‘Lawless’ Director John Hillcoat Stays Violent, But Goes Digital for ‘Lawless’

By  · Published on August 29th, 2012

‘Lawless’ Director John Hillcoat Stays Violent, But Goes Digital for ‘Lawless’

Director John Hillcoat isn’t entirely known for crowd-pleasing studio fare. After putting The Road and The Proposition under his belt, Hillcoat showed he’s the type of filmmaker never to shy away from bleakness. One would think that’s what made Lawless such a difficult project to get off the ground, but surprisingly, Hillcoat has made a real summer movie. However, even when striving for some of those cinematic thrills, the acclaimed director never pulls his punches.

One major difference between Lawless and his previous films is the fact Hillcoat shot the picture digitally. Although he sounded quite sensitive about going that route, Hillcoat approached the film with a futurist point of view. Still, the director states there’s nothing more magical than celluloid, even after dealing with advantages and disadvantages of digital. Here’s what Lawless director John Hillcoat had to say about his attraction to brutal violence, the film’s sociopathic villain, and his experience with the ARRIRAW:

It must be nice finally talking about the movie, since it’s been a lengthy process for you.

Yes, it has. I would like to accelerate the process of movie-making, as I feel I have many movies left in me. I certainly aim to move it along faster, but it’s tricky. This was initially a studio picture, with Red Ragon, who found the material with Nick [Cave] and I. It was with Sony, but then the global economic crisis kicked in, in 2008. Suddenly all the studios lost their nerve, and everyone else followed. There was a period where every single financier and company was claiming there was no audience for a period film and the gangster/crime genre.

You’d think the movie would be easier to sell than The Road or other period films, as it is more of a crowd-pleaser.

It was really our response to the material. What Nick and I loved about it was the great tonal range, with the humor, the sweetness of the romance between Jack and Bertha, and the complexity of Forrest and Maggie. There was a lot more tonal richness in there, which is a nice thing to explore.

Even with that tonal difference than your other films, there is one major connection to your other films: they’re set in violent environments with characters who have been conditioned to violence. What draws you to that type of world?

Well, you’re absolutely right [Laughs]. I think it’s a couple of things. It might be because I grew up in America and Canada through the late ’60s and ’70s, and, as a kid, in America, there was so much profound violence going on. I remember my parents and everyone at my school reacting to all those heroes and leaders being assassinated within the space of a few years, from the president to the various leaders. It was kind of an exciting time, but it was also a very dangerous and shocking time. I think that had a real influence on me growing up. Then the films of the ’70s, you know, Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. I also love theater, reading, and novels, and the one thing I’m always drawn to is conflict. These extreme worlds test these people, to see what we’re really made of, in terms of under pressure and how, when the stakes are high, it can bring out the best and also the worst in people.

I take violence very seriously. What interests me in those kind of stories is the build up and the cause and effect, as opposed to just the more gratuitous side of violence, which is really just about the act. Unfortunately having witnessed and being a victim of violence, I want to be truthful about that, that it is very messy, chaotic, terrifying, shocking, and all those things; it hurts [Laughs]. The consequences ripple across both sides. There is no black and white, where one is the winner and one is the loser, and it’s much more complicated than that. There’s philosophical and moral conundrums behind those extremes which interests me the most.

How would you describe Charlie Rakes’s extremes and how he views violence?

We all love our villains. Actually, he was initially more of a deputy character, basically your standard hard-ass deputy. We wanted this flamboyancy and the contradiction of someone who’s very vein…Guy and Nick wanted to bring that whole idea of the city looking down at the disgust of the world, with the egotism of someone who feels they’re better than everyone else. Nick and Guy both drew on each other: Guy looked at Nick’s love of suits and dyed hair, and details like that. When you look at the Capones, Cagneys, and other figures of that time, that corruption was happening within the law in those cities as well.

We loved the idea of someone that was so anal. We had a backstory with his wife and how he’s so self-obsessed it comes at everyone else’s expense. Unfortunately, there are those other characters out.

Was his wife ever in the film? What made you cut that out, to make him more of a guy with nothing much to lose?

That was partially why we cut that bit out. We initially had it, with this letter from his wife about the weather in Chicago ‐ this very superficial letter. It’s, like, the wife is this ornament like his gloves. We thought that could be misinterpreted, so we didn’t want that confusion.

So would you say that character is driven solely by egoism or does he perhaps have some sense of commitment to his job?

He is certainly good at his job, but I’m sure that’s an ego thing as well. When people have sociopathic behavior to that degree, they have no real empathy for other people and are not connecting to the rest of humanity in the ways most of us are…or at least attempting to, and he’s past that attempt.

I love his line on how not many people like him, and you can tell he doesn’t care in the slightest [Laughs].

Absolutely. Again, there is that social context, about whether people have the awareness…I mean, most of us would be troubled if someone kind of dislikes us, you know what I mean? You might even think about it, where it’s a total non-issue for him. We had a great time with that character [Laughs].

[Laughs] It’s easy to tell. There’s an interesting dichotomy to the production of the film: despite being a period piece, you took a modern approach with shooting digitally. What made you go that route?

I think David Fincher is one of the great pioneers. For me, Zodiac was probably the best example of digital, having a cinematic sensibility. I think Fincher does a brilliant job at making digital feel big and cinematic. There was an exchange where he pointed out, on the LED ITE, that he was right about: the speed of change in our business is unstoppable. It’s, like, saying the Internet is not going to last; it’s an unstoppable technical revolution we’re going through. This is happening so fast and it’s massive.

I had a choice: make one of the last films or join the technology revolution and try and be one of the pioneers [Laughs]. In either case, I love celluloid and cinema. I have to say, it’s all a bit rushed. Digital is not quite there yet, but it’s going to be. This was a huge decision and I hated the idea of feeling like you’re in a digital world. I wanted to have a cinematic quality. We were one of the four films in the world to shoot on the ARRIRAW, as I felt that was the closest I had ever seen [to cinematic quality]. I learned a lot and it was all so new. Like, if I did the film today, there’s so many things I’d do differently, which I’m regretting. I’m only having regrets now knowing, rather than earlier. That said, the plan was to end up having it on celluloid. When you see the print ‐ and I’m afraid you probably didn’t…where did you see the film?

I was just at a regular press screening.

Ah, yes, I don’t think that wasn’t…see, when we end up on film, it’s got a much richer quality to it. I’m very pleased under the circumstances. To get really specific, we had so much rural shooting, a lot of night scenes, and I had the tightest shooting schedule I’ve ever had, even though the scope and story is bigger. With what the ALEXXA and digital can do, it became a logistical thing as well. So, there were several points: learning experience, practicality, and I thought I’d jump off a cliff with it. What did you think of it?

I thought it was seamless. There’s the shot of Rakes on the bridge and Forrest by an opened door where there’s a real richness to the black you usually don’t see on digital.

Oh, good. I’m hoping most people won’t notice. I’m ultra-sensitive to digital, so I’m hoping most people won’t notice. We really worked hard at trying to get a filmic quality. Celluloid is just the most magical, dreamlike form. I think digital works when you’re with Fincher or, in a specific case, Collateral, where you’re in LA at night. A period film before there was electronics and digital works better if it has that cinematic, celluloid feel. So, right, I can now breathe a sigh of relief!

[Laughs] Glad to hear it. Obviously, as we discussed, you explore very violent worlds. For the future, are there more stories you want to tell that fit into that genre or are there other themes or worlds you’re hoping to visit?

Well, there is something about those worlds I am continuously drawn by, but I would love to explore other worlds. I would love to do a science-fiction film, and with leading female characters set in that world of genre, high-stakes, and violence. I’d want female characters, as opposed to female characters in an “issue” film. There’s so many fantastic actresses out there I’d love to work with, so I am always looking for something like that. You know, enough of alpha males! [Laughs] I mean, if I do a film with the male actors, I love to explore those vulnerable sides to those hard guys. I’m looking forward to making more movies, if I can! Keep the finance going, which worries me about digital as well: how that’s all going to work.

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Lawless opens in theaters tomorrow.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.