John Hillcoat, Chasing Humanity On A Grim 'Road' Based on Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Hillcoat's new movie is a dystopian tale of survival in a physically and morally ravaged world. The director talks to NPR's Steve Inskeep about the challenges of visualizing a post-apocalyptic landscape — and why the bleak tale is really a story of human goodness.

John Hillcoat, Chasing Humanity On A Grim 'Road'

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The new film "The Road" opens with a bit of beauty: a woman stands in a garden, flowers bloom in vibrant color. It's the last you'll see of the world as we know it. Some disaster strikes, maybe a meteor, maybe a nuclear war, and two survivors trudge along a road, a father and son. This movie is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, which passed into the hands of director John Hillcoat.

Mr. JOHN HILLCOAT (Director, "The Road"): It hit me like a freight train emotionally, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. You know, I have an eight-year-old boy, gorgeous boy, but it's beyond that. There's just fundamental issues about how people behave under pressure and how much we take for granted.

INSKEEP: In the movie, father and son walk the road beneath a sky that's always gray. They try to survive in a world of the dying and the dead.

Mr. HILLCOAT: At the heart of the story is a love story between a father and son, and I think that world just tests the characters, you know, brings out the best and the worst.

INSKEEP: The instinct of the father is never in doubt. From the very moment of this unnamed catastrophe, something has happened in the night, there's some boom, some flash of light, and he goes straight to the bathtub and starts filling it up with water as if presuming that they might need extra water to drink.

Mr. HILLCOAT: Yeah, he's very in the moment, and that's a natural thing. You know, that kicks in especially when there's threats. But then the problem is that fear and caution can start to erode your own values in a way.

INSKEEP: Because we're in this world where the plants have died, the animals have died, there is no sunshine. Some human beings are still alive but they've turned into - many of them have turned into cannibals to survive, and the question is, how can this father and son survive without resorting to that awfulness?

Mr. HILLCOAT: That's right. That's why Cormac described it as a story of human goodness. It's how do they hang on to their humanity? How do they not slide into the base nature that we've seen? And this is what's great about the story, is that you can really understand this father is a good man and you can see how under pressure - gradually his morals start to slide, and it's actually the boy that teaches him and reminds him of his own humanity and actually ironically saves him.

INSKEEP: Let's play a little bit of "The Road" here. This is a scene in which the father, played by Viggo Mortensen, is confronting a member of a cannibal gang, who is looking a little too hungrily at the son. And Mortensen has a gun with just two bullets left, which he's pointing at the man.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Road")

Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN (Actor): (as the Father) You look at him again and I'll shoot you in the head.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) That boy looks hungry. Why don't you all come on in the truck, get you something to eat.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (as the Father) You don't have anything to eat. Come on�

Unidentified Man: (as character) I ain't going nowhere.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (as the Father) You think I won't kill you?

(Soundbite of gun cocking)

Mr. MORTENSEN: (as the Father) You're wrong.

Unidentified Man: (as character) You know what I think? You've never killed a man in your life.

INSKEEP: Which, no doubt, is true of that father, and the question is how far he's going to go to protect his son.

Mr. HILLCOAT: That's right.

INSKEEP: Tell me a little bit about trying to make those conflicts real - feel real.

Mr. HILLCOAT: Reality actually is what it was all about. You know, we - the image of the father pushing a shopping cart with all their possessions along a road with a grubby ski jacket, you know, that's the homeless in every big city. So for the wardrobe we literally referenced hundreds of photographs of homeless people, and for the actual landscape we looked at a combination of manmade and natural disasters that have already occurred.

INSKEEP: Where did you find the apocalyptic scenes that you show here, the dead roads with cars strewn everywhere, dead cities, boats washed up on land, on and on?

Mr. HILLCOAT: Well, the boats washed up on land is actually IMAX footage shot two days after Katrina happened.

INSKEEP: Around New Orleans?

Mr. HILLCOAT: Yeah. And we filmed in the after - you know, there's still the aftermath of Katrina going on. And then in Pennsylvania there were some abandoned interstate freeways. There was the leftovers of the strip mining and huge ash piles. And then we went to Mount St. Helens in Washington State. That's still an unbelievable landscape. It's jaw-dropping when you see these giant trees that have been ripped out of the ground. You know, and it was winter. We were looking for overcast days. Of course, we became very miserable when the sun came out. My brilliant Spanish cinematographer would be - Javier would be screaming at the sky in Spanish.

INSKEEP: Cursing the nice weather.

Mr. HILLCOAT: Yeah, when it was miserable and raining sideways we would all be in very high spirits, marching into it.

INSKEEP: There's a moment in "The Road" in which the father and son come upon an old man, played by Robert Duvall, and they end up sharing a little bit of their food with him, and this is what Duvall's character has to say about the boy that he's encountered there.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Road")

Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): (as the Old Man) When I saw that boy I thought I'd died and he was an angel. I never thought I'd see a child again. I never thought that would happen to me.

Mr. MORTENSEN: (As the Father) He is an angel. To me he's a god.

INSKEEP: What do you think the father means by referring to his offspring as a god?

Mr. HILLCOAT: Well, he is everything to the man. He is why the man keeps going every day. The child has given the man meaning.

INSKEEP: Cormac McCarthy in the book makes a point of explicitly saying - and I'm paraphrasing here - it's never going to get better. This is not a passing storm. This is the end of the world. This is it. And yet there is this determination to survive among some people.

Mr. HILLCOAT: Well, that's right. I mean you look at the history of mankind and that's the key there. There's also something, though - I think Cormac's got a brilliant scientific clarity as well as being a great poet in his kind of perception of where we fit in the world. He does remind us that there are huge greater forces than us - you know, a reminder that you're a grain of sand on an endless beach, and I think that's a healthy thing to be reminded of.

INSKEEP: John Hillcoat is director of "The Road." Thanks very much.

Mr. HILLCOAT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: The movie opens tomorrow.

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