Walter Salles, Viggo Mortensen, On the Road

On the fifth floor of the Hotel deLuxe in Portland, Oregon, Walter Salles seems content to talk at length about cinema. But alas, two publicists, worried the loquacious “On the Road” director will miss his train up to Seattle for another round of press and screenings of his latest film, a long-in-the-works adaptation of the seminal beat novel by Jack Kerouac, had to cut the conversation off. As I packed up my recording equipment, Salles took the opportunity to politely discuss the proper sound levels for projecting the film to the two publicists.

He noticed at the prior night’s screening that the sound wasn’t right, and bemoaned the near ubiquitous use of digital projection at multiplexes these days. The soft-spoken Brazilian filmmaker is meticulous in his request that the sound be right the next time. Salles has invested a lot in “On the Road,” not least of which the many years he’s devoted to its fruition, and his attention to every detail is not lost on the publicists.

Now that the film is starting its slow roll out across the U.S. this Friday (check out our review), we wanted to share what we learned from our most recent interview with Salles, which we’ve summarized below:

Salles found a personal connection to the adaptation in the father leitmotif that he discovered in the original scroll.
“That’s something that’s always been at the heart of the films I’ve opted to do,” he said, noting he lost his father in 2001. Upon traveling to Kerouac’s birthplace in Lowell, MA, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera were lent a “perfect facsimile” of the original “On the Road” scroll. They noticed obvious differences right away in this rawer, more complex version, especially the first line, which was different than the one that had been published in 1957.

It centered on the death of Sal’s father, then meeting Dean Moriarty. “This triggered a whole different screenplay, and the story started to find its path then," Salles said. "The path became a little more clear."

On The Road Riley Hedlund

The other important themes to Salles – the ode to freedom, the passage from youth to adulthood, and the creative process – have their place in the film, but mostly stem from this search for the father. The characters, he added, are in search of Dean’s father, and they’re trying to be fathers themselves. Sal is trying to father a book and Dean is literally struggling with being a father. “An adaptation is first foremost about research and electing the themes that are important to you.”

We will get to see the full-length version of the documentary “In Search of On the Road”…eventually.
“I just need two months to work on it” Salles said, laughing. This documentary, about his process in bringing the book to the big screen that includes footage from the many road trips he and crew members re-created, interviews with creators of the Beat generation, personal reflections and archival footage, screened in a work-in-progress hour-long cut at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival (you can read our coverage right here).

“I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “The number of interviews with unique minds that we recorded in those 120 hours is something we’ll never be able to replicate. There’s historical value to that footage as well, since some of them are not with us anymore.”

He provided no other details as to when or how we will get to see the finished documentary, but we’re certainly keeping our eyes peeled for it.