John Hillcoat, Chasing Humanity On A Grim 'Road'

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in 'The Road' i i

'Road' Warriors: A disaster wreaks global destruction in the post-apocalyptic fable The Road, and a father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) are pushed to their moral and physical limits in the struggle to survive. Macall Polay/Dimension Films hide caption

itoggle caption Macall Polay/Dimension Films
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in 'The Road'

'Road' Warriors: A disaster wreaks global destruction in the post-apocalyptic fable The Road, and a father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) are pushed to their moral and physical limits in the struggle to survive.

Macall Polay/Dimension Films

The new film The Road opens with a bit of beauty: A woman stands in a garden, flowers bloom in vibrant color. These are the last vestiges of the world as we know it.

An unnamed disaster strikes — a meteor, maybe, or a nuclear war — and the population suddenly dwindles to a few hardened survivors grappling with life in a post-apocalyptic setting. Among them are a father and son, known simply as Man and Boy.

"It just hit me like a freight train, emotionally, and I couldn't stop thinking about it," director John Hillcoat tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, describing his reaction to the Cormac McCarthy novel that inspired his film. "It's just fundamental issues about how people behave under pressure, and how much we take for granted."

At the heart of the film, says Hillcoat, is a love story between a father and a son. But the conditions in which they find themselves begin to test the characters and their relationship, bringing out the best and the worst.

"He's very in the moment," says Hillcoat, talking about the father. "And that's a natural thing that kicks in, especially when there's a threat. But the problem is that fear and caution can start to erode your own values in a way."

Because all animal and plant life has died, many of the survivors have resorted to cannibalism, preying on strangers while prowling the land. The question becomes whether the Man and the Boy (played in the film by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) can survive without resulting to such methods.

"That's why Cormac described it as a story of human goodness," says Hillcoat. "How do they hold onto their humanity? How do they not slide into the base nature that we've seen? And it's actually the Boy who teaches [the Man] and reminds him of his own humanity."

Director John Hillcoat i i

Director John Hillcoat, himself the father of a young son, says he had a visceral reaction to the relationship between the lead characters in Cormac McCarthy's story. Mark Mainz/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Mainz/Getty Images
Director John Hillcoat

Director John Hillcoat, himself the father of a young son, says he had a visceral reaction to the relationship between the lead characters in Cormac McCarthy's story.

Mark Mainz/Getty Images

One of the crucial elements of the film is the portrayal of a world so physically and morally ravaged that survival itself became a conflicted issue. In order to relate to the characters, their conditions had to feel real.

"The image of the father pushing a shopping cart with all of their possessions along the road with a grubby ski jacket on," says Hillcoat — "that's the homeless in every city."

For the landscape scenes, Hillcoat says he looked at a combination of natural and man-made disasters. He found abandoned interstate freeways in Pennsylvania and giant uprooted trees at Mount St. Helens in Washington. A scene that shows boats washed up on land is actually IMAX footage shot two days after Hurricane Katrina.

And while most movie directors hope for sun when shooting an outdoor scene, Hillcoat treasured cloudy days.

"We became very miserable when the sun came out," he says. "My brilliant Spanish cinematographer Javier [Aguirresarobe] would be screaming at the sky in Spanish. When it was miserable and raining sideways, we'd all be in very high spirits."

The Road portrays a version of the world where every decision is based on a calculation about personal survival. There is no hope that conditions will improve, yet the determination to live is never lost.

"I think Cormac has a brilliant scientific clarity," Hillcoat says, "as well as being a great poet in his perception of where we fit in the world. He reminds us that there are huge, greater forces than us. [The story is] a reminder that you're a grain of sand on an endless beach — and I think that that's a healthy thing to be reminded of."

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