Imperfection of the Grain: Walter Salles on ‘On the Road’

The director talks about his adaptation of the Jack Kerouac classic and why he doesn't want to make a studio movie after doing Dark Water.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

When Walter Salles spoke to a roundtable of reporters for his latest film, On the Road, he described the uncertainty of a film image being formed by the unpredictable interaction of grain and light. We were fortunate to be granted some private time with Salles to ask some of our own questions and follow up on the film grain. On the Road is based on Jack Kerouac’s book about Sal Paradise (Sam Riley)’s travels with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), which was a key work in the Beat movement. Salles is the director of Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries and many other acclaimed international films.

CraveOnline: The pace of this movie struck me. You cover a lot of ground but maybe the individual vignettes are rather brief. How did you decide how much time you could spend in each sequence?

Walter Salles: I think the impact I had when I first read On the Road had to do with its energy as the characters were pursuing their search for all different forms of freedom. That kind of jazz infused, be-bopped written narrative had to find a translation in cinematic terms. Therefore what we opted to do was if you think about the film structurally, it’s architectured in a way in which moments of acceleration are confronted with moments where the camera just stays put and calmly registers a conversation. Just one example, when Dean and Marylou meat Sal, Carlo and Chad for the first time, electricity is in the air and there’s a number of cuts and jump cuts. It’s a very modern grammar if you want, but then immediately after that, when Sal and Dean start to talk about their fathers, the camera jumps behind them as if you’re witnessing that conversation from behind. You’re not intruding in there. You have much longer takes so that the narrative can stop a little bit. Even on the road, there are moments of contemplation. After a scene where Dean is driving like a madman and overtaking cars on a bridge, there is a moment where nature takes over and you can feel the rain hitting the windshield and you can hear the tarmac and you can see the long and winding road ahead. There are moments that are much quieter and then you have that improvisational a cappella moment where the hitchhiker starts to sing in the car. We tried to juxtapose moments of acceleration and fast paced storytelling with moments where you could actually stop and alter the speed and reflect it a little bit, and get into the character’s skin.

But I think even some of those reflective sequences are only as long as the fast paced one, maybe five minutes here, five minutes there. Was that intentional?

Yes, that was intentional because I think that the immediacy and the urgency of the book called for that. So at one point, you had to make options that will create a grammar. The book for me always had that kind of energy that is attached to the transition from youth to adulthood with all the exhilaration that comes with it. So there’s an urgency there, but also with the pain of that transitional moment. We tried to reflect the pain in moments where the camera stays a little bit calmer. We didn’t try to “brutalize” the narrative in the editing. We didn’t try to accelerate it. It was shot this way. It was shot to be like this.

Hearing you talk about film grain was great. Would you ever choose a take for where the grain fell, assuming everything else in the two takes was equal?

The imperfection of the grain has to do with the imperfection of life itself. There’s a beauty to an image being composed by grain but also by the fact that it’s not a polished mint representation of reality. I wouldn’t like the grain to be visible. I would like the grain to be felt so I would pick the one take that could heighten your perception of what is being filmed, that talks directly to your senses as opposed to a take that would, if there is too much grain, you would probably have a rational response to that as opposed to something that would be more intuitive. I would try to use the more organic one.

Most of your Spanish language films get some sort of push in the States, but there’s one called Linha de Passe that had no U.S. push whatsoever. What happened with that?

That film was shot with non-actors in Brazil. It was an experiment I did in 2008 and we ended up winning Best Actress in Cannes that year for this film, which of course generated interest for distribution but I felt that that film was such a specific representation of my own culture of Brazil at that time that it deserved to stay that way. It was thought to generate an internal discussion in the country and this is why we didn’t pursue a more widespread release, although it got released throughout Europe, Latin America and Australia. To do this in the States would have meant an immense effort at a time where I couldn’t be available personally to do that as well, so this is why we thanked very much the distributors who were interested in that film, but we opted not to pursue that idea.

How was your Hollywood experience on Dark Water?

Listen, an interesting one because I learned that the relationship with the actors – I had the privilege to work with Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly and Tim Roth – I realized that there’s really no difference in working with actors in the independent realm and in a studio realm. What made the experience different is mostly the post-production process and the screen tests. You slowly understand that the process is geared to achieve what it is meant to achieve to start with, which is as ample a dialogue as possible with an audience. That was a different world for me because, of course, up to that point I’ve always edited a film as I thought it should be edited. That was the one element that made it very different to me. But I’m of course more comfortable in the independent territory than in a studio, although so many great films are produced in the studio system. Take a look at Clint Eastwood. He’s been doing extraordinary work for so long and working within the rules of the system. He produces one masterpiece after another. On the other hand, I’m such a fan of films like Into the Wild and The Tree of Life that are done very courageously through independent financing and distribution. There are directors that are fit to work in one system and others who are more comfortable in the independent world. I think I’m more comfortable in the independent world. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.