Sunday, September 9, 2012

'Making better time On the Road' Report on 'On the Road' at the Toronto International Film Festival

By Brian Hassett (with spoilers!)

So, I get to the Ryerson Theatre at 7PM for a 9:00 screening and there’s already a whole scene. A line of black VIP shuttle cars. News trucks with their satellites up. Barricades. A red carpet. Security. Orange-shirted volunteers by the bucketful. And a line that goes all the way down the street and around the corner! And once again, there’s way more yin than yang.

So, I’m scouting it as usual, and the long and the short of it is, I end up sashaying into the photog’s press pit along the red carpet, with all the screaming fans on the other side. And all along on the ground under the rope line are these numbers about one foot apart and that’s where each news person gets to stand. And I start talkin to this girl from the Daily News — yeah, New York! And we’re hangin, and as it gets closer to “showtime” I realize nobody’s really been stepping on the number right next to her, so I do, and now I’m number 28 along the rope with some TV show called “Red Carpet Diary” on my other side. And at some point just before the stars arrive all of a sudden this woman is there walking along the line asking every person who they’re with. And I blurt out, “RockPeaks and LiteraryKicks,” and she goes okay, and keeps movin’ on to the next guy. :-0

So there I am, leaning on the rope to glad-hand director Walter Salles, and movie stars Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst.

And the movie stars end up staying out there a really long time alternating between doing interviews and then answering the screams of the fans and crossing to the other side and signing autographs and posing for pictures and totally workin’ the room. Turns out later there may have been technical projector problems inside that were being worked out, so they just had the movie stars stay out there.

And of course Damo’s found me by this point and he too scams his way into the pit on the rope line like the magician he is. And then he’s the one who spots that they’re finally letting people into the theatre behind us, a cue we’ve been watching for, and we’ve had enough face time with the stars so we book it into the room and scootch right up to the Reserved Seats, and I notice there’s a two-spot saved on the aisle right behind the main rows of Reserved. Thought that looked interesting, so we cop the two next to them, and no sooner do we sit down, than James Franco comes over and sits right next to me!

This guy was the greatest Ginsberg ever on film in “Howl” and I tell him so, and he’s got this great laugh and smile, even though he’s all slouching down in his seat and wearing a baseball cap and looking like a scraggly bum so as not to be recognized, and talking really low. And I say, “How come you’re not in this?” and he says they talked about it but it just never worked out. And I’m opening smuggled beers and takin’ copious notes and he’s laughin n noddin at crazy compulsive-efficient Brian.

And of course the place is packed and it’s a bit of a wonderfully boisterous 9PM TIFF premier audience, and director Walter Salles comes out for a little howdy-do. He talked about this city being one of the great film capitals of the world, not only in the making of films but in the sophistication of the people, and how he was so grateful to have this film debuting to this audience. He talked about how the film was partially shot in Canada and how it was very emotional for him to be back here now. And about how everyone on the crew were co-authors of the film. And how they covered 60,000 miles in the making of it in order to get the right locations. Then he quoted Gary Snyder as telling him one day, “We would drive a thousand miles for one good conversation.”

Then the preview shorts start and the audience is cheering or booing or laughing at the little ads. A short plays for this James Bond exhibit they have on at TIFF, and as it ends to silence, some guy yells, “Come on, it’s James Bond, people!!” and everyone laughs and applauds. And then some little notice comes on about copyright infringement and everybody boos. And I’m thinkin, “This is a great audience.”

Okay, so . . . the new version

It’s totally different, and totally great!

The entire prior opening is scrapped, and it’s just BOOM right into Dean parking cars like a maniac. And then right into the West End Bar with Chad King telling Sal and Carlo that this guy from Denver was in town.

You would have liked the longer version — but you’re gonna Love this version!

The music is GREAT — and the soundtrack is seat-bopping, and the surroundsound is booming! The original music that runs all through it is super percussive (beat) and catchy and gets ya goin and I love it!

It’s way faster paced, it’s way more focused, it’s way more fun, its way more exciting.

It’s more about the writer’s journey of discovery of his voice and vision and less about all the side stories. The first version was more Thomas Wolfe — this is more Jack Kerouac — more modern, less dragged out — more broken Benzedrine inhalers and less counted coffee spoons.

The first time, I was so busy following the story and the novel and all the sources and thinking — this time I was more open to the incredible landscapes, visages, car shots, and time-period time-travel. You’re so there, 1947-to-50 New York City – San Francisco –Denver – and On The Road, baby. And for instance there’s this killer shot of a misty mountain roadside and you can hear Jack singing his roadsong, and before long out of the white mist of nothingness comes Jack amblin’ along, rucksack on back.

And Garrett Hedlund really does give a pretty darn good performance here. I guess because we know the guys so well, and Marylou was such an enigma, that Kristen Stewart’s character just screamed to life for me the first time I saw it. With that now internalized, I really enjoyed how good this Hedlund kid was as Dean.

And Tom Sturridge who plays Carlo/Allen is really engaging. I don’t know how Allen really moved or spoke circa 1947-50, and I don’t think this is really him, but it certainly is a vivid, loveable, endearing Carlo.

There’s no point in, or really way to, annotate all the things that were cut out, because sometimes it’s just a line or few seconds of a scene.

He cut the multiple scenes of the prior opening, as I say, and shortened others, but then there’s all this little stuff added, too — including this whole coda after the movie’s over, that I won’t tell you about, but it wasn’t there before, and is very effective.

During the first viewing I noticed how much sex there was in it. This time I noticed they seem to be smoking joints in just about every scene!

And yeah, you Beat junkies, me included, are gonna wanna have both versions on DVD. They are two different road trips.

When the film was over, TIFF Director Piers Handling comes out with Walter, Garrett, Kirsten and Kristen — to huge applause, and screaming, actually — for about a 15 minute Q&A.

Walter talked about reading the book as a teenager in the 70s in his native Brazil when it was under a strict military regime and there was censorship and this book represented all the things they were being denied at the time — “where all forms of freedom were possible. And it stayed with me for many many years. In fact, before making ’The Motorcycle Diaries’ I read ‘On The Road’ again because I wanted to be inhabited by the beauty of that transition between youth and adulthood. It was both what it was telling me, but also how it was written.”

Garrett Hedlund (Dean/Neal) was asked about his research and once again went on about how great it was to meet the Cassadys. “Making this movie was a wild journey, a wild life experience — being such a fan of the Beat Generation and Neal Cassady. And then being blessed to meet John — Neal and Carolyn’s only son — and being able to ask him every question I wanted and hear his stories about his dad. And meeting Michael McClure, and Carolyn Cassady in London, and to get to know this man through the letters and unpublished writings, it was so rich, learning about this person who inspired me so much, and so many others — other Beat writers, rock stars, people who were lost and wanted to go on their own journey to find something much greater than themselves.”

Kirsten Dunst (Camille/Carolyn) — “I read Carolyn’s book, and even though she didn’t love his lifestyle, I think at the end of the day, she really wanted ‘them,’ and she gave up a lot for this man, but sometimes ‘love’ takes you places you wish you didn’t go, to deeper selves. She was very enveloped in this man’s life. She got the short end of the stick in a way, but had the life that she wanted at times.”

Kristen Stewart (Marylou/LuAnne) — “The big question I had going into this was: How did she have the capacity to handle what she handled and still have the life she had that influenced so many people and not have the light go out inside her? And . . . bottomless pit — that’s the answer! There was no end to her giving. She would have been essential now. I know it’s taken a long time to tell the story in film, but she was ahead of her time, and even now, she’s really relevant. She had such an acceptance of others. I feel I got to know her so well that whenever I got nervous and wondered if I was doing her justice, not only did I just have to look up to Walter to know, but mostly I would look up and she was so so so fucking looking over me.”

And the Q&A ends, and the cast & crew exit stage left, and all along I’m thinking I’m totally fine with just being at the Premiere, and already had the red rope on the red carpet routine, and hadn’t arranged for any after-party, and Walter or the cast never came and sat near us, and now they’d disappeared behind the Wizard’s curtain, and people were leaving the theater, and I was cool with it all.

But still Damo and I are telepathically plotting out our next non-leaving nefarious move, knowing where the rainbow came down and the pot of gold was hiding. Except there were security guards at the bottom of both screen-side backstage entrances.

Each of us at different times made a motion to give up and leave, but the other always made a counter-move to keep it goin’, keep hangin’ on for one last opening, letting the crowd disperse. And before too long it was pretty much only the TIFF staff cleaning the hall and it’s all dark and no one’s there and all of a sudden I notice the guard at the door that the cast exited through is leaving! Ah-ha! I watch her walk all the way up the aisle, and I’m, “This is it. I’m goin’,” and I just walk up the stairs like I live there, push on the door, and it swings open! And I see down the hall a bunch of people in fancy suits!


Boom! There’s Walter and Garrett and Kirsten and company.

A little awkward at first. We’re bustin in, nobody knows us. I think of a question about that new final coda scene, but as I’m starting to talk to Kirsten about it, the publicity people call out, “Kirsten, your car’s ready.” So that ends quickly. Then I start to ask Garrett the same question, and the same thing happens!! And now all I’m left with is Walter! And he’s talking to the Director of the Festival. But I’m stickin right there and making my presence known. And both of them look at me like, this guy’s not goin’ away. Because, also, I don’t want that car thing to happen again!!

So finally they start to slightly separate. There’s a pause and a glance, and I’m, “Hey Walter, I’m Carolyn’s friend who was with her this summer in England.”

And thus begins … a whole new adventure …

Big smile. “Oh my goodness! I’ve heard so much about you!” And we start talkin and sure enough pretty soon the car call comes. And he’s like, “Okay, we’re going to the party. Would you like to join us?”
“Hold on, let me check my schedule.” :-0
And he puts his hand on the small of my back, saying in gesture, “Come on, you’re with me.”

And we walk out the stage door and it’s that scene I’ve only seen in movies, where you’re in the quiet inside backstage space and the 2 doors suddenly swing open to the screaming barricaded-off fans packing the sidewalk, and flashbulbs going off, and people reaching out with things to sign and calling, “Walter!” And James Franco’s comin’ out right behind us and they’re yellin’ at him too. And I stand center carpet as they each stop and sign a few things quite politely, and give legible signatures and all.

And then it’s into this spaceship SUV limo, and Walter gets in the row right in front of me, and leans over the seat and totally zooms in on me for the whole car ride even though there’s all these other (important) people in there. And it’s so obvious both of us know the book so well and we’re citing Mississippi Gene and one-mention minutia with ease.

And so Boom I tell him how great the Slim Gaillard guy was, and he says he was the #2 man in Kid Creole & the Coconuts, and how the guy (Coati Mundi) improvised his whole musical performance — and I’m sayin’ back that whole scene was so freakin’ fantastic!!

And I ask him what his motivation was in making the new version and he said he was trying to focus more on the friendship between Sal and Dean. 17th And we’re talking about the editing process, and he quoted the French poet Valery — “ A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” And we went into our mutual love of tweaking and how the scroll had all those penciled corrections on it, and all the other versions that came later, and we have a long nodding mutual-understanding conversation about how editing is such a great thing — even though we’re at the celebration of Mr. Spontaneous Prose.

And we talked about how great it is to see the scroll in person, and how the guy who’s its caretaker, Jim Canary, is the coolest, and Walter says he looks like he’s in ZZ Top.

And he talked about how the audio mix took a long time, and I told him how Great it sounded in the house, and cited the psychedelically surreal Sal-sick-in-Mexico scene — and he and I both said the word “dizzying” at the same time in describing it.

Then I said, “Man, you did so much research, you so internalized everything, how come Sal’s not using the spiral nickel notebooks?”

And he said they used “both schools” of notebook, the spiral and the flat-topped, and it just turned out that all the scenes where he was using the spiral got cut, and all the scenes where he was using the flat-topped were what made the final edit.

And we’re talking about the changed opening and how the flatbed truck scene is back in the sequence where it belongs, and I ask him about that hokey line he cut from the long version that wasn’t in the book — “Are you goin’ someplace or just goin?”
“I guess I’m just goin.”
And he says it was in the book.
And I say, “No it wasn’t. And I’ve got the Scroll right here,” and start to pull the book out of my bag, and he goes, “No, it’s not said on the flatbed, it’s from somewhere else in the book.”
Which is just another confirmation of how this is pieced together from stuff all over the book and elsewhere in order to tell the cinematic story.

And I asked him about the cutting of the “respectability” line and the post Camille kicking Dean & Sal out scene with her getting ready for work the next day, and he said that Carolyn had pointed out she wasn’t a nurse and so it wasn’t perfectly accurate anyway, and that he was trying to zip the movie along and that was something that could be cut.

And so eventually we get to the party, and there’s this whole scene out front of this new club that hasn’t even opened to the public yet, and again I get the hand to the small of the back routine as he pushes me ahead of him behind the red ropes. I knew all along the only way I was getting into this thing was with somebody from the movie, but never dreamed it would be with the director!

And then as soon as we go behind the lines there’s another one of those photo-op backdrops and a line of photographers behind another rope, and they’re yelling “Walter,” and he says, “Okay, take me with these guys,” and enthusiastically grabs me on one side and Damo on the other and the three of us stand there arm-in-arm beaming, Road Buddies, just back from a trip and joyous and crazy and flashbulbs goin off like mad with those cameras that shoot pictures clicketty-click-click-click 20 shots in 10 seconds, zippity doo-dah, snap-snap-snap.

Then we walk into the party of schmoozers, and Walter leans to me and whispers, “You know the trick with these things? You stay for 8 minutes.”

And suddenly the publicity handlers are urgently like, “Walter, we have to get you to your spot upstairs.” And I see this stairway on the other side of the room so I actually lead the crew through the crowd and up the stairs to the private party overlooking the main floor. And there’s the lady in white again, Kirsten Dunst, and the producers from Zoetrope and MK2 and other happening movie people.

And the crazy thing is, we’re there about an hour, and he talks to me for about 45 minutes of it!

It was an exact replay of when I first met my ultimate hero Bill Graham backstage at a Santana concert in New York when I was about 19, and Bill and I fell right into this intense conversation about the philosophy of show production, and I could see out the corners of my eyes all these people standing there wanting to talk to Bill who is ignoring them all and just locked in on me as we talked for the longest with this crowd of burning eyes surrounding us but neither of us giving any quarter.

And so Walter and I just riff, nose-to-nose about an inch apart, both to hear and cuz it’s so crowded. And I ask him everything I can think of.

Right away we talk about the different versions, of course, and how people are already talking on IMDB and elsewhere about wanting to buy the longer “director’s cut,” and I know what he’s gonna say, and he says it — “They’re both director’s cuts.”

And he tells me the longer version is for sale in Europe (starting Oct. 17th) and the dialog is Not overdubbed, it just has subtitles that you can turn off. And that the shorter one will be available on DVD in North America next year.

I metaphored his new version as the single, and the other was the album version, and he beamed up like Scotty.

And that I loved the prior opening he’s now cut where it was Sal singing the “On The Road” song from the Kerouac audio recordings (Rykodisc 1999) and how the screen slowly fades from black into Sal’s feet walking along the dirt road. And Walter smiles and twinkles and says he loved that, too. He didn’t say it, but I know the lesson. And he practices it on a big scale budget. Sometimes you gotta cut your favorite passage for the betterment of the story.

And I asked if there was going to be another edit, and he confirmed that no this was it. And then some voluptuous blond VIP waitress in a form-fitting black mini-skirt comes around and asks if we want anything, and Walter has his water and says No, but I ask for a beer — and it turns out the party is sponsored by Grolsch! And she brings me one of those big wonderful freezing cold bottles with the re-sealable cap.
Road jar!

And so I asked him if anybody else was at both the London premiere with the long version and the Toronto premier, and he thought a second and said, “Yeah, two people. One of the producers … and you,” and smiled another crinkly-eyed beauty.

And I start telling him all about the Somerset House scene and how people brought their entire bedrooms and set them up in the piazza and how it was like seeing “On The Road” at a drive-in except people have blankets instead of cars, and he’s just beaming like a proud father at the visual recreation of his film’s U.K. premiere.

And we got talkin about the purity of interpreting the book, and he was saying how the novel was free-form, the spirit was free-form, the life was free-form, and so the movie should be as well. And I’m nodding Yes, and quote him the end of my Somerset review, “It’s a helluva party condensed into 2 hours. It’s a road trip with old friends to familiar places. But you better leave the book at home and be ready for anything.” And he says, “Yes, that’s exactly it.”

And we keep goin’ on the improv aspect, and he tells me about the older Okie hitchhiker who sings the song about “we were once friends,
but it’s hard when you’re burning in hell,
and it’s hard enough to be in love,
and it’s hard, ain’t it hard to love what you kill,”
that resonates so painfully with Marylou, and he tells me that whole scene was improvised by the actor, that he knew this old song and thought it might fit and just started singing in the backseat of the car, and that the guy is an old Kerouac-head, and knew the stuff inside out. But can you believe this guy got a bit part in the movie and then created a whole new scene on the spot that made the final cut!!

I asked him if the “In Search Of On The Road” doc he’s been making for years with scads of interviews and Road research would be a separate release and he said that’s the plan … whenever he can get the time to finish it.

And we talked about the sex scenes, and he said, “Yeah, you can tell Carolyn there’s less now,” and we both smiled. And he goes on about how great her writing still is, even in emails. And I say, “Yeah, and she’s still a flawless touch-typist,” and act out what she looks like typing away with all ten fingers while staring off at her giant Mac screen. And he goes into how much he loved her introduction to Neal’s “Collected Letters,” how she describes how painful it was for her to read all those letters, but that she includes them all to present the full picture of Neal and let others see for themselves the most accurate portrait.

And I brought up how I thought the casting was great, and he must be so happy, but how did he come to choose Sam Riley?

He said he screen-tested 200 Sals!! And he picked Sam because he could listen — that a big part of Sal is just listening and taking in what’s around him.

He said he screen-tested James Franco five times and they remain close friends but they just couldn’t get it right.

And then we fell into this whole talk about friendship, and how Jack and Neal drifted apart, and how that was such a sad part of the novel, and that Walter cried when he first read it as a young man. And then he went off on a parenthetical about how much he loved John Clellon Holmes’ “Go” and how Jack’s character and friendships are portrayed there. And I told him about my 85 days in a row of Camp Carolyn dispatches this summer, and how one of them was a riff on friendship, and losing it, and how it can be so intense and then can be so gone. And he’s nodding, “Yes, yes,” and saying it’s happened to him with friends in his life and that he understands but it’s sad and it’s life.

And I asked him about sometimes using “weed” instead of “tea,” and the dropping of f-bombs, and how that word wasn’t used then or in the novels or letters or anything, and he understood my raising it, but that he felt they were these little cues that he could use that would connect the story with a contemporary audience, that he wasn’t going for total period-piece documentary accuracy, and that they were used very judiciously, and he’s right. (But I’ll tell ya, the period sets and costumes and cars and locations are all to-die-for real!) And he said that in Che’s “Motorcycle Diaries” he also inserted stuff that wasn’t literally accurate for the time because it could help connect an audience in the present.

And we talked about the Jack & Carolyn dancing scene in Denver, and I asked him about the famous line that’s not in the movie, that Jack said to Carolyn about Neal seeing her first, and he said that it wasn’t in the novel, and that he showed their love without using the words, and I was thinking, “Boy, you sure did.” The attraction between the two is so evident in the faces of the actors in that scene.

And there was this great moment where, after we’d been talking quite a while, I say, “Oh wait, I’m mad at you.” And I see his wonderful wrinkly eyes scrunch up and his white teeth shine through the darkness. “The San Francisco epiphany scene after Dean abandons Sal & Marylou on the curb. That was so much more flushed out in the longer version — the picking up of butts from the sidewalk, the vision he sees of his mother in the store window …” And he’s smiling and says, and “Yeah, I loved that, too. … But I was trying to make it shorter.”


“Cuz if we could get it down to 2 hours then theaters can run 4 screenings a day instead of 3. It’s gives it more of a chance and longer theater life. It’s good for the film.”

And he introduced me to the guy from Zoetrope who was the person who first connected “On The Road” to Walter — and I thanked him for doing that.

And then we talked about the roll-out and how it was going to all these film festivals first to have proper cinephile debuts in different countries all over the world. He started listing them all but I couldn’t keep track and hadn’t heard of half of them.

And he confirmed that all the release dates and roll-out stuff was not his thing, and he sort of stepped back and put up his hands saying something like, “That’s not my dept., I don’t know anything about that stuff. I just leave that to them.”

And I complemented his choice of no title in the beginning — it just starts “New York, 1947” almost like a documentary and Boom you’re right into the movie and on the road.

And I mentioned how great the landscape shots were and he said they did those on a long second unit trip across the country afterwards.

And I told him how great Viggo was as Bull/Bill, and how in the movie you first meet him over the phone and just hear his voice and how I thought it was a recording of Burroughs himself. And he went on about how great it is to work with Viggo and how he insists on flying coach on airplanes and always requests a compact car to pick up and drive himself, and how during the whole two weeks they were filming his scenes he never broke character even back at the hotel, and that in the mornings the crew would all arrive at the location, and Viggo would already be there in costume and make-up on his own, sitting in Burroughs’ chair reading Celine.

And I told him how much I loved the Steve Buscemi scenes, which got huge laughs in both London and Toronto, and him driving the car really slowly and then calling it “a perilous trip!” And Walter said, “Oh, I’m so glad you caught that. Yeah, that was fun,” and he had a big smile on over those scenes.

And we also got personal. I got to thank him, actually twice, at length — how the Beat community is blessed that he was the man at the helm, that he was the guy to finally do this. And all the research he did, the complete emersion for 7 years. That we couldn’t have had a better man do this. And he was so grateful to hear this. And the whole time we’re standing eye-to-eye, inches apart, not even blinking, but staring into the depth of each other’s souls the way Neal and Allen do in the film.

And he went on about, “I feel like I know you after hearing about you all this time. It’s so great to finally put a face to what I was thinking,” and as he was saying this he leaned his head back and held his hands up and framed my face and looked at me through his lens.

And he was so jazzed and thanked me twice for going to such lengths to see both versions — and that we could talk about the differences. And I could so honestly say how much better, more alive, faster tempoed, and more fun the new version is.

And we musta hugged in one way or another about 50 times during the night.

I still can’t believe I’ve seen this movie twice, been to two premieres, and seen both the long and short versions! And it’s still four months away from theaters!