Making better time On The Road
So, I get to the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto at 7PM for a 9:00 show and there’s already a whole scene. It’s the World Premiere of the new and forever “On The Road” — the first-ever screening of the director’s revised and final cut.
There’s a line of black VIP shuttle cars. News trucks with their satellites up. Fans behind 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 same as the London premiere, 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 weaving my way into the photog’s pit along the red carpet. And I start talkin to this girl from the Daily News — yeah, New York! And along the ground under the rope line are these numbers about one foot apart and that’s where each news person gets to stand. 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. Then suddenly this stern-faced female General appears marching down the line in front of us demanding of every soldier who they’re with. 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 glad-handing director Walter Salles and movie stars Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst!
And they end up staying out there a really long time alternating between interviews and answering the screams of fans on the other side — signing autographs and posing for pictures and totally workin’ the room. Turns out they were having technical projector problems inside that were being worked out, so they just had the Stars stay out and keep the slight-of-hand distracting.
And of course my road brother 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. Then he’s the one who spots 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 People Magazine so we book it into the room and scootch right up to the Reserved Seats, and I notice there’s a two-spot Reserved on the aisle right behind the main taped-off rows. Thought that looked interesting, so we cop the two next to them, and no sooner do we sit down, than James Franco comes and sits right next to me!
This guy was the greatest Ginsberg ever on film in “Howl” and I tell him so, “You’re gonna go places — I predict!” 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 skateboard bum so as not to be recognized. And I ask, “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 late-show TIFF premiere audience, and director Walter Salles comes out for a little howdy-do. He talked quite accurately 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 filmgoers, 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. And one comes on for this James Bond exhibit they’re having at TIFF, and as it ends to dead silence, some guy yells, “Come on, it’s James Bond, people!!” and everyone laughs and applauds. And then some little notice appears 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 in New York like he was a car. And then zoom 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!
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. It’s more Tom Wolfe than Thomas Wolfe — more poetic zip, less prosaic lag — 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 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 really screamed to life for me the first time I saw it. With that now internalized — I was able to appreciate how electric and magnetic this Hedlund guy was as Dean.
And Tom Sturridge who plays Carlo is similarly engaging. I don’t know how Allen actually moved or spoke in the 1940s, and I don’t think this is really him, but it certainly is a vivid, loveable, endearing Carlo.
And the music is GREAT — the soundtrack is seat-bopping, and the surroundsound is booming! And the original music that runs all through it is super percussive (beat) and catchy and gets ya goin and I love it!
And there’s more voiceovers by the narrator-writer Sal, heard as moody remembrances of things past or excited updates on events present.
There’s no point in, or really way to, annotate all the things that were cut, because sometimes it’s just a line or few seconds of a scene. But then there’s all this stuff added, too — like Dean & Carlo on the bed staring into each other’s eyes and more, and 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.
So, 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 & directors exit stage left, and all along I’m thinking I’m totally fine with just being at the Premiere, and already had the red carpet surprise, 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 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 stairs to 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 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 the door, and it swings open! And I see a bunch of people in fancy suits down the hall.
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, man! I’ve heard so much about you!” And we start talkin and sure enough right away the car call comes. And he’s like, “Okay, we’re going to the party. Would you like to join us?”
“Hold on, lemmi 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 Damo and me, and leans over the seat and totally zooms in on us for the whole car ride even though there’s all these other (important) people in there. And right off we’re talkin’ Mississippi Gene and other one-mention minutia with ease. And 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’ great!!
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. And we’re talking about the editing process — and he’s quoting the French poet Valery, “ A poem is never finished, only abandoned” — as we riff on a 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’re having this long nodding mutual-understanding conversation about the powers and joys of editing — while 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.
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 with the spiral got cut, and the scenes with the flat-topped made the final.
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 anyway — “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.
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 mob of a party, and Walter leans to my ear and says, “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 spy 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 all these other happening movie people.
And the crazy thing is, we’re there about an hour, and he and I talk for about 45 minutes of it! I’m sure one key to us connecting was that I knew this was not a movie about Jack and Neal, but about Sal and Dean, and how we were always talking about the characters and not the biography.
It’s a total 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 he 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 philosophized for the longest with this crowd of burning eyes surrounding us but neither 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 writing 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 France (starting Oct. 17th, called Sur La Route) and the dialog is Not overdubbed, it just has subtitles that you can turn off. And the shorter one will be out on DVD in North America next year.
I told him the new version was the single, and the other was the album version, and he beamed like Scotty.
And I mentioned how I loved the prior opening he 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 he smiles and twinkles and says he loved that, too. He didn’t say it, but we both know Faulkner’s lesson — kill your darlings. 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 resealable cap.
And I asked him if anybody else was at both the long-version London premiere and the short-version Toronto premiere, and he thought a second and said, “Yeah, two people. One of the producers … and you,” and pokes me in the chest and smiles another crinkly-eyed beauty.
So I start telling him all about the outdoor Somerset screening scene he missed and Carolyn’s classic “letter of introduction” 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 had 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 sayin 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 chanced a quote from my London 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 kept riffin’ on the improv, 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 who just started singing in the backseat of the car, and that he’s 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 he went into a riff about how the Beats were the catalyst for everything, and I asked if he’d seen “The Source,” and he rhymed, “Of course,” as we harmonized on how perfectly inclusive and expansive that doc was.
And we talked about the sex scenes, and he said, “Yeah, you can tell Carolyn there’s less now,” and we both smile. 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 tried out 200 Sals!! And he picked Sam because he could listen — that a big part of Sal is taking in what’s around him. He said James Franco tested for it five times and he’s great but it just didn’t work.
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 of Camp Carolyn dispatches, 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 and it’s sad but it’s life.
And I asked him about the dropping of f-bombs, and how that word wasn’t in the novels or letters or anything, and he understood my raising it, but that he felt they were little cues that he could use that would connect the story with a contemporary audience, that it’s not a documentary, 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 transportively real!) And he said that in “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 about the famous line that’s not in the movie, when 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’m thinking, “Boy, you sure did” — the attraction’s so evident in the faces in that scene.
And there’s this great moment where I remember, “Oh wait — I’m mad at you!” And I see his wonderfully wrinkling eyes scrunch up and 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, hallucinating his mother’s face in the store window …” And Walter’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 boy did I thank him for that!
And we talked about the rollout 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 the release dates and rollout stuff was not his thing, and he put up his hands saying something like, “That’s not my dept. I just leave that to them.”
And I complemented his choice of no title in the beginning — it just starts “New York, 1947” and Boom you’re right into the movie and on the road, and he twinkled, knowin’ he’d played the solo sweet.
And I mentioned how poetically beautiful the landscape shots were and he said they shot 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 the whole time they were filming his scenes he never broke character even back at the hotel, and that in the mornings the crew would arrive at the location, and Viggo would already be there on this own in costume, sitting in Burroughs’ chair reading Celine.
And I let him know how much I loved the Steve Buscemi scenes, which got huge laughs in both London and Toronto, and him driving the car really slowly then calling it “a perilous journey!” 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 8 years. That we couldn’t have had a better man do it. 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 depths 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,” as he leans back, holding up his hands and framing my face.
And he was so jazzed and thanked me, actually 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!
For the London premiere Adventure in the outdoor courtyard at Somerset House — go here.
For the New York City premiere and afterparty Adventure — go here.
For a complete overview of all the Kerouac / Beat film dramatizations including clips and reviews — check out the Beat Movie Guide.
For an excerpt from my book about the ’82 Kerouac Conference in Boulder — check out Meeting Your Heroes.
For more from the Boulder Beat Book — check out Who All Was There.
For a vivid account of being at the historic “On The Road” scroll auction — check out The Scroll Auction.
For a story about Henri Cru’s birthday — check out The Legend Turns 70.
For a beautiful poem to Carolyn Cassady on her birthday — check out the Carolyn Cassady Birthday Poem.
For an inspiring description of being at a Beat jazz-&-poetry reading in Greenwich Village — check out Be The Invincible Spirit You Are.
For an account of the historic Beat show at the Whitney Museum in New York — check out Wailin’ at the Whitney.
Brian Hassett firstname.lastname@example.org BrianHassett.com