On the Road poster image: © 2012 IFC Films & Sundance Selects.
Actors Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, and director Walter Salles have a number of things in common. Some of their similarities are run-of-the-mill—for example, they all like to play pool and are all very attractive gentlemen. One thing they share, however, is quite special: each played an important role in the lengthy process of translating Jack Kerouac‘s novel On the Road from book to film for the first time ever.
In addition to Riley and Hedlund, Salles’ On the Road stars Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, and Viggo Mortensen.
Last month, I had the chance to attend roundtable discussions with Salles, Riley, and Hedlund about the experience of bringing On the Road to life.
When he took the job in 2004, Salles knew that whether the film “was ever gonna be made…was a big question always.” Salles added: “It was so long that we never knew if it was going to become a reality or not.” In fact, Salles explained, On the Road did not get its financing—”from independent producers in Europe”—until 2009.
Those years of uncertainty, however, were not wasted. Instead, Salles and others did “extensive” background research into the book’s times and characters. According to Salles, this research—which included meeting and interviewing still-living characters and the families of those no longer living— “allowed us to understand the complexities of the characters, and eventually [to] go beyond the book.”
Just before filming began in 2012, Salles also held a four-week “Beatnik Bootcamp” for the cast to bond with each other and with their respective characters. In Salles’ opinion, this gave everyone “a much better understanding of who the characters were before we started the film,” and “allowed us to sometimes improvise in the logic of those characters.” Salles told us that, for the cast:
Those four weeks were about being as informed as [possible]…and then…forgetting everything and finding their own paths into this material…. The only way to serve a book is to capture the essence of [it]. … [And the cast's ability to improvise] was the best possible way to [do] justice to this very improvisational, jazz-infused narrative.
Riley shed more light on “Beatnik Bootcamp,” explaining:
I thought when they said ‘Beatnik Bootcamp’ that we were going to be doing press-ups while reciting poetry or something like that. (laughs) But it was kind of like going back to school. We had an apartment in Montreal where [we'd go] everyday…at nine o’clock in the morning, and we’d have biographers come and talk to us, and people that knew [those who inspired our characters]. We watched documentaries, we listened to jazz, we rehearsed a little bit, and read and…researched the time.
But merely to know the history was not enough. As Hedlund explained, each cast member’s understanding of their respective character was equally important:
At the beginning of filming, Walter said to Sam, “You’re not playing Jack Kerouac; you’re playing Sal Paradise,” and to me, “You’re not playing Neal Cassady; you’re playing Dean Moriarty. So, let the un-peeling process begin because when Kerouac wrote this it was half experience and half imagination, and so feel free to let your imagination take the reins and infuse it with the spontaneous spirit of the book.”
Casting also took nearly five years. Kirsten Dunst— “the first actress invited for On the Road” —was attached to the project since sometime in 2005. According to Salles:
Meeting…Carolyn Cassady was very important to inform the ‘Camille’ role. She’s a woman of great intelligence and sensitivity…and I wanted her to be played by an actress that would not only be extremely talented and precise, but also who had the same degree of intelligence and sensitivity. Therefore the invitation for Kirsten.
Kristen Stewart joined the project two years later. Salles told us that Stewart was recommended to him by a friend, director Alejandro Iñárritu, based on her performance in Sean Penn‘s Into the Wild (2007):
He said “there’s this incredible young actress that you should consider for ‘Marylou’…because there’s something very impactful about her in the film. She appears in the last third of the film, but you stay with her—there’s an echo of her presence that is really long-lasting.”
Stewart won Salles over during their first meeting, impressing him with her knowledge of On the Road and her “in-depth understanding of the book and the character.” From that point on, Salles said, “during all those years, [Stewart] remained tied to the project and wanting to do it. That says a lot about her, I think.”
When asked what he enjoyed most about being a part of On the Road, Hedlund replied: “Working with Walter—who I think is the greatest of the great—and all the cast members were undeniable company. I think it was unfair to be able to have this great an experience.”
Riley expressed similar sentiments about his castmates, saying: “I worked with a lifetime’s worth of great actors in one film.”
Mar. 22, 2013