An apocalypse you can bear

Times Staff Writer

The FATHER and son struggling to stay alive in “The Road” understand that everything they know is coming to an end.


Ext. ROAD -- DAY

In the burnt, barren landscape, through swirls of soft ash and smoggy air the MAN appears dressed as if homeless, a filthy old parka with the hood up, a knapsack on his back, pushing a rusted shopping cart with a bicycle mirror clamped to the handle and a blue tarp now covering its load. The little BOY, similarly dressed with a knapsack on his back, shuffles through the ash at his side.

Screenwriter Joe Penhall’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel opens with the two survivors of some unspoken earthly catastrophe enduring an earthquake, witnessing a forest fire, stepping around a severed human leg and discovering a family of three who have hanged themselves -- all before Page 8. In Penhall’s script, father and son also encounter a man stumbling along in near blindness, his hair singed, his flesh charred; run from a pack of gun-toting cannibals; and find a crudely painted billboard proclaiming, “Behold the Valley of Slaughter.”


The world -- and everything in it -- is dying, and the Man and the Boy are determined to keep moving, knowing that if they stop, some horrible fate will claim them. The shopping cart’s mirror isn’t for decoration: It’s to see if anyone is gaining on them. In such dire circumstances, the least comfort -- fresh food, clean water, a blanket -- is magnified into the greatest luxury, and that has made the scene that “The Road” director John Hillcoat was filming on a late spring day even more difficult to execute.

With a little more than a week of principal photography left on production of the film, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (“Romulus, My Father’s” 11-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee) had reached Horsetail Falls, a cataract thundering into a verdant gulch an hour east of Portland. Especially by Oregon standards, it was a stunning early May morning: The weather was T-shirt warm, with songbirds flitting about in the waterfall’s mist. As Penhall and Hillcoat imagined the scene, which falls in the screenplay’s first quarter, the two actors would wade into the waterfall’s icy pool and, for a moment, pretend as if there was nothing wrong and the world hadn’t become a soot-covered graveyard.: The Boy even remarked to the Man, “Look. Colors.”

But as Hillcoat saw it, the Oregon setting was proving to be too picturesque. “It’s a beautiful day,” the Australian-born filmmaker said somewhat dejectedly. “I hope it clouds up.”

It was a fair summation of the film’s tonal balancing act. In adapting McCarthy’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Hillcoat and Penhall (as well as the actors and production team) toiled to weigh hopelessness against faith, the worst of humanity opposite the possibility of civilization. But for some, including one top distributor of specialized film who passed on the Nov. 14 release, the cinematic version of “The Road” was ultimately still too bleak to appeal to moviegoers.

So even as the filmmakers were ratcheting up the story’s danger and despair, they also were pushing to make the movie as uplifting as possible, emphasizing its intrinsic father-son love story and promoting the notion that the Boy embodies some sort of messiah. Along the way, movie version also became much less a story about a post-nuclear catastrophe and more a tale of climate change and a dying planet.

“The fact that my character keeps going,” a reed-thin Mortensen said during a lunch break from filming under the waterfall, “is inherently hopeful and optimistic.”



A course correction

PUBLISHED before “No Country for Old Men” was fashioned by Joel and Ethan Coen into their Oscar-winning masterwork, “The Road” represented a course correction for McCarthy. While its pages overflowed with his typically baroque diction and slightly pretentious lack of punctuation, the novel wasn’t anchored by the epic narrative sweep of “No Country,” “Blood Meridian” or “All the Pretty Horses” (and the rest of McCarthy’s border trilogy).

Instead, its story focused on a dying man and a young boy struggling to remain alive as they traveled through a barren land with little food or water and even less consolation.

In addition, “The Road” was more contained (287 not very crowded pages) and personal than McCarthy’s previous novels -- one he described, albeit elliptically, in a rare interview on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” whose host had picked the novel for her influential book group.

“I like to think it’s just about the boy and the man on the road, but obviously you can draw conclusions about all sorts of things from reading the book, depending on your taste,” McCarthy said on the talk show. Tellingly, the 75-year-old author dedicated the book to his elementary-school-age son, John.

Even on McCarthy’s gothic scale for brutality, the 2006 novel was disturbingly depressing, not only in its specifically imagined terrors (notably including the roasting of a fetus on a spit) but also for its day-of-reckoning story line. For some people, especially parents, contemplating Armageddon alone with a child, even in a piece of fiction, was too unsettling to consider. There are people who openly weep reading “The Road,” and many others who can’t even pick it up.

Producer Nick Wechsler (“The Player,” “Drugstore Cowboy”) appreciated how troubling the book was but understood that underneath all of its desolation lay a story of hope and courage. “It’s kind of ingrained in all fathers to protect their children,” Wechsler said. “I wasn’t afraid of the bleakness of the book, the darkness of the book.”

Using money from public relations executives and nascent producers Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz, Wechsler won “The Road’s” movie rights in a bidding war before the book was published. He then approached Hillcoat, unaware that the British filmmaker had directed 2005’s little-seen but highly regarded western “The Proposition” as a homage to McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” (Like “Blood Meridian,” Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” is a bloody meditation on frontier justice where the rule of law is both a principle and a casualty.)

The rights deal for “The Road” closed before the book started sweeping up so many accolades -- “I think the success of the book took a lot of people by surprise,” Hillcoat says -- and came as part of a fresh push to turn McCarthy’s earlier books into films.

“No Country’s” Academy Award-winning producer Scott Rudin and “Little Children” filmmaker Todd Field have been developing a “Blood Meridian” movie, and Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik wants to film “Cities on the Plain,” the last book in McCarthy’s border trilogy. Said Field in explaining McCarthy’s appeal: “His work examines our core, the two faces of violence that co-exist in every savage act -- brutal strength of purpose holding hands with a desperate and cowering weakness.”

Though “The Road” unfolds on an ample landscape, it is ultimately a personal story, a fable of how individuals react when facing extraordinary circumstances. “At its core is a primal struggle against the utmost extremes of the natural world -- and a thrilling evocation of human endurance,” Hillcoat wrote in a memo he prepared for his creative team. “It is an unflinching examination of human beings at their worst -- and at their best. . . . By the end of the film, it is the child’s innate goodness and grace under fire that changes the man, showing us that amidst barbarity, our humanity can be inextinguishable.”

Still, given “The Road’s” end-of-the-world plot, Wechsler thought it best to make the movie beyond the reach of studio executives (who doubtlessly would have said, “Can’t it be a really bad tsunami rather than the apocalypse?”) and took it to 2929 Entertainment, where Wechsler has a deal.

In a twist of kismet, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) had liked Hillcoat’s “Proposition” so much they had approached the director about making a mob-police drama. With Hillcoat at the helm of “The Road,” 2929 agreed to finance its $25-million budget. Richard Gere expressed interest in the lead role, but Hillcoat always had Mortensen in mind. The laconic actor seems a natural for the part; he’s naturally thin (and even more gaunt in the film itself), and, as “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” proved, carries the fearless determination necessary to escape most predicaments.

Fox Searchlight passed on distributing the film, fearful that its apocalyptic plot and unspeakable atrocities were too demanding to sell to a wide audience. “People do rationalize” about why “The Road” is too difficult, says 2929 production chief Mark Butan, who nevertheless dismissed such worries as unfounded. The Weinstein Co. had no such qualms and will release “The Road” this fall.


Departure from the book

WITH THE incessant threats -- cannibals, thieves, starvation, dehydration, hypothermia -- the Man and the Boy face, it would seem unnecessary to make their survival even more difficult, but that’s precisely what Penhall (“Enduring Love”) and Hillcoat chose to do.

The film’s most obvious departure from the book -- outside of the elimination of the novel’s vaguely nuclear “long shear of light” that stopped clocks at 1:17 -- is its redoubling of the book’s fleeting flashbacks of the Man and his final days with his desperate and suicidal wife (Charlize Theron). Throughout the movie, the filmmakers also have amplified McCarthy’s already vast peril.

As readers of the book will recall, McCarthy takes detours along his corridor of brutality and despair. While the father and son make their way to the coast for unknown reasons, they enjoy not only a splash in a pristine waterfall but also discover a trove of canned food, a cistern of clear water, and even a place to take a bath. Some of those fleeting reprieves appear in the movie, but they’re not always as calming on the screen as they were on the page.

When the Man and the Boy find the bomb shelter filled with canned goods in the movie, for example, there’s now someone (or something) trying to break in. Rather than only contemplating having to kill his son to spare him from cannibals, the Man in the movie now actually cocks his pistol at his boy’s head. And after stumbling across a cellar filled with barely alive people headed for some cannibals’ butchering, the Man and the Boy must now dodge the prey like a scene out of a zombie film.

“That’s not only to heighten the threat but also to get variety,” Hillcoat said while Mortensen and a shaking Smit-McPhee warmed up from their freezing swim, the sun having ducked out of sight. “There’s a lot of repetition in the book.”

Hillcoat also has made the planet more of an active character, adding a scene where two massive trees nearly crush father and son. “It just builds on the story that we are creating of the revenge of nature,” Hillcoat said. “We are certainly heightening the environmental threat.”

Indeed, the visual references for the film are far closer to the eruption of Mt. St. Helens (whose swath of fallen trees may open the film) than the rubble of the World Trade Center.

“We will create a post-apocalyptic world that is boldly original and present a vision that will captivate and haunt precisely because of its strange echoes of familiarity,” Hillcoat wrote in his style notes for the film.

With that in mind, the production filmed not against green screens where invented destruction could be added digitally but around areas of actual urban decay and natural disaster, taking cameras to New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward and slums outside of Pittsburgh. The production even found an abandoned four-lane highway in Pennsylvania to serve as one of the film’s central thoroughfares.

The idea was to ground the story in American reality whenever possible rather than where-in-the-world-are-we “Mad Max” fantasy. Hillcoat hoped that one of the film’s most distressing images would be a field of snow covered with blood and bloody footprints, inspired by a picture the director saw from a Bosnian Serb slaughter of Muslims.

With so much death, though, audiences may need a little life too, and that’s where the relationship between Mortensen and Smit-McPhee will be critical. If the story’s father dies before he can bring his son to a safe place, he knows that his young child will at best have to face this unforgiving world alone and at worst suffer a horrible end at someone else’s hands.

If the father can somehow remain alive long enough, his son -- and, by extension, the human race -- might just be able to make it. Since the Man (likely a doctor) is dying of some unknown ailment, he needs to know that the Boy will still “carry the fire,” as McCarthy memorably put it, and try to build a new and better world in the days and years ahead.

Hillcoat hoped that his movie’s closing image will be an extreme close-up of the Boy’s face, filled not with dread but optimism. “It’s like first contact,” Hillcoat says. “You can literally see the wheels of his mind spinning. The human story is what has to be the most intense.”