Director Walter Salles impressed audiences and critics alike with his 2004 film about a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara coming of age in South America, so when the Brazilian filmmaker was chosen to direct “On The Road” – the road-trip story by Jack Kerouac that defined counter-culture youth in the ’50s – it seemed like a perfect match of project and filmmaker. Still, the process of bringing Kerouac’s seminal novel to the screen has left the last five decades littered with scrapped drafts and a long list of actors and directors attached to the project at one point or another – making this weekend’s premiere of Salles’ long-awaited film all the more impressive.
For Salles, the making of “On The Road” has been both a literal and figurative journey that’s occurred in fits and starts over much of the last decade, with the film proceeding along, then stalling out, then beginning again numerous times since he was named as director. The experience has involved multiple cross-country road trips, a revolving cast of actors, and more than a few obstacles that threatened to derail the project entirely despite the perseverance of its director and stars.
IFC spoke with Salles, screenwriter Jose Rivera, and stars Garrett Hedlund (Neal Cassady / Dean Moriarty) and Sam Riley (Jack Kerouac / Sal Paradise) about the process of bringing On The Road to the screen and how they approached the characters and narrative of the story in the film.
“It was a very unique process – one that allowed us to have access to the scroll, the original version that Kerouac wrote in 1951,” said Salles. “That version was so different from the published one. It started in the following manner: ‘I first met Dean not long after my father died.’ But in the published version, it started with the line, ‘I first met Dean after I divorced my first wife.’”
And it was that small but important difference, said the director, that formed (and informed) his particular vision for the film.
“It was a completely different starting point for that character [in the scroll],” he explained. “In one case, you have a more innocent, younger narrator who has gone through a loss that will propel him forward, and it creates the possibility of these young men who meet at the beginning of the story to have a common territory: their missing fathers.”
“And as the story unfolds and the scope is developed over that five-year span, the resonance of this motif only grows, to the point where at the end of the story they’re confronted with the necessity of themselves being fathers,” he continued. “Dean is becoming a father in a very literal standpoint, but his restlessness continues. And on the other hand, Sal is trying throughout those four or five years to father a book.”
And it was that father-and-son motif that became the core of the film, according to Salles – along with a focus on the original “scroll” version of the story that Kerouac had written on pages of paper taped together rather than the published version of the book, which gave pseudonyms to many of the real-life literary figures named in the book (i.e., Neal Cassady became “Dean Moriarty” and Kerouac became “Sal Paradise”) and changed various other elements, too.
“When I read the scroll version, it became clear that Kerouac’s original version of this story had more of an edge to it,” said Rivera. “It was more dangerous. It was more sexual. There was more drug use, and they were experimenting and living in a way more passionately in the scroll. And that felt like the right tone for the story.”
Arguably one of the most important – and tricky – elements of any successful adaptation is capturing the right tone for the characters that brings them to life without straying too far from what exists in the source material. With an adaptation of On The Road, however, the waters become even more difficult to navigate due to the characters’ status as fictional stand-ins for real-life people. The availability of countless photographs, audio and video recordings of Kerouac, Cassady, and the rest of the story’s real-world counterparts proved both good and bad for the film’s cast and creative team.
“I read everything I could on Neal and watched all the videos I could,” said Hedlund. “I watched video of him and Allen Ginsberg hanging out, and all of the footage from the Merry Pranksters. But what we really used from all of that research was the stuff from Neal’s childhood more than anything else. Walter made a huge point when he told me, ‘You’re not playing Neal Cassady. You’re playing Dean Moriarty.’ He told us to strip it all away, because when Kerouac wrote this, he wrote it half through personal experience and half through imagination. We had to understand everything and then tear it apart so that we could keep the spontaneous style of the book and live these moments and be able to improvise every day while we were filming.”
“I needed to be Sal, and not think of myself as Jack Kerouac,” agreed Riley. “That would be quite a burden on me psychologically. But it helped that there’s not nearly as much out there of these people when they’re in their early 20s, which is when the story takes place. Walter sent me CDs of Jack talking later in life, and there’s a lot of that, which helped. But this story comes before the fame and the alcoholism and the Jack Kerouac we all know.”
For Rivera, the distinction between writing for the real-life characters and their fictionalized counterparts manifested in a screenplay that had elements from both versions of the figures mingling in the film.
“With Neal Cassady, I felt that Jack had been so conscientious about capturing his voice that all I had to do was allow Jack to speak for himself,” said Rivera. “So for Neal’s character, I relied on the character Kerouac had written.”
“For the Kerouac character, however, I felt like Jack had diminished himself as a character in the story,” he explained. “The Sal Paradise we find on the page is more passive and more of an observer than I imagine the real Kerouac was. From what I understand, the real Kerouac was more intense and loved to talk and things like that. So when I did my research, I focused more on the historical Kerouac and the fictional Neal Cassady.”
No stranger to bringing the lesser-known years of famous figures to life, Salles found more than a few similarities in the experience of making “The Motorcycle Diaries” and that of “On The Road,” and he wasn’t alone.
“[With ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’] we tried to forget the mythological figure of ‘Che’ and focus on the young Ernesto,” he explained. “And Gael García Bernal did that brilliantly. He was an example for Garrett to find his own voice in this very charged terrain and be truthful to it.”
“The only way to be truthful to those young men is to feel the questions they were feeling,” Salles told IFC. “They had no certitudes at that point and were rambling in different directions in order to seek all the possible forms of freedom that would allow them to find a future for themselves at a time when it was difficult to do so.”
”On The Road” hits theaters December 21. The film stars Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, and Kristen Stewart, and is directed by Walter Salles from a screenplay by Jose Rivera.