Brazilian director Walter Salles adapts American classic 'On the Road'

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 - 3:45 PM

How Walter Salles became the first filmmaker to adapt Jack Kerouac’s rebel classic, “On the Road.”

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Director Walter Salles, left, on the set of “On the Road,” with actors Sam Riley and Viggo Mortensen.

 

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.

— Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” 1957

 

In 1974, when Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles first read Kerouac’s Beat Generation bible he was an 18-year-old university student whose country was under a repressive military regime.

He read the ground-breaking novel in English, because the exuberant account of sex, drugs and booze-fueled youthful rebellion against conservative mores could not find a publisher in his homeland. The son of a banker/diplomat, Salles spent a peripatetic childhood in Europe and felt a strong affinity for the book’s two main vagabond characters on their journey from youth to early adulthood.

“I profoundly identified with the vibrant free spirits of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty,” he said during a recent visit to Minneapolis. Their adventurous lives “breathing the fresh air of the American frontier” were “a mirror image of what we were living. They defined the way we wanted to live.” His copy of the book circulated clandestinely among his classmates.

Now Salles has brought the American classic to the big screen, the culmination of a 50-year journey from page to film. It opened Friday at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis.

Over the years, Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard and Gus Van Sant have been associated with failed efforts to adapt the novel’s crackling verbal fireworks. Salles, who studied film at the University of Southern California, came to the project on the strength of his 2004 hit “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which turned a real-life trip across South America by the young Che Guevara and a young comrade into a rollicking buddy picture with breathtaking visuals.

When the producers approached him to film “On the Road,” however, “I didn’t feel ready,” he admitted.

He negotiated a lengthy research period that would allow him to roam the backroads that Kerouac traveled and interview as many of the surviving Beat writers, artists and philosophers as he could find. Like Kerouac’s alter ego Sal, who attentively takes notes during his adventures, Salles documented his travels with hours of film.

“To capture the truth of the era that is described in the book,” he recorded encounters with poets Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and Gary Snyder. His 2008 research was more than an exercise in due diligence. Salles has edited the footage into a freestanding documentary feature, “Searching for ‘On the Road.’ ” No release date has been announced.

Salles attracted a cast ranging from major stars to relative unknowns. Before shooting, he brought them to a “beatnik camp,” where biographers and relatives of the real-life characters shared their insights.

English actor Sam Riley signed on as Kerouac’s alter ego, the introverted writer Sal. Ely, Minn.-born Garrett Hedlund stepped into the demanding role of Dean Moriarty, a hipster saint, Casanova and cad based on counterculture icon Neal Cassady. Hedlund auditioned by reading diaries he had written while riding the bus from Minnesota to Los Angeles. Before he was halfway through, Salles said, “I knew we had our Dean.”

With the offer in hand, Hedlund turned down other offers of work for two years lest they conflict with “On the Road’s” extensive shooting schedule. Although Kerouac’s female characters are secondary figures, “Spider-Man’s” Kirsten Dunst stepped into the role of Dean’s neglected wife, and “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart waived her $20 million fee to play his outrageous young lover.

Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortenson, Amy Adams and Terrence Howard appear in colorful supporting roles.

The production itself mirrored Kerouac’s cross-country odyssey. Salles and company covered “almost 100,000 kilometers,” or more than 60,000 miles, he said. About 4,000 miles of that journey were in a spacious Hudson sedan that could hold a small film crew. Hedlund took his turns at the wheel with the confidence of Steve McQueen, Salles said, driving most of his scenes “at velocities that were much in excess of the legal limits.”

Half a century on, the novel remains pertinent, Salles said, as rebels continue to push against social strictures in America, the Middle East and China. As the Beats “pursu[ed] the freedoms that were denied to them, they also expanded the frontiers of the culture,” Salles said.

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