for this week’s Tribune: ON THE ROAD review / Willem Dafoe interview

Published on: October 4th, 2012

On the Road
Director: Walter Salles

… and what a long, long, long road it’s been. Events that took place in the late forties, Jack Kerouac’s bestselling book about them which came out in 1957, various on-off talks and plans about adapting that book into a film (perhaps featuring Marlon Brando?) which dragged on for the next 20 years… Francis Ford Coppola buying the rights in 1979 – but doing The Outsiders and Rumble Fish instead… More on-off talks and plans during the 1980s, and then the 1990s (perhaps Brad Pitt could star?), and the early years of the 21st century (Colin Farrell in the frame)… 

Then Brazilian director Walter Salles and scriptwriter Jose Rivera had sufficient success with the Che Guevara-inspired marathon road-trip The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004 to suggest that they might be the ones to tackle Kerouac’s heavily autobiographical but also highly fanciful novel/memoir of post-WW2 American youth, detailing that generation’s sexual and narcotic and literary experimentations, their wanderings across a vast country with thousands of miles but no borders between the two vast oceans.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” So wrote Kerouac (who never actually learned to drive a car himself) in the guise of ‘Sal Paradise,’ always on the lookout for his next escapade with his inexhaustibly dynamic friend/inspiration Dean Moriarty.

In Salles’ film, Control’s Sam Riley is Sal – soulful, introspective, restless – and the top-billed Garrett Hedlund is Dean, the pretty-boy blond graduating from Troy and Tron: Legacy in unexpectedly commanding, charismatic fashion. Like the book, the movie is more about atmosphere and character than plot, an episodic string of journeys and meetings: Viggo Mortensen is the William Burroughs surrogate ‘Old Bull Lee’, Twilight’s Kristen Stewart is Neal’s teenage girlfriend Marylou, Kirsten Dunst as another of his conquests.

But at heart it’s what would now be called a heterosexual “bromance” between Sal and Dean – unconsummated, despite the latter’s occasional spells as a gay hustler. As in John Byrum’s more explicitly fact-based Heart Beat (1980), the putupon women are forced to make the best of unsatisfactory situations when the solipsistic, responsibility-shirking, commitment-phobic, convention-shunning blokes pursue their path of sensation-hungry hipster hedonism (“We gotta find ourselves some kicks!”).

At first glance, 57-year-old Salles’ safe-hands approach might seem at odds with the iconoclastic frenzy of this volatile, anything-goes environment (“every muscle lives to twitch and go”). But as his attitudes and writings through the 1960s revealed, Kerouac, for all his swaggering cool and restless novelty-seeking, was always much more conservative than his rebel image might have suggested (“This high we’re on is a mirage,” warns Allen Ginsberg-based poet Carlo Marx [Tom Sturridge]).

This MOR adaptation, mainly shot in scenic corners of Canada and Argentina, with its model-handsome duo and Gap-advert visuals, only rarely tries to capture the jazzy riffs of Kerouac’s prose – Eric Gautier’s cinematography achieving fleeting grace-notes of transcendence at dusk. Rivera’s script generally plods along from episode to episode with a dogged, steady-as-she-goes dutifulness, as if weighed down by the weight of responsibility and those decades of false starts.

And even when the picture did finally premiere at Cannes in May, that wasn’t quite the end of the story: ironically, given Kerouac’s love of rough first drafts and write-all-night spontaneity, the version now being released into cinemas is a re-edited 122-minute cut, a full 15 minutes shorter than the one which received tepid reactions on the Croisette (and is reviewed here), though reports indicate that the tightening up has been to the picture’s overall benefit.

But making On the Road commercially viable was always going to involve severe compromises, and Salles’ multiplex-friendly slickness runs contrary to the energy and intensity which means Kerouac’s book, for all its self-consciousness, a disarmingly fresh and even inspirational text half a century later.

On balance, Gus Van Sant would perhaps have been an ideal compromise choice, though a shoestring budget, 16mm cameras and and younger, rawer, lesser-known writing/directing talent (like Sawdust City’s David Nordstrom) would probably have been even better. That the picture even exists is, given the project’s history, the remarkable thing – the fact that it’s relatively watchable and even intermittently engaging, largely thanks to the coltish magnetism of Hedlund, is a welcome bonus.

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VENICE REPORT : PART TWO – WILLEM DAFOE INTERVIEW

An actor who’s always been happiest when moving freely between Hollywood blockbusters (Spider-Man), provocative arthouse freakouts (Antichrist) and outré New York stage-work, Willem Dafoe was on display at this year’s Venice Film Festival in a pair of very different films which, for now, bookend his screen career.

A newly restored version of Michael Cimino’s notoriously costly 1980 Western Heaven’s Gate provided audiences with more glimpses of Dafoe than in any of the previous cuts of this film maudit, as the actor’s cameo performance as an immigrant settler – his very first feature-film work – largely ended up on the cutting-room floor.

And then the sidebar Venice Days unveiled Bob Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, a brand-new documentary shot during rehearsals for a stage extravaganza about and starring the Manhattan-based legend of performance art, alongside Dafoe (a scenestealing narrator) and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons.)

In between, the energetic 57-year-old Wisconsin native has crammed in dozens of roles including an agonised Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the saintly Sgt Elias in Platoon, Nosferatu’s bloodsucker Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart.

But the double Oscar-nominated Dafoe is just as happy to talk about oddities like Abel Ferrara’s cruelly underappreciated Go Go Tales (2007), or the 1985 short O Panama – the latter making him one of the tiny handful of professional performers to have ever been directed by America’s avant-garde maestro James Benning, whose career has otherwise been dominated by structuralist scrutinies of landscape.

The austere world of Benning seem a very long way off when I meet Dafoe to discuss his work on Venice’s beachfront lido: specifically, a glitzy VIP-zone cafe temporarily erected in the grounds of the Moorish, fin-de-siecle Grand Hotel Excelsior. Wiry and buoyantly chatty Dafoe, sports an impressive handlebar moustache to match his famously luxuriant chestnut locks – the facial hair presumably grown for his reunion with Lars Von Trier on the currently-in-production Nymphomania, three years after Antichrist.

I ask why he thinks certain individuals are able to at some point in their careers move from the geographical and cultural margins to achieve international renown – such as Von Trier, and Belgrade-born Abramovic. “Basically I think it’s someone who has a really strong calling,” he replies, “and makes work that’s singular, and not reductive, and has a real personal stamp. And if they continue doing that for many years as she did, with and without support, enough time goes by – and a body of work is created and people start to point at it and recognise it. Marina found her own way. She’s made a lot of work over the years, and that work has been documented, and now people are appreciating it.”

Describing Bob Wilson’s Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, directed by his Italian wife Giada Colagrande, Dafoe says “I don’t think it’s a typical ‘making of’ – I think it’s an interesting portrait of people collaborating and making something. People that all have their histories and their language, and then they come together to adjust those things, to find a common ground. Giada was very good at laying back, and letting a point of view about the process get made.”

Dafoe now divides his time between the US and his wife’s native land, where five years ago he turned in one of his finest but least-known recent performances as a nightclub-owning impresario in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales (2007). “I really admire Abel. I mean he struggles – a lot, but I admire the fact that he is a self-starter, he’s making things, by himself, he’s a fighter, and he’s made some beautiful movies. Abel is pitching camp, pulling it up, running to that place where he can still fight the next battle.”

That’s also a word which could be applied to the protracted shooting of Heaven’s Gate. Dafoe recalls the moment when, after three months’ work, he was fired on set by director Cimino: “We were in a lighting setup for a very long time. I’m a pretty patient person, and I was patient, but you’re sitting there for eight hours in place, in period costume, in full make-up… People are gonna start whispering to each other. And the girl next to me told me a dirty joke, and I laughed, and stuck out my tongue…” Dafoe mimes the action, suddenly half Green Goblin, half Gene Simmons from Kiss.

“Michael Cimino turned around, saw that out of the corner of his eye. I think by that time he had so much pressure on him he just saw someone that didn’t seem to be with the ‘programme’, and he told me to ‘step out’ and that was it. And that, which brings us full circle because Marina Abramovic’s greatest talent is telling dirty jokes,” he says, cackling wickedly.

From Cimino to Abramovic, via Von Trier and Ferrera, Dafoe has always been attracted to creative people who, for good or ill, are comfortable in extreme positions: “I like being in a room with people that burn hot or have a real personal calling, or there’s something that attracts me about them in the respect that they stimulate me,” he says.

“Because if I’m stimulated obviously then I feel engaged – in a way that the world drops away and I feel like the best part of me comes out. Particularly since I’m a performer that really enjoys taking someone else’s agenda and making it mine. You’ll misfire a lot but at least you’ll like the company you have and it’ll be an experience and there will be some sort of enrichment even if you didn’t quite get together the thing that you were trying to make.

“But I’d rather do that,” he concludes, thumbing the edges of his ‘tache, “ be a kind of adventurer with interesting personalities than be a stylist or a crafstman that interprets things or builds a language of their own. I want to learn all different kinds of languages, I want to have all different kinds of experiences, I wanna kind of lose myself and find myself in the doing. I think that’s what it’s about – for me.”

Neil Young
25th September 2012
for Tribune magazine
[ Willem Dafoe interview transcript ]