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The Road’s John Hillcoat on Cannibals, Product Placement, and the Apocalypse

This Thanksgiving weekend you’ll probably find yourself in line for The Road, the cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In many ways, it’s seemingly everything one could want in a holiday movie. Father-son bonding, check. Epic journey, check. There’s even a scene where the characters have their own post-apocalyptic version of a Thanksgiving feast with canned peaches and Cheetos substituting for turkey and stuffing. But while it’s an excellent film, be warned: The Road will suck all happiness out of your holiday buzz and leave you unsure that you’ll ever be able to smile again.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has read the book, or any of the McCarthy canon for that matter. The setting for The Road is a post-apocalyptic landscape, utterly devastated by an unnamed disaster and devoid of vegetation or animal life. Most humans are dead, and many of the remaining few have turned to cannibalism as a last attempt at survival. Amidst the madness and depravity, a father, played by Viggo Mortensen, must guide his young son south to the coast in the hopes they will find food, safety, and civilization.

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Aussie director John Hillcoat (pictured above) seems a natural choice to helm McCarthy’s depress-a-thon. His previous film, The Proposition, depicted brutal murder and rape in the Australian outback, and The Road furthers his reputation as both a skilled filmmaker and a master of emotional devastation.

Hillcoat bridles a bit at the mention of the trailer for The Road, which seems to depict a film quite different from the one he made. It promises an action-adventure flick chock-full of explosions, disaster sequences, and Charlize Theron (whose character appears only in flashbacks). As Hillcoat explains, “None of that stock [disaster] footage was ever in the film or ever even contemplated. I understood why they did it. They were trying to give it a context to people who had never read the book.”

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Part of the intrigue of The Road is that McCarthy and, in turn, Hillcoat never reveal the sequence of events that lead to the destruction of the earth. “I actually don’t like the apocalyptic genre because I always think of the big event, and what frustrates me is there’s no human dimension in that,” he says. “The bigger the fireworks, the more you’re distracted from people, from real emotional responses.” Without mushroom clouds, meteors, or aliens to steal the show, the father and son’s quest to stay alive while retaining their humanity takes center stage. “They’re not sitting back and discussing, ‘Oh and this happened, and this happened,’”says Hillcoat. “No, they’re just trying to live and not die.”

Much of this survival saga revolves around the constant hunt for food. At one point, the father finds what is quite possibly the last remaining can of Coke on earth and offers it to his son, who asks, wide-eyed, “What is it?” Although this scene is depicted in the book, the flashing of the Coke logo, along with several other instances of seeming product placement, elicited mild snickers from the audience. According to Hillcoat, “There was a big problem getting any of those products because all of those companies said, ‘No way, we’re a family company, we don’t want to be associated with cannibals.’ It’s weirdly misinterpreted. Some people thought, ‘Oh my God, this is just cynical product placement and they’re getting all this money…’ It took Viggo pleading to the head of Coca Cola on the phone, direct, to let us use it.”

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When asked about his own views on earth’s destruction, Hillcoat, who professes, “I’m not a doomsday person,” reckons our mistreatment of the environment will eventually lead to our own demise. Then again, McCarthy’s money is on a comet, according to Hillcoat: “That’s what did in the dinosaurs. As a species we’re overdue. We’re very lucky, so touch wood.” However, he has hope that even in humanity’s waning moments, culture and the arts will prevail. Hillcoat says, “I was enormously reassured when I studied a bit of anthropology and discovered that the aesthetic impulse, as in our need to create, is in every culture inherently. [It's] as strong as eating and shelter.” Was there evidence of that in The Road? “You see the [cannibals'] decorated skulls, actually.”

For those who like their turkey served with a side of emotional trauma, The Road opens in theaters today.

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