“For me, cinema in the late ‘60s and ‘70s—that was the renaissance of film,” says acclaimed director John Hillcoat, whose newest film, Lawless, harkens back to dusty outlaw tales of Bonnie and Clyde while taking the the conventional gangster genre and burying it deep in the backwoods. Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bonderant, the film was written and scored by Hillcoat’s longtime collaborator and friend, Nick Cave, bringing together not only their shared passion for American folklore but their unique brand of storytelling.
The film tells the story of three bootlegging brothers: Jack, Forrest, and Howard (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke, respectively) in Depression-era Franklin County, Virginia, during the prohibition. After FBI Special Agent Charlie Rakes (played by Guy Pearce) is sent into town to bring hell into their lives, the film follows down the beloved Hillcoat trajectory of a violent, male-driven tale of people living in extreme worlds with extreme consequences. It’s through the characters of Maggie and Bertha (played by Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska) and their strong female presence, however, that we’re presented with a real-life tale that’s more about battling for survival and protection than just machismo. We caught up with Hillcoat to chat about going back in time to find the story, the complexities of alpha male characters, and being on the fringe of American cinema.
How did you come across the novel? Were you looking for something like this?
I was looking for a gangster film. I love being transported into other worlds and extreme worlds. When I say extreme worlds, I mean where the stakes are high therefore there’s real conflict. And being transported into other worlds has always been something that I’ve loved about cinema since I was a kid. There’s something to me about the Great American films; the gangster films and the westerns were certainly two very distinct worlds you get caught up in, and I’d been looking for a gangster film but, to be honest, it was very hard to find a new take on that genre, especially in the wake after Goodfellas. It’s kind of hard, where do go from there? So I went back in time. What I found interesting [in Lawless] was that it was the people in the backwoods, and that story, I don’t think, has ever been told. I guess it’s also where the western ends and the gangster film begins, and the western outlaws in the backwoods now are introduced to guns and modern technology. It was quite an upheaval.
What attracts you to these sort of extreme worlds and moral situations?
It just always interested me because I think it just reveals a lot about ourselves. It’s in extreme situations that we see the best and the worst of ourselves. I’m always intrigued by what really lurks under.
There are a lot of gangster films that come out but don’t have a strong staying power like Goodfellas because they lack the character and heart, but these characters were so developed—they all had their own strong backstories and you could empathize with them. Is that something you grasped from the novel?
Matt Bondurant, who wrote the novel, he was at his father’s place, and he saw hanging on the wall, a pair of brass knuckles and he said, “What the hell are those?” His father said, “Oh, that was your great Uncle Forrest.” So it was actually that moment that he went right into the whole research of that world, discovering his family history. Also just as a writer, his ear for dialogue; I love the way he talked about Maggie and Forrest and that they’re both damaged people that find each other and it’s a very unusual but moving kind of love story and they hide it from everyone. Forrest can’t describe his emotions, so it’s this secret awkward love affair. And then the sweetness and innocence of the first love of Jack and Bertha. Because no matter how extreme a world, I’m more interested in trying to find the humanity than just making the two-dimensional. That’s sometimes a challenge when you’re dealing with such familiar genres. Although, that being said, these gangsters and westerns are still filled with flawed characters with moral dilemmas.
You don’t necessarily like the characters all of the time, but you still want it to work out for them because you’ve set up that humility in all of them.
Exactly. And their own tragic flaws are always compelling, I think. In this case, what also was very attractive—that Nick Cave who adapted it, and I both loved was that traditionally, the genre with gangsters—you’re used to seeing them punished for their sins and so they’re all taken out in a blaze of glory. But in this case, I don’t want to give away too much, but there was a real transformation and to really engage in everyday life. We thought that was actually a refreshing thing to see. And the one guy who was always a misfit in life and kind of the most haunted finally finds peace and you think he’ll always survive. So, for us, in the true story, there were a lot of rich ingredients and it’s still tapped into archetypes of that world that I’ve always been fascinated in. Floyd Banner is just that colorful kind of gangster, the gangster for all of us, someone we’re all scared of and thrilled by, so he was a really interesting character as well and I really tried to get that irony of the way Jack was like all of us.
You’re attracted to these male-driven, violent stories. They’re not violent for the sake of it, but just because they are it’s necessary for their survival. Is that something that you’re cognizant of when developing an idea?
Actually, what I thought was so great about what Tom brought to Forrest was actually quite a vulnerable, feminine side.
He was like the mother of the family.
And when he lashes out he is absolutely terrifying and probably all the more for it. But because of the contradictions and complexities, I am fascinated by the sort of flip side to those archetypes and also the vulnerabilities. To me, it’s always more interesting to see, a sort of powerful alpha male vulnerable than just pure alpha male. Having said that, and this what I love about the Maggie and Bertha, I do love a little respite in there. It’s hard to find, often in most of these stories, to find strong female characters and so I’m always actively seeking that. And in actual fact, I’m actually specifically looking for female-driven leading characters. I love these kind of genres and these generic, almost like ancient kind of dilemmas and conflicts. Often the written scripts for leading female characters tend to be not in these kind of robust genres and I would love to find that, I’m always looking for that material. I’m saying, I would like a classic genre film in extreme situations but the character is a woman. That’s hard to find.
It was refreshing to see these women that were really strong and could hold their own against these men. Even Bertha, even though she’s so innocent, but she had a strength.
I’m glad you noticed! And Maggie is actually stronger than all those brothers, even Forrest.
I love that she had to be the one to do something first because he’s so strong but was completely incapable of expressing himself.
Yes and she had to bare this terrible truth and hide and then eventually reveals that she had to take care of him. Then she had to bare the real truth that he couldn’t deal with. She had to battle it and that makes her all the more stronger that she can handle it whereas she knew he couldn’t.
How did you go about casting?
First came Shia; he was always involved from the get go. In all his films, he was always strong in them and compelling and there was something about him. And he was itching to get his teeth into real characters and he had qualities that Jack had. The film had come through various incarnations because initially when we were trying to make it, it was a studio film and then the global economy shook everything up and all the studios went into a spiral and decided they couldn’t make these sort of films anymore. So we went back and reconstructed it. Shia independently had contacted Tom because he loved his performance in Bronson. I actually had been aware of Tom independently and met Tom after he had just done Inception and knew he was someone I wanted to find something to do and this was perfect material. And Jessica, I met her actually before Tom. I was looking for a strong, intelligent woman who was charismatic and also had real gravitas and depth to her and real emotion. So then when I met her it was a combination of things I had heard from other filmmakers that I trust and then meeting her and then seeing a couple scenes from the film. Mia I met before she did Alice and she, at that stage, had only done a couple of smaller films and again, she had this wonderful quality and just struck me as having a great face for it. When you look at different periods and different times, there are certain faces that look suitable for those times and also for that kind of closed religious communities so something about her look. The Mennonites, a lot of them came from an eastern European background so there was several qualities and also a real sweetness and edging with her. She was so young and clearly so talented and also a completely different energy to Jessica.
It was a perfect pairing between Jessica and Tom and then Shia and Mia. They all had such great chemistry.
And that something I’m always looking for, especially with an ensemble, that kind of different energies and contrasts.
You have an ongoing relationship and collaboration with Nick Cave as a writer and composer. Can you tell me about that? He always does such fascinating work.
We have an Australian connection. I’ve known him since I was a teenager and I did his music stuff and he worked on my film stuff. There’s something about him… I love music and I’ve been involved in music my whole career and Nick loves movies. He watches more movies than me and I listen to more music than him. So it’s a weird connection there, we love collaborating and we’re always planning and working on the next thing.
So do you work together as he’s writing it, do you sort of build it together?
There’s a period where I’m more just a bouncing board for stuff he writes and I talk about ideas that I’ll have that he’ll play with, so it’s very much an organic back-and-forth. And to have him write at the very beginning and then end the whole thing with the music gives it a really added cohesion that I don’t think I would get otherwise.
Because he knows what the tone is supposed to be because he set it.
Exactly. And actually, there’s something very musical in the rhythms of films and the way people speak and the whole tone of things, so I’m very lucky.
This is sort of a very rural American Dream type of film. As someone not from here, do you have your own very predisposed image of what you image this time to be like and American history?
Well, I actually grew up in America as a young kid and I grew up in Canada from when I was 4 years old to 17 and I’ve travelled a lot through the country but I definitely have an outsiders perspective. It’s strange, it’s an outsiders perspective and in that sense, that sometimes can be a big advantage.
Did you have any sort of cinematic touchstones that you looked back on when making the film for inspiration? Gangster movies or westerns?
Oh, yeah. The big one for me, particularly, was White Heat with Jimmy Cagney, which has a kind of restless energy and flamboyance, that was something in that period I talked a lot to Guy Pierce about when he played Rakes. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde. The films of the ’70s—they’ve always been a profound influence on my work and an inspiration. But there’s old black-and-white films, the classic gangsters as well. And the original Scarface.