Road trip: Walter Salles directs adaptation of Kerouac cult classic 'On the Road'

What happens when a filmmaker best known for two much-acclaimed road movies tackles the film adaptation of the ultimate road novel? A novel widely considered to be unfilmable? One that not even Francis Coppola could get made, even though he owned the movie rights since 1979?

The answer to all of the above is now before us. Sundance Selects’ On the Road, based on the groundbreaking Beat Generation novel, written by the rule-breaking Jack Kerouac, has finally made it to the screen—in such a seemingly seamless transition that one would be forgiven for wondering what the long wait was all about.

It was about waiting for the right director—one with the right combination of experience, insight, passion for and dedication to the material. Which brings us to Walter Salles, whose Central Station (1998) garnered worldwide accolades, including two Oscar nominations, for Best Foreign-Language Film and Best Actress (Fernanda Montenegro), and whose The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) was arguably the best road movie of its decade. With those two achievements under his belt, Salles knew more than a little about how to keep a road movie moving.

And On the Road is all about that motion, in jazzy, dynamically shifting rhythms, capturing the spirit of Keroauc’s exuberantly lyrical, spontaneously spilling-out prose, frequently quoting it verbatim, in the voiceover narration and as well as in passages read aloud onscreen. In collaboration with screenwriter José Rivera, who also did The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles succeeds where too many would-be adaptors were afraid of failing. He puts his faith in Keroauc’s characters, in their nervous energy, their shameless self-indulgence, and their wandering journey, always to somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Taking place in post-World War II America, On the Road is about a small, ragtag band of restless young adults, driving back and forth across the country, discovering what America is and how they fit in—or rather, don’t fit in. Narrator Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is the emerging soul of the film, often in the role of observer, along for the ride, in a state of constant, bemused wonder at the reckless, careless, self-centered hedonism of wild man-child Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Dean is usually at the wheel, literally and figuratively. He’s the driving force of the story, usually accompanied by his sultry teen bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart)—unless he’s shacking up in San Francisco layovers with future wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst).

Many other women (and men) come and go during this rambling odyssey, which is closely modeled on Kerouac’s extended real-life road trip with new acquaintance Neal Cassady (aka Dean). In jazz clubs and gin joints and cheap motel rooms, from New York to New Orleans to California to Mexico, Sal and Dean lose themselves, in order to find themselves.
“These characters are searching for a last American frontier,” says Salles, who points out that the road movie is a sort of spiritual descendant of another all-American genre, the western. He cites John Ford’s The Searchers, which sort of says it all. Even in the Old West, Americans had reached the last frontier. Sal and Dean, notes Salles, “are wondering whether that frontier still exists or not.”

Along with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and several other writers and artists—many of whom are portrayed here—Kerouac and Moriarty were the spiritual fathers of the Beat Generation. They represented a relatively rare breed of post-war young adulthood that wasn’t buying into the blueprint of settling into a button-down, nine-to-five career, or a life in the suburbs with a wife, three kids and a station wagon. Instead, they sought out a viable alternative, one that wouldn’t fence them in, before they had really ever been out. That meant hitting the open road, and roaring down it, stoked by sex and drugs and jazz—because rock ’n’ roll wasn’t where it was at yet.

On the Road is about the very initial steps of a generation of young writers who are seeking different forms of freedom, to redefine the future that wasn’t offered to them,” Salles observes. “Much later, they would be at the center of a cultural revolution that would end up informing the late ’50s, and then the ’60s and ’70s.”

Of course, Kerouac and Cassady didn’t realize what they were starting at the time. They hadn’t set out to change the world. They were just looking for another way to live in it. And of course the same can be said for Sal and Dean. Indeed, at the end of the film, as Sal sits at his typewriter, banging out the opening words of what would become On the Road, Dean is still out there somewhere, presumably still searching.

As true to life as it is, On the Road’s careening narrative—alternately hurtling and rambling, and getting sidetracked and doubling back on itself, and leaving characters behind, like so many loose ends—is largely what made it seem so unadaptable, so risky as a box-office-viable project. As Salles points out, the story doesn’t have the “beginning, middle and end” structure that was in Hollywood’s DNA back in the day. Which is why no studios were scrambling to acquire the rights when Kerouac’s book was published in 1957—a year still well within the 20th century’s most conservative decade.

But even more than two decades later, when Coppola bought the movie rights, he had no luck getting a deal off the ground. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Coppola offered the project to Jean Luc Godard, who didn’t bite. At one point, Gus Van Sant was lined up to direct, from a screenplay by Kerouac biographer Barry Gifford. Nobody could commit. Over the years, at least eight other screenplays (one of them by Russell Banks) were commissioned and ultimately abandoned. None of them managed to recapture the lightning-in-the bottle of Kerouac’s words on the printed page.

It wasn’t until Coppola saw The Motorcycle Diaries at Cannes that he found the right filmmakers for the job. The 2004 film, praised by critic David Sterritt for its “footloose, sometimes feckless On the Road quality,” was all the calling card Salles needed—although it didn’t hurt that Salles also had Central Station, about a cynical old woman and innocent young boy on a long, perilous trip into the heartland of Brazil, on his resume.

But finding the right director, who brought with him the right screenwriter (Rivera), was only the start of the journey. Coppola still needed financing—and finding investors who believed in his project initially proved as difficult as ever.

And then, Coppola found MK2. Or rather Salles did. In early 2010, he had a meeting with MK2’s Marin and Nathanaël Karmitz and their producer Charles Gilbert to discuss another project. As the meeting was winding down, Salles brought up this other little project he had been hard at work on and trying to get produced. The Karmitzes were intrigued. And then they heard what it was. The Karmitzes were on board.

MK2, of course, has a long, distinguished history as a primo purveyor of international cinema, having made a habit of backing the likes of Godard, Claude Chabrol and Krzysztof Kieslowski. With the company’s imprimatur, enough investors were won over. On the Road had its financing. It was finally going to be a film.

But long before he ever got a green light, Salles had immersed himself in all things On the Road. Already, he had retraced the routes Kerouac and Moriarty had traversed, over thousands of miles of highways and back roads, along the way meeting and interviewing as many Kerouac contemporaries as he could find. And already, he had done screen tests with unknowns Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund and a then-unknown Kristen Stewart.

And then, once he got the go-ahead, he went out and recruited an impressive supporting cast, starting with Kirsten Dunst, and also including Viggo Mortensen (as William Burroughs-inspired Bull Lee) and Tom Sturridge (as Allen Ginsberg-inspired Carlo Marx), along with Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss and Steve Buscemi, in relatively brief but deliciously juicy roles.

Together, this ensemble interacts with a vibrance that matches the film’s jazz-charged mood swings, even when as many as five of them are packed like sardines in their vintage Hudson sedan. That car, the closest thing to home for Sal and Dean, is practically an unbilled character unto itself.

As is the film’s ever-changing topography. With the same inspired eye he brought to The Motorcycle Diaries, cinematographer Eric Gautier captures the rolling hills, looming mountains and endless skies, often showing them as you would see them from a moving car. But what you’re looking at isn’t just scenery. It’s the American landscape in all its sprawl, its promise, its loneliness, its wide-openness. Watching it here, you understand why American filmmakers—North and South—have produced so many road movies. There is just so much road out there.

But the reason Salles makes so many road movies is that, well, he loves road movies. “The films that took me to the cinema were road movies,” he says. “Antonioni’s The Passenger was the film that impacted me most when I was 17. Alice in the Cities, Wim Wenders’ film, had a similar impact. From that moment on, I saw as many films about movement as I could—because I was completely involved with them emotionally. They had a direct relationship to the life I was leading at the time. My father was in the diplomatic part of his life; we were always moving from latitude to latitude. So the idea of entering uncharted territory was something I was constantly confronted with on a personal level.”

But Salles knows you don’t have to be a chronic wanderer to feel the appeal of road movies. After all, who doesn’t love road movies? What is it about road movies? Salles has a pretty good answer for that. It has something to do with vicarious experience. About getting to see more of this world than most of us will ever set foot on.

“Cinema, at least for my generation, was what informed you about the world,” declares the 56-year-old director. “And road movies quintessentially do that. I personally love to watch road movies in which the crisis the characters are undergoing somehow mirrors a larger crisis of a society or culture as a whole. Easy Rider is a good example of that. Those characters, throughout their journey, are mirroring the end of innocence and the implosion of the American Dream during the Vietnam years. Those for me are the most potent and powerful road movies, because they allow you not only to comment on the characters from an emotional standpoint, but also allow for you to have an x-ray of that culture in that given moment in time.”

Certainly, the road movies of Walter Salles do this. Central Station, he says, sprawled from inner city to remote countryside, “to register the transformation Brazil was undergoing at the end of the ’90s—after the traumatic 25 years of a military regime. We really wanted to know what we would find at the end of that road. The road-movie architecture was what allowed us to do that—to take that investigation into the heart of the country, to understand what had changed during those years.”

A young Che Guevara undergoes a similar revelation in The Motorcycle Diaries, as he travels the length of South America and witnesses firsthand how centuries of social and economic inequality have left so many indigenous people impoverished and oppressed. This, the film strongly implies, is what changed him forever, from an idealistic if aimless medical student to the Che Guevara of legend. In comparison, Sal Paradise’s On the Road experience is less dramatically transforming—but it does, after all, take him from an unformed, unfocused young man to the writer who was inspired to write a classic novel about rejecting the values, attitudes and expectations of 1950s America. This is what Salles is talking about when he speaks of “a direct connection between road movies and the question of identity.” Of losing oneself to find oneself.

At this point, Salles knows all about that. Because to make a road movie is to live a road movie. You are taking your own road trip. And with On the Road, Salles did that three times over. First there was that preliminary research/location scouting expedition—the footage from which he compiled a documentary, Searching for the Road. Then there was the film shoot itself, with its too-many-to-even-count locations. (He laughs that there is “at least a minute” in the final credits during which the places they filmed in are listed.) Finally, there was his post-principal photography “second-unit” trek, one more time coast-to-coast, in the Hudson, with a three-man camera crew that shot a whole lot more of the countryside, all because Salles didn’t feel that the footage he already had was ample enough—or good enough—to evoke the Great American Road Trip.

“That was a fascinating part of the process,” Salles reflects. “It was as if we were a documentary crew.” And he says that the trip was worth it—that the images his “documentary crew” recorded were, in general, more “interesting” than what he’d already shot. He credits the small size of his crew, noting that, traveling light and shooting on the fly, they were able to capture more found moments and to “bend to the demands” of sudden storms and other surprises, in a way that a full-scale production with its small armies and tight schedules wouldn’t have been able to. Recalling the experience, he exudes a sense of exhilaration at having had the chance to return to his roots as a documentary filmmaker. Shooting on the fly. Capturing the fleeting moment.

At the same time, Salles is clearly still feeling the effects of all those road trips, all those thousands of miles. And now the promoting leg of the journey. He says that what he needs right now is a few months of “tranquility” back at his Rio de Janeiro home, if only to finish editing Searching for the Road. As for future forays into a genre he has pretty much mastered, this king of the road movie says he doesn’t know what his next film will be. But he can tell you one thing: It won’t be a road movie.

“With the exception of Foreign Land and Central Station, I have never done two road films in a row,” Salles explains. “I normally like to alternate films.” He says it’s about “investigating other territories”—about maybe staying in one location, for an entire shoot, for a change. After the mileage he racked up with On the Road, he jokes, “I’ll probably be looking for a phone booth. Near my home.”