Lawless: Interview with Director John Hillcoat
The notorious gangster Al Capone observed that “Prohibition has made nothing but trouble,” and “I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand.” While his bailiwick was Chicago by way of Canada, the Bondurant brothers in Virginia would have heartily agreed. Brazen rebels, the Bondurant boys – Howard, Forrest and Jack – ran a flourishing family bootleg business in Franklin County, Virginia, where the hills glowed orange from the light of countless illegal stills.
“The Wettest County in the World” began when Matt Bondurant decided to write a fictional account of the very picaresque exploits of his paternal grandfather Jack and grand-uncles Forrest and Howard. Though his novel is inspired by true events, it isn’t entirely factual. As he writes in the author’s note, “The basics of this story are drawn from various family stories and anecdotes, newspaper headlines and articles and court transcripts. However, this historical information does not help us fully understand the central players in this story, at least in terms of their situation or what their thoughts were; all involved are now deceased and little record exists. There are no letters, and my grandfather and his brothers did not keep diaries. My task in writing this book was to fill in the blank spaces of known record. There are family stories … and these memories and stories are vague, and often specious at best, mixed with several decades of rumor, gossip and myth … My intention was to reach the truth that lies beyond the poorly recorded and understood world of actualities.”
The book, published in 2008, garnered rhapsodic reviews and won two early, ardent fans in Red Wagon producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher. Says Wick, “The book was overflowing with moments of hard men and their softness; fierce, violent behavior intertwined with silent moments of desire and longing; vivid flesh-and-blood pain mixed with legends of indestructibly. You could not read the book without imagining performances.” Rachel Shane, executive vice-president at Red Wagon Entertainment alerted her bosses to the book prior to its publication, and Red Wagon quickly secured the movie rights to the novel. Bondurant was thrilled; his tale was already a “dramatic reimagining” and the notion of a filmmaker and screenwriter further exploring the material excited him.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of information available to me to write a non-fiction piece so I took several of the principal events that are verified as happening and strung them together like a constellation, using some things I knew about the brothers, along with pictures and documents, to create lives for them. I knew my grandfather when I was a young man but I certainly didn’t know him as an 18-year-old, so there’s a lot of artistic license that I took. I knew the movie would take that one step further and that seemed natural,” Bondurant says.
Meanwhile, Red Wagon executive Shane approached director John Hillcoat. Says Shane, “John’s previous work on THE PROPOSITION was incredibly visceral and dramatized violence in a way I had never really seen before. You could also see the care he takes with his actors through the specificity of their performances, and how he loves creating worlds that are similar to ours, but also very alien. I knew John would bring everything we needed to take this book to film and it would be a very happy marriage.”
Hillcoat realized “The Wettest County in the World” offered an opportunity to tackle two of his favorite genres in an intrepid and innovative way. “I loved the world of the novel. 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,” Hillcoat says.
Hillcoat enlisted his old friend and frequent collaborator since art school, Nick Cave, to write the screenplay and the music, as he did on THE PROPOSITION. On a Hillcoat/Cave project, the script and the music are always intertwined at the project’s inception and evolve together. Because LAWLESS is set in the backwoods of Virginia, the main characters’ speech has a special, almost musical cadence, which Cave incorporated into the dialogue, as if it were a musical score.
“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,” says Hillcoat. “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.”
Bondurant was especially pleased that John Hillcoat and Nick Cave would bring his book to the screen. “I am John Hillcoat fan; I loved THE PROPOSITION and THE ROAD. And I’m a fan of Nick Cave’s music and writing, so I was super-excited when I heard he was writing the script. He did some really amazing work with the adaptation, and I’m flattered that he retained quite a bit of my language. I was incredibly honored to have John and Nick adapt my work,” Bondurant says.
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