Lawless: Director John Hillcoat on Turbulent Times

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Although Lawless director John Hillcoat had turned to musician-screenwriter Nick Cave to pen an original screenplay for their stellar The Proposition, the helmer saw something in Matt Bondurant’s book about his bootlegging family that he had Cave break his only original screenplays rule.

Tom Hardy and John Hillcoat in Lawless

“The characters and the worlds are so rich,” Hillcoat told Movie Fanatic exclusively. As stated in our Lawless review, the pair combine once again to craft a violent and thrilling portrait of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.

“I love history. I love those American genres of gangster and Westerns, and this was both rolled into one. It was also something that was fresh because I hadn’t seen this before. I’d seen the Al Capone stories in the city, but I never really knew what was going on in those backwoods,” Hillcoat said.

“I think that whole Appalachian, Southern culture, there’s a real shortage of films in that area. They tend to be these Burt Reynolds comedies. And yet Matt’s book was so real and vivid, of real interesting characters and the different textures of that world.”

In our Nick Cave interview, he mentioned that he’d never seen an actor like Tom Hardy who had such a vision of the end game. Hillcoat concurred that while Hardy was doing his scenes as Forrest Bondurant, the leader of the brothers, they wondered where he was going with it.

“Initially, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing?’ [Laughs] We were all worried to be honest,” Hillcoat recalled.

“That’s how audacious he is. I mean, he takes real risks in a way that I actually haven’t seen before. He jumps off cliffs. It was miraculous how it worked, what he added and contributed.”

The helmer marveled at how Hardy was able to act opposite fellow stars Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman and elevated everyone’s games, as seen so effectively in the Lawless red band trailer.

“He really transported that character into another realm. So, he brought a lot to it. It’s nerve-racking directing him and working with him. For the other actors, they never know what’s going to happen. But, it’s great as well. It’s challenging,” Hillcoat said.

“It was a real collaboration and it’s like I’ve inherited another family. It was a really great experience -- tough and hard to make, very short time.”

The production went from a major studio to a smaller one while in pre-production. It was a move that forced Hillcoat, his cast and crew to work more effectively and efficiently.

“We had to work very fast, because it started as a bigger studio film and then shrunk down in budget and shooting days, but not in scope. The script didn’t change,” he said.

“That’s why the cast was so amazing because they really came to the table and were able to work so quickly. We all rolled up our sleeves. My cameraman was so tired he fell asleep standing up! It was very taxing.”

Hillcoat has worked with Pearce now three times: In The Road, The Proposition and now Lawless, where he plays a less than savory lawman.
Guy Pearce in Lawless

“He is like a chameleon. He’s got an incredible range and we have a fantastic collaborative experience,” Hillcoat said.

“He takes risks and he doesn’t want to just do the same thing. He’s interested in tricky characters. I just wish he had more accolades, more clout in the business because he deserves that. He’s got a great humanity to him as well.”

Although Lawless takes place in 1930s Prohibition and Depression-era America, Hillcoat found that it is still quite timely. “The world, the economic instability, the war on drugs, and all these things, I felt it was an appropriate time to revisit that period, in terms of commenting on today,” Hillcoat said.

“It was such an outrageous thing that’s still going on in a way. The war on drugs, etcetera, is equally a dismal failure. You’ve got the cartels now instead of the Capones, the Mafia.”

Why audiences have such a fascination with the Prohibition period is a simple one, according to Lawless’ director.

“I think the main interest is that it really was the birth of modern gangsters. It was the biggest crime wave in history. It created all those great movies. I’m sure that’s why it kind of lingers,” Hillcoat said.

The Australian-born filmmaker’s adoration with American cinema, particularly its violent subgenre, is clear in all his films and Lawless is no different. “I’ve been fascinated by America and its history with violence. It’s had quite a violent history and continues to do so,” Hillcoat said.

“Those sorts of consequences and the conflicts and the drama that comes out of that have always fascinated me.”

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