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Cannes: Walter Salles Talks The Long Journey To Make 'On The Road'

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 27, 2012 at 1:17PM

Given that the source material was once described by Truman Capote with the immortal epithet "That's not writing, that's typing," and is a generally unruly thing to adapt, it's not surprising that it's taken the best part of half-a-century to make a film of Jack Kerouac's beat classic "On The Road." Plans were in the works as early as the publication date in 1957 (Kerouac wanted to co-star in the film with Marlon Brando), and documentarian D.A. Pennebaker came close, but it's Francis Ford Coppola who's been the driving force, developing the project since the release of "Apocalypse Now" in 1979.
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Walter Salles, Viggo Mortensen, On the Road
Viggo Mortensen typically went above and beyond the call of duty, losing weight for his role and bringing his own authentic costume.
Many reviews have pointed to Viggo Mortensen's cameo as Old Bull Lee (the surrogate for William Burroughs) as one of the film's highlights. As ever, the "Lord of the Rings" star arrived on set having deeply immersed himself in research. "Viggo arrived in New Orleans," Salles said, "and he had not only lost 30 pounds to play the role but he also had made such extensive research in what Old Lee would wear. He brought the whole costume with him. The hat, the typing machines, there was even a second choice if we didn't like the first hat." The actor had even worked out the books that Burroughs would have been reading at the time, as it happens, about the Mayan Codes, and the work of French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine; an improvisation on the latter made its way into the final movie.

Salles cast Kristen Stewart as Marylou after seeing her in an early cut of "Into the Wild."
The casting of "Twilight" star Kristen Stewart in the film might have raised eyebrows, but Salles had made his decision long before the vampire franchise came into being, after being given her name by a couple of friends and collaborators. "Kristen Stewart was kind of a roll of the dice. Two friends, Alejandro González Iñárritu ('Amores Perros,' 'Babel') and Gustavo Santaolalla, the composer of 'The Motorcycle Diaries,' were invited by Sean Penn to see the first cut of 'Into the Wild,' and when they came back from Northern California, they said 'Listen, for Marylou, stop looking, because there's this great young actress that we've never seen before, and she's really unique, and very talented. We both think she's right for the role.' I remember writing down the name so I wouldn't forget, I had never heard the name. Then I met her and she was so passionate about the book and she knew it so well, she was so intelligent and sensitive that it became clear that she was right for the part and she was ready to really explore every single territory that that character does plunge in."

Sam Riley, Tom Sturridge, on the Road
If Salles could learn anything about more about Kerouac, it would have been about his time in the jazz scene in New York in the 1940s.
Salles has obviously become something of a Kerouac expert in recent years, but there are still elements of his life that remain a little mysterious. When asked what he would ask the writer if he got the chance, Salles responded that he'd like to know more about a relatively unknown period. "I would have loved to know from him what brought him in 1941 to accompany his roommate at Columbia, a guy called Jerry Newman, to go to places like Minton’s in Harlem and hear the first African-American jazz men playing the solos for the first time. Because when all of those great players, great musicians got to the Village, the word got spread and everybody had access to that. But to begin with, they were one of the very few to be there, and Kerouac was helping Jerry Newman who was a precursor of bootlegging, he was recording all of those artists as they were improvising for the first time. How was it to see the burgeoning of that extraordinary movement that would transform American culture? You know, we're in 1941. This comes way before the arrival of Jackson Pollock and the action painting, it's before the Actors Studio, it's before the new journalism of the Village Voice, and precedes the drawings of Jules Feiffer, this is a moment where accidental art was bifurcating somewhere else, and he witnessed that. How incredible was that? I would have probably asked him about that. There's even a Dizzie Gillespie song named Kerouac. But if you got to Gillespie’s biography which is 557 pages long there's not one word about Kerouac."

Interview by Aaron Hillis

This article is related to: On The Road, Walter Salles , Cannes Film Festival, Interviews


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