Kerouac’s ‘Road': An American Classic Without Americans

Producer Yeldham: “There’s very little support here for literary, mature, sophisticated material for sentient grownup beings”

Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is one of the most celebrated works of 20th century American literature – but being an American classic doesn’t lead to American money, at least not in today’s rocky landscape for independent film.

“At the moment, there’s not a U.S. penny in this movie,” says producer Rebecca Yeldham, an Australian. “Which is so ironic, because it’s this iconic American classic, but it’s being made with the passion of foreigners.”

On the Road

Indeed, the film — which begins shooting in August — is a French/Canadian/Brazilian co-production, with its reported $25 million budget backing coming from foreign financiers, including the French production house MK2.

But it's not just a lack of American money.

Besides Yeldham ("The Kite Runner," "Anvil! The Story of Anvil"), who has lived and worked in the United States for years, the creative team includes Brazilian director Walter Salles and Puerto Rican screenwriter Jose Rivera, who previously collaborated on “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla. 

(Also credited as executive producers: Francis Ford Coppola, who tried to get the film made for 30 years, and whose American Zoetrope is producing along with MK2, Videofilmes and Film4; and Gus Van Sant, who had also attempted to get an adaptation off the ground.)

Even Sam Riley, who plays Sal Paradise, the Kerouac stand-in, is British. Though the cast, at least, does include a couple of American movie stars, Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst, and an up-and-coming leading man, Garrett Hedlund, who just might become a star after the release of “Tron: Legacy.”

So why such minute American involvement in a project that has status as “a classic text in American literary counterculture” (British critic Nicky Marsh) and a book that was “helping to change the course of American literature” (The New York Times Book Review).

The problem, says Yeldham, is that U.S. financiers don’t see an audience for smaller films. “There’s very little support here for literary, mature, sophisticated material for sentient grownup beings,” she says, laughing.

At the recent Produced By conference, a panel on financing independent film came to much the same conclusion: Without a lot of foreign money, you’re not going to get your movie made.

Cathy Schulman, the producer of “Crash,” called foreign money “always the biggest” element of an indie’s budget.  “First and foremost, you need that foreign sales piece,” said Schulman, who went overseas to finance all but $2 million of the $7 million budget for her upcoming film “Salvation Boulevard." She needed 30 separate individual equity investors to make up that final $2 million in the U.S.

The panel’s moderator, Lakeshore Entertainment chief Gary Lucchesi, agreed and cited examples of “District 9,” which he said was “made with foreign presales,” and “Underworld,” where $18 million of the $22 million budget came from foreign sales.

In other words, “On the Road” is not facing anything that most other indie movies don’t face as well.  It’s just that when you have to go outside the U.S. in order to make a quintessential American story, something feels … off. 

At least it won’t be shot entirely outside the United States — although most shooting will take place in Montreal, New Orleans is also on the list of locations.