always end up doing. We recorded them, and rehearsed some scenes, and it was magic. Then we had the two leads for the film.
Q: The film spoke about how our environment has changed so much over the past 60 years, and how consumerism has been the backbone of our society. What was the nature of working on a film that took place over 60 years?
WS: It was one that was resonating constantly in our minds. That was an age where one of the parts of that generation is Gary Snyder. At that time, they would drive 1,000 miles for a conversation. So for them, it was not about seeing the Grand Canyon or about having a travelogue. It was about transformations that they could have. It was about finding who you could be.
It’s true that today it’s a tougher job to do that. That’s why I try to do films like ‘The Motorcycle Diaries,’ because they truly go against the current.
Written by: Karen Benardello