Nick Cave on Lawless, the sentimentality of sadists, and the war on drugs
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Nick Cave’s recent albums with Grinderman come straight from the id, but in the last several years, he has given himself as much to literary pursuits as libidinous grunts. In addition to writing his second novel, 2009’s The Death Of Bunny Munro, Cave has started a third career—or more, depending on how you count—as a screenwriter, writing three scripts for director John Hillcoat (The Proposition). The latest, Lawless, is a typically bloody Cave affair, loosely based on the story of the three Bondurant brothers, who ran a Virginia moonshine business at the height of Prohibition and protected it from organized-crime infiltration by any means at their disposal. Cave, who continues to record with his longtime band, The Bad Seeds, talked to The A.V. Club about his unhealthy love of horror movies, coaxing Ralph Stanley to cover The Velvet Underground, and Tom Hardy’s unlikely acting inspirations.
The A.V. Club: Your relationship with director John Hillcoat goes back several years, but how did you come to adapt this book, Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest County In The World?
Nick Cave: I’ve had a relationship with John since we were 19 or something. I met him in Australia. It was a kind of a music/film scene where people all knew each other, and it came out of that in some way. But it was 10 years ago or something like that that we started working together [with 1988’s Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead]. Especially on film. So then that came from writing The Proposition, and we just try to do as much stuff together as possible. We’re always looking for projects, and [producer] Lucy Fisher brought along this extraordinary book by Matt Bondurant that was a violent but lyrical masterpiece, and although at the time I had no particular interest in writing somebody else’s story or adapting a book, this was just too evocative to pass by, really.
AVC: You’ve written your own screenplays and novels before, in addition to your long career as a musician. How different is it working from someone else’s source material? It seems more involved than working up a cover version of a song.
NC: Yeah, I mean, you have some responsibility to the source, so you have to remember that, but it’s not actually that much different, because I find once the elements of the story have been laid down, the actual narrative becomes quite simple, and John has always brought those narrative elements to me. For example, with The Proposition, he came and said, “I want to do an Australian Western set in the outback in this particular year. Can you write a story about that?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I can.” So he set the theme up in some way. I wrote another script for him, which looks like it’s going to get made. He said, “Can you write one about a traveling salesman working in England?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that.” So my interest is not so much in the subject matter itself, but in the idea of being able to write something. So I was given a story with Matt Bondurant’s book and simply began writing that, and in a way, it’s the same way with the other films. Once the theme is there, the stories come relatively easy.
AVC: Both Tom Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant and Guy Pearce’s Charlie Rakes take on a kind of mythic status as the film progresses. Did they jump out of the book for you in that way; did you see an opportunity to do something particular with those two characters?
NC: Forrest is a great character in the book, and somehow [Hardy’s] interpretation of that was easy. He took it somewhere else completely. His references to the character were, at the time, mystifying. He came in saying, “I want to play Forrest Bondurant like I’m an old lesbian.” Another time he said, “I’m going to play Forrest Bondurant based on the old lady in the cartoon “Tweetie Pie.” Do you know that? Do you know Sylvester and Tweety?
NC: Okay, you know the old lady who looks after them?
AVC: I do.
NC: Okay. That’s who he was basing his character on. So these references were initially very exciting, but also mystifying. In a way, what he did with Forrest, I really understand where he’s coming from. It was very much a weirdly female kind of character who looked after the brood, very much threatened by this other woman that came into the story, Maggie [played by Jessica Chastain]. And that all made a lot of sense, but he did an amazing job on that character, and that’s why he is fit to be such a great actor, I think. As for Guy Pearce, we asked him early on if he would be the villain in the film, and he said he would. He read the script and said he would as long as we made the villain more memorable. At the time, Rakes, the character Rakes, was very much like the character in the book. He was a nasty country cop. We made him a city cop, gave him his disturbed sexuality and all the rest of it. We spent a lot of time on the phone talking about what this character would be like. So he had a lot of input to that character. At some point, he sent a photograph of himself with that hairstyle and his eyebrows shaved off [to] my cell phone and said, “How about I look like this?” And I’m like, “Okay, that’s cool.”
AVC: That seems like an alarming thing to turn up on your phone.
NC: Well, I showed it to my kids, who are 12. We watch all sorts of inappropriate movies together, and they were genuinely terrified by the photograph.
AVC: So your twin 12-year-old sons have seen The Proposition, for example?
NC: Oh, they’ve seen worse than that.
AVC: Should I ask?
NC: Not if the authorities are out.
AVC: There’s an interesting contrast between Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce’s characters in terms of sexuality. Hardy is quite reluctant to have sex, to the extent that Chastain’s character really has to take him by the hand.
NC: At some point we decided that Forrest was a virgin, and that seemed really interesting, that this guy was not that interested in that kind of thing, or his ability to love or his problems of intimacy were acute. There’s this guy who’s looking after, holding everything together, doesn’t have time for sex, I think. Or not so much he doesn’t have time, but that there’s no room for another female. Another female he sees as a direct threat to his position as the matriarch, and that seemed really interesting to me. As for Rakes’ sexuality, who knows?
AVC: It’s scary. We know that much.
NC: It’s scary. There’s a lovely detail that kind of sums it all up, which is the black prostitute—or the black girl, I don’t know if she’s a prostitute—sitting on newspaper. It’s a particularly kind of worrying detail. He’s clean, this freak.
AVC: Did that come out of the script? Where did that detail come from?
NC: Oh, I just based Rakes loosely on myself.
AVC: Ah. Are you a clean man?
NC: The dyeing of the hair and the finicky nature of his clothing and all the rest of it. I won’t go into that any further.
AVC: Again, we want to keep the authorities from coming around your place.
NC: Getting worse and worse. It’s always interested me the kind of syrupy sentimentality that seems to live in the heart of the sadist. That Hitler loved his pets, whatever. That was an interest when we came to writing it.
AVC: When you’re writing the screenplay and you know you’re going to be doing music for the film, is there any feedback between the two tasks? Did you know when you were writing the script that you were be going to be doing old-timey covers of contemporary songs?
NC: I talked with John Hillcoat, who’s very much into music, in general. I mean, that’s what he’s about. What John’s always said about me and him [is] that if we ended up on a desert island, he’d bring music and I’d bring film. And that’s quite true. John spends enormous amounts of time just listening to music. And I spend an enormous amount of time—in fact, way too much time—watching film. So we talked a lot about the music before the script was done. Once we had the book, we would talk about the music, and it came very early that I knew we’d be doing contemporary songs that at least have one foot in the style of the time that it was in.
AVC: Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” is one that really jumps out of the film, and must have set the tone for the project.
NC: That was a great moment, to have gotten Ralph to do that. I don’t think Ralph had ever done something like that. We had Lou Reed in the studio nearby, doing the Metallica record [Lulu], and he came to the studio with Hal Willner, who produced the Ralph Stanley track. It was very moving to watch. Lou was moved to tears, pretty much, hearing Ralph sing that.
AVC: In addition to the fortunate similarity between “white light” and white lightning, the song underlines the fact that the bootleg-liquor business in the ’30s was as dangerous as the drug trade is now.
NC: I think it also says that Prohibition was a kind of foul policy, in the same way as the war on drugs is a foul policy today. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, anyway. It doesn’t work. There initially was, at the start of the film, a montage that started off with someone with a crack pipe or whatever.
AVC: You and your band for the soundtrack, The Bootleggers, are playing in a style that evokes the Southern music of the period. What was it like for you to play songs based around acoustic guitars and mandolin riffs?
NC: I think what we tried to do… it was me and Warren [Ellis] in the studio in Brighton. We brought in a great guitarist that we worked with before, George Vjestica. Dave Sardy, the producer, was in there was well. And the Bad Seeds’ bass player, Martyn Casey, and we just decided to play this. None of us knew a thing about playing bluegrass music or that kind of stuff. We had absolutely no idea. But we sort of played it raw, and that seemed to come out. For a while it was considered that we go to L.A. and record it properly, but we just really liked the way it sounded. It was truly raw and kind of gutbucket music done in one tiny little room in Brighton. It was absolute murder to try and work with this stuff, because it just bled everywhere.
AVC: If you’re going to call yourselves The Bootleggers, you can’t then record something that sounds incredibly polished.
NC: That’s what we kept telling everybody. We were really pleased with the way that all sounded.