Brazilian director Walter Salles has carved a niche as the 'go-to' guy for road movies. His adaption of Che Guevara's memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries, won critical acclaim and the affection of audiences.
His latest work, a movie version of Jack Kerouac's cult novel On The Road is his biggest challenge yet. Tom Hawker talks to him about the joys and pitfalls of translating such a seminal work of literature to the big screen.
What attracted you to On The Road? Were you a fan of Kerouac and The Beats?
I read On the Road for the first time when I was 18, entering university in Brazil. It had a deep impact on me. It was one of the most resonant and daring narratives about youth and transition into adulthood that I had ever read.
Before launching into Kerouac’s world, The Catcher in the Rye had been the book that had affected me most. But, On the Road felt like a more immediate experience, closer to what I was living or wanted to live at that age.
I was struck by the way sex and drugs were described as a bridge to transcend the limited territory in which society tried to confine those young men and women. And the idea of movement as a better way to understand where you came from and who you are rang a deep chord. Finally, the writing itself was striking: it was as if the typewriter was an extension of Kerouac’s body – like an instrument can be an extension of a jazz player. Years later, Ginsberg said, “We wanted to write and speak in public as we used to do between us.” And this really came across.
This is your second adaptation of an iconic and historic road trip (after The Motorcycle Cycle Dairies)? What do you find so interesting about these books?
They are somewhat connected. The Motorcycle Diaries was about the first steps of a social and political revolution that would deeply affect the Latin American continent, before spreading outside of its frontiers. On the Road is about the beginning of a cultural revolution. But as John Cassady said to us when he came to speak to the actors before we began production – Sal, Dean and the other characters of On The Road are not aware, as they drift in search of the last American frontier, that this cultural earthquake would happen years later. They are in their early 20s, in the process of experimenting, of investigating different forms of freedom.
It's such an iconic book – were you aware of the pressure to 'get it right'?
Yes, of course – as I was when we started investigating the possibility of making The Motorcycle Diaries. For that film, I did the journey described by the young Ernesto Guevara twice before feeling apt, before feeling ready to shoot the film.
When we began On the Road – I was fully aware that my passion for the book and Kerouac as a writer were not enough to start the production immediately. This is what triggered the idea to do a documentary about the possibility of making On the Road. We pursued this project for almost four years, retracing the paths described in On the Road, meeting the people who inspired several of the characters in the book, and encountering poets of that unique generation such as Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, and Amiri Baraka. This in-depth process of research allowed us to better understand the social and historical background related to that period, as well as the complexities linked to the adaptation.
Casting must have been difficult because every individual reader must have a clear idea of Sal Paradise in their own head?
Yes, as I imagine so many people had in regards to The Motorcycle Diaries. This is why we started the casting process for On the Road early on, in 2005 and 2006, and invited actors who were not only very talented, but also who regarded the book with the same passion and understanding with which we did.
How conscious were you of having to avoid the "Beat Generation" clichés?
The facts described in On the Road happened from 1947 to late 1950. The official birth of the Beat Generation only happened five years later, when Ginsberg, Michael McClure and other young poets gathered in San Francisco in 1955 to read for a small but passionate public that were anxiously waiting to hear them.
This is when Howl was heard for the first time. Kerouac was in the room and he would shout "go, go!" to Ginsberg. So, On the Road is not about the Beat Generation per se, but about the seeds of what would later become the Beat Generation.
Similarly, The Motorcycle Diaries was not a film about the Cuban Revolution, it was a film about the discovery and birth of a social and political conscience of two young men as they unveil a continent that was unknown to them.
When filming an On the Road movie, do you try and enter the spirit of the Beats?
What we tried was to fully understand the motivations of the characters described in the book, as they entered into territories unknown to them at the time, colliding against the very conservative morals of the 40s and early 50s.
After On The Road and The Motorcycle Diaries, making a road trip movie – for the uninitiated – sounds like fun? Is it?
We covered 60,000 miles to do this film, twice as much as we did for The Motorcycle Diaries. To shoot films like this is, as you can imagine, taxing from both a physical and emotional standpoint. On the other hand, you end up living moments and having encounters that are absolutely unique, and that would never happen while shooting on a sound stage in Los Angeles. As Oliver Sacks wrote recently, we carry the need to rise above our immediate surroundings, the need to be transported, to acquire new meaning and renew our understanding of the world.
On The Road inspired many people to travel? Did it inspire you to do so?
When I read the book for the first time, it certainly had this affect. And it reinforced it as I read it again and again.
Are you a keen traveller?
Yes, definitely… if the world can be divided into nomads and settlers – I would certainly belong to the first category.
Do you have a favourite place to travel to? What's your favourite travelling experience?
When I am in Brazil, I like to drift to an area that is two hours away from Rio. It's an archipelago of islands where phone reception is almost non-existent and, therefore, computer access as well. We are invaded by a constant flow of images and information. As an antidote to this, I am favouring, more and more, places where you can live according to a different definition of time. Where you can actually regain control of it, read a book, write, and talk with people you haven’t met before without being interrupted by computer or telephone calls.
You've made movies across the planet now – Brazil, Paris, the US, Canada and across Latin America – do you get to experience, explore and enjoy the places you're filming in? And do you have any tips for travellers – a rule you live by when traveling?
When we shot The Motorcycle Diaries, I was able to discover places I had never been before on my own continent. It was as if my house became suddenly larger than it was before. It also made me understand that our continent was still a last frontier.
This is not the case of North America, where I was struck by the fact that I could drive for 1,000 miles and find the same architecture and fast food chains that I had seen the day before. This is what forced us to go further and further afield to do On the Road.
Yes, there are always places that completely surprise you – like the forest where Gary Snyder lives, three hours from San Francisco. The GPS stopped working and we drove for one hour on gravel roads trying to find his house, like in the good old times. We didn’t see a house or a human being until we finally reached Snyder’s home built in the woods. Moments like this make a journey such as On the Road worthwhile.
The only tip I could give travellers is “travel light”. I never carry luggage that I couldn’t run with or get into an airplane with. The more luggage in life, the less free you are.
Did Jack Kerouac's novel, On The Road, influence your travels? Tell us in the comments below.
On The Road hits UK cinemas on October 12.
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