Bonded By Blood: The Making Of Lawless

June 18, 2019
Under-celebrated upon release, the bold and bloody 2012 gangster mini-epic, Lawless – directed by John Hillcoat and written and scored by Nick Cave – remains a slamming piece of crime cinema.

The last time that Nick Cave and John Hillcoat made a film together, the result was a sensation. Scripted by the mercurial musician Cave, and directed by Hillcoat, The Proposition scored fourteen AFI nominations in 2005, and ultimately claimed four wins. The perfect synchronisation of talents, perhaps even more potent than their debut collaboration – 1988’s Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead – this Australian western blended Cave’s fascination with violence, and Hillcoat’s love of landscape, into a modern outback classic.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that their next project would be snapped up faster than a bullet leaves a six-shooter. Not so. 2012’s Lawless may be a gangster film of the highest order, with its story of three bootlegging brothers in twenties rural Virginia playing like a latter-day Bonnie And Clyde. It also boasts a script and score by the legendary Nick Cave, and a cast of Hollywood players that most directors would kill to work with. But gambling on original adult drama is no longer a safe option in today’s economically-tricky climate.

John Hillcoat on set.

Though The Proposition launched Australian filmmaker Hillcoat’s long-overdue international career – something that he capitalised on immediately, with his powerful 2009 realisation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic survival story, The Road – when FilmInk met the director to promote that film, he was almost as downbeat as its subject matter. It was 2009, and his proposed reunion with Cave – then called The Wettest County In The World – was in turmoil. “It’s the worst time,” Hillcoat sighed. “Sorry to be melodramatic, but it really is. To make a film now…it’s the lowest point since cinema began. The studios are in such a self-defeating spiral.”

The fact that this adaptation of a true-life crime tale, spun by author, Matt Bondurant, about his ancestors, was neither a franchise nor a comedy meant that the studios wouldn’t touch it. This reticence came despite a then-attached cast that included Shia LaBeouf, Ryan Gosling, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Paul Dano and Michael Shannon. “It’s a gangster film, but there are beautiful romances in it, between Scarlett and Shia and Ryan and Amy,” Hillcoat told FilmInk. “It’s just great. But it can’t get made, and that’s frustrating.”

Matt Bondurant’s original source novel.

In the end, all but LaBeouf drifted away – the Transformers actor was too snarled up in Hillcoat’s initial promise that they would make “Goodfellas in the woods.” Hillcoat and his producers, Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick (who had optioned the book back in 2008, and immediately sent it to their director), were dead in the water. Sony, the studio behind the project, decided that the script was too dark; then every other studio backed away. But nobody gave up, least of all John Hillcoat, who began scouting out a new cast while his producers began seeking out the $22 million needed to bankroll the film.

What’s remarkable is how Lawless (“Wettest County” was deemed “pornographic” in some quarters, hence the title change) was finally made, in spite of this safety-first studio climate. Not only that, but this violent, venal work was achieved without a shred of compromise, with Fisher and Wick eventually securing funding through independent means. Moreover, the replacement cast is arguably just as exciting – if not more so – than those originally attached. “There’s a fantastic new wave of talent,” acknowledges Hillcoat, when we meet again. It’s 2012, and he’s a much happier man. Lawless has just premiered in competition at The Cannes Film Festival. Almost three years on from our last encounter, Hillcoat can afford himself a little victory smile. Sitting in a large ground-floor ballroom in The Martinez Hotel, the 51-year-old Australian is accompanied by Nick Cave, who is dressed in a striking navy pinstripe suit and pale blue shirt.

Nick Cave and John Hillcoat promoting Lawless.

The two go way back, over thirty years, to when they met in Melbourne – Hillcoat was directing shorts, and Cave was playing with his band, The Boys Next Door. “It’s been a very close relationship,” says Cave. “We’re very, very good friends. We socialise. Our children play together.” Both ex-pats, they now live near each other in the English coastal town of Brighton – the setting for a still as-yet unmade script that Cave penned called Death Of A Ladies’ Man. “John doesn’t want to do it for some reason,” says Cave, half-joking. “He just wants to make big Hollywood movies, and this is a little English film.”

Cave admits that he was initially reticent about Lawless, as it was an adaptation. “I thought that if I was going to spend the time writing a script, then I want to tell my own story and do an original script,” he offers. “But the book was so beautifully written, so poignant, and so very much about the kind of things that me and John are interested in: the tone of it, the beautiful melancholic quality of the language, the sorrowfulness of the story, and the brute violence. The juxtaposition between sentimentality and violence…these things were so beautifully done that it was irresistible. And it happened to be about three brothers.”

Jason Clarke, Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy in Lawless.

Indeed. At the very core of Lawless is a sibling dynamic that echoes that seen in The Proposition. Cave calls it “largely a coincidence” (despite the fact that he has two brothers himself), yet it can’t be ignored that the Bondurants are bonded by blood. Their self-appointed leader is Forrest (Tom Hardy), a bear of a man with an aura of invincibility around him. In the middle is the more conventional Howard (Australian actor, Jason Clarke), while the ambition comes from their younger sibling, Jack (LaBeouf), who instigates turning their moonshine business into a growing concern by brokering a deal with powerful Chicago gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman).

But it’s not all gun-toting. “What I love about Lawless is the calm…these moments of tenderness and civilised relationships,” says Cave. Forrest takes up with Maggie, Floyd Banner’s former girlfriend (played by Jessica Chastain). “I’m the fish out of water,” says the actress, who took the role originally earmarked for Scarlett Johansson. “I make a journey to Chicago from Franklin County and take up with these three brothers. They’re shocked by my presence. She has nice clothes, is a good dancer, and is very experienced with men. And they’re not experienced with women; they’re experienced with violence.”

Jessica Chastain in Lawless.

It meant that Chastain had to undertake a nude love scene with Hardy – something that she has changed her opinion on over time. “At Julliard, they asked me to do nudity and I said ‘No!’ I wanted to be known as an actress first, and I didn’t want to be getting parts because I would take my clothes off. But I realised that nudity isn’t being victimised. It’s only being victimised if you’re doing something gratuitous. But if you’re really playing a woman, of course you’re going to be naked sometimes. It’s embarrassing to do, but I’m an actress, and sometimes I have to do things that are embarrassing.”

While Maggie is a provocative presence, Jack’s relationship with Bertha Minnix (Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska) is different. Tentatively, he sets out to woo the young Mennonite girl, whose idea of a good time seems to be singing in the local choir. “John and Nick like to blend violence and romance, and see the relationship between the two of them,” notes Wasikowska. “The female roles were a contrast to the more gruesome, brutal elements.” Cave concurs, noting that what he really finds exciting is what lies beneath these heartfelt exchanges; that “raging inside of everybody is this infinite capacity for violence.”

Tom Hardy in Lawless.

And whatever anyone will tell you, Cave and Hillcoat included, Lawless is violent. Which is as it should be. This is a gangster film, after all. Imagine Goodfellas without its opening stab-a-thon of Billy Batts. Or The Godfather without Sonny being gunned down at the tollbooth. “It’s not that violent a film,” claims Cave. “It’s not endless. It’s not like The Expendables, which is way more violent. What affects people is that you actually feel something. When you see someone get punched, you feel something.” True enough; early on, when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) – the psychotic lawman sent to bring down the Bondurants – beats Jack to a pulp, the crack of knuckle on bone makes you shudder.

As far as Hillcoat was concerned, he wanted to show that whether you’re the perpetrator or the victim, there are consequences to violence – both physically and psychologically. Yet it was never gratuitous. “I consciously avoid slow-motion and certain techniques like that,” the director says. “I also always – maybe this is too much information – deliberately have some distance, as well as close-ups, in every act of violence. So you’re pulled two ways, as opposed to it being an immersive experience that’s heightened with slow-mo. It gives it a messy-quick thing, which is more matter-of-fact. I like to be matter-of-fact, and yet not shy away from it.”

Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain in Lawless.

Still, as Lawless unfolds, the violence escalates; it’s not just Fedora-wearing thugs unloading their Tommy guns, but justice and vengeance, rural style. One scene sees a man covered in tar and feathered; another sees a victim castrated. “The funny thing about the ‘balls’ scene is that you don’t see the act,” says Hillcoat. “It’s all aftermath. You don’t see anything.” Cave looks at his director, a little incredulously. “Well, something’s going on there!” he laughs. “There’s a big hole between the guy’s legs!” Even so, the point is well made. It’s not violence for violence’s sake in Lawless; the bloodshed carries emotional weight.

“I looked at a lot of gangster films, and the one thing that they all have in common is how they deal with violence,” says Hillcoat, citing influences from James Cagney films to Bonnie And Clyde. “That’s the single defining thing for all gangster films. With all those gangster films, after we go for that rollercoaster ride with them, they all go down in a blaze of bullets and they don’t get up. That ties it up in a neat package, so we can walk away feeling good.” Lawless takes a different approach – one that will confound many fans of the more traditional gangster film.

Guy Pearce in Lawless.

To begin with, the villain of the piece – Charlie Rakes – is on the side of the law. “The big question I constantly asked is, ‘Why has he taken this job?’” says Pearce. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about the character, and what he inflicts upon this town. He’s despised from the moment that he arrives. And he needed to be somebody despised the moment that he arrives. He really is a strange fish out of water, although he thinks that the water they’re in is not worth pissing in.”

Reuniting with Hillcoat for a third time, after playing one of the brothers in The Proposition and a brief cameo in The Road, Pearce is arguably the film’s stand-out performer. Complex and cruel, with his effete laugh and his taste for the exotic, Rakes is almost not of this Earth. “He’s anarchic, free and predatory – that’s absolutely pure,” claims Pearce’s co-star, Tom Hardy. “He’s a wild animal. Even within his restrained interior, he’s free to prey.” Cave sees it another way. “In the end, Rakes was based on a side of myself that I try to keep as repressed as possible. Ask my wife – she’ll tell you!”

Guy Pearce in Lawless.

Visually arresting, Pearce’s look for Rakes is quite distinct, his slicked-down hair styled with a shaved centre-parting that the actor claims was taken from an old photograph that he came across. “It was important for him to appear strange when he arrives in this town…and unappealing, as if his focus was in all the wrong places.” Pearce makes no apologies for Rake’s odder qualities. “There are strange people in the world, and it’s important if you’re playing someone who is extreme and unusual to honour that. The beauty of working with John Hillcoat is that he allows strangeness into his world.”

Calling it “quite a visual experience” – sources included William Eggleston’s photographs, and illustrations from the Depression-era book, Bound For Glory: America In Colour – Pearce notes that it was quite different to The Proposition, “where we were loaded up with reading material.” Pearce prefers not to burden himself with too much research. “I always feel like it’s the writer’s job to do the research,” the actor says. “There’s obviously the book, which I stayed away from, because the character changed in the adaptation. And I came onto it late in the day. I was moved by the script, so I didn’t really need to do much more than that.”

John Hillcoat with Mia Wasikowska on the set of Lawless.

Yet while Pearce absorbed such visual stimuli, others were given different materials. “John gave us CDs to listen to beforehand, which was great,” says Wasikowska. “It adds an extra texture to your understanding. Music sets such a definite tone, so that was informative.” She also watched a documentary about a moonshine peddler. Meanwhile, Dane DeHaan – who plays the Bondurant’s loyal friend, Cricket Pate – was given films to watch. “John gave me a lot of Cagney stuff,” the actor says, noting The Public Enemy and White Heat.

DeHaan also looked into the bone disease, rickets, which Cricket suffers from. “It pretty much comes down to a Vitamin D deficiency which bends your bones,” he explains. Once he realised the extent of Cricket’s problem, DeHaan had to try and emulate that in his walk. “What we ended up doing was making these shoes that were on a slant, and I was able to bend my legs, though you can’t really see much in the film because my pants are so baggy. I just walked with my legs a little bent, and that became the physicality. There’s also a lot in the book about his physicality – not necessarily the walk, but the way that he crouches.”

Dane DeHaan and Guy Pearce in Lawless.

The young actor was particularly impressed with working alongside Cave, who was present all the way through the two-week rehearsal period. “He was there as we went through the script and made changes under his supervision,” DeHaan explains. “He was great to work with. He’s so particular about his words, and he’s protective of it in a really beautiful way. He really understands and knows what he’s doing. He’s a really incredible talent.”

Unlike her co-stars, Jessica Chastain had a rather unique research resource at her disposal. The actress came to Hillcoat via his director of photography, Benoit Delhomme, who recommended her after they worked together on Al Pacino’s theatrical doco, Wilde Salome. Pre-Lawless, the studious Chastain had just come off Ami Canaan Mann’s thriller, Texas Killing Fields, meaning that she was able to tap her director’s father – Michael Mann. Given that Mann’s last feature film at the time was the 2009 John Dillinger story, Public Enemies, it was ideal. “He’s very good at research, so I wondered if he’d give me anything,” says Chastain, who was more than happy to find out. “I called his assistant and said, ‘Would you let Michael Mann know that I’m playing a character who is kind of similar to Public Enemies.’ And within twenty minutes, I got a call back on my machine that said, ‘I’ve scheduled you an appointment to come in and sit down with Michael Mann.’ He wanted to sit down with me, and he gave me books, and all this research that he’d done. He was very generous.”

Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy in Lawless.

Even so, all the research in the world means nothing unless the chemistry is there on set. For the actors playing the Bondurant brothers, sparks flew from the very beginning. Long before the cameras rolled, LaBeouf had taken note of Tom Hardy. During a trip to New York, he caught a screening of 2008’s Bronson, the British film that saw Hardy rip it up as England’s most notorious real-life prisoner. It was the film that led Hardy to star in Christopher Nolan’s Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and LaBeouf was bowled over. “That shit changed my life,” he says. “I wrote Tom a letter saying that I was a fan. He sent me a script, and I sent him Lawless. He called me back and said, ‘This is fucking amazing.’”

As it happens, Hillcoat was all too aware of Hardy’s rise. Visiting the actor on the set of This Means War in 2010, the director struck a deal with him to play Forrest. Naturally, neither Hardy nor LaBeouf were required to do camera tests. But this was not the case for the third Bondurant sibling, Jason Clarke. The least known of the three Australians in the cast, after Pearce and Wasikowska, in the wake of Lawless, Clarke’s career exploded. The actor secured major roles in Kathryn Bigelow’s Bin Laden drama, Zero Dark Thirty, Roland Emmerich’s thriller, White House Down, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Lately, he’s been seen in the likes of Pet Sematary, First Man and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

“During the shoot, Shia and I spent a lot of time hanging out,” admits Clarke, who arrived on set in Georgia after having spent time with the Bondurant family. Machismo was never far away. “We were boys, and we were brothers,” says Hardy. “There were times when we pissed each other off, and there were times when we hugged each other.” According to LaBeouf, he and Hardy did more than just piss each other off. Punches were thrown. “Tom and I were very aggressive. There’s this thing that happens to vulnerable men – vulnerable and volatile.”

Gary Oldman in Lawless.

It’s no surprise that testosterone flowed in a film where so much blood is spilt – though by the time that Gary Oldman arrived, with just two days left of the shoot, it had given way to pure exhaustion. “They were knackered when I got there,” he smiles. The British actor, who has played his share of psychotics, shot his scenes just with LaBeouf, and he left impressed. “Shia’s going to surprise a lot of people. This is his opportunity…he wants to move away from the whole Transformers thing.” Hardy concurs: “He’s coming out of his comfort zone.”

Oldman already had a measure of Hardy, having worked with him on both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Dark Knight Rises. “I can see a bit of me in Tom,” Oldman admits. “He’s got a lot of great things going for him too. He’s incredibly charismatic and beautiful, and he’s got a great talent too. It’s quite a cocktail. Not everyone has that. But he’s beautiful, like Paul Newman. He’s got that aliveness, like raw meat.” Hardy, a man of few words, puts it very simply: “Gary Oldman’s my hero.”

Jason Clarke, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain in Lawless.

When it came to the 43-day shoot, Hillcoat used existing locations – bridges, churches, gas stations and the Cotton Pickin’ Fairground, a rarely used facility in Gay, Georgia, that became an unofficial base for the production. Only The Blackwater Station, where the Bondurants live and work, was purpose-built, by production designer Chris Kennedy, who based his design on a photograph that he saw of an old barn in The Virginia Mountains that had been turned into a gas station. Unfortunately, Hillcoat wasn’t able to shoot the film in Virginia, due to the lack of tax rebates available in that state.

Indeed, at one point, Hillcoat was told that the production would shoot in Michigan, which had the benefit of excellent rebates. Set to film in wintertime, it was an aesthetic nightmare for the director. “Having gone through The Road, we were desperate to find colour,” Hillcoat says. “I actually pulled the plug on the entire film because I knew that it would be Lawless but that it would look like The Road. The story needed seasonal change, and that’s the amazing thing about The Appalachian Mountains [where Lawless was partly shot]. It’s so beautiful. That contrast between the dirt poverty that was there and the beauty is an incredible juxtaposition.”

Shia LaBeouf and Mia Wasikowska in Lawless.

Beauty: it’s a word that keeps coming up when talking to those behind Lawless. “What John does which is really rare is that he takes really horrific violence and finds a way of making it beautiful,” says DeHaan. “I’ve just never seen something so horrific be so beautiful.” Much of this can be put down to the subtle design scheme – the earthy tones of Delhomme’s cinematography and the Bondurant boys’ costumes are punctured with the vibrant crimsons, purples and turquoises worn by Maggie and, once she jettisons her nondescript bonnets and aprons, the yellow dress that Jack gives Bertha.

For all its beauty and bloodshed, Hillcoat believes that Lawless is also bang up to date, with its themes just as relevant now as they ever were. “The drug war is an epic failure. It’s still going on,” he says, pointing out that Prohibition mirrors the current situation in Mexico with drug cartels. “There’s economic collapse again. There’s the same divide between the rich and poor. There’s environmental collapse. There are so many similarities.” Even the burgeoning radio technology back then is echoed in the arrival of internet and digital communications now.

Nick Cave, John Hillcoat, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf premiere Lawless at The Cannes Film Festival.

Then there are the film’s more perennial themes – love, death, even immortality. “We live in civilised societies where we live civilised lives,” says Cave. “We can all sit down and communicate with each other, but inside each one of us is the potential for untold violence and evil, given the right or the wrong situation.” And just as Charlie Rakes is a part of Cave, so is this capacity for violence. “I don’t have any problem with it at all,” he shrugs. “It’s there. I understand that it’s there. I understand that it’s in everybody. You learn how to deal with that or not. I’m not afraid of that.”

Lawless will screen at The Vision Splendid Film Festival in Winton, Queensland on June 29 at 2:30pm at The Sarah Riley Theatre. Click here for all details.

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