Nick Cave has more than made a name for himself as a songwriter and musician. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have been making beautiful music since the Australian band debuted in 1984. When his longtime friend, director John Hillcoat, asked him to pen a screenplay for an idea he had for an Australian Western, The Proposition was born. Ever the songwriter, Cave still composed the score and the Hillcoat-Cave cinematic tandem began.
Cave is sitting with Movie Fanatic to talk about his latest collaboration with Hillcoat. He wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the director's Lawless. The true story of the Bondurant brothers and their moonshine business during Prohibition comes to life, thanks to the budding screenwriter who still sees writing music as his job.
“Screenwriting isn’t my present career. Screenwriting is an extracurricular thing,” Cave said. “My career is my band and music.”
When he and Hillcoat first met, the director was just out of art school and barely twenty years old. “We’ve been friends in Melbourne since then,” Cave said.
The pair have worked together since then on rock videos and several of Hillcoat’s previous films where he had Cave do the music. When the director became obsessed with creating a true Australian Western, Cave was able to help.
“It came about from frustration that John was having trying to get an Australian Western together. I kept saying, ‘These are (expletive), man. These are not Australian Westerns at all. They’re American Westerns dumped in Australia,’” Cave remembered. “He then said, ‘Well then, you write it!’”
Cave thinks his lack of experience composing scripts is why his have worked so well.
“What I have over other script writers is I don’t actually know how to write a script. I’m not self censoring myself a lot of the time,” Cave said. “There are ideas that I can have, that I can put in quite naively.”
After The Proposition became such a hit, producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher had found the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant (grandson of one of the three brothers portrayed in the film) and brought it to Hillcoat and Cave.
“I had no interest at the time of writing someone else’s work, but Matt Bondurant’s book was so stunning and had the elements that bound me and John together -- which was a kind of film lyricism that he had on top of brute violence,” Cave said.
“I’d rather make up my own stories. But, the book was too delicious to turn down and John really wanted to do it. And Matt’s dialogue was to die for.”
Once Lawless filming commenced, Cave marveled at The Dark Knight Rises' Tom Hardy and his performance as Forrest. “When we were in rehearsal in Georgia, he said, ‘I want to play Forrest like an old lesbian.’ I went, ‘OK.’ At another point, he said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. Now, I want to play it like the little old lady in Tweety Pie.’ I went, ‘OK…’ But, when he did it, it made sense. What he is, is this woman -- a matriarch -- trying to hold this fatherless family together,” Cave said.
Throughout the film, Hardy simply grunts where once there was dialogue. “The grunting and that stuff was something that initially mystified everyone, like, 'What the (expletive) is he doing?' But, I think he was playing the long game and he understood this character and he understood that when it was cut together, it would be (expletive) incredible. That is what a great actor does. You want someone who is going to come in and blow everyone away. That is what Tom Hardy did.”
As the co-composer for the film (with Warren Ellis), he was continually thinking of tone and music while penning the script. “I’ve done that with The Proposition. I had very naively put the musical direction into the script,” Cave said. “The actors thought that was pretty funny.”
One of the most memorable moments in the film is when the audience hears Cave’s version of Lou Reed’s White Light, White Heat done with vocals by the legendary Ralph Stanley (vocalist from O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack).
“Ralph had heard our versions of the song that we played and we wanted him to sing on top of these versions,” Cave recalled.
“He had this guitarist with him and Ralph didn’t really speak to us, he just sat there. We asked, ‘Could you just sing this part in C.’ The guitarist said, ‘Ralph don’t do C.’ We asked, ‘Could you do it in 4/4 then?’ ‘Ralph don’t do 4/4.’ He, in the end, did it exactly the way he wanted to and it was incredible.”