I sincerely wish every lover of The Beat Generation could have been in my shoes this last week as the filming for the movie On the Road concluded in San Francisco. As I am the one fortunate enough to have had the experience, I will relate my feelings and impressions to the best of my ability
It started three weeks ago when we got an unexpected email from the Director of On the Road, Walter Salles. He mentioned the cast and crew would be in San Francisco for the final filming of On The Raod in December. After a 68 day shooting schedule and 50,000 miles of travel they’d be wrapping up the final scenes here in the city.
In the email, Walter explained how everything had come together for this movie very quickly. As many of you know, Francis Coppola gave the green light to Walter and screenwriter Jose Rivera six years ago. I have already related previously how John Allen Cassady and I met Jose Rivera in 2005 in LA and then again at John’s house in 2006. And then in 2007, we discovered Garrett Hedlund was the first person to be cast (as Neal Cassady) for the film when he stopped into The Beat Museum.
Walter explained how, as they shopped the project around in 2008 and 2009 to secure funding for production, they were simply unable to obtain any commitments. The economic climate had obviously changed with the recession and even with a modest budget request for $25M (a pretty small budget for a high profile story like On the Road) the project was going nowhere. Finally, a French company named MK2 made the commitment and Walter and company were off to the races!
It was interesting to hear how everything came together for the cast and crew like a bop spontaneous combustion! A normal five month pre-production schedule was compressed into two months. Big name actors like Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Steve Buscemi joined other actors who had already been cast like Kristen Stewart and Sam Riley. Shooting commitments and locations were secured and, glory of all glory, a ’49 Hudson was purchased.
There was a “Beatnik Boot Camp” held in Montreal right before shooting started where Walter brought in people like John Allen Cassady and Ann Charters and even LuAnne Henderson’s daughter along with many others to school the cast on the many fine points of the story of On the Road. They filmed in Montreal, New Orleans, Mexico, even Chile where a snowy mountaintop road Walter had originally discovered and was unable to use for Motorcycle Diaries stood in for 1948 Rocky Mountains.
THE ACTORS STOP INTO THE BEAT MUSEUM:
It was a rainy week in San Francisco. We knew the relatively small crew team and cast for On the Road would be arriving any day. We didn’t know how the weather might affect their shooting schedule or if they were doing interior or exterior shots. Plus, Walter had mentioned how the weather had not been cooperating in Montreal and things were taking longer than they’d planned.
We first got wind something was about to happen on Tuesday, 12/7/10 when we hosted a group of 70 students from Windsor High School. After explaining how The Beats became The Beatniks and then The Beatniks became The Hippies, we talked a little about Howl and the obscenity trial and then On the Road and Neal Cassady. A couple of the kids spoke up: “They’re making a movie out of On the Road now, right? Are they shooting in San Francisco this week?” “Yeah, how did you know?” “Because we just saw Kirsten Dunst at City Lights.”
Wednesday it was pouring. Very few people walked into The Beat Museum due to all the rain. Around noon or so two young guys stepped in dripping from head to toe. I recognized one instantly as Tom Sturridge, the actor who had been cast as Allen Ginsberg. “Hey Tom, I know you from your photo. We were hoping you guys would show up. I’m Jerry, who’s your friend?” “This is Danny Morgan, he’s playing Big Ed Dunkel.”
So we showed Tom and Danny around the museum. They spent probably an hour, looking at every exhibit and every display. We tried not to intrude too much as we didn’t want to take away from their experience. “Garrett told us this place is great,” Danny said. “He wasn’t kidding.”
Later that evening around 7 pm, I was sitting by the computer munching on some popcorn when I heard someone shout, “Hey, Jerry.” I looked up to see Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley marching through the door. Garrett gave me a big bear hug and said, “You have no idea how much those Neal Cassady books and DVD’s you turned me onto three years ago helped me shape Neal as a character. Oh, this is my buddy, Sam.” “Hey Sam,” I smiled. “I’ve seen your photo.” Sam and Garrett ran around the museum for a while. They mentioned how they’d left Tom and Danny at Vesuvio. When it was time for them to leave they insisted I join them at Vesuvio.
I wish that every lover of On the Road could have had the experience I had that night. I know there’s a lot of controversy for some people about the book being made into a movie. Everyone’s got an opinion. “That guy’s too skinny, that guy’s not American, he’s British, that woman is not right for the part, I hope she doesn’t screw it up.” You name it!
I’m telling you friends, if you could have been me that night drinking beer with four actors from On the Road at Vesuvio, you would know that everything is in good hands.
It was surreal, really. They told me everything. We were simply five guys at a table, all Kerouac fans, talking about something we all love. They told me about the various scenes and where they shot them, they talked about what it was like to work with older and more experienced actors like Viggo and Buscemi. They told me about the atmosphere on the set and how Walter had put so much in motion for them to become great friends during the two and a half month long filming. They talked about when they deviated from the script in a spontaneous fashion and the synchronicity of how everything all came together.
But it was their interaction with each other that I found to be so wonderful. They were tender with each other. They would often finish each other’s sentences and wrap their arms around each other with pride of friendship as men who have bonded with each other often will. Each of them said this had been the greatest experience of their lives. I jokingly asked if they’d each be getting an “On the Road” tattoo like the cast of “Lord of the Rings” had gotten and they laughed and bought another round.
It was pretty interesting to be sitting at a table in Vesuvio with four well known and soon to be famous actors who happened to be portraying Jack, Neal, Allen and Al Hinkle. And as we sat swapping stories I really got a sense of the journey they’d been through in the shooting of this film: long travel, exciting moments, challenges observed, tackled and overcome. Every once in a while someone would look at our table, seemingly recognizing someone, but unsure. No one approached however, despite the fact Garrett’s picture is all of a sudden everywhere this week what with the marketing machine for Disney’s Tron Legacy in full swing and a second movie, Country Strong, coming out in a few weeks.
Click here to see Garrett singing a duet with Leighton Meester in Country Strong.
In fact, Garrett needed to fly to LA on the very last day of shooting here in SF in order to attend the premier of Tron with Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde and many others. It was a bittersweet moment to watch how he was torn with the natural excitement of a big splash of a Hollywood launch like Tron, and yet to see him with a number of great friends he’s made and didn’t want to leave on the very last days of his On the Road experience. I read on a website how he told a reporter at the premier he flew out of SFO on Saturday morning, cut his hair, threw on a Calvin Klein suit and made it to the big Hollywood premier just in time.
Later that night we were joined by Brandon, Rebecca Yeldham (associate producer Motorcycle Diaries) as well as Charles and Nathan, two of the producers for the film. They told us how nobody knew how they were going to pull off the scene where they drove the Hudson over the mountains with the snow and ice. Famously, the Hudson didn’t have a heater as both the radio and heater were $50 options in those days and Neal didn’t have the money for both. Al Hinkle, who was with Neal when he bought the car, said, “Neal, we gotta have a radio.”
And Walter and company were determined to portray that scene as accurately as possible. They briefly considered shooting on a blue screen, but Walter insisted they shoot on a mountaintop and with real snow. He wanted the actors to be cold, he wanted the camera to catch their breath in the air, he wanted to capture the uncertainty of the slippery ride.
The boys told me how Walter remembered a location he’s scouted for Motorcycle Diaries on a mountaintop in Chile. The roads in the Rocky Mountains in the summer time didn’t have enough snow to film the scene but the mountains on the other side of the equator did so they made arrangements to shoot in Chile. The next challenge was the Hudson. It would have taken forever to ship the car to Chile so Walter contacted Hudson Clubs all over the world and eventually they found a contact for the only ’49 Hudson in Chile about 100 miles from where they wanted to shoot.
I mentioned to Sam and Garrett how I’d seen the video clip on YouTube of Kristen Stewart flying into Argentina and how the mob at the airport just exploded with excitement. So much so that the video was very frightening. Sam laughed. “Yeah, we were on either side of her for that. We were her bodyguards, nobody even knew who we were.”
At one point Tom confided something to me that kind of knocked my socks off. He said, “You know, if I’ve been rather quiet since we met I want you to know it’s because I’m in awe of seeing the museum and knowing we’ll be meeting Carolyn Cassady this week and what it all represents. We all know that we’re portraying a beloved story and other people’s lives and I think we have a full appreciation of what it all means to so many people. I mean, this story and these people mean so much to me personally and I’ve only been involved with it a relatively short time. There are so many die hard Kerouac fans and Beat fans who have spent their lives immersed in all this and by comparison we’re all just a bunch of young actors who got lucky enough to be chosen to play a part.”
I’ve got to tell you I was struck by what Tom said. And I also realized that he and the other actors I met are in the roles they’ve been cast for good reason. Walter had told me that Sam is a tremendous listener and he conveys that on screen. And that’s what you would want in a person playing the ever observant Kerouac. And Garrett has this natural sense about him that just oozes sensuality and a vulnerability at the same time. I told Tom, “Seems to me you were all involved in this film for good reasons. Everything each of you has done up to this point is what got you here. The people making the decisions saw that in you and had confidence you could fulfill their visions.
MEETING WALTER SALLES
On Sunday John Cassady brought his mom Carolyn by to say hello. My wife, Estelle, and Carolyn have built up a great friendship over the past fifteen years. Maybe it’s because they’ve got a lot in common. Carolyn put up with Neal all those years and Estelle puts up with me!
While they were here, we got a phone call telling Carolyn and John where to meet Walter for lunch and telling me that Walter would be by the Museum later that day to say hello.
For the last year that John has known Walter, he’s been telling me what a charming and articulate man he is, how kind and considerate he’s been to his mother and how he has such an enormous capacity for getting things done . “And he’s fluent in all kinds of languages. He’d be talking to me in English, someone else on the phone in Portuguese and then turn to the Producers and speak in perfect French.”
When Walter walked in the door and we finally met face to face for the first time we didn’t shake hands but rather hugged like old friends. We both knew we were kindred spirits. “You know, Jerry, I’ve been to The Beat Museum a few times but we’ve never met. And I have to tell you what you’ve created has inspired not only me but the entire cast and crew.” It was an easy conversation after that!
So, Estelle and I sat upstairs on the second level of The Beat Museum and spoke to Walter Salles for two hours the day after they’d finished 68 days of filming. I was like a school-kid, listening to a journey I knew well and yet hearing the subtleties, nuances and details from someone who had a vision and a dream and was about to bring it into all our lives. We talked about Jack’s father, Neal’s father, my father and Walter’s father. How Jack was in this void in 1946 after the loss of his father and into that void stepped Neal Cassady.
He told us what On the Road meant to him growing up in Brazil and how to him the book represented freedom of course, but probably a different kind of freedom than growing up in the US. We talked about the international aspects of On the Road. I know many of us in the US tend to see OTR as an American story – all that ice cream and apple pie. And as we talked I realized we were sitting right in front of the On the Road Around The World exhibit where we could see copies of Jack’s book in dozens of different languages. We talked about Jack and Allen’s letters to each other and what they were like before they met Neal and how the tone shifted to a greater exuberance after they met Neal.
At one point a man and woman with their twenty year old daughter approached and said, “Excuse us, we don’t mean to interrupt, but we want to thank you for putting all this together. It’s a wonderful heritage.” “Thanks,” I said, “It’s a labor of love, as you might imagine. Did you folks know a lot about the Beats before you came in?” “Our daughter Lara did,” he said. “She brought us in, she’s in college.” “Oh, what are you studying? Estelle asked. “I’m studying film making,” Lara said.
I looked at Walter and he looked at me. “Is it OK if I introduce you?” I asked under my breath. “Sure,” he nodded. So, film student Lara got to meet Walter Salles at The Beat Museum. Later, after we’d finished upstairs and Estelle and I were walking Walter out we saw Lara’s mother buying her a 50th Anniversary Edition of On the Road. Walter graciously inscribed it for her. I didn’t look at it to see what it might have said but I’m sure it was something inspirational that might motivate her in her studies. That’s the kind of guy Walter is.
It is my firm belief that the film project for On the Road could not be in better hands. Speaking with the actors for hours on end two nights in a row at Vesuvio I saw first hand they have a love for and an understanding of the Beats as much as anyone I’ve ever met. And that goes doubly for Walter Salles. Carolyn Cassady told me that Walter had accidently left his copy of her book Off The Road at her house in England on one trip and she noticed that every page was crammed with notes and comments and ideas in the margins.
I know there are certain people who have objections to many different aspects of turning On the Road into a movie. There are even some people who don’t believe anyone should even attempt to make the movie, and that no one can do it justice. I totally disagree with that position. Books and movies are two totally different art forms. To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book and it was also a different, but great movie. The same with East of Eden – great book, great movie. Hell, even old Jack himself thought On the Road should be made into a movie. He mailed a letter to Marlon Brando suggesting Brando play Dean and Jack would play himself and they write the screenplay together. That never came about, of course, but as far as I’m concerned that’s the final say in the matter – Jack’s opinion was his book would make a great movie and that’s that.
I’ve had high hopes for this film for the last fifteen years. For the longest time I was glad Coppola was the guy who owned the rights to it because I truly believed he would either do it right or he wouldn’t do it at all. When I heard he’d brought in Walter Salles and Jose Rivera I thought if anyone had a shot at making On the Road into a great movie, these guys would. When I first met Garrett back in 2007 and saw what a sensitive soul he is I immediately recognized why Walter had cast him. When I heard that Sam Riley and Kirsten Dunst and Tom Sturridge and Kristen Stewart were on board I was excited by all the young talent. And when Viggo Mortensen, Elisabeth Moss, Alice Braga, Amy Adams and Steve Buscemi signed up I was even more impressed. That’s a LOT of talent for a $25M film. If all these actors were getting paid what you’d expect them to be getting paid for any other film they’d eat up that $25m budget just in salaries alone and then some. It’s obvious this movie is a labor of love for a lot of folks.
And then this past Sunday after spending two hours with Walter Salles I’m even more convinced that now is the time and these are the people.
On the Road – The Movie, coming to the big screen in 2011.
I, for one, can’t wait!