|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Sam Riley with Gerald Nicosia at the Cannes afterparty.
As promised, here is the interview with Memory Babe author Gerald Nicosia about his experience at the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of On The Road. As in past interviews here, this was conducted via e-mail. It's full of fascinating insights, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. Thanks to Gerry for the exclusive photos, including some of Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kirsten Dunst. Several miscellaneous photos appear at the end of the interview. Make sure to scroll all the way through for Robert Pattinson!
Gerald Nicosia: I had hoped to be at the premiere from the time I worked on the film in July 2010. Al Hinkle and his daughter Dawn, who are good friends of mine, had talked for months about how we hoped Walter Salles or the production company would bring us all to Cannes for the premiere. But neither Walter nor MK2 was in touch with us. The email I was using for Walter was not bringing any response, and it may be he doesn’t use it any more. But about a month ago, I was able to get in touch with his assistant, Maria Bruno, in Brazil, and from that point on, I could communicate with Walter on a frequent basis. He told me that it was going to be hard to get an “invitation” (which is what they call tickets to the premieres), but that if I came to Cannes, he would invite me and a guest to the after-party. My French friend Noemie Sornet arranged a place for me to stay, and I was able to get a moderately-priced air ticket, so there seemed no reason not to go. I really wanted to see the actors again—I mean the ones I had worked closely with: Garrett, Sam, and Kristen. There were others on the crew that I wanted to see again too, like cinematographer Eric Gautier, who is not only a complete genius at what he does, but is one of the nicest people I have ever met on this planet. The main theater holds 2400 seats, so I figured, with all the people I know connected to this film, someone would come up with a ticket for me. And that is just what happened. Charles Gillibert and Rebecca Yeldham, two of the producers that I worked with, managed to come up with a ticket for me just hours before the movie showed.
You know, I’ve spent 40 years fighting for the mainstream recognition of Jack Kerouac as a great American writer. 40 years ago, I was arguing with professors at the University of Illinois, telling them they should include Jack Kerouac in American literature courses, and they were laughing at me, figuratively “spitting in my face,” telling me that they would never teach “that cult leader, that chief of the beatniks,” in a college literary course. I think I can honestly say, without boasting, that the book I wrote, MEMORY BABE, the first critical biography of Kerouac (the first book to examine his works in detail), helped in a large way to further recognition and acceptance of Kerouac as a writer instead of a “chief of beatniks.” I felt strongly that the first showing of this film, ON THE ROAD, would be a watershed in terms of Jack Kerouac reaching a much larger, mainstream audience around the world. That is to say, I felt it would be a tremendously historic occasion—in the literary world, in the cultural world, and in the political world—so I wanted very much to be there for that moment in history. And I felt I had paid enough dues over the past forty years to earn the right to be there. Thank God, I was. (And of course, thank Noemie Sornet, Walter Salles, Kristen Stewart, Charles Gillibert, and many others who helped make it possible!)
|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Gerald Nicosia, wearing his Kerouac Family Association Badge, sits along the water at Cannes.
GN: No, I had never been in Cannes before. I had never been in FRANCE before, except for a stop in Charles de Gaulle Airport once, on my way to Italy—a country I am much more familiar with. Fortunately, I studied French in school, and have spoken it from time to time on my visits to Quebec, so a little French was still in my head—enough to get around. Cannes was all I had imagined, and more. The Cote d’Azur (Azure Coast, as they call it), is phenomenally beautiful. There are of course palms and beaches as in Los Angeles, but in Cannes the ocean is deep blue and very mild—no torrential Pacific waves—and an array of million-dollar yachts sit quietly in the harbor. Also, where the beachfront of L.A. is filled with tacky architecture, even in Santa Monica, in Cannes the row of beachfront hotels and apartment buildings, along what they call La Croisette, are simply stunning: ornate edifices, clean and shining white in the sun. On the streets are the finest cars money can buy (and I do mean money, there are as many banks here as apartment buildings, and you have to go through bullet-proof-glass vestibules even to enter one, if you need to change your dollars for Euros), from Mercedes to Lamborghini—and everywhere beautiful women in the finest haute couture! (If I said that right!) If you’re a man, you can’t get into a premiere unless you’re wearing a black tuxexo with a black bow tie (though both Robert Pattinson and Garrett Hedlund defied tradition by wearing straight black ties, and no one dared say a word to them!) Great beach-front restaurants and cafes, but be prepared to pay five dollars for a cup of coffee! But if you wander into some of the narrow, winding back streets, like the rue du Bivouac Napoleon, you can find outdoor cafes a little cheaper, where they don’t rush you and let you sit and write in your notebook or watch the beautiful people go by. Let’s just say, I had the time of my life there!
|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Inside the main theater just before the premiere of On The Road.
TBD: Since you are a noted Kerouac scholar and were involved in prepping the actors at Beat Boot Camp (see our previous interview on 5-18-12), your opinion about the film carries a lot of weight. Please tell us about your reactions, but no "spoilers" please (we Americans have to wait until perhaps December to see it).
GN: This is probably the hardest question to answer. Partly, because I don’t know if the film that will be released in the U.S. in December (as I now hear) will be the same film as released in France, or whether Walter will go back and re-edit it in view of the reviews, which, as you probably know, have been not very good. I guess, if I have to give a quick answer, it would be that there are many elements of greatness in this film (even as it stands, more than we ever hoped a film of ON THE ROAD could contain), but there are some crucial things left out, which I think may keep viewers from getting the full impact of the film, and of what Kerouac achieved with that landmark novel.
Let me elaborate a bit. Visually, the film is gorgeous. Eric Gautier’s cinematography turns the road into another main character in the film. There is a letter where Kerouac tells how he would like to see the road portrayed if ON THE ROAD is filmed, and it almost seems like Gautier read that letter. We see the white line of the road “feeding into the car,” we see the road dancing and rising and falling like a person with a hundred different moods. It’s simply breathtaking. If the only good thing about this movie were the cinematography, it would still have to be considered a major film. But of course, there is a lot more. Garrett Hedlund’s performance as Neal is simply great—unless Sir Lawrence Olivier comes back from the grave to make a surprise appearance, Garrett should get an Oscar for that performance. Finally, we have a Neal Cassady on the screen who is not a caricature. His performance is nuanced in every way. Yes, he is sex-mad, his body moves as if plugged into a thousand-volt line, but we also see a vulnerable Neal, a lonely Neal, a pained and anguished Neal, a profoundly needy Neal (shades of Brando in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE), and a tender Neal. We see a man with a big hole of loss at the center of his life, which is how it was in real life for him. Salles focuses on his missing father (because you can’t focus on a lot of different things in a two-hour movie), but Neal was equally traumatized by the absence of a mother for almost his entire life. When Jack finally rejects Neal at the end, it will have a lot of people crying—not an emotion we expect to get from Neal Cassady.
There are also some world-class scenes in this film, scenes that will go down as landmarks in film history. There is nothing I have ever seen like the New Year’s Eve party, 1948, in Salles’s film. It conveys what my friend, Chicago film critic Patrick Z. McGavin, calls a “demonic joy”—in a way I cannot remember ever seeing in film. Yes, Cassavetes was good at filming parties too—and we know that Salles was influenced by Cassavetes. But this party takes off where all the other filmed parties ended—it is “Go! Go! Go!” from start to finish. It will leave you breathless. It will leave you wanting to take your girl or lady (or significant other) to the nearest jazz joint to dance nonstop for the next several hours (which was just the reaction I saw from many of the viewers at the afterparty in Cannes!) In fact, and here is one of the great things about the film, it sustains notes of that demonic joy from start to finish, despite all the pain and lost and ruined relationships along the way. That demonic joy is pure Kerouac, it’s in the novel itself—and for Salles to have captured it on the screen is a high attainment.
In brief, there are some other fantastic performances: Kirsten Dunst as Carolyn Cassady is simply outstanding; I knew Carolyn, and she got her to the tiniest detail, both physical and psychological. Kristen’s Lu Anne/Marylou helps reveal the real Lu Anne, in the same way that I tried to do in my book ONE AND ONLY. She gets the lightning-bolt energy of Lu Anne, but also the will and sensitivity that have been omitted from so many portraits. Tom Sturridge’s Ginsberg is as nuanced as Garrett’s Neal. Sturridge even had Allen’s facial mannerisms, as I remembered them, and he told me later, at the afterparty, that he’d studied dozens of films of Allen to learn that kind of mimicry. But it’s not just mimicry. We also finally get a sense of Allen as a real person, as filled with anger and frustration at the failures in his life as he is filled with nutty joy and love for poetry. Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi—their supporting roles are all fabulous.
I could say a lot more, but I don’t want to review the movie till I’m sure it is in finished form—nor do I want to “spoil” it for those who haven’t seen it. Let me just say, in line with the pluses, that the movie is subtly crafted by a master craftsman—and you will, on careful watching, see many details and motifs that keep the whole film tied together—like the pursuit of the lost father, who seems to keep resurfacing only to disappear once again, or the copy of Proust’s SWANN’S WAY that appears in odd moments throughout the film. The songs, too, from Jack’s own road blues, which he wrote and sang at home into his tape recorder (which Sam Riley ably mimics at the start of the film), to the hitchhiker’s (Jake La Botz’s) improvised song in the backseat—these ditties of the road also create a connective web, that holds the film together and keeps it moving toward its final revelations.
The problem with the film—and the reviewers said this, but I felt it myself—is that we don’t really get a sense of the spiritual or interior journey Jack Kerouac is on. We see him getting high, having sex, being mesmerized by Neal, and writing on a typewriter or in a notebook. But we don’t know that he’s thinking thoughts about God and angels and time (O Proust!) almost every waking minute of his life. It’s that spiritual journey that made ON THE ROAD the enduring human classic it is, and will always be. We don’t want to travel for the sake of traveling, or even for kicks (fun as they are). We travel because we want to learn about life, and to find ourselves. The best way to show that is through voiceover—to hear Jack’s thoughts as he’s going through these adventures. Originally, there had been plans for a lot more voiceover in the film, and for some reason it got taken out. So now, for example, we see Jack at the end of his rope, no food, picking up butts off the street in San Francisco after both Neal and Lu Anne have abandoned him, but we don’t hear that beautiful riff about “reaching the end of chronological time” and seeing “the angels diving off a plank”—etc., that stretch of golden prose/poetry in the middle of the novel that Kerouac actually told Ginsberg was the most important scene in the book. When I saw Sam, at the very end of shooting in December, 2010, in San Francisco, he told me that he was going to read those lines as voiceover. But it’s not there now. And it leaves a hole—a pretty big one. Other little icons of spirituality, like the Walking Saint, the old man who keeps reappearing on the road in the novel to warn them “Go moan for man,” have also been taken out. I don’t object to Kristen’s nude scenes—I guess like every other guy in the theatre, I was on the edge of my chair to get a better view!—but unless you have those spiritual moments, “Go moan for man!” to balance it out, it’s going to be perceived as mostly a film about kicks. And that really wasn’t what the novel was about.
I told Walter, in fact, that I’d be happy to speak with him about all this, and I hope he takes me up on it. I know of many films that were re-edited after their festival appearances, and I hope this will happen with ON THE ROAD.
|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Garrett Hedlund and Gerald Nicosia at the afterparty.
|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Garrett Hedlund at the afterparty.
|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Garrett Hedlund and Kirsten Dunst at the afterparty.
|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Kristen Stewart with Gerald Nicosia at the afterparty.
GN: It was wonderful. We hugged and laughed and remembered how it all began two years earlier. They thanked me again for my help, but the fact is they gave me as much as I gave them. To have gotten to know three such bright and good-hearted young people—really dedicated to their craft, and to telling important truths in their acting—has heartened my own somewhat jaded faith in the human race. Sam, Kristen, and Garrett are just fine people—they don’t get much better. I also got to meet some of the other stars I hadn’t met before, like Kirsten Dunst and Tom Sturridge, and they impressed me as equally smart and dedicated and caring individuals. It was an extraordinary assemblage, not just of talent, but of actors with heart—and in fact, that’s what the Beat Generation itself was, a collection of extraordinarily big-hearted, open-hearted individuals, who were able to use their heartfulness to push America out of the hatred and paranoia after World War II, and quite a ways down the path toward the Age of Aquarius, the Flower Power and “Love is All You Need” of the Sixties, my generation. It might have been Kristen who said this film was unique because it was the first time she’d been part of a cast and crew that felt like one big family. And of course, Kerouac had said essentially the same thing about the Beat Generation, that “it’s a vast collection of friends.” So there was quite a bit of magic and synchronicity going on, that helped Walter and the others in their job.
GN: Yes, I talked quite a bit with both Walter and Charles. The night of the premiere, they both seemed very worried about how the film would be received. Walter was a little giddy too—I think with the relief that all those years of work were finally completed. Charles said he was resigned to the fact that this film would probably have a small, art-house audience. He talked about consciously making the decisions that would keep the film from becoming a blockbuster, in order to try to keep it true to Kerouac’s intentions. I completely honor him for that, but I also feel (and told him) that if the film wins only one or two Academy Awards, it will be enough to push it out of the art houses and into the multiplex theatres everywhere. That has happened before with films that were supposed to be art-house movies, such as Oprah Winfrey’s PRECIOUS, or before that, DRIVING MISS DAISY. My own feeling is that with a little tweaking, perhaps returning some of the voiceover to the film, ON THE ROAD could become one of the great movies of all time.
GN: I cannot say enough good things about Noemie. She is extremely bright, extremely dedicated to Jack Kerouac, and perhaps the most determined person I ever met (even more than I was when I was her age!). She refuses to give up on any project or effort that she believes in, and I think that will carry her far. Although she is young, she is what we used to call “an old soul”—someone whose wisdom seems to have nothing to do with their chronological age, as if they brought all their wisdom with them, intact, from many previous lifetimes. She came up with the absolutely great idea that there should be a roll of tributes (Kerouac didn’t call it a “scroll,” Christie’s auction house did!) as long as the actual roll manuscript of ON THE ROAD, 36 meters I think. She’s gathering those tributes now, from people of all ages and all walks of life, some who knew Kerouac, and some who just love his work. And people who read Kerouac are not all academics. Just yesterday I met a waitress in my local café, about 21 years old, who told me that Jack Kerouac changed her life, led her to drop out of college for a year and take to the road between Washington State and Los Angeles, and learn more about the world (and about herself) than she’d ever learned in school. She’s working as a waitress now, but plans someday to go back to college, and someday to travel again, even farther—maybe to Europe. Those are the kind of people whose stories Noemie is gathering—and it should have been done a long time ago. I can’t wait to see Noemie’s finished roll. And I can’t wait to find out what sort of project Noemie comes up with next! (Because her mind and creativity never stop working.) [Editor'sNote: To contribute to Noemie's project, click here.]
GN: My friend, the film critic Patrick McGavin, saw the film at the press screening on the morning of May 23, and he said there were two credits to me, one as advisor, and one for allowing them to use my tapes of Lu Anne. When they showed the film that evening, I didn’t get to see the credits, because they cut off the film very abruptly to show live video of Walter and the actors down in the front row. It all has to do with generating applause, since in Cannes they actually time the applause, and the length of the applause can influence the judges in terms of their decisions about winners. I look forward to seeing the film in a theatre, where I can actually watch my name roll by (twice!)—it will be a moment of satisfaction for me. And if they re-edit the U.S. version, they better not edit that part out!
TDB: What was your most memorable moment from the trip?
GN: There were about 1500 people at the afterparty, right after the showing of the film. It was held in a club that is actually part of the huge Palais des Festivals complex—a club called The Magic Garden Meets Le Baron, which sits atop the casino adjoining the theatres. Part of it is inside, including a dance floor, and part of it is outdoors, an outdoor rooftop garden complete with a full bar. These were almost all movie people and celebrities—many of them having worked on this film or other Cannes films. Even Kristen Stewart’s mother Jules was there, equally beautiful as Kristen, but with a large tattoo on her arm. Again, all the men were in tuxedos, and the women were in absolutely gorgeous gowns—or most of them were. Kristen Stewart was in a very expensive black leather jacket, which made her look a little like her Joan Jett character. But here’s my point. It was an open bar all evening—there were endless circulating trays of exquisite food (I ate the first caviar I’ve ever eaten in my life!)—people were exploding with joy and excitement, and there was a dancefloor with strobes and pounding music, filled to capacity with dancers. The noise of the music and of people talking and laughing, which came off the rooftop, could probably have been heard blocks away. At some high point of the evening, I betook myself off to a corner (as I sometimes do), a little removed from the dancefloor, so that I could just sit quietly with my drink and watch the people dancing and frolicking with joy. It was quite a sight. I had not seen so much happiness all in one place in a long time. And I thought about Jack Kerouac, and wished he could have been alive to see it, to share in it, to realize all these people—these intelligent, beautiful, accomplished people—were here to celebrate his work. Jack Kerouac died in poverty in St. Petersburg, Florida—$91 in the bank, most of his books out of print, essentially alone (with no friends around, a paralyzed mother, a wife he sought to divorce), feeling he had wasted his life, or perhaps more accurately, “blown his chances.” He never lost faith in his writing. He knew to the very end that he was a great writer. But he was also convinced (he told this to a young musician and admirer, Ronny Lowe) that he’d taken the wrong course in his life, lost the opportunity to be recognized in his own lifetime and to have a successful life, money, a family, and so on. He thought of himself as a failure, as a crazy drunk whom no one respected—and he blamed himself for ending up like that. It wasn’t at all what he’d imagined as his future when his first novel, THE TOWN AND THE CITY, was about to be published. And now, he felt—he actually told Ronny Lowe in 1969—it was too late for him to make a comeback. That’s why I wished Jack could have been sitting there with me, to see all those people celebrating and reveling in the joy of his great novel now turned into a film—because he had made that final comeback, after all. That was my moment of satori in Cannes. But maybe Jack did see it from heaven—at least, I like to believe that.
|(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012|
Robert Pattinson arriving for premiere of On the Road. He's just above the guy with the large white shirtfront.
TDB: What else do you want our readers to know about your experience in Cannes?
GN: That they should beg, steal, or borrow to get there once in their lives. The Cannes Film Festival is an experience not to be missed—and never to be forgotten. And that it’s not as hard to get invitations as all the guidebooks say. A lot of people stand outside the Palais with signs asking for an invitation to their film of choice, and a surprising number of them receive invitations from someone else who can’t use them. If you’re thinking about going next year, do it!