Director Hillcoat transported by ‘Road’

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Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel “The Road” won the Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. After television host Oprah Winfrey selected the title for her book club, it went on to sell millions of copies.

The last film made from one of the American author’s books, “No Country for Old Men,” won four Oscars, including best picture.

So you might wonder: How did a director virtually unknown in America land the job of making the film of “The Road”?

“Luckily, I was given the unpublished manuscript. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” John Hillcoat says humbly on a recent visit to Washington. “When it goes on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and Oprah, and all that, I’m a realist — there’d be many people in front of me in the queue.”

So Mr. Hillcoat, an intelligent and inquisitive Australian who grew up in Canada and America, had the rights to the project before it had a chance to become Hollywood’s most wanted.

“It was the richness of the material that hit me emotionally like a freight train, so I knew I had to do this,” he says. “Some people thought it was unadaptable.”

Though he’s not the best-known director, he might have been the best suited to the task of bringing the acclaimed novel to the screen. His previous three films also have dealt with what he calls “extreme environments,” not unlike the post-apocalyptic America that a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) navigate as they fight for some sort of survival.

“I love other worlds that transport you into a place that you normally won’t walk into. I grew up in America and Canada as a kid,” he says, adding that he loved the transporting aspect of the films he watched in the 1970s. “That journey into other places stuck with me. And being from Australia, because Australia really is extreme. It’s 90 percent desert, a very primeval, harsh, dramatic environment to live in.”

The reason he says he loves exploring such severe places — as he did in 1998’s “Ghosts … of the Civil Dead” (a maximum-security prison), 1996’s “To Have and to Hold” (the New Guinean jungle) and 2005’s “The Proposition” (rural 19th-century Australia) — echoes one of the major themes of “The Road.”

“It brings out what I’m interested in, how people respond to and interrelate to that environment, because it brings out the best and worst in people,” Mr. Hillcoat says

Mr. McCarthy might be American letters’ reigning moralist, and talking about the author gets Mr. Hillcoat more animated than talking about how he actually made the film. The novelist is “unflinching, almost like a scientist,” he says, trailing off before continuing forcefully: “Put it this way — he understands the reptilian brain better than anyone.”

The director contrasts “The Road’s” vision of the future — the cataclysmic event that leaves America a wasteland is never revealed — with more hackneyed doomsday fare. “The apocalytpic genre tends to focus so much on that big event that there’s no human dimension left,” he says.

In “The Road,” the source of the disaster — whether war, terrorism or some natural calamity — is almost incidental to the story’s larger theme: How would we and others react if one of these disasters struck? Humans might survive — but would our humanity?

“That fear of all this other stuff is something we’re really tapped into, because for the last decade fear is at the forefront of politics, of social life, of economics now, the environment, terrorism,” Mr. Hillcoat says.

More interesting is “how you deal with that [fear],” he says. “I like the Roosevelt quote … that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Like every generation, the older they get, the more reactionary and fearful they get. It’s up to the young generation to break through that stuff and shake them up, hopefully for the better.”

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