On the Road director Walter Salles: "For five years, we retraced the paths that Kerouac took on the road."
Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund
Copyright Gregory Smith
Last November, director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station) spoke to Walker Art Center members who had been invited to a pre-screening of his new film, On the Road. During this visit, Dressing Room talked with Salles about his five-year documentary (which preceded the film), his love for "road" movies, and what it was like working with actor Garrett Hedlund, a Minnesota native.
On the Road tells the story of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), an aspiring author who can't seem to find the right story to write. He is introduced to Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a charismatic, free-spirited young man, and his new bride, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), by his friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Sal is immediately drawn to Dean's easy-going nature and need for adventure, and decides to leave his home state of New York to see the world with Dean and Marylou. The film follows their journey as Sal experiences life, and finally finds a story to write.
Salles read Jack Kerouac's On the Road during the mid-'70s in Brazil, and was immediately taken by the story.
"I was entering university, and the country was being led by a military dictatorship. So there was censorship in the press and in all art forms," Salles says. "When I read On the Road, I became enamored by Sal, Dean, Carlo, Marylou, and all the other characters who were not only able to search for different types of freedom, but were also able to really find a future for themselves. This is exactly what we were trying to do -- and not managing to do -- in my generation in Brazil. The book had a very romantic quality for us from the start. When I say 'us,' it's because the book traveled from hand to hand and the university as a whole started to read Kerouac."
At that time, Salles wanted to be a still photographer. He never dreamed of adapting On the Road. It wasn't until he was screening The Motorcycle Diaries at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 that Salles seriously considered working on the project.
"I was very much in doubt whether it could or even should be done," Salles says. "That's why we opted to do a documentary before we started the fiction film. For five years, we retraced the paths that Kerouac took on the road. We met with the characters in the book who are alive, and talked to the poets who were a part of the beat generation. Little by little we started to understand how the adaptation could work."
The five years of research was imperative to making the film.
"The research is what informed us about the social and political background of that time. It also gave us understanding of the complexities of the characters that we were trying to give birth to in the film. Without the documentary we never would have done the fiction film," Salles says.
It was important to Salles that the actors also have a great understanding of both the time period and the novel, so he organized for a "beatnik boot camp" prior to filming. The actors watched films and listened to music from the period, talked to family members of the characters who inspired On the Road, and spoke with Kerouac biographers.
Up next: Salles on working with Minnesota-native Garrett Hedlund, Twilight star Kristen Stewart.
When casting the film, Salles said he wanted to use up-and-coming actors as opposed to seasoned Hollywood stars.
"I thought that the actors [who were cast] would bring a freshness that would bring justice to the spirit of On the Road," Salles says.
He was not familiar with actor Garrett Hedlund, a Minnesota native, prior to his test back in 2006, but says he was blown away by his audition.
"Garrett read the scenes with such intensity that we were all in awe of his talent as an actor," Salles says. "He brought an innate understanding of who Dean was. He's a cultured, well-read guy, and he had all the tools to play Dean Moriarty."
Salles met Kristen Stewart prior to her Twilight days, and realized that she had an in-depth understanding of Kerouac's book and of her character Marylou prior to working on the film.
"Kristen was so concentrated on the set, and she fought for that character with everything that she had," Salles says. "It was very moving to see that."
As the characters in On the Road journeyed to find themselves, Salles says that freedom is at the heart of their search.
"The only way to expand your understanding of the world is to venture into the territories that you don't know yet. This is what Kerouac offers to you: the possibility to grasp that it is important to enter into these worlds that you don't know. It is important to do so because it's the only way to develop a critical conscience and a better understanding of who you are at the end of the day," Salles says.
That's one of the reasons why Salles says he is so drawn to the genre of road movies.
"Road movies are about characters and transformation; characters who want to grant themselves a second chance in life. This is what cinema is for me. It's the possibility to truly allow yourself to have an ample life. Sal only manages to write his book after he lives all those experiences that are offered to him by Dean. That's what road movies normally allow: to venture into the unknown. That is very appealing to me," Salles says.
The film was a long time in the making, and Salles says he hopes audiences will enjoy the movie as much as the people who worked on it did.
"It's a bit like planning to have a child for eight years, and then finally seeing it walk by itself," Salles says. "You have to at some point let go and invite the audience to actually participate in that experience and hope that they will be as passionate for it as we were."
On the Road is currently screening at the Uptown Theatre.
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