By Michael Bergeron
The road movie is a genre unto itself. The novel On the Road by Jack Kerouac was published in 1957 (completed in the early ‘50s) long after road movies appeared (think They Drive by Night or Detour) as part of the film noir era and yet itself has never been made into a movie–until now. While there have been movies made featuring Kerouac as a character, such as the 1980 film Heart Beat, the actual source novel languished in movie development literally since it was published.
Free Press Houston talked to director Walter Salles under whose hand On the Road was finally made. On the Road opens at the Sundance Cinemas Houston on January 18, 2013. “Francis Ford Coppola has had the rights to On the Road since 1979, and there’ve been seven or eight attempts to launch the film with Coppola, his son Roman, and writer Barry Gifford,” explains Salles. “My own film The Motorcycle Diaries  was inspired by On the Road, and after a festival screening I met a producer from Coppola’s company Zoetrope. I proposed an iconic treatment of On the Road and spent the next six years working on it, crisscrossing America, and talking to poets of the Kerouac generation. It was a very cautious manner of research.” Salles is also known for the 1999 Brazilian film Central Station, which garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Actress and Best Foreign Film.
In the film as in the book, Kerouac and his friends are renamed with Kerouac becoming Sal (Sam Riley), Neal Cassady becoming Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), Neal’s femme doppelganger LuAnne Henderson becoming Marylou (Kristen Stewart), and Allen Ginsberg becoming Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Other real life personalities like William S. Burroughs also appear, here as Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen). Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Terrence Howard, Steve Buscemi, Michael Sarrazin, and Kirsten Dunst co-star.
“I discovered the book in the mid-‘70s,” says Salles. “In Brazil, at that time there was censorship in all art forms. The book was about seeking freedom, something you couldn’t grasp in our part of the world.” Salles stays true to the spirit and structure of Kerouac’s novel, at times veering off the highway and into jazz dens of iniquity. “When Kerouac was at Columbia University in 1941 his roommate Jerry Newman taught him the importance of the jazz scene. Kerouac would’ve experienced the scene in Harlem years before bebop jazz appeared in the Village,” notes Salles. “These characters live every moment as if it is their last.”
After his success with Central Station, Salles was courted by Hollywood and made the film Dark Water, a remake of a Japanese horror film, for Disney through their Touchstone banner. “I keep my passport close to my body,” laughs Salles. “Dark Water was my investigation of the studio system and I was interested in the project because of that film’s mother-daughter relationship.” Subsequent to that, Salles returned to low-budget films made in his native Brazil, including the 2008 Linha de Passe, which won the Best Actress award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival for Sandra Corveloni.
On the Road undulates from large sets and production design to minimalist views of American landscapes. At times, Salles would use a typical movie crew of 60 to 70 people for a city exterior and then scale back to a handful of crewmembers for the road sequences. A recreation of post-WWII downtown New York was lensed in Quebec and the design is exquisite, featuring multiple views of storefronts and movie posters. “I wanted to portray them going to films that reflected the political climate of the time,” adds Salles about the marquee that announces The Best Years of Our Lives, along with a Sherlock Holmes film and a couple of film noir titles. Other locations feature vintage cars cruising through New Orleans and rural parts of Louisiana, Arizona, and Mexico. “ During the production we were shooting in sun and rain and snow. The temperatures ranged from 120 degrees to 20 degrees below zero,” Salles says matter-of-factly.
“I wanted to catch a sense of the American Dream and how it collided with the malaise of the era. We see that transformation of society in the film,” says Salles. “These are characters that wanted to redefine their time and transcend the meaning of their future.”
On the Road will be remembered as a landmark film although its initial rollout will be small and not supported by big advertising dollars as the film opens in a small number of theaters, distributed by IFC. The relationship between Sal and Dean is typical of so many other movies and stories that have twin lead characters who are the archetypal of each other (think The Master). Even as the film ends and we witness Sal and Dean leaving a trail of broken hearts (both male and female), they are also broken themselves by the system they tried so poetically to subvert.