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Lawless director John Hillcoat takes violence very seriously

John Hillcoat discussing the violence in his latest film, Lawless
Photograph © 2012 Jason Korsner

For a director whose previous films include The Proposition and The Road, John Hillcoat is not as downbeat as you might expect. In fact, he’s a surprisingly jovial man.

This is all the more unexpected when he describes how not only was much of his youth tainted by gang culture, but he was violently beaten. He was able to put this haunting experience to good use in his latest, largely humourless drama, Lawless, where one character after another is convincingly beaten to a pulp; a leather-gloved Guy Pearce punches and kicks a helpless Shia LaBoeuf to the ground, careful not to spill any blood on his neatly pressed suit, while Tom Hardy has his throat slit from ear-to-ear an another of the many brutal beatings that feel thoroughly appropriate for the time and place. “I take violence very seriously,” he describes his unflinching attitude towards the beatings. “I try to show the aftermath. But I wanted to show that we’re all capable of violence in the right circumstances.” He stops, thinks and corrects himself. “In the wrong circumstances. It brings out the best and the worst in people.”

In Lawless, LaBoeuf and Hardy play two of the three Bondurant brothers who make and sell illegal alcohol in 1930s Virginia, with Pearce’s ruthless lawman trying to put them out of business.

After the unremittingly bleak The Road, Hillcoat says, he wanted to do something with more tonal range, with more colour and emotions, and he liked the idea of pulling together urban gangsters and rural western characters into a single film. Back in 2008, he had this project ready to go, fully cast with the likes of Ryan Gosling and Scarlett Johansson, but with the economic crisis of 2008, Sony withdrew its financial support and the project collapsed. There was no audience for period, he was told, and no audience for a film in a rural setting. There hadn’t been a rural crime film set in that era since Bonnie & Clyde he noted.

But the film was rescued by the arrival of 25 year old Megan Ellison – the daughter of the computer billionaire Larry Ellison – who stepped in to back the project, adding it to a slate including True Grit and the upcoming The Master, Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly.

The new start gave Hillcoat the chance to change most of the cast and even the name – but Shia LaBoeuf remained a constant. It’s no surprise to see Guy Pearce – who starred in The Proposition and had a cameo in The Road – back in a John Hillcoat film. LaBoeuf, it turned out, was also a huge fan of his. “Shia admires Guy as an actor,” remarks Hillcoat. “He used to hang out on set just to watch Guy, even when he wasn’t needed.”

Hillcoat says Tom Hardy, who was brought in to play the leader of the family, Forrest, is an audacious and brave actor. Although he’s every bit as ruthless and determined as the enemies who are trying to bring him down, his chief role is as the matriarch of the family, insists Hillcoat. “He was the mother hen, protecting his nest.”

Nick Cave, Majestic Hotel, Cannes 2012
Photograph © Jason Korsner 2012

A constant theme throughout the film is that of immortality. The brothers believe they are invincible and every beating or bullet that comes their way, in their minds, only confirms this. “The stakes are so high,” notes Hillcoat. “They flirt with death, but no-one is really invincible.” But Hillcoat sees this story as different from many other crime films. “Traditionally, gangsters go down in a blaze of bullets, but in reality, people make up their own laws. The Bondurant brothers had to survive to keep their family business going. In reality, they were shockingly efficient. I wanted Shia to be more of a businessman and less of a gangster than his brothers.”

One of the things that particularly attracted Hillcoat to this project was the female roles. “It’s difficult to find good roles for women in gangster films,” he bemoans. But with two of the brothers having strong relationships with strong women, he says the love ensembles could balance out the violence. For him, despite the gunfights and the law-breaking, the two couples are at the core of the film.

Lawless marks Hillcoat’s second collaboration with writer, musician and fellow Australia, Nick Cave, who also provided the screenplay for The Proposition. This time round, their film has garnered mostly positive reviews and earned them a place in the official competition at Cannes. Hillcoat says he’s very lucky to have found someone who can write both the script and the score. “A film begins with the screenplay and ends with the music, so it’s a rare treat to have one person who can do both.” In this case, Cave worked on the music with his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis. But however many times they’ve worked together, Hillcoat notes that the pair seemed to spend their whole time arguing. “I wish I’d filmed them,” he jokes, suggesting that it could have been as violent and entertaining as what he ended up with.

 

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