The journey to bring “On the Road” to the bigscreen has taken so many twists and turns and stops and starts that comparing the effort to the cross-country treks depicted in Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novel is practically unavoidable. In a way, the delay has worked in the fabled project’s favor. Had a movie been made in the immediate aftermath of the book’s publication in 1957, when it was a white-hot literary sensation, it would have undoubtedly served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of sex, drugs and bebop.
Now, 55 years later, with festgoers poised to see Walter Salles’ highly anticipated cinematic treatment in Cannes, where it’s screening in competition, the film version of Kerouac’s sprawling search for adventure and enlightenment will be shown in a much more permissive climate than the Eisenhower era from which it sprang.
Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera not only sourced the novel for their story, but also were informed by letters between Kerouac and his fellow beats as well as the original scroll from 1951, when Kerouac wrote the bulk of his novel, using the names of the actual figures on which the characters were based. The shooting script does not flinch from the more homoerotic aspects that were excised from the book originally published by Viking Press.
“It’s much rawer and unbelievably modern and contemporary and bold,” says Rebecca Yeldham, a producer on the film. “I think it’s impossible for the real-life figures not to weigh into the (actors’) interpretation, because they are so iconic themselves.”
Ironically, it took a French production company, a Brazilian director, a Puerto Rican screenwriter and two Brits playing key roles to bring this quintessentially American saga to life as a movie.
Paris-based MK2, the driving force behind the current production along with Salles, saved “On the Road” from being paved over when the bottom fell out of the independent film market during the height of the economic meltdown in 2008.
“It was quite a big budget,” recalls Charles Gillibert,” producer on the $25 million feature and a principal at MK2. “We did a lot of work with Walter and Rebecca to reduce it so that it made sense.” The film has been sold in all major territories except Asia and Spain. Sundance Selects/IFC Films will distribute in the U.S.
The cast is made up of a combination of up-and-comers and established veterans, including Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund as the central characters Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, respectively, and “Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart as Marylou. Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams and Tom Sturridge also play key roles.
“We always had the intention of breaking relative newcomers,” says Yeldham. “We wanted Sal and Dean to be played by actors that we would discover with those parts.”
One of the challenges, apart from capturing the essence of Kerouac’s rhapsodic language, with its jazz-inspired prose and beatnick colloquialisms, is portraying Moriarty, a whirlwind of manic energy and muse to Paradise, as an empathetic figure.
A mirror image of real-life figure Neal Cassady – with Paradise as Kerouac’s alter ego – Moriarty is an inveterate hustler, relentless con man and serial adulterer. In a way, the novel traces Paradise’s growing disillusionment with this increasingly mad character.
The trailer, which has generated more than 900,000 hits on YouTube, suggests Moriarty as capable of recognizing the consequences of his actions, even repentance, not a quality that can be gleaned from the novel.
If the project has assumed an aura of futility associated with other never-adapted classics like “Catcher in the Rye” and “What Makes Sammy Run?” it’s certainly earned the distinction. At least three studios were involved in the initial efforts to tap Kerouac’s brand of cool before Francis Ford Coppola, “Road’s” executive producer, bought the rights in 1978.
Marlon Brando was said to have expressed interest, and Kerouac reportedly courted the actor. “I think Kerouac was basically frustrated over all the years by not having more done with his work theatrically,” says novelist and screenwriter Barry Gifford, who took a crack at the screenplay in the early ’90s and co-authored “Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac.” “I know he complained to his friends about it. And he died practically broke.”
Only “The Subterraneans” (1960), a watered-down version of Kerouac’s 1958 novella that substituted a black woman in an interracial romance with a French gamine played by Leslie Caron, was made during the writer’s lifetime. “Route 66,” the 1960-64 TV series, was considered a spiritual offspring of “On the Road.” When Kerouac tried to sue the producers for plagiarism, his lawyers advised him that there was insufficient cause, according to film critic and scholar David Sterritt, author of “Mad to be Saved: The Beats, the ’50s and Film.
After Coppola came on the scene, at least a half-dozen screenwriters, including the producer himself, son Roman, Michael Herr, who wrote the Vietnam memoir “Dispatches,” and Gifford took a crack at the screenplay, with a handful of directors also looped into the process.
Coppola and American Zoetrope producer Tom Luddy approached Gifford in the early ’90s to write a screenplay based on the strength of Gifford’s road saga “Wild at Heart,” which David Lynch made into a 1990 movie. “They liked my dialogue in my novels, and they thought I had captured the zeitgeist of the time with (‘Heart’s) Sailor and Lula,” Gifford says. “And it just went from there.”
A 1995 casting call in New York drew thousands of actors, with Coppola, flanked by Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx in “On the Road”), greeting every single hopeful.
Gifford, who was eventually recalled as a consultant on the current film, working with actors when shooting began in Montreal, initially told Coppola that “Road” “had to be synthesized. You couldn’t keep going back and forth across the country like this willy-nilly.”
He pitched the filmmaker on a treatment that would frame the story within “the social changes in America following World War II” that “limns the Old Testament theme of fathers and sons,” referring Moriarty’s search for his vagrant father in the book. Coppola the producer would eventually decide he couldn’t serve as director, too.
“When you (direct) a project, you have to be insanely anxious to do it and madly in love with it and what you have in mind,” Coppola tells Variety. “And despite its great importance, I never felt I was right for it.”
Coppola, Gifford and Zoetrope president at the time Fred Fuchs agreed that the best person to direct was Gus Van Sant on the strength of such films as “My Private Idaho” and “Drugstore Cowboy,” in which beat avatar William Burroughs played a role. Van Sant worked with Gifford on script revisions, and the project was set up at Columbia/Tri-Star, with Gareth Wigan as the studio’s supervising producer.
Unbeknownst to Gifford at the time, the studio commissioned novelist Jim Harrison, whose novella “Legends of the Fall” was adapted and released by Columbia in 1994, to do a rewrite. According to Gifford, Harrison told the studio, “No, it’s perfect; just shoot it the way it is.” But the venture went south when Coppola and the studio parted ways over differences on a more lavish production Coppola was planning to direct, “Pinocchio.”
Around the early 2000s, Russell Banks, the author of such novels as “The Sweet Hereafter,” was recruited by then-American Zoetrope’s head of production, Linda Reisman, to tackle the screenplay (Reisman produced “Affliction,” based on Banks’ book). Besides the challenge of adapting such a “subjective and interior book” told entirely from the p.o.v. of narrator Paradise, Banks felt it important to tell the story in the context of what came after.
“It’s really the last of the postwar-era novels,” Banks explains. “It’s before the Civil Rights movement, before Vietnam, before the assassinations of the ’60s. That story could never be told after those events in the same way.”
I was trying to show what happened later makes us think very differently about what happened before. And getting in a car, driving across the country and smoking some pot and having sex with black women and listening to jazz is not that exciting after 1971 or ’72.”
Taking this into consideration, Banks bookended his script with an incident from his own life when Kerouac showed up at his house in Chapel Hill, N.C. with a bunch of young acolytes in 1967, two years before he died. “I was in my middle 20s and I saw him not as the King of the Beats but as this sad and really fucked up man who had been a genius certainly but who was now somebody else.”
Banks wrote it so that the older Kerouac tells the story in flashback. “Kerouac was quite aware of playing that line between fiction and autobiography, and so I didn’t see any reason not to do the same with the film.”
Eventually Joel Schumacher was attached to direct, according to various accounts, with such actors as Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup and Colin Farrell, whom Schumacher directed in “Tigerland,” said to be in discussions for the leads. But once again, those best-laid plans fell through. (Schumacher declined comment for this article.)
“Francis (Coppola) has a kind of Platonic ideal of this movie in his mind,” surmises Banks, “and anytime you get concrete and specific and get it down on paper, it doesn’t live up to what he’s imagined.”
It wasn’t until Salles, who had directed another road movie based on real-life figures, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” came on the scene in 2004, that the project began to gel. “(Zoetrope) fell in love with ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ and saw the connection with ‘On the Road,'” recalls Yeldham. “When Walter was ultimately approached, he really felt strongly that to take this on, he needed to dive into that world exhaustively. That in part explains why the development process was so attenuated.”
Salles would end up criss-crossing the U.S. three times in his research, following the same routes taken by Kerouac and company starting in 1947, and, says Yeldham, “met every surviving beat (figure) and the real-life (people) behind the characters in the book, some of whom are still alive.” This filmed documentation “not only informs the screenplay development and Walter’s vision for the film, but also to chronicle his process,” which is a documentary in the making, says Yeldham.
For Coppola, Salles’ “fire and ice” determination sealed the deal. “That was in fact the magic ingredient,” says Coppola, “not the actual script or what was left out or what was included.”
But the complications did not end there. French production entity Pathe was in protracted discussions with the filmmakers for years before finally pulling out in 2008 over budget differences.
A a factor in Pathe getting cold feet, says Yeldham, was an economy that was in free fall. “It was right in that moment of economic collapse and tremendous instability in the specialty film world,” she recalls. “We were doing everything we could to crunch our budget down, but the bottom just kept falling out.”
In January of 2010, Salles traveled to MK2’s Paris offices with Rivera’s script. “One month later,” Gillibert says, “we were in discussions in Los Angeles with Roman Coppola.” The movie started shooting that summer.
Gillibert says that when the company began presales at Cannes in May 2010, part of the challenge was convincing buyers that the project, long thought snakebit, was actually going forward. “We would tell people ‘we are shooting this summer; it’s happening now,” recalls Gillibert. “And people (would respond), ‘Are you sure?’ ”
The question that remains is whether contemporary audiences will embrace a story their parents and grandparents deemed essential to their formative years. According to Viking/Penguin Classics, the novel has sold roughly five million copies to date over all formats and editions in America, and, by most accounts, that figure would be doubled for worldwide sales. In recent years, the publisher has sold about 65,000 copies a year, not including the scroll edition in 2007 that sold 120,000 units.
MK2 is releasing the film May 23 in France, while Sundance Selects/IFC is eying a fall release in the U.S..
“This is a movie that’s not only a beautifully crafted auteur film, it’s also got huge interest that spans multiple demographics with great youth interest because of this gorgeous young cast and because of the topicality of the story,” Yeldham says.
“And it’s young people in search of the essence of experience and in every permutation of life and excess that comes with that. So It’s not your traditional specialty film.”