Hitting theaters today is John Hillcoat‘s latest feature, Lawless, a film that makes no large moral tales or political statements. Instead, this is a straightforward story about family and sticking together with flourishes both violent and visual. Taking place during the Appalachia moonshine era, the film boasts an incredible cast with Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, and Jason Clarke.
Screenwriter Nick Cave adapted Matt Bondurant‘s novel, The Wettest County In The World, with impressive attention to a story that has its basis in real life. Bondurant would know, as the film and his novel revolve around the real-life Bondurant brothers, which included his grandfather and great uncles. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to sit down with Matt Bondurant to talk about his unique perspective on the film, teaching locally, whether he likes moonshine, and why he didn’t take a first-pass on the screenplay.
The Film Stage: So, have you been on this side of the table before?
Matt Bondurant: I talked to a couple of historical experts, but not much. Just a couple points that I wanted to talk about here and there or general attitudes. Not a whole lot of interviewing. I don’t know if I’d be very good at it. I think I work better with texts and documents.
Yeah, because there’s a kind of skill involved. I have done a couple of non-fiction articles for magazines that required me to do interviewing. I guess the skill is not so much… it’s going through the tape and extracting…
Ah, that’s a pain!
I know! You listen to this…
[Laughs] So, I’m curious. I was doing some research on your particular role in the film and specifically the novel itself. You’ve mentioned that you did a lot of research on how they lived, the cars they drove, the way they dressed. The way they ate. Things like that. But you also mentioned that you did quite a bit of research into how they distilled moonshine. Did you ever take that information and try to do it yourself?
No. It’s an incredibly dangerous process. It’s not so much the illegality of it but when you’re dealing with flammable liquids under high pressure. And the end result depending on how you’re making it, you could poison yourself quite easily. No. [Laughs]. I was able to see enough stills and sample the product and understand. I did tours of bourbon facilities in Kentucky. That was close enough. If you think about brewing beer or making wine for the first time, which I’ve done both, and invariably the first time it’s pretty awful. So you’re going to go through all this danger for something that’s really going to be pretty lousy the first half dozen times you do it. And even then, it’s going to be pretty harsh. I’ve drank enough moonshine to know. I understand that some people out there have a fondness for it but I think that fondness is mostly borne from nostalgia and tradition. Not so much in an aesthetic value of the thing. People might quibble with that but that’s the way I feel. I prefer store-bought. So no, there’s no reason for me to do that, I think. I felt like I got deep enough into it to understand how to do it. But that was enough.
Obviously your novel is the impetus for this film. Nick Cave took large portions of your text and put it inside of the movie. I’m curious if you’re able to enjoy it as an outsider because you weren’t hands-on with the project. Can you enjoy it as a film itself or are you looking at this, saying, ‘That’s my grandfather’ or ‘Characters I’ve written about’?
Right. In the beginning, certainly, that’s the way I felt. I was very self conscious about it. Those kinds of questions I’m thinking about, ‘here’s a portrayal of my relatives on screen.’ But also analyzing the decisions that were made by Cave and Hillcoat throughout moment to moment and how they compare to what was written in the book or what I was thinking of and all that sort of stuff. So it was really hard to enjoy it, certainly not as an objective viewer. I was very self-conscious. Very subjective about it. The first time, in particular. The second time got better. Third time even better.
I think as each time I’ve seen it, there’s more distance, I start to understand it and see it more as a film separate from me or the book. It’s based on my book but it’s not the same thing. So that’s getting better and better. But it’s a very surreal experience, overall. As far as thinking about my relatives, it’s very strange. But, you know, when I think of my grandfather I don’t think of Shia LaBeouf. So I think I’ve been able to create enough psychic distance or a psychological buffer so that it doesn’t feel that personal. Of course it is. I know it is. But I’m trying to protect myself from it. I’m very lucky, though, that it’s a pretty darn good film. As you say, they use a lot of my lines and it’s faithful to the book in a lot of ways. It’s not a bad place to be attached to it emotionally. Last night I was emotionally affected by several pieces of the film, I think, in a way a regular movie-goer would be.
You didn’t do a first pass on this screenplay. Yet you were somewhat involved in the selling process. You’ve mentioned that your agent called you and let you know that this was going to be made into a movie. Did you have any inclination to write this film or were you pretty much, ‘let it set sail by itself’?
I was pretty much ready to let it set sail by itself. No, I never had any inclination to write it. I never even thought about it. When they were discussing, ‘Oh, we’re going to shop it around for film rights,’ I said, ‘Great.’ Like other writers I know, I thought it would go out there and maybe sell film rights and that would mean I would get a nice check and that’d be great. But then nothing would ever happen again.
Yeah, it would fizzle out.
But I mean, getting a nice check for doing nothing is not bad. So I thought, ‘Great.’ Then when people were interested in it, and then somebody bought it, it still never struck me to write the thing. I think mostly because number one, I didn’t think they’d want me to because I’ve never done one before. And I’m a nobody. Why would they want me to do a screenplay? Then secondly, I’ve never written a screenplay before. So that would be pretty difficult for me to do. They did send me the screenplay. The first or second version that Nick Cave did and they send me another version later on. So I saw some versions pretty soon. But there was never really any thought in my mind that, ‘oh, I should do this’ or ‘I wish I was doing it’. I saw what [Cave] was doing. The format is weird, for screenplays. It seems really interesting and thrilling at times, and bizarre and all this kind of stuff.
The thing is that I trusted the people involved. I trusted Hillcoat from the very beginning and he was attached very early. My thought process all along was, ‘I don’t know how to read this screenplay and I don’t know exactly what it means, but it’s going to be cool. They’re going to turn it into something really cool.’ I just didn’t worry about it. It wasn’t until really recently that I even contemplated doing a screenplay of it. But no, not at all. And I’m glad! I think it worked out well. Better for me that way. That I didn’t have any inclination or desire because it would have been, most likely, denied. And I think, maybe, I wanted that distance, too. That it sold and somebody else does it. It’s not me. It’s not my responsibility. This way I get the best of both worlds. Because I’m not responsible for it but if it’s great, I can be like, ‘Hey, it’s based on my book’. Which is what I’m doing. Right now, as we speak.
[Laughs] Your novel did have such a heavy influence on this film. When you’re watching this movie, does Hillcoat provide enough for you to chew on, even though you wrote the basis of this movie?
It’s really hard to say. I don’t know. I think he does present a pretty rich tapestry but I guess I think of it as a separate thing so much that… I don’t know. I don’t think I can make a fair judgement on that or an estimation. If I hadn’t written the book and I was just a regular person… I don’t know. I don’t really know how to answer that. That’s a tough one.
That’s alright. You’ve mentioned in several interviews that your family got kind of riled up about this. Not necessarily the movie, but the book itself, I can only imagine.
Just a little bit. A few people, here and there. It’s actually very minimal.
Is it coming back again now that the film is about to be released or has whatever boiled over at that point finished and done with by now?
I don’t know. So far, no, it hasn’t. Nothing’s come up, again. When the film goes out wide, though, I don’t know. But there’s probably a fair amount of people out there who may be related to some of these people that may not be aware of it yet… I guess. It’s possible. I think that most people that are attached to it in that way, as the thing grew and became a bigger deal… with this cast, became much more enthusiastic about it. It’s one thing if you’re being… if you’re going to be slandered, you might as well have it done in a really cool, artistic way.
It’s almost like a glorious interpretation of that.
Yeah, well, I think that people also… the film makes the full transition into a kind of. I don’t know. Maybe you can make comparisons with something like Jesse James. Or Davy Crockett. Where it starts to enter into an American mythology realm. Which I think is great. It’s wonderful. I’m proud to be a part of that. So when it gets to that sort of realm. You know, the descendants of Jesse James aren’t all pissed off when there’s films of him running around, shooting people. So I think it’s reaching the artificiality of a film. All this stuff helps that. It makes it feel less… I think in the very beginning people were concerned, and really it’s only a handful of people, and they weren’t really that concerned, because they thought I was trying to do a 100% truthful documentation of the historical facts.
And you’ve mentioned this: it just wouldn’t be possible. Because there’s a lot of gaps in the narrative. Otherwise it just wouldn’t flow.
Right. Right. It would require a lot of speculation to fill in. There are historical depictions of the whole period. There’s a couple of treatments out there, but they tend to deal with moonshine in Appalachia during this period. Larger areas.
Mainly it’s going to be based on what they factually know.
So they don’t have to tell a narrative.
Right. So doing a more close, biographical sketch of any of these relatively smaller people… it just would be impossible. You would have to make stuff up. Even the most famous bootleggers from that period in Appalachia, there’s not a whole lot to work with. It’s pretty sketchy. People like Willie Carter Sharpe, who’s in the book, this famous woman, but we barely know anything about her. There’s only a few pictures of her. So yea, but that worked perfect for me as a fiction writer. When I grasped that that was the problem in the project, I was like, ‘Great. This is cool.’ In a way, it’s a gift, as a fiction writer, because you’re given a couple of things to connect. We have these events and I’ve got a climax. And of course I’ve got a setting. I just have to create plausible scenarios to get theses guys from one spot to the other and for these things to happen. That was kind of fun.
The thing that stuck with me when I saw this film at Comic-Con was [Tom Hardy’s] grumbling. I’m sure you’re going to be jumping into a lot of questions about this. I’m just curious how much of that was Hillcoat and Cave’s input or was that Hardy? Do you know the genesis of that or was that in the actual novel?
I think a lot of it is Hardy. Forrest in the novel is a man of very few words, and one of the great things about the film, for me, is that the words that Forrest does say in the film are pretty much all words that he does say in the book. Which is nice. He says little and I think the kind of general, stoic, taciturn depiction is very solid with the book. Like I said, the sort of grumbling or mumbling thing he does, that sort of intonation, that’s a Hardy thing. I think he just came and started doing that. He said that he wanted to play Forrest as a matriarch as well as a patriarch. So there’s this kind of older… he’s playing older. The Forrest in the book is supposed to be in his mid-20s and Hardy’s playing him older than that. I guess that’s the kind of thing that actors like that do. Method people. They come in with a thing and they’re going to do it in the film even if it seems strange or incongruous or different. Let the performance fly or not on its own. It seems like it works out. It seems like audiences seem to like it a lot. That also helps to separate me from the film a bit because depiction is different.
You’ve talked at length about the differences between the film and your book. And yet, you’re on a press tour. It is known that you only had so much input on this particular film. What is your interpretation of being a part of this and why you’re doing a press tour that you had a limited amount of input on?
Yeah. I think it has everything to do with the based on a true story aspect. The film’s connected to my family and real people. The Weinstein Company feels that that’s a big part of the story of the film and they want that out there. So while I do answer quite a bit of stuff about the book to the film and my input on the film, but a lot of the stuff I’m talking about too is people want to talk about the real family and what they were like. So I think that’s the parts that the Weinstein’s really want to accentuate as far as promotion. And it makes sense. It’s not lost upon me at this stage. This book would not have been made into a film if it wasn’t based on a true story. That’s a big part of it. Otherwise it’s another gangster story of a kind. The fact that it has this historical basis in these three brothers is a huge point for them.
And I understand that. And I’m happy to do it for those reasons. Also because it allows me the opportunity to support my own books. Including my new book, The Night Swimmer, which came out in January. I’m a guy who’s written some literary novels. Basically a mid-list literary novelist that nobody really knows about. I do very moderate sales. Write decent books. I get decent reviews. We get great New York Times reviews. But certainly not a household name at all. So it’s a win win situation for me. I get a chance to do this kind of stuff and talk to people like y’all and talk about my family, this book, and this really cool movie, and at the same time hopefully bring more readers to my books. So I’m very grateful that the Weinstein Company even wants me involved in this. I mean they didn’t have to involve me. I think about that quite often.
It’s interesting because you do teach here locally.
The film hasn’t come out yet. But I can imagine that there is a certain amount of talk amongst your students. Have you gotten approached about writing this novel? Have you talked about this at all?
We talked about it a little bit. I teach writing classes. I teach novel fiction workshops so I talked about it a little bit when it’s pertinent to the discussion that we’re having. Occasionally students will come up to me and ask me about it. Though rarely. I think after the film comes out, yea. There will be more interest in it. If there’s more, I will welcome that. Like I said, I hope it brings more people to the book. But as far as my students I tend to avoid talking about my own work as often as possible. It’s a strange, sort of ethical dilemma and I don’t want to influence my students that they need to either buy or read my work, necessarily. Now, of course with the graduate students, do I think it’s an appropriate thing to do? Especially if you’re studying to be a fiction writer? I mean, that’s what I did when I was in grad school, taking classes from fiction writers. I read their books because I wanted to know whether or not I should be listening to what they’re saying.
If somebody writes a bullshit book, I’m going to take their opinion differently than if it’s a good one. But especially undergraduates, I sort of deflect it. I don’t want to get into the class being about that. It’s one of those things with teaching and writing that there is a separation to some degree. At least I fell and I think it’s kind of important for me to keep my personal writing work separate from my teaching work.
Lawless is now in wide release.
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