“On The Road”
Roger Durling with Actors Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart
Roger Durling: Garret, you’ve been involved with this project from the get-go, how many years has it been?
Garrett Hedlund: Since 2007.
Durling: And I read that you gave up other opportunities with other films to be in this project. What was it that made you so adamant about being a part of it?
Hedlund: You’d be crazy not to, you know when Walter gave me this role, I thought it was one of the most incredible things that had ever happened to me. And also, you know, I was a big fan of the book. I read it for the first time, I was seventeen, and a lot of the other writers from the beats and just literature in general had such a huge influence on me. I felt that to be involved with something as iconic as this was an opportunity of a lifetime, really. And I could go as deep as I could in terms of research, I mean, we had time. The film wasn’t greenlit at the point when I signed on, so there was years of meeting the family members of the characters in the book. You know, Dean Moriarity was the alter ego of Neal Cassady, so I spent a lot of time with John Cassady, his son. I got to go to San Francisco and meet with some of the other beat writers and sit down with them. I spent a lot of time reading Kerouac and Cassady and all the letters, I read all of the writers that inspired them – Proust, and Nietzche and Wolfe. So it was, you know, really incredible.
Durling: And Kristen, you’ve also been involved with this project for a very long time, since, Into The Wild with Sean Penn?
Kristen Stewart: It was a little after that. I think it was in 2007, I was seventeen.
Durling: What was it that attracted you to this role?
Stewart: On The Road was my first favorite book. I read it as a freshman in high school. And then when I heard Walter was directing it I would have done anything to be involved. I would have been his assistant on it. I would have done craft service. The reason you love something, it’s so clear. I don’t even really remember the details of the initial conversation; I think I just drove away shaking. I mean I was fairly certain. Not necessarily that I would get the part, because it could have been decades and we still would have had to wait fifty years for it to begin, but that I wanted to commit to something like that. Which is obviously, at least the way I remember, so irresponsible of me. I wasn’t ready for that part yet, at all. I got involved when Garrett did, and if fifty years had gone by and we’d missed out then it would have been a really painful experience.
Durling: I had a question for Walter, and maybe you can answer this. Why did it take so long? I don’t know if everyone knows the history, but Francis Ford Coppola had the rights, correct?
Hedlund: Since 1979.
Durling: Did Walter share with you why it took so long to get the project going?
Hedlund: I mean it definitely wasn’t the natural arc that most films are made in. I think it was a struggle to formulate a script that captured the spontaneous style that these guys were living in. But there’s something extra all throughout you know, with the crazy cats, conversations, and crazy experiences. Godard was going to do it at one point. And obviously Francis Ford Coppola was going to direct it. Lots of others, I think Gus Van Sant at one point. And Francis had drafted a script all the way back in 79 or 80, and I think it was a big struggle for him to capture the internal rhythm that fueled these guys’ journey. Anyone that was going to direct this journey had to find out for themselves which subject matter was to be the most important in the production of the story. And that’s not to say, you know, you can read through the book and almost every moment stands out and we shot every scene and we always joked that the DVD was going to be very rich. Lots of cutting room floor material. Walter was initially approached at Sundance when he was there for The Motorcycle Diaries. Someone from Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s company, approached him with On The Road. He felt that as a Brazilian filmmaker, this wasn’t his territory whatsoever. While he’d read the book in 1974 and it inspired him so much, and helped make him want to be a filmmaker, it inspired him about the lands of America that had this sense of yearning and freedom. He was never going to agree to the film because he felt that for him it would be necessary to do a cross-country journey; retracing the steps of Kerouac and Neal and the other literary figures that were around. So he did a cross-country journey for four years, before we even shot the film and created, “The Search for ‘On The Road’”. In doing the documentary he took up so much passion for the people the book and the journey that he found it irresistible.
Durling: Kristen, in the book the women, especially Mary Lou, are shall I say, underwritten. Were you involved in the process of expanding the character of Mary Lou?
Stewart: Yeah, she’s definitely on the periphery of the story. I think some of the people behind the characters thought it would be easier to not change the story necessarily and never add anything really. It was always just sort of felt. I think a really common idea in the book is that the women are treated as sort of playthings like they’re ambience or sexy wild things
Durling: Which seems like misogyny to some people.
Stewart: Yeah, which is interesting to me because I always hear men say that like, “So hey, don’t you think there’s a chauvinist feeling to the use of women in the story?” and I think that’s a kind of simplistic way of looking at it. They’re not on the forefront of the story so you don’t know where their hearts or where their minds are. But at the same time, getting to know Luanne especially, I don’t think anyone could have taken from her. She was so generous and giving and what she was getting in return was not leaving her empty. The same goes for Dean. She was an incredibly formidable partner and talk about a girl who doesn’t know fear. She was just a teenager and it’s not a very typical quality for a teenager to have. That like, really hungry and unselfconscious and self-aware thing. It’s not common. As soon as I met her daughter, she went into great detail; she’s got a killer memory as well, and everything just made sense. I think we were able to feel them instead of having to have to illustrate it. It sort of just came across as we got to know them and how we loved the people.
Hedlund: She’s wise beyond her years, this character. I mean, she’s the one who left me in New York at the beginning. I just thought Dean and MaryLou were so parallel because she was wise beyond her years, he was as well, and they were kind of just great travelling companions. She was kind of the mirror image of him in a way, because just like that she left him to go back to Denver when she reveals that she has a husband to return to.
Stewart: They kind of helped to raise each other.
Durling: You talked about the research you did for the roles. I read somewhere that Walter did a “Beat Camp” for you guys. Can you describe it? Was that sort of rehearsals or improvisation before?
Hedlund: All of the above. On this film, it went kind of fast. We only had six weeks of pre-production before going on the road for six months to shoot. And four of those weeks we spent in Montreal. We started in the middle of the summer and kind of camped out in this apartment where Sam Riley, Kristen, Walter, and I would all go to and we would have the family members come. John Cassady, Anne-Marie Santos (LouAnne’s daughter), and Gerald Nicosia who wrote Memory Babe, a Jack Kerouac biography, who also shared with us hundreds of hours of audiotape of MaryLou speaking of Jack and Neal, which was incredibly powerful. We watched old films that Walter would share with us, Shadows, John Cassavettes, and a film that just saw the light of day, The Exiles, which had been in archival footage for up until maybe five years ago, and it was shot in the fifties. All of the walls surrounding were filled with photos of the characters, the locations of the houses, the locations where we were gonna go, what it looked like then, what it’s going to look like now. Jazz was constantly playing. Dexter Gordon, Slim, Jack McQueen, Miles – playing all day along. And all the reading that we had to do. There was hundreds and hundreds of letters that all of these characters wrote to each other. More particularly, Neal Cassady wrote to Jack. They’re very personal and uncensored, and from then we got to sort of realize the thought processes and what made everyone tick.
Durling: Kristen, the Hudson is another character in the movie and you obviously spent a lot of time inside this car. What was that experience like, it seemed awfully claustrophobic.
Hedlund: Remember Argentina?
Stewart: Yeah, that got old.
Hedlund: After Montreal we needed snow in August. So we went all the way down to Patagonia in Chile and shot for three days. I remember there was a banana on the backseat floor and that’s how you could tell how long the day was by the current state of the banana. Obviously the banana was getting squished on the backseat floor, and whoever was in the backseat would be you know…
Stewart: Making disgusting jokes about the state of the banana that don’t need to be repeated here.
Hedlund: They only made the Hudson for about six years; I think the last Hudson was made in ‘54. It’s a wonderful, wonderful car. I bought a ‘53 Hudson before we started shooting and this was a ‘49 Hudson but I just wanted to get used to the three on the tree and driving it. All these shots where everybody’s in the car, you had to know how to handle this thing. Like when we were shooting the blizzard scenes with my head out the window I was actually driving the car. The camera’s just out there, nobody’s around so we just did the scene driving down a blizzard road. Walter would be walking and say, “There’s a snowplow coming! Do you see the snowplow?” It was like, “I can’t fucking see anything just tell him to watch out for me.”
Durling: You know, you mentioned Argentina. A lot of these landscapes have disappeared in the United States because of the commercial sprawl and so you had to travel to other parts of the world. Can you tell us about that?
Hedlund: Yeah, after we started in Montreal for about three weeks, went down to Argentina. Flew over to Chile; shot there for three days. Flew up to New Orleans; shot for two weeks. Flew over to Arizona; shot for two weeks. Down to Mexico City, for another three weeks, and after we finished that they said, “We’re halfway!” Then there was Calgary for three weeks, Montreal for another month, and then we finished in San Francisco for the last four days of shooting, which were mostly either the interiors with Dean and Camille or driving through Russian Hill. Then, Walter and I went on a three week journey with a five man crew where we took the Hudson from New York to Los Angeles, because with the principal photography we couldn’t possibly get all the lands of America throughout the schedule we had. So Walter and I shot the Harlem rooftop scenes there then went out to the Adirondacks to get more snow shots, broke down in Utica, drove through a blizzard to Erie, Pennsylvania, with my head out the window. We didn’t have a speedometer or windshield wipers, and our gas can was in the trunk of the car so obviously there was some gasoline high going on as well. We drove with no brakes from Cincinnati to Lexington, Kentucky, then over to Nashville where we tried to find brakes on a Sunday in the Bible belt. We were driving only on back roads too, so it took us eight hours to get to Memphis where it would have taken two hours by freeway. Broke down in Texarkana, Arkansas. Broke down in Lubbock, Texas. Broke down in Las Vegas, New Mexico for three days. Then up through Arizona, down to Phoenix and then where it would have taken five hours by freeway, it took us eighteen hours to get from Phoenix to Los Angeles and that’s where we found that railroad that you see in the end credits between California and Arizona. We just stopped to take a photograph and we saw this wonderful railroad track over there. And if anybody knows Neal Cassady or his life, he had died, or was found dead walking from Temple Town, New Mexico on the railroad tracks. And was found between towns where he had gone to revisit the ties that him and Kerouac had had in the city when he was down there for a wedding. So, it was very special that we at least got to have that footage. I didn’t even know it had made the cut.
Durling: Kristen, you mentioned MaryLou’s daughter…Has the family seen the film? And what was their reaction?
Stewart: Yeah, I think Anne Marie saw it a few weeks ago, we were in San Francisco and she attended a screening with her husband and daughter. I think she’s really happy with it. The thing that Luanne always did with her daughter, and probably with many other aspects of her life as well, was that she really kept things separate. Which is why I got a really interesting perspective through her daughter. Her values, and desires, and ideals were pretty varying. And yet she was able to provide herself with the life she wanted to live. I mean afterwards, she was just smiling a lot. Her mother had just passed away right before we were about to get this thing going. Out of a lot of characters in the book, she would have been one of the ones that would have been really enthusiastic and into it and would have loved to talk to us, and it’s too bad that it was timed badly. But yeah, I think she’s happy with it. She said that she’s always really shocked and surprised by that aspect of her mom’s life because she came right after. She would tell us stories about people coming back to the house and her mom would never explain to her who they were, so one day she was sitting there, she was sixteen years old and she answered the door to Neal Cassady. He looked at her and–he could always never accept the fact that she wasn’t his daughter. So he was always like, “Oh look! She’s got my eyes!” when she was a little baby, and Luanne would be like, “Uh, no, she doesn’t.” Which is crazy, it’s always insane to me that they never had a child together after all that. But anyway, Neal looked at her and said, “Oh, you’re not as pretty as Jack said you were. Where’s your mom?” and she was like, “Who are you?” Then she found out years later who he was, and he had shown up on the bus actually.
Hedlund: Oh yeah, the bus from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid test days. But it’s also special, Anne Marie the other night had given each of us a vinyl from her mom’s personal collection. Her mom, appreciated her vinyl so much that all of these had her initials on the back in the top right corner so…
Stewart: Yeah, there’s a little “Lu” and it’s really cute.
Durling: So the jazz, I wanted to ask Walter about the music but one of my favorite moments in the movie is your dance sequence. Was that choreographed, or could you explain how that scene was shot?
Hedlund: Yeah, it was maybe choreographed in the way of memorizing your lines and knowing what to say but having the freedom to improvise. Because at that point, and I know that later we found out that Luanne’s favorite dance was the jitterbug but that would have been a little too cliché for this moment, and at that period we couldn’t find any reference of dance because they were coming out of swing and moving into be-bop. So we just interpreted that and learned a few interesting steps and what to do, and it was much more on the seductive side. Really we just learned a few steps and Walter would film ten minutes without calling cut. So of course we had to use a song that was cut to ten minutes so those were some of the most exhausting days of the shoot. We were just being maniacal on the dance floor and a big sort of bash was going on but after ten minutes, cut. Then we’d run outside to catch our breath.
Stewart: There was no air in the room either. It was totally like a vacuum. It was hot.
Durling: Well it was a really enjoyable moment. Garrett, this is not a very likeable character. Was it difficult to inhabit for such a long period? I mean he’s very seductive and attractive and you’re a good looking guy, but he’s ultimately despicable.
Hedlund: I think the energy was the most exhausting thing. You know when I first read the book, I always empathized with the Kerouac character, Sal Paradise, because at that time, I was doubling up on credits to move out to Los Angeles and literature was a big thing. I was going through Creative Writing and World Lit at the same time, so seeing his kind of spontaneous prose and his never ending riff on people and places and all aspects of life. Just anything he observed and not being the attraction, but writing about what’s attractive and writing about the beautiful imperfections of life. And then when I met with Walter I was so nervous, because reading the book you’re so attracted to this energetic nut who had this genius mind that goes on and on and on about how Twain said this and Proust said this because he really wanted to be a writer and he wanted to go to Columbia like Kerouac. So, I remember trying to put these words in my mouth for the first time and it was nerve-wracking, but I had a lot of coffee.