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ON THE SET

An apocalypse you can bear

Too bleak for the screen? Filmmakers adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel 'The Road' followed the ray of hope found in its father-son relationship.

August 17, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE NATIONAL SCENIC AREA, ORE. — The FATHER and son struggling to stay alive in "The Road" understand that everything they know is coming to an end.

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Ext. ROAD -- DAY

In the burnt, barren landscape, through swirls of soft ash and smoggy air the MAN appears dressed as if homeless, a filthy old parka with the hood up, a knapsack on his back, pushing a rusted shopping cart with a bicycle mirror clamped to the handle and a blue tarp now covering its load. The little BOY, similarly dressed with a knapsack on his back, shuffles through the ash at his side.

Screenwriter Joe Penhall's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bestselling novel opens with the two survivors of some unspoken earthly catastrophe enduring an earthquake, witnessing a forest fire, stepping around a severed human leg and discovering a family of three who have hanged themselves -- all before Page 8. In Penhall's script, father and son also encounter a man stumbling along in near blindness, his hair singed, his flesh charred; run from a pack of gun-toting cannibals; and find a crudely painted billboard proclaiming, "Behold the Valley of Slaughter."

The world -- and everything in it -- is dying, and the Man and the Boy are determined to keep moving, knowing that if they stop, some horrible fate will claim them. The shopping cart's mirror isn't for decoration: It's to see if anyone is gaining on them. In such dire circumstances, the least comfort -- fresh food, clean water, a blanket -- is magnified into the greatest luxury, and that has made the scene that "The Road" director John Hillcoat was filming on a late spring day even more difficult to execute.

With a little more than a week of principal photography left on production of the film, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy ("Romulus, My Father's" 11-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee) had reached Horsetail Falls, a cataract thundering into a verdant gulch an hour east of Portland. Especially by Oregon standards, it was a stunning early May morning: The weather was T-shirt warm, with songbirds flitting about in the waterfall's mist. As Penhall and Hillcoat imagined the scene, which falls in the screenplay's first quarter, the two actors would wade into the waterfall's icy pool and, for a moment, pretend as if there was nothing wrong and the world hadn't become a soot-covered graveyard.: The Boy even remarked to the Man, "Look. Colors."

But as Hillcoat saw it, the Oregon setting was proving to be too picturesque. "It's a beautiful day," the Australian-born filmmaker said somewhat dejectedly. "I hope it clouds up."

It was a fair summation of the film's tonal balancing act. In adapting McCarthy's National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Hillcoat and Penhall (as well as the actors and production team) toiled to weigh hopelessness against faith, the worst of humanity opposite the possibility of civilization. But for some, including one top distributor of specialized film who passed on the Nov. 14 release, the cinematic version of "The Road" was ultimately still too bleak to appeal to moviegoers.

So even as the filmmakers were ratcheting up the story's danger and despair, they also were pushing to make the movie as uplifting as possible, emphasizing its intrinsic father-son love story and promoting the notion that the Boy embodies some sort of messiah. Along the way, movie version also became much less a story about a post-nuclear catastrophe and more a tale of climate change and a dying planet.

"The fact that my character keeps going," a reed-thin Mortensen said during a lunch break from filming under the waterfall, "is inherently hopeful and optimistic."

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A course correction

PUBLISHED before "No Country for Old Men" was fashioned by Joel and Ethan Coen into their Oscar-winning masterwork, "The Road" represented a course correction for McCarthy. While its pages overflowed with his typically baroque diction and slightly pretentious lack of punctuation, the novel wasn't anchored by the epic narrative sweep of "No Country," "Blood Meridian" or "All the Pretty Horses" (and the rest of McCarthy's border trilogy).

Instead, its story focused on a dying man and a young boy struggling to remain alive as they traveled through a barren land with little food or water and even less consolation.

In addition, "The Road" was more contained (287 not very crowded pages) and personal than McCarthy's previous novels -- one he described, albeit elliptically, in a rare interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," whose host had picked the novel for her influential book group.

"I like to think it's just about the boy and the man on the road, but obviously you can draw conclusions about all sorts of things from reading the book, depending on your taste," McCarthy said on the talk show. Tellingly, the 75-year-old author dedicated the book to his elementary-school-age son, John.

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