A Day on the Set of Big Sur, Part 1

by Jerry Cimino

Bixby Canyon Bridge in the Fog

And then there were two.

As a friend of mine put it most succinctly a few weeks ago, “I’ve been waiting fifty years for a new film adaptation of one of Kerouac’s books, and now we’ve got two of them coming one on the heels of the other.”

Truer words were never spoken. Those of us who are die hard fans had to suffer through the knowing that the only Kerouac novel that had ever been adapted to the silver screen was The Subterraneans. Don’t go looking for it. It’s bad, trust me. So bad, it’s never legitimately been released to either VHS or DVD. So bad it’s why some say old Jack drank himself to death.

That last clever aside may not be far off the mark. And it segues perfectly into the news about the second Kerouac novel to wrap filming and go into post-production this year. Big Sur is the story of Kerouac’s descent into full-blown alcoholism complete with the DT’s (delirium tremens) which led to his eventual demise. The timeline fits perfectly: With On the Road, Kerouac becomes famous in 1957. Declared the ‘King of the Beatniks’ soon after, The Subterraneans is released as a film 1960 (major plot line: Jack’s love affair with a black woman—Mardou Fox—changed to a French woman in the film – that was enough of a leap for 1960 US audiences). Kerouac’s Big Sur adventures take place in 1961. It’s Jack’s last trip to California and he never comes out of the bottle.

Big Sur has always been one of my favorite books, but it’s not for the faint hearted. It’s amazing to consider that someone can so capably and clearly chronicle the beginning of their own demise. I love the way Kerouac contrasts the magnificent scenery and natural beauty of Big Sur along with the power of the Pacific Ocean against the turmoil of his own inner demons that eventually take him down.

Frankly, Big Sur is the reason my wife and I moved from the Baltimore/Washington DC area to Monterey, California in 1988. We had to see Big Sur and we both fell in love with it. We eventually settled in Monterey (as opposed to Big Sur) 30 miles up the coast because we thought we needed telephones, running water and cable TV.

So now comes Big Sur the movie, fast upon the heels of On the Road. Kerouac is hot in 2011/2012 and if the interest in these two films is any indication, he’s about to get a lot hotter.


Big Sur the movie crashed over us like a wave blasting through North Beach. We were hanging out at The Museum, typical day, when suddenly a dozen people exploded through the front door with cameras and equipment. “Who are you guys? What are you up to?” “We’re a French TV Production Company, we’re following the story of the making of Big Sur.” “What do you mean the making of Big Sur?” “It’s those guys over there, they’re making Big Sur into a movie. They start filming this week in San Francisco, and we’re here to document all that.”

And that’s how we met Michael Polish and Jean-Marc Barr. Polish is a film director, most well known for some films he made with his twin brother Mark. They’ve been staples at Sundance for the last decade, having first made their mark in 1999, the same year I went there to see The Source by Chuck Workman. One of the Polish Brothers’ better known films is The Astronaut Farmer with Billy Bob Thornton. I’ve watched it on TV more than once. You can read more about Michael Polish here »

Jean-Marc Barr seems an unlikely actor to play Kerouac. First he’s as bald as I am and secondly he’s a French actor (American father, bilingual, spent much time here in the US), and therefore rather unfamiliar to American audiences. That may be about to change with Big Sur.

Jean-Marc and I really hit it off talking about Kerouac. He really does know Jack! And he has a passion and desire to tell Jack’s story in the best way he can. We filmed some discussions for the documentary crew, walking around North Beach and pointing out the Beat sites. A couple from France recognized Jean-Marc when we were upstairs at The Beat Museum and asked for his autograph (he’s rather well known in France for a film he starred in called The Big Blue). Then an hour later, Jean-Marc abruptly says, “I’ve got to leave now. I’ve got to get fitted for a wig?” “A wig?” Jean-Marc smiled, “Jack had a beautiful head of hair and I need a little help up there.” You can read more about Jean-Marc here: Wikipedia: Jean-Marc Barr »


A couple weeks later I’m in Monterey when I get a call from Orian Williams. He’s one of the producers for the movie. He wants to know what time I can meet them on set in Big Sur.

The area known as Big Sur starts less than twenty miles south of Monterey along Highway 1 and runs for a hundred miles. I’ve probably driven that coastal highway a thousand times in the last twenty years, but I never tire of it. In the middle of this forested expanse is the town of Big Sur itself, a place so small if you blink you’ll miss it. The name comes from Spanish origins, it means “The Big South” and it’s apropos because Big Sur literally runs from Carmel to San Simeon, mountains and forests falling into the Pacific Ocean—literally one of the most magnificent sights in the world. John Allen Cassady and I took a memorable trip down there years ago with our good friend and author Steve Edington who wrote The Beat Face of God.

Here’s a link to the blog entry detailing mine and John Cassady’s journey to Big Sur.

So, on this particular drive South I was expecting some delays because the spring rains had washed out sections of the road and there was a spot where a slide took out half the highway and dropped it into the Pacific Ocean. There were traffic control lights alternating the one lane in either direction. It was only a few minutes wait, fully automated, no big deal. A few miles South I found myself piled up in a long line of cars with a twenty minute wait and wondered why things were taking so long.

I soon found out when I crested the hill and saw California Highway Patrol cars intermittently stopping traffic. In the distance I could see what looked to be old style cars and crowds of people standing by the side of the road. I’d found the shooting location for the movie and every vacationing group driving up and down the highway that day couldn’t help but inadvertently find themselves in the middle it.

You’ve seen Big Sur before whether you know it or not. Every car company eventually shoots TV commercials of their latest model zipping the corners with a large expanse of the ocean and mountains in the background. It’s quite the sight and undoubtedly sells a lot of cars. But it’s not often these days you see a dozen 1950’s models rounding those same corners.

When I finally got to the Bixby Canyon Bridge the production company for Big Sur had taken over the entire area. A car carrier was sitting next to the bridge with that days “props” on it’s rails. An old Nash yellow cab was on a trailer – undoubtedly the cab being used for Jack’s $8 cab ride from Monterey down to Big Sur (to Raton Canyon, as he calls it in the book) after taking a bus down from SF to go to Lorenzo Monsanto’s (Ferlinghetti’s) cabin.

I spoke to a guy with a walkie talkie. He was coordinating vans moving people up and down the highway. They drove me down a few miles south where they were shooting that morning. I get to the spot and there are literally forty people standing along the side of the road working on various aspects of the film – drivers, electricians, medics, – everyone had their job. There were California Highway Patrol cars holding traffic so the crew could get their shot. After standing around for a few minutes, Jean-Marc spotted me and came over to say hello. He introduced me around to the various producers and crew members.

The scene they were filming was a brief one; it probably won’t be more than a minute in the final cut. It seemed to follow the book faithfully. Jack is hitchhiking from Big Sur back to SF and can’t catch a ride. Cars pass him, mothers in sunglasses and children eating ice cream stare at him. Jack walks miles up the road in bad shoes and develops terrible blisters before he finally catches a ride. It was the last time he ever hitchhiked.

Next Installment: We go to the base camp and I meet Anthony Edwards, Patrick Fischler, Josh Lucas, Stana Katic, Henry Thomas, Brenda Marie King – the actors playing Ferlinghetti, Lew Welch, Neal Cassady, Lenore Kandel, Phil Whelan and Joanna McClure.

Stay tuned –