"Lawless" director John Hillcoat on violence, how Johnny Cash inspired his bootlegging action drama and whether Shia LaBeouf really decked Tom Hardy on set
John Hillcoat's high-octane action drama "Lawless" — about three bootlegging brothers from Prohibition-era Franklin County, Va. — has turned a neat trick.
Since debuting at the Cannes in May, the film has rescued the world of moonshine-making, fast-driving Southerners from Burt Reynolds' jokey "Smokey and the Bandit" movies, putting it in arthouses and classy film festivals via the Weinstein Company.
Despite mixed reviews, "Lawless" is an exuberant and violent genre mashup by a director whose last film was the brutally austere doomsday drama "The Road."
Born in Australia but largely raised in Canada and the U.S., Hillcoat collaborated with longtime friend and musician Nick Cave on the film. The script was written by Cave from the book "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant, a grandson and great-nephew of the brothers played by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke.
Also read: 'Lawless' Debuts to $1.1M for Weinstein Co.
Two days after arriving in Los Angeles from the set of a commercial he was filming in Romania, the jet-lagged director sat down with TheWrap to talk about why his movie, which opened Wednesday, has more to do with Johnny Cash than Burt Reynolds — and whether LaBeouf really punched out Hardy on set.
Nick Cave recently said that if you accept that beautiful movies can influence you to "hug your children," then you have to accept that violent movies can "inspire you to do bad things."
I disagree. I've really gone out of my way to look at the evidence and study this. And the problem is there in the first place with those individuals. Surely they will gravitate and find [violent] things, but we all should be careful not to put the cart in front of the horse.
They've done studies – and if anything, it's the more seductive imagery of advertising that can incite certain vulnerable individuals, as opposed to films that disturb. The sad thing is that the real issues of mental health, and alienated invididuals who need help, and gun laws and all those things, are the real core issues that continually get lost when the focus becomes on the media.
Doing that is diverting and distracting from what should be talked about.
With "Lawless," you were specifically looking to make a gangster movie …
Well, I love genres, and my two favorite ones are gangster films and westerns. My dream was to come to America and make a gangster movie. And I'd love to do a proper western at some point.
I'm not married to only those genres, but they're two of the great ones, particularly here in America. But the challenge with all genre is finding something fresh, reinventing it in some way. And what was great about (Matt Bondurant's) book is that it's actually both. It's where the western ends and the gangster begins.
The Appalachian hills have a tradition of outlaws and rebellion, but from the rural perspective. And they came together with the gangsters during Prohibition, for the biggest crime wave in history at that time.
Didn't the movie originally have a prologue that more explicitly tied that era to current times?
Yeah. We played around with that, and we decided that it was a little bit heavyhanded and was implied anyway within the material.
There are a lot of parallels, I think, to these times. The divide between the rich and the poor, the economic unrest, even the environmental catastrophes have been on the rise. And, of course, the failure of the war on drugs. There are many thematic things that still resonate.
When you're making a genre movie, is it necessary for you to find that connection to the current era?
Not really. But one of the things I love about genre is the way it keeps reinventing itself, and the way it can reflect and comment on the world that you're brought up in.
I was watching and enjoying that reinvention as a cinema-goer from a very young age. I grew up in America, and as a young kid the films of the late '60s and '70s really kind of impacted on me — filmmakers like Altman and Scorsese and Coppola and Arthur Penn. And yet I also loved the early films, like Cagney's "White Heat."
Tom Hardy's performance as Forrest is unique in how nonverbal it is. In the script, were a lot of his lines just grunts, or did that come from Hardy?
Well, in the book and in reality, the character was a man of few words. And yet Tom took it to a new level. It was a very audacious move, and a really brilliant one.
As the director, though, did you have moments of panic where you thought, We've got actual words in this script, but he's just grunting?
Yeah. I love to collaborate with actors, but there were definitely moments where it wasn't just me, it was everyone on the set and the other actors thinking, What the hell is he doing? But there's a boldness there, and taking risks sometimes pays off.
I have to ask you about a story I read. According to this account, Hardy was being a real tough guy with Shia LaBeouf on the set, reflecting the tension between their two characters. And at one point Shia hauled off and decked him.
[laughs] Well, I have to say, it was a very intense experience. We were like family, and there were scenarios where things happened offscreen that reflected what was happening onscreen. I think it's the nature of that intensive creative thing of filmmaking, when people are really committed and inspired.
So there's an element of truth to it. There were certainly, uh, times when Shia was … wrestling with Tom in various ways, like Jack was wrestling with Forrest. But it wasn't quite like you described.
Onscreen, moonshiners are best known as the subject of the jokey "Smokey and the Bandit" movies. Were you conscious of having to get out from under those associations?
Yeah. That's what I loved about the book. It was that world of bootlegging, and I'd always had that cliché in my mind. But because these were real characters, and Matt Bondurant is a great writer who really got under the skin of these characters, he made them vivid characters that weren't those hillbilly good-time clichés.
But all clichés have a truth to them, so we still have some of the outrageousness and the humor. I mean, these guys invented NASCAR.
When the characters hear music in the film, you use songs that are true to the period, like "The Cuckoo Bird." But the audience also hears old-sounding versions of more current songs, most notably the Velvet Underground's "White Light, White Heat" sung by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
Yeah, yeah. I think two things happened. [The Coen Brothers movie] "O Brother Where Art Thou" nailed the Appalachian-standards route, and we wanted to take a different approach. And we were very inspired by those last Johnny Cash albums, where he'd take modern songs and make them his own. His version of the U2 song "One," and even his version of [the 1988 Nick Cave song] "The Mercy Seat," feel like he wrote them and they came out of him.
Trent Reznor said "that song isn't mine anymore" after Cash recorded [the Nine Inch Nails song] "Hurt."
Yes, absolutely. Cash owned it. And we wanted to explore that idea of taking the icons of country music and bluegrass, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris, and yet have them sing this eclectic mix of songs. In a raw country way, but not too traditional.
And once we found the song "White Light, White Heat" and had Ralph Stanley sing it, for us that was a better way of making the point that there are parallels between the two eras. Clearly that song wasn't written about moonshine, and yet when you hear Ralph Stanley sing it you think, Of course it's about moonshine.