Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave discuss their latest collaborative film, Lawless.
Q: How did this project start?
John Hillcoat: It started with the book and then I got it to Nick. I was actually doing the scene with Robert Duvall in The Road in the middle of nowhere and I got a call about this book that I had to read. I did read it and it was fantastic. And I was looking for a gangster film to do because I love genre films. But I couldn’t find a new take on it and then I was told about this book, which was from the perspective of the people who created this kind of Al Capone style gangster clan but in the backwoods. And so I gave it to my right arm – my friend and collaborator Nick, the Master – and he responded to the material also.
Nick Cave: The book is amazing and I hope that the film renews some interest in the book because it’s a stone classic of American literature. It’s a great story and it’s a true story.
Q: Were you specifically looking to do another American film?
John Hillcoat: I actually grew up in Canada and was brought up in that fantastic period in the 70s when they had those great filmmakers who were reinventing genres. So it was a bit of a dream to try and participate in that at some point.
Nick Cave: The book had an original idea in that it was really about the foot soldiers, the worker bees, that create the very beginning of the whole process of this wave of corruption that goes up and up into the cities and into the glamour and the gangsters wearing pin striped suits. And that’s the territory that most filmmakers make films about – the glamorous side of the whole thing. And here was this really beautiful book about the workers and that seemed new and interesting.
Q: What was your approach to the music for the film?
Nick Cave: Once the film was made we started thinking about the kind of music we wanted to do. For one thing, John wanted songs. We saw that what was going on during the period when the film is set related very strongly to what is going on now. So we started thinking about taking modern day songs and creating an aural illusion in some kind of way by doing modern day songs but doing a bluegrass/ hillbilly version of them and then stretching tones, so that’s what is going on. Prohibition does relate to what’s going on today – namely the absolute insanity of the Prohibition idea that is playing out today, the great embarrassment of American policy, the war on drugs. Prohibition and the war on drugs are two great failures. And we felt that the two could relate to each other (through the music).
So we could take a classic song by The Velvet Underground about amphetamine use, White Light/White Heat, and get Ralph Stanley who is an old time bluegrass singer, to sing it. And we could stretch time in that way.
Q: What’s the working relationship like between the two of you? Do you go on set Nick?
Nick Cave: No.
John Hillcoat: No, he’s banned (laughs).
Nick Cave: I’m too good looking (laughs). No, I don’t want to go on set. I’m interested in working and doing a job and all of that sort of stuff and the last thing I want to do is sit around on set watching other people do their stuff. I go to the office and write. And we write as collaborators in the sense that I do the actual writing and I email it to him at the end of the day. We work on a day-to-day basis and we talk about it at the end of the night, you know, ‘how about this happens? Tomorrow we can do this..’ And John goes ‘no that’s not a good idea’ or ‘that’s a great idea..’ or whatever.
John Hillcoat: They are usually great ideas (laughs).
Nick Cave: It’s not the process of writing a script in a vacuum and then sending it off to the director. It’s not about floating the script around trying to see if anyone is interested. It’s not that process at all. So it’s done very, very quickly.
John Hillcoat: One thing that I love about it is that it becomes such an integral part. Film is such a delicate balancing act of so many elements and the fact is that Nick is the sole writer – because often scripts go through several different writers – and then it goes to the cast and it evolves in the rehearsals and the cast re-interpret things. And then it’s reshaped in post (production) and Nick comes back in at the end with the music, so there’s an extra kind of connective tissue there that for me is really special because most films aren’t allowed to have that kind of connective tissue.
Q: How did you decide on the look of the film? Because you shot it digitally…
John Hillcoat: Ah, you noticed! I was very anxious about that. There is a huge digital revolution that is changing everything and so I decided to try and start learning about that. Our big turning point, from a practical, logistical point of view, was our budget. The film started as a much bigger thing with Sony Pictures and the economic crisis hit in 2008 and they said ‘we can’t make these sort of films anymore..’ So it all shrunk down to an independent film and a lot of night exteriors in the countryside, so that was the challenge. Just technically, logistically – lighting, equipment, time. My biggest fear was it feeling electronic. I think for me Zodiac was one of the great digital cinema films and Collateral really suited LA. But this is really going back in time before all of that and I didn’t want that feeling. We were one of four films in the world to use some very new technology and there are things that I wish I knew then that I now know. I still have mixed feelings – there are pros and cons. But they’re not making any film cameras, it’s all finished.
Q: Nick when you were writing the script were any of the cast in your mind?
Nick Cave: in regards of the Australians only that we wanted Guy (Pearce). The rest of the casting was up to John but we love Guy and we’ve worked with him before.
John Hillcoat: He’s so versatile.
Nick Cave: And way before we did The Proposition he had been one of my favourite actors. The stuff that he did on LA Confidential was great. All of his films are riveting. And there’s something about him that is so wound up inside that face of his. And the Rakes character was in the script when we first sent it to him and he replied that he was interested in doing it if the Rakes character was more of a memorable villain. He was very much interested in doing something like that so when I wrote Rakes I kind of re-invented him from a character that is in the book to something that Guy could get his teeth into.
John Hillcoat: And his hair into…
Q: Are you two planning more collaborations in the future?
Nick Cave: Yes. We’re thinking about all sorts of things.
Q: Nick, where does that leave your music?
Nick Cave: I’m making a new record. I’ve cleared some space. The thing about the film world is that it just starts eating up everything. You think you can write a script and hand it over but it doesn’t happen like that. So for me, I’ve put my foot down about it. I’m making a record and that’s what I’m doing. It’s been a pleasure and a relief to be working in the sanity of the music industry where people behave like human beings (laughs).
Lawless screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 7 September. Book tickets here