Full Transcript of
Nick Cave 'Lawless' Interview
(Posted August 23, 2012, by James Dawson)
I was one of several journalists who interviewed Nick Cave at a press roundtable during the publicity junket for "Lawless." The interview took place August 22, 2012, at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel. Questions, which appear in italics, sometimes have been paraphrased for clarity.
CAVE (upon entering the room): Oh, I didn't bring my answers! (laughter)
Can you tell us about the collaboration between you and "Lawless" director John Hillcoat?
Well it's been going since we were...he came out of art school when he was 19 or 20 or something, and we've been friends in Melbourne since then. And actually been working on different things since then, videos and rock videos and all that sort of stuff. And his films that he made before "The Proposition," where I was brought in to write the script.
But it basically came about from a frustration that John was having trying to get an Australian western together. He kept getting these scripts written, and they were American westerns arbitrarily dumped in Australia. And I kept saying, "These are shit, man. These are not Australian westerns at all, they're American westerns." And he said, "Well you write it." And so I wrote that script for John.
And you had not written a screenplay before that?
No, I had no idea about how to do that. And I think that that's primarily why it was quite good, because I didn't really know my stuff. And since then, we've been kind of trying to write stuff together, and to get stuff together ever since.
How did you get involved in this project?
This one was someone had seen "The Proposition," they liked what me and John had done together, and [producers] Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher had found this particular book and brought it to us. I had at the time no interest in doing someone else's story, but Matt Bondurant's book ["The Wettest County in the World"] was stunning. And it had very much the kind of elements that had sort of bound me and John together initially anyway, which was a kind of filmic lyricism that he had and a love of kind of brute violence. It was very much in that book. So we did it. And now I'm fishing around for something else. If you've got any ideas...
There are so many rich characters in this and so much going on, was it ever considered that this could be a mini-series on TV?
No. Good idea, though.
Would you ever be interested in doing a TV series?
Yeah, I am actually very interested in doing a TV series and trying to get something off the ground at the moment. But I can't, you know [say more]. But yeah, I would love to do a kind of 10-parter or something like that, only because what you can do on TV you just simply can't do in movies anymore. You can go to places you can't go in movies.
Was there anything you had written left out of the film that you miss?
Yeah. (pause) Yeah. You mean what? There's no point really talking about what's not there, right. But for sure, I think that's what writing a script's all about. You learn that a little bit more with each script you do. I think what I have over a lot of other script writers is I don't actually know how to write a script. So I'm not sort of self-censoring myself a lot of the time. And I think, "Hey, this would be a great scene," where a more astute script writer would realize that's going to hit the cutting room floor. There's no way it's not going to hit the cutting-room floor. So there's sort of ideas like this that I can have that I can put in quite naively. On some level, that's quite a good way to approach anything: as an amateur and an outsider.
When you're writing, do you think of the music and the script together, or are they completely separate?
It was always that me and Warren Ellis were going to do the score, so me and John Hillcoat talked about the score as I was writing the script. And we knew we were going to have songs in it. Within the actual writing of the script, there's a scene without spoiling anything that happens to Forrest, pretty devastating in the film. We knew that we wanted that to be brutally violent on the one [hand], but also have this sort of haunting, dreamlike quality as well. So there was a scene written in there that would accommodate a long piece of haunting sort of music, for example. So we knew that stuff pretty early on. And I'd done that with "The Proposition," which was the first script I'd written for John. I actually had very naively put the musical direction into the script. So it was sort of "enter the sad violins," and all of this sort of stuff, which the actors thought was pretty funny.
What was the process of adaptation like for you?
Well it was something I wasn't interested in doing, to begin with, because I just thought there's a lot of story. I'd rather make up my own stories. But the book was too sort of delicious to turn down. John really wanted to do it, and it really had the two elements that we were...It was very, very beautiful. The dialog was to die for. So it looked like it was going to be a pretty easy thing to do as well. As it turned out, it went on for a long time. But the process is not that much dissimilar, because in a way with "The Proposition," and I wrote another script for John called "The Death of Bunny Munro," these were John Hillcoat coming to me and saying, "All right, I want to make an Australian western," for example, or "I want to make a film about a traveling salesman," or whatever the particular things are. He gives me the premise, and I sit down and write the story. Once I have the premise, the story's pretty much there, in a way.
Did you feel any obligation to author Matt Bondurant?
Yeah. I just met him for the first time out there. I just met him, I'd never met him, I never talked to him. I didn't even know who he was. I'm standing there, he goes, "I'm Matt Bondurant." I'm like, "Oh, hi."
Could you talk about any changes between the book and screenplay?
They came from all over. In my defense, if I need a defense, I wrote this script very faithfully initially. I basically wrote...I mean, we took out a large element of the story. There's two stories going on in his book, one more contemporary [about] a guy researching the old story. We got rid of that, we just did the old story. The first draft was very faithful, and then the producers and everyone said, "All right, that's all very nice, you've done that, now let's make a movie kind of thing." And I was pretty much given permission to do what I'd like. But I tried to keep pretty faithful to that story, and to the spirit of the Bondurants.
Did you know you would open with the scene with the pig?
We fought long and hard for that pig scene. It was a bigger scene. In fact, initially in the actual script, one of the Bondurants straddles the pig and lifts up its snout and slices its throat, and this sort of geyser of blood comes out and all this sort of stuff, which I thought was really cool. And this gradually got kind of reduced, because one, you can't lift a pig's snout backwards, they couldn't find a kid who could straddle a pig. There are all these kinds of things. And eventually it just gets shot in the head, and now i believe the actual bullet going into the pig's head has now been removed from it. Now it's just a gun going off.
Were the two covers of Lou Reed's "White Light/White Heat" that appear in "Lawless" original to the film, or did they already exist?
No, no, no, we did those.
Were you in the studio with Ralph Stanley when he did his version?
We Skyped. Basically, we couldn't [be with him during the recording] because we were deep in doing the score. And Ralph said he could do it, and he had a window, and we got a friend of mine, Hal Willner. I don't know if you know him, but he often works with...uh...older guys, and kind of gets them to do other things outside their remit, I guess. And he went out there. Ralph had heard our versions of "White Light/White Heat" that we'd played, and we wanted him just to sing on top of these versions. But Ralph heard our versions of stuff and he said, "I'm not gonna sing on this shit," basically. Not in quite those words, but that's what I gather. Because they were rough and amateurish and all the rest of it, that's the sort of sound that we wanted. And we had a pretty entertaining time trying to get him to sing some of this stuff. In the end, he sang them a capella. [Note: Stanley is accompanied by James Shelton on guitar and Dennis Crouch on bass on the final version.] But we were Skyping him, and we just wanted to get him to sing it in the right time and in the right key. And then we could take it and we could put it on top of this stuff. And he had this guitarist there...Ralph didn't really speak to us. He just sort of sat there with his guitarist, who'd obviously worked with him for many, many years. We'd say, "Well, could you just sing this one in C please, Ralph?" with our little faces on the screen. And the guitarist would go, "Ralph don't do C." And we're like, "Can you sing it in 4/4, then?" "Ralph don't do 4/4," and this kind of stuff. He in the end did it in exactly the way that he wanted to, and it was incredible.
Have you heard any reaction from Lou Reed?
Yeah, he came into the studio, listened to it. He was actually recording the "Lulu" record with Metallica just up the road. He came into the studio and heard it and was in tears when he heard that. So it was really kind of, when he heard Ralph doing the a capella version of "White Light/White Heat."
What did he think of the version you did as The Bootleggers (a group consisting of Cave, Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, George Vjestica and David Sard)?
Our version? I didn't play him that. I'm not that fucking courageous!
Tom Hardy does a lot of grunting in the movie. Was his performance written that way?
So there were words written, and he did something different?
You mean did he just not say the words? (laugher)
Well let me ask it this way: How did you write the dialog?
He had dialog and all that sort of stuff, but we talked a lot about it when he was there. Personally, I think [his] performance there is incredibly memorable and an amazing performance as this particular character. But it's very much what he brought to that character. And his sort of frames of reference were equally as bizarre as the performance itself. Like when we were in a rehearsal situation in Georgia, there was a script, and he sort of said, "You know, I'm wanting to play Forrest like an old lesbian." And we're we're kind of like, "Okay..." And then at another point, he said, "Actually, I've changed my mind. Now I want to play it like the little old lady in Tweety-Pie. You know, like Sylvester and Tweetie-Pie, that's who I want to base this character on." I'm like, "Okay..." But when he actually played that character, it really made sense, because what he is is this woman, he is this matriarch like the mother trying to hold this family together, this fatherless kind of family together. And you know he's literally sitting around darning socks and stuff like that, you know, but he is this very violent person at the same time. And he doesn't say much, as well. And when Jessica Chastain's character comes in, it's not a love thing that happens so much as that she's a direct threat to his kind of little matriarchal world that he's built. So that was really, really interesting, and that was a whole thing that Tom brought to this character. And the whole kind of grunting and all of that sort of stuff was something that I think initially mystified everyone, like "what the fuck is he doing?" But I think he was playing the long game, and he really understood this character, and he really understood what...because when it was cut together, it was like, "This is fucking incredible, this performance." And that to me is what a great actor can do. You don't really want someone to walk in and do what you think that they should do, you want someone to come in and blow you away. And that's what Tom Hardy did to everybody.
You seem to put a lot of yourself and your heart and soul in your work no matter the medium. Do you think that's a prerequisite for an artist?
You can do it in that way, or it can be a craft. I think that scriptwriting of anything is a craft, in the sense that you're really a functionary that's serving a greater machine, and your heart and soul is not even really wanted. You've just got to do the job that is required to sort of realize the vision of the director and the producers, I think. That's what you learn as a scriptwriter. And for me, as someone who's directly involved in songwriting, where I'm just sitting in a room on my own night and day when I'm writing songs, to come out and work collaboratively and to work for somebody else is a huge relief. And that's how I feel about scriptwriting. It's really something that I kind of have some kind of talent for, and it's really not my vision, but the director's vision that I'm trying to find out what that is and help out with. And I'm not saying that like being humble or anything, it's actually a huge relief to have that responsibility taken away, and that you're just doing something for somebody else. You know, it's not what I want to do all my life, but it allows me some relief from songwriting and that sort of thing.
You've made a pretty remarkable transition to your present career from music...
Scriptwriting isn't my present career. Scriptwriting is a kind of extracurricular thing that goes on. My career is my band and music and all of that sort of stuff.
You seem completely different from your image as a dark goth. Does that image ever weigh you down?
What, that I'm dark and gothic? I'm just doing an interview, you wait till the sun goes down. It gets ugly. I don't know what people think about me. I've been doing this for a long time, I don't really care less, to be honest. At the end of the day, I've got to just get on with it and do what I've got to do. The whole dark, gothic thing, you know, I don't know. It's only an image that I have to people who aren't really acquainted with what I do, in a way. I don't mean that disrespectfully for yourself, but people who know my music and know what I've been doing over the last whatever, understand that what I do is actually full of humor and light and this sort of stuff. There's a dark element as well, obviously, but there's a lot more to it than that.
How familiar were you with the Prohibition era?
I knew about it, for sure. I mean, I've watched a million movies, so I know about it. I also know that it's a kind of failed policy, and that it still exists today with the so-called war on drugs. It was a disastrous policy then, and it's still a disastrous policy now, as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't work. Making drugs illegal doesn't really work. It certainly hasn't worked, all evidence has shown it hasn't worked. But I grew up in Australia, and all we're fed all our...all we ever watch on TV is American stuff. When I grew up, Australians weren't making TV shows or anything like that. We just watched American stuff. It's often strange for me...I was just raised on American stuff. I knew more about what happened with the Mormons and Brigham Young than what happened to the aboriginals in Australia, on some level. So it's often quite odd for me to have to relinquish my...or that when I make a record that's say blues-influenced or something like that, people go, "Hey, you're iinterested in this American thing." And I have to keep thinking, "Oh, that's right, this is an American thing." And obviously it is, and this "Lawless" is very much an American story. But anywhere outside of America is so...American culture we feed on constantly. So it doesn't seem unnatural to write about it. I mean, I wrote an entire novel called ["And] the Ass Saw the Angel" set in the American South and I never set foot in the place. Just from knowledge that I have from listening to blues music or watching movies or reading Flannery O'Connor or you know, whatever.
What is working with Warren Ellis like?
I work with him now on everything musically. It's a collaboration, very much a 50/50 kind of thing. In fact, the score work leans more toward what Warren does musically, but it's very much a collaboration now, pretty much everything, including the Bad Seeds or Grinderman, my other band, or whatever.
To read my review of "Lawless," use the link below:
"Lawless" Movie Review
To read the feature article I wrote about musician and "Lawless" screenwriter Nick Cave from the above interview, use the link below:
Nick Cave Feature Article