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James Franco & Joseph Gordon-Levitt Auditioned For The Leads In ‘On The Road’ & More From Screenwriter José Rivera

by Rodrigo Perez
October 29, 2012 4:19 PM
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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.

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."

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."

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  • Franco'stheman | October 30, 2012 11:09 PMReply

    Franco is extremely talented very true and can play any type of role too. Gosh, I'm now wondering what it would have been like with Franco and Gordon-Levitt. Talk about a different level of excitement. I hope Franco and Gordon-Levitt undertake a movie together soon. The future is bright with these two.

  • Atasi | October 30, 2012 1:29 PMReply

    Franco is indeed a very talented actor!!

  • carlota | October 30, 2012 9:49 AMReply

    Hedlund and Riley are perfect as Dean and Sal, it's an inspiring casting, while Kristen Stewart is just a box office draw. But it looks like her star power is not working since the film is not doing good box office numbers.

  • Sam | October 31, 2012 12:19 PM

    Lay off Stewart. She was cast when she was 16 and way before Twilight so there was no box office factor at play. She remained committed to the film, participated in immense preparation with her costars, and her chemistry with both Riley and Hedlund carry their scenes together quite nicely. Not many actresses of her generation would have played the scenes and Marylou as raw as she did.

  • Liz | October 30, 2012 1:50 PM

    It's not even out the the U.S. so I don't know what you're talking about

  • noemi | October 30, 2012 9:23 AMReply

    Salles had the best casting in the moive. In what world would Levitt look like Moriarty? Please. Garrett Hedlund is the perfect Dean, subtile and electrifying. Those who saw the film knows that. Franco and Levitt are not suited to the parts just because they're more known, Franco has not the vulnerability required for Sal.

  • Pops | October 30, 2012 9:07 AMReply

    Levitt as Dean would have been a disaster. He looks Asian, Moriarty is a German descent blond, blue eyed guy. So thankful he has not been cast. Kristen Stewart is annoying as Marylou actually, why not someone more delectable to the eyes? She has no range, looks like a boy trying to convince as a sexy little sixteen. Ridiculous.

  • also | October 30, 2012 5:57 AMReply

    Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were attached to play Old Bull Lee and Jane before Viggo and Amy Adams.

  • jingmei | October 30, 2012 1:39 AMReply

    Interesting trivia. Glad to have the actual ensemble cast, including Sam Riley, they are the real ones who are available, technically and really.

  • caleb | October 29, 2012 10:49 PMReply

    i always pictured franco playing the part of dean rather than sal. all the frenetic monologues are perfect material for him.

  • jasper | October 29, 2012 8:54 PMReply

    Thank goodness, James Franco was not hired. He is full of himself, and he is highly overrated. Now, Joseph Gordon Levitt can practically do anything.

  • DEAN | October 29, 2012 6:51 PMReply

    Could you guys post an actual review of the director's cut? The playlist and just about all the major trades just recylced their Cannes review as part of their TIFF coverage. Since there are significant changes in this cut, it's only fair that it gets it's own review. I've actually heard from several who've seen both versions of the film that the Toronto cut is much better.

  • Billy Diamonds | October 29, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    Wow, Franco and JGL? I wonder how much better that would be as opposed to watching Hedlund's dead eyes and drooling mouth trying to emote.

  • nelson | October 30, 2012 9:02 AM

    Franco auditioned for Sal idiot. Hedlund was the best thing in this movie. Riley and Stewart are the miscasting in this film. they're too bland and affected.

  • Alan | October 30, 2012 2:13 AM

    Does it even matter who plays Sal? The character is a literary construct, an author surrogate rather than a fleshed out or cinematic character. You could get anyone to play him and he would still seem passive and emotionally remote. My problem with the film is that the character works fine on the page because he essentially articulates our thoughts on the story's events and actions, but the same character doesn't engage us on screen because he doesn't go through the same obviously external or interpersonal conflict of the other characters until the very end. Hence, Sal just comes across as bored and dull in comparison to the other characters. I think there are two ways of 'fixing' the character: give him more conflict in the earlier parts of the story or ... not doing 'On The Road', at all. Not every great book needs to be a film, and - if they weren't going to change the material significantly - I don't see the point of doing the film at all.

  • camille | October 29, 2012 5:25 PM

    I know, would've been awesome really.

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