From inside the rocket-shaped time capsule of a silver 1949 Hudson Super Six, West Hollywood looked astonishingly modern to Brazilian director Walter Salles.
Salles, who has devoted the last eight years to adapting Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" for the screen, rode past men holding hands on Santa Monica Boulevard, past the green neon signs of shops selling medicinal marijuana, past a Starbucks — and another Starbucks — and another Starbucks. It was a streetscape that would have been unimaginable in Kerouac's time — both in the freedoms of the passersby and the homogeneity of the businesses.
"So many quests from that time were achieved," Salles said, craning his neck over the Hudson's roomy front bench seat toward screenwriter José Rivera and actor Garrett Hedlund, who plays Dean Moriarty, the voracious free-spirit Kerouac based on his real-life Beat muse, Neal Cassady. "They were ingrained in all of us."
Since its publication in 1957, "On the Road," which opens Dec. 21, has inspired countless road trips. This short sojourn was in search of tacos on a warm autumn evening, with driver Press Kale, a Hudson collector from Buena Park who had lent this car to Salles to shoot test footage. (Another 1949 Hudson was used in the movie).
As they rode through the streets of L.A. — which Kerouac called the "loneliest and most brutal of American cities" — this group of travelers described the many speed bumps they and others hit while making "On the Road" and reflected on the story's implications for a modern audience.
Written and published during the deep freeze of the Cold War, Kerouac's novel follows young writer Sal Paradise — an avatar for Kerouac, played in the film by English actor Sam Riley — as he makes a series of cross-country trips with the intoxicating Dean and Dean's girlfriend, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), and encounters other Beat-era characters including Allen Ginsberg-inspired Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and William Burroughs embodiment Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen).
As soon as Kerouac published his travelogue of sex, drugs and jazz, he lobbied to get it on the big screen — in 1957 he wrote a letter to Marlon Brando suggesting that he buy the rights and star as Dean, with Kerouac playing Sal. "What I wanta do is re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash," Kerouac wrote. Brando declined.
In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola bought the book, and over the next 25 years several possible screen iterations came and went — there were scripts by novelist Russell Banks, war correspondent Michael Herr, poet Barry Gifford and Francis and his son Roman Coppola. One version of the film had Coppola directing and Brad Pitt and Ethan Hawke as Dean and Sal. But the book's discursive narrative and the budgetary demands of a period film shot on the road proved a deterrent for financiers.
In 2004, after Salles, 56, premiered "The Motorcycle Diaries," at the Sundance Film Festival, Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope, approached him about making "On the Road." It seemed a logical fit — Salles' film was a coming-of-age road movie about another variety of 1950s revolutionary, Che Guevara. Salles quickly enlisted Rivera, the Puerto Rican playwright who wrote "The Motorcycle Diaries" screenplay, sending him eight prior scripts. Rivera didn't read them.
To facilitate their research, Salles decided to make a documentary in which he retraced Sal Paradise's road trip and interviewed Beat-era writers. While shooting footage for the documentary in Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Mass., in 2005, Salles was let into another world by Kerouac's brother-in-law, John Sampas. Kerouac originally wrote "On the Road" on a 120-foot-long scroll — and the scroll version varied dramatically from the book.
Sampas allowed Salles and Rivera to read a copy of the scroll, which would be published two years later. The scroll contained an intriguing change from the book readers knew as "On the Road," one that would inform Rivera's script. The book starts, "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up." The scroll begins, "I first met Dean not long after my father died."
The scroll version underscores some of the sad subtext within the buoyant narrative. It is also racier than the novel, yet one of the challenges of adapting the book for a contemporary audience remained — conveying just how risque the characters' actions were for their era.
"It was a highly conservative time period," Rivera said. "At one point they're driving while Truman's giving his inaugural speech on the radio and he's talking about communism as this scourge on humanity and you really realize how tightly controlled American society was, in terms of politics, sexuality, pop culture. These guys, whether they were self-conscious or not, were rebelling on all fronts — sexually, socially, in terms of drug use, even racially, they really were so far ahead."
Finding young actors who could capture both the time period and the spirit of adventure would be a challenge — the character of Dean, in particular, would demand a potent brand of old-fashioned masculine charisma.
Hedlund, 28, first auditioned in 2006 before being cast as the lead in the 2010 films "Tron: Legacy" and "Country Strong." He read a scene in which Dean tells Sal about almost committing suicide and then riffs on a four-hour orgy he attended.
"When Garrett finished reading, there was such electricity in the air that it was almost palpable," Salles said. "There was a quality of observation and a sense of wit that was very original and that seemed to pertain to that generation."
Hedlund enthusiastically joined Salles and Rivera in their research. He quickly mastered handling the Hudson at high speeds and at one point he learned, via Skype, how to open a benzedrine inhaler with a beer bottle from Al Hinkle, the man who inspired Kerouac's character, Ed Dunkel.