Lawless is an American myth with its roots in the true story of the Bondurant brothers, outlaw moonshiners during the prohibition era. The film is an adaptation by John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, both of them Australian, both total outsiders to the world that they’re portraying.
This point of view seems to have helped them find the ideas and images that give the film its power.
Lawless is released on DVD and Blu-ray across the UK today so I took the opportunity to call up Hillcoat for a chat – both about this film and also two other projects he has coming along for the future. Here is some of what he told me.
I think most films, whether they are conscious of it or not, have a political element to them. In this case, particularly, yes, there is a political element to the film and I’m aware that when you do films about the past they relate to the state of things now. These were very turbulent times back, during prohibition, but I think the parallels to today are pretty obvious. Parallels in terms of trying to control illegal substances. The war on drugs began with the massive failure of prohibition. In my view, it’s still a massive failure.
I’m very interested in genre. With films, I’ve grown up loving the experience of being transported into other worlds. Genre is great at this as genre films have these already pre-existing worlds with rules you already know.
But genres do need to be reinvigorated in someway. I’m a big fan of music genres, like blues and folk, rock and electronic and how those genres blend – folk rock, country rock. I also love that in film.
And genre is interconnected with politics. Genres have mythic qualities. The idea in this case is that the lawman is the most dangerous villain in the piece and the people involved in illegal activities are building their own heroic myth. That myth also has its own limitations. Tom Hardy’s character believes the myth and we see how that ends – though not, as you would expect, in a hail of bullets. One of the things Nick [Cave] and I loved most about this story is this character who survived so much, and for him to end the story the way he does says so much. I was trying to play with the American Dream of living forever. I do feel that America thinks it can survive anything and live forever, but as we know, no empire is immortal.
I guess we were more conscious of certain things as outsiders. When you’re not an outsider you’re caught up in the belief systems of a culture. These characters and the conventions of this genre are taken a different way. There was a little bit of surprise in American at the lawman being so nasty and the locals doing illegal activities being so good. Some people didn’t quite get that irony. There’s more of a literalness when you’re not an outsider, maybe, because you can’t look at things from a distance.
Voiceover is always tricky. When dialogue exists in a scene, it’s in the here and now, the immediately present moment and that can tie you down to a point of view. The fact that voiceover seems to be after the fact, looking back on something, means the choices are more varied and therefore more debatable. With this voiceover, the problem was a question of getting the balance right and saying what needs to be said. And also, a voiceover is like an internal voice and it’s hard to get this right. And yet, so many of people’s favourite films have voiceover – Taxi Driver, Sunset Boulevard, Badlands.
I only recently discovered that I have very severe dyslexia. I see and understanding things visually much more, and also much more laterally and holistically, rather than linearly, like with a thread of words. This is one of the reasons I storyboard, instead of writing down shot lists which become very abstract and hard to pin down. As soon as there’s a picture I understand what that means. When I’m on location I can visualise immediately how things spatially and visually sit together.
Partly because of this my style is quite classical, and also because of some of my favourite films. I’ve been very influenced by the way cinema tells a story in the classical way. But then there are elements in my films which aren’t quite classical – like using White Light, White Heat in the middle of Lawless. Some of the details depart from the classical.
Triple Nine is financed and we’re trying to put a cast together, but it’s very ambitious and it’s a big ensemble. Trying to work with people’s schedules is exponentially harder than with your typical two-hander. It’s a contemporary crime thriller that looks at the crime landscape from the top right down to the bottom.
[I suggest it might be a little like Traffic] A little bit like Traffic, though that was specific to the parallel story between Mexico and the impact in America. And that was focusing in on two individuals and Triple Nine does not, it’s more of a tapestry. There is a protagonist, though the lines are blurred.
I’m actively working on getting a sci-fi project going. I like one foot in reality, so I like the idea of thinking about where we are in the midst of our technological evolution that’s on an exponential path. The cinema experience is of being transported into another world but the sci-fi I like the most is when you really believe in that world, and in a human story. The challenge is to find a human relationship to the vision, as opposed to that vision being purely abstract. I’m reluctant to say much more as I’ve yet to secure the story and I don’t want somebody else taking the idea and leaving me empty hand.
Here’s a Red Band trailer for the film.