Director Michael Polish on Bringing Jack Kerouac Back to ‘Big Sur’

©ourtesy of Blackbook  Hillary Weston

Film stars Jean-Marc Barre

Director Michael Polish on Bringing Kerouac Back to ‘Big Sur’

When it comes to cinematic adaptations of literary classics, the film’s purpose should be the breathe fresh life into the narrative, to pick up the silences where the prose left off creatively. You want to engage the viewer’s desire to see what they could only imagine through the words on the page—taking the brilliance and the rhythm of the text and bringing it to life. And in recent cinema history we’ve seen more than a few adaptions that fell short—paying tribute to the work but with a heavy-handedness that alienated the audience and didn’t allow for the cinematic possibilities of the prose.

So when it comes to bringing the writing of Jack Kerouac to the screen, finding a way to translate his breathless, stream-of-conscious, word-spinning style onto film, hasn’t always proved an easy or successful task. But with Michael Polish’s latest film, a meditative and visually entrancing adaptation of Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, we’re given a unqiue experience into the world of the Beat generation—both its intrigue and its lacerations. “My friend came out of the movie the other day and said it was the first movie where he’s smelt the alcohol on somebody’s breath,” Polish told me. And it’s true, with an aesthetically sensuous and tactile look at nature and the characters inhabiting it and marveling at its wonder, Polish has made an incrediblely immersive film that doesn’t simply tell Kerouac’s story but brings the beating heart (or in this case, melancholic restless heart) to life.

Starring Jean-Marc Barre, Big Sur focuses on, “a moment in Jack Kerouac’s life when, overwhelmed by the success of his opus On the Road and struggling with alcoholism, he retreats to his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the small, coastal California town of Big Sur, which eventually inspires his 1962 novel of the same name. Kerouac’s time begins with quiet moments of solitude and communing with nature. But, struck by loneliness, he hightails it to San Francisco, where he resumes drinking heavily and gets pushed into a relationship with his best friend Neal Cassady’s mistress, Billie.”

Earlier this week I got the chance to sit down with Polish about the making of Big Sur, what attracted him to this story, and his desire to make a “Kerouac movie.”

So you had the New York premiere last night—how was that?
It was great. I didn’t watch the movie though.

Do you tend to avoid doing that?
Yeah. However, I did watch Big Sur in Big Sur. It was outside and the screen was between two redwoods—and that was great because we were filming just feet away from where we were watching it. How long did you spend up there? I spent two months in Big Sur and one month in San Francisco.

Did you spend a lot of time just feeling out Big Sur and understanding what Kerouac felt being there?
I went out there probably three times just to see where he was at. I knew Bigsby bridge, because everybody drives across it, but I didn’t know any houses were below it because you can’t see them, they’re covered by trees and it just looks like a creek. So I walked down there and found the cabin. Lawrence Ferlinghetti told us where it was, and I went to it and it was already modernized and there were neighbors—I thought, oh man we’re going to be screwed because we don’t have the location. So I went inside the house and the interior had this huge rock fire place that was original, so I thought we could probably do the interiors here. And then one day we took a hike up the mountain and found a cabin. And I knew we needed that cabin even though it was miles away from the road and there was no way to get cameras and crews up there.

Did the nature of shooting a film like this make for a really different kind of on-set experience?
I had another movie that was rigorous like this called North Forth. We shot that in the high plains of Montana, and that was similar and it was a location movie so you’re staying 50 miles away from where you’re shooting everyday. This was probably the same amount of cast, but there was a lot more dialogue in this and you had to figure out the pacing differently.

What’s your personal relationship with Jack Kerouac? Is he someone you grew up reading and were really informed by?
You read On the Road as a rite of passage, and I liked it, but I didn’t really respond to it like I did with Big Sur. Big Sur to me was like the beginning, middle, and end of his life—you got to see his whole life and that was very cinematic to me in a book. He talks about On the Road, he talks about the shows he was one, and the fame. I was a big fan of the movie Bar Fly and I thought this could be a Bar Fly-type scenario.

People love and obsess over the Beat generation because of the innovative brilliance and sense of adventure, but Big Sur is more than just that element of excitement—it’s more of a meditation and reflection.
Yeah, the artist’s plight and what fame does to a young man. He’s nearing 40 and has rejected a lot of what is going on. Kind of like On the Road, he rejected what was going on then. He had a rebelliousness that a lot of people respond to. The thing about it that I wanted to do with this movie, was to have a complete translation. I didn’t want to modernize the text. The nice thing about the adaptation is that I left every word—there might have been twelve words that were my own, but everything else is Jack Kerouac. So Jean-Marc and Josh and Kate, they all got Jack’s words as their character. They had to speak and then make it their own—very Shakespeare.

And the film felt more like a visual translation of his style and voice, that stream of consciousness fluidity, rather than a film simply about Kerouac.
Thanks. That’s what I planned to do, but there was some resistance because it hadn’t been done before. People thought all the voiceover would be crushing and people were going to tune off and not listen. And I said, this is Kerouac, it’s an internal meditation, people might drop out listening to it, but that’s okay. They can watch the pictures or they don’t have to look at the pictures, they can listen to the words. It’s going to be stream of consciousness movie, it’s not about Kerouac, it’s a Kerouac movie. And after the first screening a lot of people said, oh man that’s going to be rough. And I said to just have patience. We did a cut of the movie that was very typical of what people wanted and that got even more rejected. So I said, just let me cut it the way the script was, and I did that cut and that’s what this is. And everybody loved it, the people that typically like these movies. So it works.

Adding to that sense of fluidity and really capturing the headspace of his words was the very particular visual aesthetic of the film. What were you trying to achieve with that?
I wanted the exterior to marry his interior. His language spinning is so intense and the way he constructs things is so intense, I wanted nature to feel the same way. When you look at the waves and the rocks and the cliffs, they’re constructed so perfectly within their own nature, and I thought he did the same thing but internally.

Watching a film like this, it’s always interesting to see whose cast as these figures of history and icons you’ve come to know. How did you go about the casting process for this and what were you looking for?
The first sense was having the liberty to find the right Jack Kerouac. It wasn’t about finding someone who could finance the movie or someone popular. And Jean-Marc was someone I’d know of since high school, and one of our producers knew his girlfriend at the time and said you should look at Jean-Marc he has a real resemblance. I talked to Jean-Marc and I knew he was an American living in France and that was very similar to Kerouac. And then I found out he played football like Kerouac, he speaks French like Kerouac, and he felt like almost like the perfect living Kerouac—he lives out of a bag, he travels, he does movie after movie, he’s an ex-patriot. Once I met him, I thought, okay I think we can make this movie now. And then I met Josh and was like holy shit, he’s really like Neil Cassady. He’s wiry—

And very charismatic.
Very! He’s bright and in your face. But he really, really wanted to do it, so we had a great connection right there. I thought, okay I have these two people, but the most pivotal role for me is the Billie character. I knew Kate’s work; we’d never met, but I’d been at festivals and things where her films were at the same time. So I said, what’s that Kate Bosworth doing, I think she could nail this. And I was in San Francisco at the time so I said I can meet you and I said I’d fly to LA and we met. I just thought she was a really smart person and asked if she’d please do this. And once I had that triangle, I just filled it in with people I knew.

Did you have to do a lot of research on each character or was it more about the way Kerouac described them?
I went to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore and he has stuff on every single person. I even wanted them to look like them. Billie was hard to find, she married a jazz singer and became Jackie Mercer.

How did you work with Jean-Marc on becoming Jack and getting the proper cadence? It’s not only important to be authentic but for a film like this that’s so voiceover driven, it really encompasses the whole movie.
Yeah, it’s our drive. Well, we sat in a hotel room in San Francisco, just me and him with a microphone, and he read the whole script just all the way through with that cadence. And the nerves of starting the movie and getting into the role at the same time gave us that really fresh voiceover. I used that tape and listened to it as we were filming, so his cadence was the very first reading of the script–which I thought was unique because we did it again afterwards and it wasn’t the same. I think we just wore him out.

With so many people making films about the Beats and these characters, what do you think about that generation feels so relevant to today? 
That’s a great question because people always ask me what it is about the Beats or about their writing, but if you read most blogs, if you read most internet stuff, this stream of consciousness how I feel about the world is in every single one. People don’t know exactly where that came from, but it really came from that generation of reflection and these run on sentences. You read a blog and think, oh that’s from Kerouac or this person or this person. So it really came from these guys breaking that structure. And you know, there isn’t Twitter feed to follow what these guys were doing. There’s mystery to what they were doing and who they were. They’ve become national monuments of some sort—you can go to San Francisco and sit at the bar that he sat at, you can go to the hotels he stayed at, or you can go to Big Sur and there’s a discovery still that you can’t find unless you go there and figure it out. These are American icons at a certain point and you go back and read them and there’s still a lot of allusiveness behind them.

Did you learn a lot as an artist and filmmaker in the process of making this?
Yeah, I think every film you learn something and you get more knowledge with every movie you go into. But this movie was particular because it was trying to preserve something in the right way, so you really didn’t want to screw it up. And I knew that other Kerouac movies were having a difficult time, so I said fuck it, I’m going to live and die by the sword, I’m going to go all Kerouac and if nobody sees it and everybody hates it, at least somebody will say, this is a Kerouac movie. That’s all I can do at the end of the day.

Most adaptations are either too literal and it doesn’t fit for the screen or its a complete abstraction.
Or they’re trying to make it popular for people like a Gap ad or trying to make it cool to wear Levis. You can look at it now and it can be very cool and it was cool back then, so what’s that cool back then.

How was premiering the film at Sundance this winter? That’s really where you got your start.
It was great. This was my fifth movie there and every single premiere is different. This one was great because nobody expected it; nobody expected a movie like this. A lot of journalists came up to me and said, “I think you created a new genre. We’re not figuring it out yet but we’ve never seen a movie like this.” And it’s not that different, but for a lot of journalists, I think they like to see the written word explained like that. If you’re a writer and if you ever think about adapting something, at least if they stay true to it, it feels good.

Kerouac’s work has a really strong sense of feeling to it when you read it, was it important to capture that tactile nature the picture he paints and translate that onto the screen?
My friend came out of the movie the other day and said it was the first movie where he’s smelt the alcohol on somebody’s breath. He said he could smell the sea and the bad breath and the where they slept—”I actually started to smell your movie.” And I thought, well, that’s interesting! I’d never heard that before, that’s Kerouac. And we smelt like that; we’d come home and go to a bar and everybody smelt like a fire or smelt like smoke. Everybody smoked and drank. We were in the middle of nowhere and had this huge fire and everybody had to keep warm and people were smoking and screaming…

So did everyone become really close on-set?
Yeah it was great, everybody hung out. What was great about the cabin was that it was small so we shot from the windows in. We were never in the cabin. So people could occupy it, but the cameras were looking in, so it was like a reality show because the cameras were on the outside. But everybody’s become very close since then, and now its been two years and it’s the same when we see each other.

As someone who came from a really great time in very independent cinema, how do you view the world of independent filmmaking today? It’s certain been improving.
It’s getting better! It’s come back. For about five or eight years we saw such a huge decline, and that probably had to do with the recession too because we source our money from things that are doing much better. And you’re starting to see it come back; maybe it’s a ten year thing. Because when I did Twin Falls Idaho which was ’98/’99 it was a great height to be an independent filmmaker. You were like the beat generation, it was like the kids coming out—we had Sofia Coppola, we had Spike Jonze, etc. So it was a good group that came out that year, and then we all went into our different worlds, and then there was a decline.

And the way we’re consuming films now also has a lot to do with that rise.
We lost some theatre space and gained it in the internet. We took over that real estate and it’s really good to see the movies that are coming out.

 

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