Friday, May 18, 2012

The Making of On The Road: Exclusive Interview with Gerald Nicosia

Gerald Nicosia reading poetry in San Francisco,  2008. Photographer unknown.
As readers know, The Daily Beat recently received a copy of the Official Special Issue of Trois Couleurs #8, dedicated to the upcoming Walter Salles-directed adaptation of Jack Kerouac's beloved beat generation novel, On The Road. Knowing that author Gerald Nicosia helped train the actors at Salles' "beat boot camp," I was surprised that Nicosia wasn't mentioned in the Salles interview. I was further surprised that Nicosia's Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, considered by many to be the definitive Kerouac biography, wasn't listed among the 22 entries in the issue's bibliography. To find out what's going on, I interviewed Gerald Nicosia by e-mail. That interview follows verbatim, and I've also included a number of pictures taken by Nicosia (or Anne Marie Santos) that document his involvement. Importantly, this is the first time some of these pictures have been made public.

The Daily Beat: We understand that your involvement with Walter Salles and the film goes back to 2006. Can you tell us how you came to be involved and describe your early encounters with Salles?  We also know that you were involved in Salles' "beat boot camp" in Montreal in 2010. Tell us how you got involved in that and how Salles took advantage of your extensive knowledge of Kerouac and your collection of recordings, books, etc.

Director Walter Salles listening to tapes in Gerald Nicosia's office
(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012
Gerald Nicosia: Walter Salles had just gotten the rights to ON THE ROAD from Francis Ford Coppola. He felt, being Brazilian, that he had to familiarize himself with the Americanness of Kerouac before he could make the film, follow the same highways, talk to the people who knew Jack, or knew about him, like myself. He decided he would make a documentary of his journey, and he did, called IN SEARCH OF ON THE ROAD. It hasn’t been released yet, but I saw a rough cut of it at the San Francisco International Film Festival in May 2010. I was one of the people who was interviewed in it. That interview was done at my home, in my office upstairs, in Corte Madera. Salles and his film crew spent about four hours with me. They filmed about two hours of interview with me. I also played them dozens of tapes, which I had just gotten back from U Mass Lowell, having won that lawsuit (by settlement). These were the MEMORY BABE taped interviews, which I had put at U Mass Lowell for public study in 1987, and which were locked up because of threats from John Sampas in 1995. So I had just gotten them back, in time for Salles to hear them. He was much taken by the interviews of Lu Anne Henderson and John Clellon Holmes, among others. I also showed him hundreds of photographs, showed him footage of Jack Kerouac shooting pool at the Pawtucketville Social Club in Lowell, filmed by a Montreal TV crew—which Salles hadn’t known existed—he was blown away by it. I also played music for Salles, like Wynonie Harris’s “screaming blues” song, “I Love My Baby’s Puddin’,” which was Neal Cassady’s favorite song. Salles hadn’t heard that either.

Gerald Nicosia (right) on the movie set with Al Hinkle and Garrett Hedlund
(c) Anne Marie Santos 2012
The Daily Beat: One of the pictures you shared - the one taken by Lu Anne Henderson's (Marylou in On The Road) daughter, Anne Marie Santos - shows you on the set of the movie. How much time did you spend on the movie set, and what was your role?

Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, and Kristen Stewart with Gerald Nicosia at Beat Boot Camp
(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012
Gerald Nicosia: Well I was at Beat Boot Camp, the first drill instructor, in a big loft in Montreal, in July 2010, but that was before shooting started. I was working intensively with the actors Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, and Sam Riley, as well as talking with Walter and answering questions from various members of the crew, such as the cinematographer Eric Gautier—one of the sweetest men I ever met—and the wardrobe guy, Danny Glicker, who was also very sweet and carried his little dog (it might have been a Pomeranian) with him everywhere. That was three days and nights of solid work. Then I was on the set for a day in December in San Francisco, just before they wrapped the shoot. But I talked with Walter several times on the phone in between, exchanged emails with him, and gave him several pages of detailed notes on the script.

Kristen Stewart throwing a football with Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley on left, at Beat Boot Camp
(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012
The Daily Beat: Tell us about your working relationship with Salles and with the actors.

Hedlund, Stewart, Salles, and Riley studying at Beat Boot Camp
(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012
Gerald Nicosia: Well, it was playing tapes, showing photos, answering questions, and just rapping with them. Some of the best stuff took place in the bar of the St.-Sulpice Hotel in Montreal, where we were all staying. Everybody let down, and I really got to know Kristen, Sam, and Garrett—or at least got to know little pieces of them. I liked them all very much—thought they were all very real people, with very real connections to Kerouac and ON THE ROAD. Sam and Garrett drank pretty heavily, and they all smoked heavily—it might have been Gauloises. I was a little bit of a Dutch uncle with them, telling the “kids” they better take care of themselves, and of course they disregarded me and thought I was talking nonsense about adverse health effects many years down the line. Old age versus youth. But seriously, they all had serious stuff in their heads. Kristen was concerned about the plight of veterans—the current crop from Iraq and Afghanistan—and wants to play a disabled female vet. We talked about my book HOME TO WAR. Sam talked about how hard it was to transition from being a good-time music man in a rock band to having to be a heavy-duty lead actor, all because he auditioned for the role of Ian Curtis in CONTROL. Garrett made clear that he was still breaking away from that Minnesota farm he’d grown up on.

Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund at Beat Boot Camp
(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012

Kristen Stewart and Sam Riley at Beat Boot Camp
(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012
The Daily Beat: In Salles' description of the beat boot camp in the Trois Couleurs special issue, he says the following: "Barry Gifford, who has written extensively about Kerouac and On the Road, came to the camp to talk to us about the book and characters. Barry interviewed LuAnne Henderson, and listening to the recordings he made with her was a big help to Kristen." There is no mention of your involvement. Is this surprising to you, and do you have an explanation?

Gerald Nicosia: I don’t know who wrote that, or why. I understand it’s put in Walter’s mouth, but Walter knows better. I can’t believe he would have said that. No one, neither Walter nor Kristen, had heard Lu Anne’s voice till I played it for them on my taped interview with her (8 hours). Everyone was so taken with the first tape that Walter insisted I play the whole 8 hours for them there in Montreal in July—and remember, I was the first drill instructor. Barry Gifford came later. He told me he was mostly there to work on the development of a new project with Walter, though he says he talked briefly with the actors in a group (I had worked with them individually and in group). He also told me that Walter later learned that he had some Lu Anne interviews too, done for his book with Larry Lee, JACK’S BOOK, and which Gifford had sold to the University of Texas at Austin. Apparently someone from the production company went down to Austin to copy Gifford and Lee’s interview with Lu Anne, but that was done after I’d made them realize that tape of Lu Anne even existed. And Gifford himself, as he told me the story, never played those tapes for Kristen. I can’t tell you why there is such misinformation in TROIS COULEURS. Seeing such a big section devoted to John Sampas, whose family stole the Kerouac estate from Jan Kerouac and Paul Blake, Jr. (Jack’s nephew), I have to wonder if some deal was cut with him, for use of Jack’s image or whatever. Despite having been proven thieves (by a final appellate decision last August), the Sampases still control Kerouac’s estate and his publicity rights because the brothers and sisters inherited the estate through Stella’s will, and Florida law allows you to inherit stolen property, and keep it, if no one complains within two years. Stella died in 1990—Jan didn’t see the forged will until 1994, so the two years had elapsed. John Sampas and his siblings are still hanging on by the thin thread of Florida’s so-called “non-claim statute.”

Walter Salles with his personal copy of Memory Babe in Nicosia's office
(c) Gerald Nicosia 2012
The Daily Beat: Another thing that mystifies us is Trois Couleurs' omission of Memory Babe from its bibliography. One of the pictures you shared shows Salles with your book. What did he think of it, and can you offer an explanation of why it was excluded by Trois Couleurs?

Gerald Nicosia: Salles told me at my house in 2006, and in front of the assembled cast and crew in the Montreal loft, at lunchtime, about fifty people whom he’d gathered to hear me speak—he told that whole group that “Memory Babe is clearly the best biography of Jack Kerouac, and I’ve read them all.” It is astonishing to me, completely astonishing, that it was left out of the bibliography. In fact, when he came to my house, he brought me his personal copy, a dog-eared copy of the first Grove paperback edition, and he wanted me to sign it for him. That’s the book that he has his hands on in the photo.

The Daily Beat: The exclusion of Memory Babe from the Trois Couleurs bibliography reminds us of how it was omitted from the "Suggested Further Reading" list in the 2007 "scroll edition" of On The Road. Do you think this is related, and, if so, how? Didn't Memory Babe win an award and garner critical acclaim?

Gerald Nicosia: Because of pressure from John Sampas on Penguin books, and on Penguin beat editor Paul Slovak, my name, and MEMORY BABE, have been removed from all bibliographies and even text in the Kerouac and Beat books that Penguin publishes. I learned this, straight out, from NEW YORK TIMES columnist John Leland, who wrote the book WHY KEROUAC MATTERS. Paul Slovak, his editor, told him he had to take my name out of the text wherever it appeared. The problem was, they left in three sentences, direct quotes, from MEMORY BABE, with no attribution whatsoever. I went ballistic when I saw this in the galleys. I screamed at Penguin, “You can’t use my words and not even say they're mine.” So they stuck a mention of MEMORY BABE into the afterward, to cover themselves legally.You have to understand, this is all because I supported Jan Kerouac’s lawsuit against the Sampases. MEMORY BABE won the Distinguished Young Writer Award from the National Society of Arts and Letters while it was still a work in progress. It has been heralded as the definitive work all over the world, including by the LONDON TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT. Whether the omission in TROIS COULEURS comes from the same source as the omissions in Penguin books, I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

The Daily Beat: Did you have a direct working relationship with MK2, producer of Trois Couleurs? If so, can you tell us about that?

Gerald Nicosia with Charles Gillibert in Montreal at St.-Sulpice Hotel
(c) Michel Bornais 2010
Gerald Nicosia: Yes, I spent time with Charles Gillibert too, when I was in Montreal, and then saw him again on the set in San Francisco in December. I also negotiated with him so that they could use material on my Lu Anne tapes in their film.

The Daily Beat: Can you tell us how accurately the script and the actors interpreted Kerouac, Cassady, and Marylou?

Gerald Nicosia: I don’t know—I haven’t seen the film yet, but they really wanted to do a good job. In fact, they were worrying too much about getting their parts with complete accuracy. I told them to lighten up, to take some of that pressure off, and just to try to convey the hearts, the open-heartedness, of those characters, to a public who didn’t really know them—and that would be enough.

The Daily Beat: Do you expect to see your name in the film credits?

Gerald Nicosia: If there is any fairness at all to those credits, my name will be listed among them.

The Daily Beat: Will you go see it when it's released?

Gerald Nicosia: I’m hoping to see it in Cannes, but they still haven’t issued me an invitation.

The Daily Beat: What have we forgotten to ask that you want Daily Beat readers to know?

Gerald Nicosia: Just that I have the highest respect for Walter Salles. He’s a brilliant man, and I believe he really cares about Kerouac. So I am hoping for the best.

Gerald Nicosia is the acclaimed author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road, Jan Kerouac: A Life in Memory, and Home To War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement.


Gregor Singleton said...

Excellent interview!!!!

Anonymous said...

A thousand thanks. Good to know that there are still a few braves who can stand up in their boots.

I'll drink a glass of "French" wine to your health Mr Dale!!!

Merci mille fois. Bon de savoir qu'il y a encore quelques braves qui savent se tiennent debout dans leurs bottes.

Je lève mon verre de vin "français" à votre santé!!!

J.A. Michel Bornais... fils de Léona Kirouac
Québec, Canada