John Hillcoat Interview For ‘Lawless’ – Talks Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Nick Cave & The Prohibition Era
Acclaimed director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) delivers a thrillingly vivid slice of American outlaw history in his epic gangster tale, ‘Lawless.’ ‘Lawless’ is the true story of the infamous Bondurant Brothers: three bootlegging siblings who made a run for the American Dream in Prohibition-era Virginia. Based on author Matt Bondurant’s fictionalized account of his family, “The Wettest County in the World,” the film gathers an ensemble of gifted, dynamic new-generation stars – Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan – alongside two of the finest actors of their generations, Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman. A riveting, intense story of crime and corruption, loyalty and love, brutality and tenderness, ‘Lawless’ is a rich addition to the American gangster canon. Look out for the film in cinemas August 29th in the US and September 7th in the UK.
Prohibition is an era that seems to have many parallels to this current time. Do you think that is why filmmakers and writers often explore that era in the 1930s?
John Hillcoat: Well, I think there’s always certain zeitgeist’s that go on, genres always feed off of that. I think we’re in a time of a lot of instability and insecurity, there’s a lot of parallels to today with the economic crisis, the political crisis, the war on drugs. At one point we even had a montage at the beginning of the film that started with what was happening now with the Mexican cartels, and that wound back to the ’80s cocaine wars in Cuba and heroin in New York, way back, until we landed on Prohibition. Which is where it all kind of kicked of, that was the birth of serious organised crime, and its been going on ever since. It feeds into all of those things that are going on today. There are many parallels – it was a time of immense unrest. There’s the economic Great Depression and whatever we have now. There were environmental upheavals; there were devastating dust storms, which we reference in the film. There was an incredible imbalance between the rich and the poor. I’d say the corruption and the helplessness of people trying to do the light thing and getting stomped on by greater, more powerful, cynical forces is even more pronounced now.
What other films did you use as a reference for ‘Lawless,’ there’s so many genres this film explores? I got a slight vibe of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In America’…..
John Hillcoat: I’m a huge fan of Sergio Leone. What inspires me about him, and a lot of filmmakers, is the way they transform genre into a much more real, exciting world in their own way. The references really with ‘Lawless,’ Arthur Penn’s ’Bonnie and Clyde’ was a big one, but it was actually more photographic and historical, about the Appalachian area and the history. Just to get under the skin of that world. What I’m fond of with filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese, what they were doing in the late 60s/ 70s, their films had really strong filmmaking and characters and performances, which seems to be excluded from certain genres now. Gangster films nowadays are more about pure action, not characters. So with ‘Lawless’ it was a special treat to have such rich characters and a story that deals with the consequences of violence and treating violence – there is a lot of rich material in that.
‘The Wettest County in the World’ novel must have offered you a pretty unique opportunity to tackle the gangster and western genres in an intrepid, innovative, and like you said, rich way?
John Hillcoat: I loved the world of the novel ‘The Wettest County in the World,’ and I love westerns, but I was actually looking for a gangster movie. I had really struggled with that over the years because there are so many fantastic gangster movies, I was hard pressed to find one with anything new to say. And this was new. It was like a western as well as a gangster film. I hadn’t seen a gangster film in the rural landscape since ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ And moonshine has mostly been treated in comedies like Smokey and the Bandit.’ This was based on a true story, which was incredible. It felt vivid and alive and unique. So that was really it for me.
You got your frequent collaborator, Nick Cave, to write the screenplay and music for ‘Lawless.’ When you work together, I know Nick Cave’s script and music are intertwined at the project’s inception and evolve together…..
John Hillcoat: Yeah. Nick’s songs are really narrative-driven, which of course lends itself to screenplays, but more than that, I think all films have a musicality to them. There’s a rhythm to the way Nick writes, to the dialogue, the way scenes unfold. It’s subtle thing but it’s definitely there. With ‘Lawless,’ we talked about adapting the novel….it’s the first time he has adapted a book, but we also talked about the score, what sort of music it would be. When Nick writes the material and the music, it’s a very organic process. The music comes first, and then the script, and then the music again.
Getting Shia LaBeouf to play Jack Bondurant, I read that he first caught your attention with ‘A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,’ before the ‘Transformers’ movies, ‘Indiana Jones,’ and the ‘Wall Street’ sequel?
John Hillcoat: Yeah. I thought, who the hell is that kid (laughs)? Then I saw him in ‘Disturbia’ and again I thought his performance was amazing. Then came ‘Transformers,’ and even as he was surrounded by special effects and robots, Shia managed to create a compelling, three-dimensional character. So I thought he was really interesting and it would be great to see him do something more unexpected. Shia had the range to play Jack, who experiences every single emotion, from rage and despair to total joy and happiness. And I could easily see him as a young man in the Prohibition era. He was very interested, he was very passionate when I met him and continued to be throughout, so I knew this was the guy. And I am pretty particular about casting.
Then you have Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant, the grizzled, gruffly lovable lead of the three Bondurant brothers….?
John Hillcoat: I kept hearing about this incredible guy called Tom Hardy. I started watching his work, and I was awestruck….he was amazing! I could also see Tom and Shia as brothers. And Tom’s take on the character was quite audacious, he saw Forrest as the matriarch and the patriarch of the family, in the wake of their parents’ deaths. He wanted to explore Forrest’s softer side and play him in a quiet, contained way. By taking on the roles of the mother and the father of this family, he was really responsible and very caring, especially towards his brothers. But because of the time and the culture, he is unable to articulate it. Tom’s approach was very much about the different emotional textures there were to Forrest and how distilled and controlled he was. It was a unique and fascinating attitude towards the character.
You’ve also got Jessica Chastain on board to play the enigmatic Maggie. What were you looking for when casting Maggie?
John Hillcoat: We needed to find a Maggie that had a real maturity, who was a real woman and complicated. Because she has a history that we don’t really know about – she comes from Chicago, she’s damaged in a way that Forrest is also damaged and that’s why they gravitate to one another. So we needed to find someone who had that emotional depth to convey that connection without too much being said. She also needed incredible strength because in fact she is the strongest character in the film – she’s stronger than all the brothers. So we needed someone who had real gravitas, who could stand up to all these alpha males but who is also appealing and has this warmth.
Look out for a more in-depth interview with John Hillcoat for ‘Lawless’ closer to the films release date.
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