Author: de Semlyen, Nick
Date published: August 1, 2012
It's fair to say that Nick Cave, singer, songwriter and latterly screenwriter, did not have an average childhood. As a 1 2-year-old living in Victoria, Australia, he and one of his mates would occasionally be driven miles out into the bush by the mate's dad, given a six-pack of beer and a pair of shotguns and told to kill as many living creatures as they could.
At a similar age, the budding Bad Seed dabbled in brewing his own liquor.
"It's easy," says Cave, reclining near a bar in Cannes' Hotel Martinez, midway through the film festival where his film is in competition. "You can do it with a rubber tube. I had this friend who had a little still out in the country. We'd boil up potato peel, then blow air so it'd go down the tube, through some sugar and drip out the other end. You'd drink a bit of it... and then throw up all over the gum trees."
It's likely that these icky experiments in mixology played out again in Cave's mind a few years back, when he sat down with a copy of Matt Bondurant's 2008 novel, The Wettest County In The World. The basedon-fact tale of three brothers who earned notoriety home-brewing and bootlegging moonshine in the forests of Prohibitionera Virginia, it's a bleak, brutal, witty yarn. Perfect bedtime reading, then, for the man who once jotted down the lyrics, "I'm marked by darkness and by blood/ And one thousand powder-burns."
"It's beautifully written, an absolute stone-cold American classic," Cave enthuses of the book, which was penned by the grandson of one of the protagonists. "Matt, being a Bondurant, must be very happy that his bloodline is the coolest three motherfuckers on the planet. I just wonder why someone didn't have a go at adapting it before us."
"Us" being Cave and Australian director John Hillcoat. In 2005, the pair collaborated on Outback Western The Proposition, with Cave on writing duties and Hillcoat behind the camera. Since then, the latter has released Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road (score by Cave) and the former has penned a couple of books, including The Death Of Bunny Munro, the story of a sex-addicted salesman. Both saw Wettest County as the perfect starting point for their second team-up. But the path from page to screen wouldn't be easy.
"The period it's set in was the end of the West and the beginning of the gangster period," considers Hillcoat. "So for me, this film is the intersection of the two great American genres: the Western and the gangster movie. A 'Wangster', if you will! But it's not conventional: the gangsters here don't all die so we can feel good at the end. And that was just one of the reasons why studio people had a tough time with it."
The film's complicated pre-production includes four title changes: it began as The Wettest County In The World, changed briefly to The Promised Land, reverted to The Wettest County, then finally settled on Lawless. Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon, Scarlett Johansson and several other stars expressed interest before passing. In 2009, meanwhile, the whole endeavour looked doomed when Sony dropped the film from its schedule.
"At least Sony and other studios were very upfront," says Hillcoat. "They were very straightforward with us: 'We can't make these films anymore. We can do a franchise, we can do comedy at a price, with the right ingredients, and that's it.' Plus, this was before True Grit, when everyone was saying, 'Westerns are boxoffice poison.' At one point we were told, 'If you set this in a city, we'll greenlight it.' But the things that made the story unfamiliar were what I loved about it."
"They want to make happy films and this is not a happy film," adds Cave. "But it feels relevant now as Western civilisation is in rapid decline and slipping into the icy water like that character at the end of Lawless. It's not long now 'til it crawls out and dies of pneumonia..."
For almost two years. Lawless remained cashless. But finally it leapt back into life as an indie picture, financed by three small production outfits: Annapurna Pictures, Red Wagon Entertainment and Benaroya Pictures. Shia LaBeouf was the only actor who had remained on board from the beginning; along the way Hillcoat had recruited a roster of rising stars, including Tom Hardy, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain. "We lost some and gained some along the way," the director reflects, "but I was absolutely blessed because I ended up with a perfect combo."
The bootleggin' Bondurant boys are a study in differences. The eldest, Howard, as played by Australian actor Jason Clarke, is a war-scarred ruin who frequently gets high on his own supply. The youngest, Jack, portrayed by LaBeouf, is an ambitious whippersnapper who falls for a Quaker's daughter (Wasikowska). And the middle brother, Forrest, is the driving force of the family business - a fearsome, brooding slab of a man. Considering he's played by Hardy, it's tempting to think of the character as a backwoods Bane. But according to the star, who meets Empire clad in a pro- war- veterans T-shirt and is later sighted shadowboxing a hotel-lobby pillar, it's the gentlest role he's played.
"Bottom line, Forrest is a mum," he says. "Even though I'm physically the most dangerous of the three, Forrest is there to clean, cook, wear the apron, stash the money, look after his brothers. None of this stuff is tough-guy shit, y'know? I've got my brass knuckles and a cigar in my hat and a Clint Eastwood beard, plus I've got the muscles growing from Batman, 'cause I'm working on another job at the same time - instead of moonshine I'm moonlighting. But I've also got a cardigan. I'm not ashamed to wear that. It's soft. The cardigan is a flag of maternal instinct."
Despite the cardie - and Hardy models a natty range throughout - this is one mum you wouldn't want a ticking off from. Forrest is capable not only of inflicting a world of hurt, but of surviving injuries that would put most people in the ground. It all feeds into the self-perpetuated Bondurant legend: that the brothers cannot be killed.
"I loved that part of the book," says Hillcoat. "Nations are built on the myth of invincibility, particularly America. And this film is essentially about people who think they're immortal and the eventual horrifying realisation that we all die."
In Lawless, the brothers might meet their maker courtesy of all-powerful Chicago gangster Floyd Banner, a small role that sees Gary Oldman committing scene larceny armed with a Tommy gun. But the prime threat is Charlie Rakes, a Chicago lawman determined to put an end to the Bondurants' party. In the book and first draft of the script, Rakes was a generic corrupt cop. But once the role was offered to Guy Pearce, a fellow Australian who took top billing in The Proposition, the character took an abrupt turn into Weirdsville. There's his attitude towards women: at one point, Rakes sneers at a lady, "I'm not the type to drink from a greasy cup!" There's his super-croaky voice. And then there's his hair.
"Guy sent us this photo attached to a text message, saying, This is how I want to look,'" laughs Cave. "He'd got that weird fucking haircut, which was actually a style back then - a failed style. And he'd shaved his eyebrows off. John and me just sort of looked at each other."
If you're wondering whether Pearce was trying to cover up a stag-do gone wrong, he actually had a good reason for getting out the clippers. "It was a representation of Rakes' vanity - vanity gone wrong," the actor explains. "There were some things that we filmed that had to do with cleanliness which didn't end up in the final cut. This guy has an issue with hair and filth. Plus, Tom needed the extra hair to stick on his face for Mad Max..."
Lawless shares common ground with HBO's Prohibition serial Boardwalk Empire - one can only dream of a spin-off in which Rakes and Michael Shannon's Agent Van Alden team up to bust bootleggers and swap grooming tips. But where it stands alone is in its unflinching portrayal of violence. Throats are slit. Genitals are separated from bodies and gift-wrapped. One poor chap is tarred and feathered in a way that makes it look a lot more painful than it did in Little Big Man. The cut which Empire watches at Cannes will likely be snipped at by censors, but even so, certain scenes could prove too rich for some's blood.
And that includes the cast. Dane DeHaan, who plays sidekick Cricket, is enthusiastic about the carnage: "One thing about John is how beautiful he can make violence. He makes blood and really horrific things look mesmerising." But Wasikowska admits she finds it tough to sit through. "I was squirming all the way through. It's one thing to read it in the script, and very different when you finally see it."
Neither Hillcoat nor Cave see it as a big deal ("A lot of people flinch. I just try to make it very matter-of-fact - fast, chaotic, messy," shrugs the director when the subject's brought up), but perhaps they want to be sure they're getting people's attention. After all, this isn't just another gangster flick; it's designed to get us thinking about modern-day issues.
"There arc a lot of parallels today, with the economic crisis, the political crisis, the war on drugs," Hillcoat points out. "At one point we even had a montage at the start with what was happening now with the Mexican cartels, which wound back to the '80s cocaine wars and heroin in New York... until we landed on Prohibition."
Cave agrees that the film's real criminals are the authorities trying to shut the Bondurants down. "What is the crime these guys are committing? The crime of drinking alcohol? Okay, they murder some people, but to me the real crime there is the crime of Prohibition. And that is being perpetuated today. Seventy-five per cent of people in American prisons are in there for getting high, or drug-related crimes."
If all this makes Lawless sound stuffed with subtext, be assured that it works just fine as a thriller. It also, as you might expect from a film penned by Nick Cave, has a killer soundtrack, featuring bluegrass cover versions of tunes you really wouldn't expect to inspire bluegrass cover versions. The swampy take on Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat that plays over the closing credits is a particular bizarro stand-out.
"What we didn't want to do was have a worthy soundtrack of old bluegrass songs done by top-range American session musicians," says Cave. "We wanted something that was punk-rock and fucked-up. So we created this kind of vibrant noise, then brought in great legends of country music like Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson to sing over it. They were kind of like, 'What the fuck is this shit?', but they sang anyway. It created a weird tension between these amazing singers and this strange mongrel music."
So ends the strange saga of Lawless, formerly The Wettest County. And if you were wondering about the title change, wonder no more.
"There was a problem with it sounding like The Wettest Cunt," explains Cave, matter-of-factly. "There was already an internet virus - or viral, whatever - about dropping the V, and all of that sort of stuff, and it ended up sounding like a porn title. A kind of rural porn movie."
"But there could have been some advantages to that," muses Hillcoat, possibly tweaking the definition of 'Wangster' in his head. "We have Tom and Shia and Jessica. I think that's a rural porn movie people would pay to see!"
LAWLESS IS OUT ON SEPTEMBER 7 AND WILL BE RIVIEWED IN A FUTURE ISSUE.