BH Interview: 'On the Road' Director Recalls First Exposure to Iconic Book in His Freedom-Deprived Land

Walter Salles, like his fellow Brazilians during the 1970s, suffered under his country's military dictatorship. Torture and exile were commonplace, he says. Censorship overshadowed the arts, stripping students like Salles of potential reading material.

Then the future director got his hands on Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

The used book wasn’t translated for him, and notes from dozens of previous readers marked its pages. That hardly mattered.


“The search for all possible forms of freedom characterized Kerouac’s novel for us,” Salles tells Big Hollywood. “The possibility to redefine their future what was also extremely impactful for these characters.”

Which makes Salles, who previously directed Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, a fitting choice to bring the iconic 1957 novel to the big screen at long last.

Tron: Legacy's Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame and Sam Riley star in the saga of three souls searching for freedom, truth and adventure in the mid-20th century.

No touching back story can overlook the word attached to the book for decades – unfilmmable. Famed director Francis Ford Coppola wrestled with the project for years, juggling a variety of possible stars along the way, before Salles took the helm.

“Films not based on a three-act structure are uncommon,” Salles says of the source material, one of many reasons Hollywood has struggled to interpret the author’s iconic road trip saga. So Salles did his homework to prepare for the potential task ahead. He spent five years tracing Kerouac’s steps across America for a documentary project (Searching for On the Road), talking to the author’s contemporaries when possible (“the youngest 80-year-old guys I’ve ever encountered,” he recalls).

Yet the film also demands archetypal elements that translate more easily to the big screen.

“'On the Road' is not only a book about an extraordinary friendship," he says, "but one of the most beautiful renderings about that passage from youth to adulthood, and the moments of exhilaration and pain that come with it.”

Finding Dean Moriarity, the charismatic old soul whose actions Salles says “ignite” the story, worried the director the most. Casting sessions started back in 2006 for the project, and when the then-unknown Hedlund arrived to the audition after driving all the way from Minnesota Salles’ fears faded.

“He’s got that fire within him,” Salles says of his star.

On the Road represents the essence of freedom to Salles, but the more he’s read and studied the book since first picking it up at 18 the more richer themes have emerged. While Sal (Sam Riley) is trying to father a book throughout the story’s journey Dean is dealing directly with his own father issues.

“These young men who were, in great part, fatherless were also fighting with the difficulty to be themselves fathers,” he says.


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