September 24, 2016

“Lawless” director John Hillcoat talks Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and the taste of moonshine – AWARDS


By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: The wettest county usually overflows with moonshine. By the end of John Hillcoat’s new Prohibition-era crime thriller, it’s soaked in crimson streams of blood.

Once dubbed “The Wettest County,” Hillcoat’s “Lawless” stars Tom Hardy, Shia Labeouf and Jason Clarke as the Bondurant brothers, moonshiners from Southern Virginia who meet violent resistance from local gangsters, a Chicago law enforcer (Guy Pearce) and a rival mobster (Gary Oldman) with a taste for blood.

“I was looking forward to finding something that had more tonal range,” Hillcoat told me at the start of a recent interview, when we began by talking about “The Road” and “The Proposition,” his two previous (excellent) films. “Something with color and different moods.”

Mission accomplished with “Lawless,” which finds depth and resonance in the relationships between the three brothers rather than in the standard routines of the criminal-enterprise storyline (though Oldman and Pearce bring plenty of spice to those proceedings). “Lawless” also presents a unique situation where, because it temporarily sat on a shelf, its supporting cast elevated to A-list status. It’s one of the many things we discussed with Hillcoat as “Lawless” makes its way to theaters:

Where was “Lawless” filmed?

We shot in Georgia. And that offered us a lot. It goes into the Appalachia territories. In fact, Clayton, Georgia – where we filmed parts of this movie – also happens to be where they filmed “Deliverance.”

I ask because I’m in North Carolina, and I often get the impression that, 30 minutes outside of the cities here, the history of this particular period you focus on in “Lawless” remains. It still exists. Is that what you found in Georgia? Are the traces of this era still strong?

Absolutely. And I love the history of the South. It’s frought with conflict, but that creates such great drama. There’s also such great music and writings that have come out of that turbulent time period. The history certainly is still there. We’re also … I think these things come in waves and circles. Unfortunately, history repeats itself, but it’s always slightly different. There’s a lot of similar things going on today in regards to the divide between the rich and the poor. The corporate greed that happened then is still going on now. There’s a war on drugs that’s similar to what we talk about, though in our case, it’s Prohibition. I think there are a lot of themes that still have a lot of resonance.

Is there a modern equivalent to moonshine, and to bootleggers? Is it the meth trade? Watching your film, I kept thinking about “Breaking Bad,” and how people rise to power on the trade of illegal substances, but it’s a hollow power.

Exactly. When any substance is made illegal, and yet there’s a huge demand for it, there’ll always be a lot of crime and corruption associated with it. And that’s why we deliberately took the Velvet Underground song “White Light, White Heat” and yet had Ralph Stanley sing it. When he sings it, it’s automatically about moonshine. Of course, Lou Reed didn’t write that song about moonshine. [Laughs]


Have you ever tasted moonshine?

It’s sort of inescapable when you enter those parts. [Laughs] Before people even knew we were doing a movie about moonshine, it certainly came out in various cafes and shops along our travels. You start talking to the locals, and out it comes. It’s a tradition. I think the actors were more interested in that part of the research. [Laughs] I had to restrain myself.

One other thing I found compelling about “Lawless” is that you can’t draw a solid line between the good guys and the bad guys. There are complicated relationships between outlaws and the law.

That collaboration between the two parties absolutely did go on. At that time, it was the biggest crime wave in U.S. history. Chicago, from top to bottom, was completely corrupted. The authorities were just as dangerous as the gangsters. What was fascinating, though, was that we all have seen the Capone story, but we’ve rarely – if ever – have seen what was going on in the rural countryside at that time. There was the whole “Public Enemy” thing, which was just the FBI scapegoating because they couldn’t deal with the corruption in the cities and the birth of the Mafia. They instead built themselves up by targeting these lone desperados in the countryside.

Our story isn’t about that. Our story’s more about the foot soldiers, the guys supplying the Capones. There’s a long history of that, as I’m sure you know. The history of America was found on disputes over taxes and the rights of the individual. John Hancock, one of the Founding Fathers, had a big run in over rum and taxes. There’s a long history of the Scotch-Irish settling in Appalachia, with outsiders trying to muscle in on their territories.

You have your own outsider in “Lawless.” Guy Pearce is operating on a different level in the film. There are choices made with the look of the character that makes him look not only like he’s from the city – another universe – but from the future. Where did you guys pull that look from? What were you going for?

Well, Nick Cave certainly was an influence, the way he wears his suits and dyes his hair. That was an influence on the character. But actually, his incredibly strange haircut is straight out of photographs from that time period and that area. Believe it or not, he’s very much of the time. Those characters were larger than life in that era. Just look at Jimmy Cagney movies or interviews with Capone, and you get a sense of how flamboyant and outrageous they were.

“Lawless” was filmed back in 2010. Since then, cast members like Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain have blown up. What does that do for your film? How do you respond to their successes? Do you sit around thinking, “Wait until you see what they’re doing in my film!”

Well, I only really cast trying to get the best match for my characters. Of course, in some ways, it’s great to see them succeed. We became like a family. It was a fantastic shared experience. Unfortunately, at this point in time, it’s very difficult because they’ve blown up … they are very hard, as the people in this office can testify, it’s very hard to get their time even though they are very supportive and very passionate about the film. [Laughs] That’s just a logistical thing. But no, it’s great to see them become so successful at what they are doing, and that’s wonderful. I couldn’t be more thrilled with my cast.

It’s tricky with ensembles, to get the right balance and the availabilities, even. There was another incarnation of this cast at an earlier stage. But I couldn’t be more thrilled with the outcome.

“Lawless” is in theaters now.

Read more of our exclusive Awards interviews:
Producer Harvey Weinstein
“Writers” director Josh Boone

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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