Wednesday night, the San Francisco International Film Festival presented its annual Founder’s Directing Award to director Walter Salles, known for his films, "The Motorcycle Diaries," 1998's Best Foreign Language Film winner "Central Station" and "Dark Water." The main topic of discussion, however, was Salles' proposed and long-in-the-works production and adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road."
The evening was built around a work-in-progress screening of “In Search of On the Road,” which is the Salles-directed documentary about his own journey to get the “possible film” (as he repeatedly referred to it) of "On the Road" made. The cut shown was organized specifically for the SFIFF screening and was about an hour long, though Sallessuggested that the entire film will end up being a regular feature length documentary (he recently told the SF Gate it was a "very impressionistic 60-minute edit, a work in progress of an unfinished 120-minute documentary," and that sums it up well). Acknowledging the gravity of adapting such a book, the doc is exploratory, ironically and befittingly his own travelogue of self-discovery behind the heart of the novel and characters. Most impressive was the director's deep-seated desire to really understand the material and capture the spiritual humanity within even though he's obviously been living with the book and film adaptation for several years.
While there has been recent movement on the feature-length adaptation; GarettHedlund ("Tron" "Friday Night Lights") was evidently cast as Moriarty and Sam Rileywas allegedly cast as Sal Paradise (the Kerouac proxy) in 2009, the filmmaker sadly declined to go into any details or specifics of recent casting and it sounds like that's because funding is still TBD.
So then, first and foremost on people's mind, how close is the film to production? Unfortunately, Sallesdanced around the subject without much commitment to any facts. “You’ve heard of the Sisyphus myth?” he quipped alluding to the myriad of obstacles facing the long-gestating project. "It's a work of passion and one cannot try to dive into this territory without knowing the difficulties that surround it." He also admitted that the current state of independent production in the U.S. makes things "complicated."
"We are in the hopeful phase of trying to together put it together, I hope somehow..." Salles said, not entirely sounding entirely that convincing. "What I'm trying to express here with [“In Search of On the Road”] is the doubts involved with dealing with such a mythical subject matter and trying to enrich the perception you can have of this material."
While the documentary itself didn’t give any answers regarding a timeline, when it stated that any version of "On the Road" done correctly would need to be shot in black and white, the audience met the comment with vociferous applause.
Salles is clearly a deep and thoughtful person and perhaps this is why he's tackled this project so deeply, carefully, methodically and with self-doubt. While it's a very classic American novel, obviously being translated by an outsider, he sees the Kerouac book as a universal work.
"Motorcycle Diaries was about a social political revolution, but here, it's political yes, but it was a behavioral revolution at stake. And that effected all of us. We may have lived in different parts of the world with different languages, but it is strangely part of our experience as well. This movement meant a lot and my generation was always informed by it."
Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu conducted the Q&A with revealing and often humorous results. At one point, fishing for laughs, Inarritu asked Salles if his "On the Road" adaptation would be a 2-D or 3-D film, but instead received a characteristically serious response that had Salles looking back to the birth of cinema to support the case he’s about to make. Though not humorless, he shrugged at the third dimension issue and said flatly, “I saw incredible films last year... in 2D.”
The documentary was born out of a previous missed opportunity during the years ofpre-production leading up to "The Motorcycle Diaries." To get a true feeling for the story,Salles repeated Guevara’s journey found in the book three times over during which he researched and interviewed first-hand witnesses. In retrospect he decided the process itself would have made for a fantastic film itself and expressed regret saying, “those two years of exploration were really unique and I wish I had filmed them.” “In Search of On the Road” is his way of avoiding making that same error again.
The film aims to cover a range of subjects but is specifically built around the very candid concept that "On the Road" may be an impossible film to properly adapt. Interviews in the film include many first-hand witnesses of Kerouac’s journeys, biographers, poets and a good number of prominent figures in the film world- many of whom have at one point or another considered being involved in other iterations of the adaptation. The cut shown last night included segments with Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Johnny Depp,David Byrne, Sean Penn, Dave Eggers, Philip Glass, Wim Wenders and Peter Coyote.
Shot on Super8 and miniDV, the documentary also shows off some footage of an open casting call held by Coppola over 15 years ago in anticipation of a different version of the film. In it, we see Matthew McConaughey auditioning for the role of Dean Moriarty,Russell Crowe as Old Bull Lee (the William Burroughs character), as well as Brendan Fraser, Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd. The edit of the auditions isn’t exactly a cruel portrayal of the actors, but there probably wasn’t anyone in the theater wanting to imagine "On the Road" with the cast presented here.
In a brief session at the end of the program, Graham Leggat, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, compares Salles’s quest to get the film made to the Terry Gilliamdoc “Lost In La Mancha,” a choice of words that clearly illustrates the fight that the director has before him. If we can’t get great adaptations based on deeply loved literary classics, at least we can get some great documentaries about failing to do so. - Sean Gillane