Halfway through the filming of The Road, director John Hillcoat made a difficult decision: No matter what, he was going to remain faithful to Cormac McCarthy's novel about a father and son traveling across a post-apocalyptic landscape -- even if that meant shooting a seemingly unfilmable scene involving cannibals and a fat, juicy baby.
``I fought like tooth and nail to film that scene,'' Hillcoat says. ``I argued `This is what we've signed on for, and we're not going to shy away from a single thing.' And I won. We shot the scene. I even kept it in an early cut of the film. And then I fought like hell to take it out. How ironic is that?''
During editing -- a lengthy process that caused the film, which opened Wednesday, to miss its original release date by a year -- Hillcoat discovered that transplanting the essence of McCarthy's novel to the screen was much more complicated than simply treating it as a script, the approach Joel and Ethan Coen used when adapting No Country for Old Men.
``When you physicalize some of the stuff in the book and put it up on the screen, the movie takes on a different dynamic,'' Hillcoat says. ``My goal was always to stay focused on the father and son, and the more of that horrific stuff you have the more you take the spotlight off their emotional journey.
``I think it's true of all films: You have to work with restraint. It's so easy to get carried away. Actors love to chew up scenery sometimes, and directors get lost in special effects and big action scenes. Film is a powerful medium, and I'm always battling to find the right balance and rein in.
``At the end of the day, the movie still has enough of those chilling things: The cannibal house, the road gangs, the collapsing trees. That's enough, I think. To have any more, the movie would have become about something else.''
Hillcoat had interpreted The Road as a love story between father and son from the moment he first read the novel in galley form. Producer Nick Wechsler (Drugstore Cowboy, The Player, The Time Traveler's Wife) sent the Australian filmmaker the book on the strength of his previous film The Proposition, a violent and unsparing Western set in the Australian outback that Hillcoat made, in part, as homage to an earlier McCarthy novel, Blood Meridian.
``I didn't know about the connection to Blood Meridian until much later,'' Wechsler says. ``But The Proposition very much had a [Sam] Peckinpah quality, and I saw The Road as a Peckinpah movie -- men and women surviving under difficult circumstances, struggling between being civilized and being outlaws. Good versus evil. Very primal stuff. The examination of humanity and morality in The Proposition was very applicable to what I thought we needed for The Road. I had met him and gotten an idea of who he was and how he thought as a filmmaker. So when I read The Road, he was the first person to pop into my head.''
For Hillcoat, the McCarthy novel presented the chance of a lifetime.
``To have this kind of material land on your lap was an amazing stroke of luck,'' he says. ``And when I read it, I wasn't prepared for the emotional impact it had on me. The incredible visualization and authenticity of the apocalypse was something I would have expected from McCarthy. But the story was also so poignant and real and profound. The only thing that gave me pause was the practicality of finding a young actor who could play the son -- a boy who had a maturity and openness and didn't have any kind of show-business precociousness, because that would be the kiss of death on this material.''
Hillcoat found his ideal actor in 11-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee. For the role of his father, Hillcoat turned to Viggo Mortensen, another hardcore McCarthy fan who from the outset understood the project's challenges.
``This is the most faithful adaptation -- not just in spirit, like Lord of the Rings was, but also in word and emotion -- that I have ever seen,'' Mortensen says. ``The challenge for me was to convey the man's interior monologue as it is described in the book without words, because film is a visual medium. You have to trust that if you feel it as an actor, and you're living those thoughts, they will come across to the audience.
``The man is thinking about his wife all the time and living with the accumulated regret of his life experience. Kids tend to accept where they are more than adults do, no matter how hard their circumstances are. Adults regret and fret about the future. To get all that stuff across was much harder than the physical demands of shooting in the cold and the wet.''
Hillcoat says he felt the mounting pressure of doing justice to McCarthy's novel after the book won the Pulitzer Prize and caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, whose recommendation turned it into a bestseller. After the original release date had come and gone, rumors swirled that the movie was in trouble and its relatively unknown director in over his head. But Hillcoat says the delay was the best thing that could have happened.
``I knew every rifle was going to be aimed at me,'' he says. ``That's part and parcel in adapting a book that is revered. But the original release date was over-ambitious and unreachable. It was a very long and delicate editing process to get the balance of the flashbacks right, the presence of the cannibals and the pressure upon the man and the boy to constantly survive. We had all sorts of issues with birds flying into the background of shots that required special effects to remove them.
``My job was to stay focused on the task at hand and concentrate on making the best film we possibly could,'' Hillcoat says. ``We could have released the film earlier this year, but it's really not a summer movie. And I can't think of a more auspicious date than Thanksgiving for this film. We're getting something fully realized as opposed to rushed and half assed.''