The latest in a wave of films based on the work of Jack Keurouac and controversies stirred by his circle of burgeoning Beats, Michael Polish’s Big Sur stars Jean-Marc Barr as Keurouac stand-in Jack Duluoz, who travels between San Francisco and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the titular California region, often bringing fellow Beats Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), McLure (Balthazar Getty), Lew Welch (Patrick Fischler), and Neal’s mistress, Billie (Kate Bosworth), along with him. Kerouac wrote Big Sur in the midst of his alcohol-fueled attempts to cope with the success of On the Road, and though Big Sur’s natural seclusion gave him some respite from the pressures and expectations of his growing fame, he continually retreated into drunken stupors while at Ferlinghetti’s cabin. Relentless in his desire to keep the film artistically true to Kerouac’s writing, Polish made Duluoz’s inner monologue as lyrically grandiose as the California wilderness, setting nearly every scene to Barr’s rhythmic reading of passages from Kerouac’s novel. In a cadent voice of his own, Polish spoke with me about filming in the remote Big Sur and using Kerouac’s own writing method to tackle the writing of the screenplay.
What was your first encounter with Kerouac?
I read On the Road. You’re supposed to read it. It’s a rite of passage in high school. But I didn’t think it was something I needed to do: to go on the road and find myself. I was riding a motorcycle already, so I already thought I was cool. I wore Levis. And I went to Big Sur all the time.
Is that how you came to land on this novel?
Yeah. When the Kerouac estate was looking for filmmakers to do his books, I initially thought of Dharma Bums, but, and I know this is superficial, I really didn’t like the title. I really liked the book, but I didn’t know about a movie called Dharma Bums. But this title, Big Sur, I knew that. I’d been there a lot. I thought I could do a good job with it. My agent called up the estate, and the next day, I got a package with the book. I read it, and I said, “If we stick to this book, if we film this book, if we do something that’s very cinematically true and not try to make the book into something else…” So when I adapted it, I adapted it word for word. There are maybe 12 of my own words in there. I mean, I had to move his words around, but every single word is Jack Kerouac’s.
Which is a tough task, considering his circuitous rambling. How did you go about molding his words into a cohesive screenplay?
I took his original manuscript, which was longer than the book, read it, and started to find out what he was describing and what he was saying. I edited it like a movie, thinking, “If this were a film, this is what I would see and this is what would be said.” And I built the characters out of that. It was a real Rubik’s Cube, piecing it together and figuring out what could be made into scenes. He’ll just describe birds or the ocean for a really long time and not really say anything for 50 pages, and that doesn’t make sense for a movie. It was a filmmaker’s editorial nightmare to figure all that out.
How long did it take to piece it all together?
Well, I did the Kerouac thing and locked myself in a room for four days and punched out the initial draft. I did exactly what he did: I wrote from beginning to end, 107 pages. And then after the four days, I read back through it and began to break it up. After that, it took me a couple of months to get it to where it needed to be, because as I was writing, I would go to San Francisco to see what did and didn’t still exist from when he was there, so I was trying to fix all of those things. But the four days was the thing that really busted me up. That was the big drive.
Did putting yourself through his writing process help you understand him more?
He was very athletic. He played football at Columbia and approached everything like practice: punching out the keys like doing sit-ups. I decided I was just going to try it, just going to go for it. And people think four days is fast, but really, it’s 24 hours multiplied by four, and you’re continuously up trying to figure it out. You get deep, deep into your head. I was like, “This is what he did. And this is crazy.” But it worked.
And almost every scene in the film is voiced over with Jean-Marc Barr reading passages from the novel. Why did you choose to include the text in such a pervasive way?
I really wanted to make a movie where you really hear him. And you can stop hearing him if you want. It almost becomes music. You can stop and be like, “Well, I don’t really know what he said, but it looks and sounds gorgeous.” I wanted to stay true. I knew other Kerouac movies were having problems. At least, if someone has a problem with this movie, it’s because it’s a real Kerouac movie. You’re going to hate it because it’s really Kerouac.
Barr’s voice is so poetic too.
We sat in a hotel room, just him and me. He read the whole script, and I used that for the movie. He read it all in one sitting in San Francisco, and it was before we filmed the movie, so he had the energy. I tried to get some stuff after the movie, and he was just exhausted.
Did you have to coach him at all to get into the head of Kerouac?
No, he was there. He was living it. He had already lived it. You know, Jean-Marc was an American kid, lived in France, lived out of a backpack similar to Kerouac, bumping around, being in adventure movies, not wanting to be an American all the time. My mission was to give him confidence to be Kerouac, to just be a man who was okay doing nothing. I told him [in regard to Kerouac’s circumstances], “You don’t have to reform. You have all your friends, but you’re in a tornado right now. You have a woman who wants to live with you, a best friend who’s jealous of you whose wife you’re having an affair with, and she has a kid. You’re in it. Just remain calm.”
And your confidence? This is the first film of yours on which you didn’t collaborate with your twin brother, Mark.
Yeah, we were starting to get really busy, separately. Up until that point, I was always directing or writing or producing, but he was never interested in directing. He was always more interested in acting and writing. And so he was getting offers to act and write screenplays, and I was getting offers to direct, and it came to a point where we decided that if he was going to go act in a movie, I was going to go direct a movie, and then we’d come back together.