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Director John Hillcoat Discusses Bringing ‘Lawless’ From Script To Screen

Director John Hillcoat made a strong impression with film fans with “The Proposition” and “The Road”. His latest film is no less captivating. ‘Lawless’ marks the director’s third collaboration with Nick Cave, which has been adapted from the 2008 novel “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant.  ‘Lawless’ is the true story of the infamous Bondurant Brothers: bootlegging siblings who made a run for the American Dream in Prohibition-era Virginia. In this epic gangster tale, inspired by true-life tales of author Matt Bondurant’s family in his novel “The Wettest County in the World,” the loyalty of three brothers is put to the test against the backdrop of the nation’s most notorious crime wave. The film features an all-star cast which features Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska and Dane DeHaan. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with director John Hillcoat to discuss his journey and evolution as a filmmaker, the challenges involved with bring ‘Lawless’ from script to screen and much more! 

John Hillcoat

I wanted to give our readers a little background on you. What originally intrigued you about the world of filmmaking and made you pursue it as a career?

How did this all begin? I had the great fortune of seeing loads of films in the ‘70s in America and Canada when I was growing up. These worlds, to be honest, were always too big and I was always in awe of the cinema of the experience. I never dreamed I would end up doing what I am doing. I was involved in fine arts and even a bit of animation way back when. I then decided to go to film school. The pictures and drawings started to be replaced by live action and people. I guess I just found fine arts and animation to be too isolating. I went to film school in Melbourne. It was a place that you had to do a little bit of everything because there were very few resources. I was very fortunate to have a gifted lecturer expose me to even more films from all around the world, different times, places and cultures. I probably learned more from that than anything. From there, I got involved with music videos which eventually led to me making my first film!

Who are your biggest professional influences who inspired you along the way?

There are so many! Peter Weir was someone who gave me great advice along the way. That was wonderful. His early films in Australia were a great inspiration. My friendship with Nick Cave and the collaborations with music and film have been terrific. Nick shares a love of film and watches more movies than anyone else I have ever come across and now it is TV! He watches TV because there are so many wonderful things coming out from the cable networks. I was inspired from a distance by American filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola — the people who rewrote cinema in the 1970s. I have quite a wide range of interests. I love documentaries because I love research, so that is another huge aspect to everything I do. Really, writers and musicians are those that I have had the longest relationships with. The filmmakers in America were very inspirational when I made my first movie, “The Road.” People like David Fincher, Paul W.S. Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and etcetera. They were very inspiring and helpful when it came to advice and feedback.

Your latest project is “Lawless.” What attracted you to this project?

I love the genres of gangster films and westerns. “Lawless” was really a combination of both, where the west ends and the era of the gangster begins. Really, it came from the book, which was steeped in research, which I loved. Then I took the book to Nick Cave and it sort of took off from there. I had been looking for a gangster film for a long time but what was most refreshing about it was that it broke a lot of the rules. It was set in the countryside and tells the story where the police are the gangsters in terms of the corruption at that time and there are a lot of reversals of the traditional gangster film model.

What was the biggest challenge for you on this particular project?

It started as a studio film and when we hit the budget crisis, the budget for the film dropped dramatically from in the 30s to all the way down to 21 million, yet the script did not change. If anything, it got bigger! Really, it was a logistical challenge. I never had less time to prep and shoot a film.

How did you prepare yourself to tackle this film stylistically? How challenging is it to shoot a period piece in an ever-evolving modern world?

That is absolutely a challenge! We were fortunate to find so many vintage car collectors in Georgia. We also had weather challenges. We needed to find the areas of America that had the right ingredients. We ended up building the set on location. The landscape was the most critical element. The problem with going forth in American film is you have to go where the rebates are but, even so, we went up to the Carolinas to scout. There were so many mobile homes and modern things in sight, that it took us to Georgia where there were remote towns and locations where you wouldn’t see parts of the modern world.

There is no shortage of talent in this film. What can you tell us about the cast and what they brought to the table to bring the whole thing to life?

A Must See Film!

That is a big question! I was totally thrilled with the cast that we got and each of them brought something very special. With Mia [Wasikowska], in addition to being a great actress has a wonderful face of that time and world of a secluded religious community of the South — there is a real innocence there. Shia LaBeouf was the first one aboard. He was so brimming and enthusiastic. Much like the character, he wanted everything at once and couldn’t sit still! There was that quality in the character of Jack that I think translated really well. Jessica [Chastain] and Tom [Hardy] have this beautiful complicated relationship, like they are two damaged souls coming together. They are so brilliant at exploring their vulnerable sides. Jason Clarke has a real physicality to everything he does, whereas Tom had a very distilled manner. There were points where he wouldn’t say and do anything for so long. We all looked at each other and realized that he brought this incredible distillation into the process. He also brought the idea of the matriarch and ran with in an audacious way. It was brilliant, the idea of this mother hen protecting the coop. Dane Dehaan had such a superb, youthful innocence and vulnerability that was quite heartbreaking. Gary [Oldman] and Guy [Pearce] had the courage to really let loose with this and do things they had never done before. Guy works from the outside in, so the outrageous choices of dress and hair started to come forward from Guy very early on. Of course, Gary is the ultimate chameleon. Together, they personified the outrageousness of Chicago in that era, the larger than life Jimmy Cagney types. We had a terrific cast and I could go on and on. All of these people were quite impressive. They are from all around the world and came together to form a very close-knit, small community for the film. That was quite an impressive feat.

You have quite a few projects under your belt at this point. How do you feel you evolved as a director through the years?

John Hillcoat

Wow! That is a tough one. I would certainly like to work more frequently. That is something I am working on. In the future, I hope the gaps will be not as long between projects. That is one great evolution! I have grown up loving the great genres of American cinema. Now that I am living in America, I would love to do something contemporary. I have learned a lot about working with actors. They inhabit the characters and can teach you more about them than anyone because they personify those characters. I have also learned a lot about action, which is a whole different skill set to direct. You are always picking stuff up. I have become attracted to these ambitious, extreme other worlds where the stakes are quite high. I would love to do a sci-fi film. I want to keep going in a direction where you can do a genre film but try to find something fresh about them and have characters that are fresh in them. That is an increasing challenge!

Thank you very much for your time today, sir! We will spread the word and look forward to everything you bring to the screen in the future!

Thank you, Jason!