On The Road Jose Rivera

While the screenings were canceled last evening because of Hurricane Sandy, BAMCinematek’s IFC Sneaks was in full force on Friday and Saturday nights. Playing seven IFC Films pictures that won’t be in theaters until later this year or 2013 (Abbas Kiarostami's "Like Someone In Love" and Olivier Assayas' "Something In The Air” for example), on Saturday night, BAM and IFC Films unveiled the New York premiere of Walter Salles’ “On The Road.” Salles’ long-time-coming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novel was a five year work in progress, and on Saturday evening BAM screened the newly edited 124 minute version (the iteration that ran at Cannes was 2 hours and 20 minutes and some of the main criticisms of that version was its longwinded approach) that will open in theaters in December.

Starring Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley as Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise (stand ins for Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac), the picture also features supporting appearances by Kristen Stewart, Tom Sturridge, and actors Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and many more as various members of the Beat Generation circle, their wives, girlfriends and random travellers they meet while on their journeys of self-discovery.

While Walter Salles wasn't able to attend, arguably just as enlightening and gregarious was screenwriter/playwright José Rivera. The pen behind Salles’ celebrated “Motorcycle Diaries” (the film that convinced producer Francis Ford Coppola that he was the right man for the long-gestating “On The Road” project), Rivera was both forthright and entertaining, candidly sharing stories about the making of the film.

“It was a tough one. Just the sheer baggage that the book comes with is really huge,” Rivera admitted about adapting the influential novel. “The episodic nature of the book was a huge challenge, it has tons of digressions, secondary characters that never appear again. Finding a throughline was hard to sustain. The book is iconic, obviously and [also] one of the biggest challenges was just leaving the iconography of the book as far from the writing process as possible. To not be crushed by the tremendous love this book has generated over the years and its expectations. My first job, really, was to forget the entire body of criticism and adoration and controversy that the book brought with it and just examine the book as passionately as possible.” Here’s six highlights from his discussion about the movie below.

Riley OTR
1. Rivera and Salles' first decision was to not adapt the book, but the original, unedited Kerouac scroll that went on to become the basis for the published “On The Road” novel that most people know and cherish.
Rivera said one of the reasons they made that decision was because it would distinguish themselves from the previous eight versions of the screenplay that had been written -- one by Coppola, one by his son Roman Coppola, authors Russell Banks, Michael Herr, Barry Gifford, and so on. But the main reason was the scroll, in their minds, was much more definitive of Kerouac’s intentions, and much less sanitized than the published version. “The scroll was far edgier, it had a darker side to it, it was sexier,” he said, noting that some of the voice-over in the film comes straight from the original version. “Both the gay and straight sex in the scroll was far more intense than the published version. The drug use was more. Walter and I felt the scroll was the key into this whole thing.”

There was also the personal edge of the death of Sal Paradise’s father, mostly absent in the published version. “The scroll began with the death of his father, the known version began with a divorce and we thought the father [story] had a much more compelling emotional energy to it," he explained. "So in a lot of ways, when we were constructing the film -- the search for fathers, what fathers meant, Dean is looking for his literal father, Sal looking for a surrogate -- we thought that was the stronger emotional hook into the story."

Hedlund Riley Stewart Dunst OTR
2. While IMBD lists “On The Road” as the second collaboration between Rivera and Walter Salles, it’s actually their fifth.
Though the public only knows ‘Diaries’ and now “On The Road,” Rivera said he’s written three screenplays for Salles that have not been produced. One of them is an adaptation of Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" for producer Scott Rudin. “I know, I know,” he said with a laugh when some of the audience sounded audibly wowed. “Please write to Scott Rudin and tell him to make the fucking movie.” The other two unproduced screenplays were an adaptation of Philipp Meyer's "American Rust" (announced in 2009) and a continuation of the Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid story.

"One of Walter's big dreams was to tell the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in their South American years," Rivera said. "They fled the law and went to South America and were in Argentina in Patagonia. And so for five years or so they tried really hard to go straight. No bankrobbing, they raised cattle and chilled out in Argentina." But hardships forced them to change their plans, including the economic collapse of the cattle trade in Agentina (still a big part of that country's infrastructure) and the fact that Sundance's wife Etta Place was stricken with cancer. "So suddenly they needed money and they started robbing banks again," he said. "So my screenplay was about a U.S. Marshall [Martin Sheffield] who goes to Argentina to arrest them and bring them back."

Another obstacle to getting the movie made, might be that the story was very recently brought to the big screen in "Blackthorn" starring Sam Shephard (our review here).

As for "American Rust," Rivera compared it to a Cormac McCarthy novel and said it's set in depressed steel-town in Pennsylvania that's now full of meth labs and trailer trash. "Walter is very interested in examining the underbelly of the American dream, the rotting of the dream," he said. "And that book really captured that."