‘Lawless’ director John Hillcoat talks about Nick Cave, on-set fights, and Guy Pearce’s hair

John Hillcoat’s breakout movie “The Proposition” was a gritty Western set in the Australian outback written by postpunk legend and Bad Seed Nick Cave. The movie was a critical hit, and soon Hollywood came knocking. His follow-up movie was the screen adaptation of Cormac MacCarthy’s bleak masterpiece “The Road,” starring Viggo Mortensen.

Hillcoat’s latest movie “Lawless,” again penned by Cave, is a two-fisted gangster tale set in the backwoods of Virginia during Prohibition. The movie is based on the true-life bootlegging exploits of the Bondurant brothers as detailed in bestselling book “The Wettest County in the World” and stars Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, and Jessica Chastain. While the movie features the requisite amount of violence, fisticuffs, and manly comradery — Hardy somehow manages to make a cardigan sweater look badass — “Lawless” is also striking for the depth and strength of its female characters, a rarity in the gangster genre. Jessica Chastain, as always, is particularly good as Maggie, an ex-dancer who sees through Hardy’s character’s flinty exterior. But the real standout of the movie is Guy Pearce who plays Charlie Rakes, a corrupt sheriff/dandy sociopath who loves flamboyant suits, fine cologne, and sadism. There have been few villains in recent years more fun to root against than Rakes.

The movie’s distributor, the Weinstein Company, has high hopes for this movie come Oscar season, and given its track record, it might very well get some. My bet would be on Pearce for best supporting actor.

I had a chance to talk to John Hillcoat recently. He speaks in a very careful, measured manner as if weighing each of his words, though when the conversation turned to Cave, he became very animated, talking about him with obvious affection. We discussed Cave’s contribution to the movie, a rumored fistfight between Hardy and LaBeouf, and the Guy Pearce’s hair.

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Jonathan Crow: I very much enjoyed the film. It’s a lot of fun. How did you get attached to it?

John HillcoatJohn Hillcoat: I had two things that were very attractive. One was the story’s female characters and their relationships. To see love stories like ones in the movie in this genre is refreshing.

I love genre films, but I like to try and find something fresh about them. Movies about Prohibition are always set in Chicago city or Atlantic City or some city. I haven’t really seen what was going on behind the scenes in the backwoods.

JC: This movie did actually remind me of other films like “Bonnie and Clyde” and the original “Scarface.” What were your influences on this film, visually, in making it?

JH: Well, both of those were big influences. The sort of larger-than-life characters played by Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson have really inspired [Guy Pearce’s character] Charlie Rakes. And yeah, I haven’t seen a gangster film set in the countryside since “Bonnie and Clyde” actually.

We were trying to get this made in 2008 when the global recession hit. The studios didn’t want to make it, but they said that if we set it in that city, they’d finance it. So, there it goes, whatever is more familiar.

JC: So, this is the third movie you’ve worked with Nick Cave. And it seems that he segued into a screenwriter pretty successfully. What is your relationship with Nick Cave, and how did he approach this?

JH: Well, I’ve known Nick since I was a teenager, and we’ve worked together. I’ve worked on his music videos, and he’s worked on my movies, and we were good friends. Our children are good friends. In fact, he has a cameo in the movie as a dead gangster.

JC: I didn’t catch that.

JH: Well, that’s the extent of his acting ability. It’s just a great collaborative thing that we’ve developed over the years. I didn’t actually think he could write a script. Neither did he. And it was only being frustrated by wanting to do a score for an Australian Western — an idea I’ve had for years. And finally, I just asked him to do an outline. Afterward, we would get a professional screenwriter to write the dialogue and do the rest. But once he got started, it just came naturally.

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JC: His songs feel like little stories. So, do you think the storytelling qualities of his songs fed into this?

JH: Exactly! That’s it exactly. He’s very good with words as well. He’s got a great ear for dialogue and a visual imagination. Yeah, so I think it’s exactly that he’s always been a narrative songwriter and a talented lyricist. So yeah, it’s a natural progression. He watches films in his free time, and I listen to music in my free time. Maybe there’s something there as well.

JC: So I hear on set, Tom Hardy and Shia were very much in the spirit of the Bondurant boys. There has been talk that they actually got into a fistfight. Is that true?

JH: Let me say that it was a great experience for all of us that as we were — we became like a family. They really were passionate and inspired by the material and took the characters to heart. And often, it happens on film set, the off-screens starts to reflect the on-screen. When Shia was very much impressed by Tom and Jason [Clarke], and there was this kind of, like, this challenging brotherly thing that starts going on with him. But yeah, there was a tussle, but it wasn’t quite the thing that was described. It’s a bit out of hand, but nothing too crazy.

guy pearceJC: One of the standouts of the film is Guy Pearce’s character Rakes. How did you talk him about the character? How did you come up with that look, especially his hair?

JH: Yes, the hair actually, literally, could come from a photo reference from that time.

JC: Really?

JH: The look was also inspired by Nick Cave’s hair, the way that he dyes it all the time, and his love of suits. And so, there was a bit of Nick in there, and Guy also brought a lot. We were very keen, all mutually keen, to see Guy do something more flamboyant because he’s usually so subtle and nuanced. This was a more extravagant character — a narcissist and a sociopath who has no real empathy or connection to the rest of humanity. And we thought that was fascinating. Initially, the real character of Rakes was a badass definitely. He did those things, and the brothers ended up taking him out, but there was a lot of added stuff that Guy and Nick and myself brought to it.

JC: There’s already some buzz about Oscars for this movie, especially Guy Pearce’s. What do you think?

JH: It would be a wonderful thing for Guy because he is so revered by so many actors, and he is so versatile and so impressive. I was thrilled that he got the Emmy after “Mildred Pierce,” but that was his very first ever acknowledgement or award. But yes — it would be wonderful for Guy or the other cast members to get that recognition.

See a clip from “Lawless”:

“Lawless” Clip: Shake Me Down

Follow me on Twitter (@jonccrow)

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August 2012

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