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Interview: Michael Polish on Big Sur, Jack Kerouac, and More

Polish discusses filming in Big Sur and using Kerouac’s writing method to tackle his new film’s screenplay.

Interview: Michael Polish on Big Sur, Jack Kerouac, and More
Photo: Ketchup Entertainment

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.

Did you miss working with him?

We had been doing stuff together for so long that it was very liberating to do stuff separately. Directing without him wasn’t any different. I was still just directing. The biggest difference was not seeing him around on set everyday. But he came to visit, and I think he was very proud. I remember him walking up this huge creek that takes forever to climb, and he was just like, “Wow. It’s crazy out here.” And we had tents and trucks and motorcycles and everything on this huge mountain. It was crazy. But we were also very satisfied. We had done For Lovers Only together, and I think that was very satisfying for both of us—to make a movie that was that much fun in Paris and also got so much acclaim. It was very successful. I think that was the point where we were perfect, so it was nice to go out and do different things.

You’ve also acted quite a bit in your films before. Why did you refrain from being in this one?

I don’t know if I could have done it in Big Sur. Maybe. The only part I could have taken was a smaller part, and I don’t know if that would have just pulled people out of the movie. Like, if I jumped in a scene with the other actors after having been directing the whole time, they might have been like, “Oh, the coach is trying to play, too, now.” It might have been a little weird. But I will act again. I did something with Kate [Bosworth] not too long ago. I find it a very different muscle to flex. It’s nice to do it every once in a while.

You acted in The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 2004, which was first a Thornton Wilder novel. How did working on that adaptation affect how you adapted this novel?

You know, that film had voiceovers like this, too. I was mute in the movie. I spoke in all the scenes, but then they took the volume away from us. And the book itself, I read it and immediately felt it was something different. He wrote so beautifully. It’s about five people who were on a bridge that collapsed and how those five lives had come to intersect. I don’t know if the film came out so well, but the novel was really good. I think what really made me want to adapt Big Sur is that I had been working on adapting another book, just on spec, figuring out how to do it. When I read this, I knew I could do it.

Had you ever thought about making a Kerouac film before his estate contacted you?

No. I read the screenplay for On the Road, and I though it was just a lot of weight to carry. I think Walter [Salles] is a tremendous filmmaker, I really do, but I don’t know if that book is a burden you want. If I had done it, I would have done it in the exact same voiceover-way as mine. It’s Kerouac. It’s so internalized. If you don’t hear him speak, you’re making a movie of a different book. That’s why I think everyone says it’s unfilmable: It’s a literary giant, a real piece of literature that should never be made into a movie, but if you’re going to, you’d better use the words. It’s the only way to do it. Everyone talks about how he wrote. If you don’t hear it…

That said, would you change anything about your film?

Maybe make it longer.

It did feel short.

Yeah it’s short, and everyone loves it short. Everyone responds to it being short because they want more. If I gave them more, they’d probably get bored.

For Lovers Only strongly referenced the French New Wave. What were some of your style influences for this film?

This one was different because it was partly a period piece in San Francisco, which is style enough. But Big Sur commands its own style. There, I couldn’t reference anything. I mean, you could look at National Geographic or Planet Earth. I think Terrence Malick does a really great job with these types of movies. I’ve been a fan of Terrence for a long time. I don’t think he’s necessarily done this movie, but The Tree of Life has parts of this. Yeah, I think if there were someone who I would nod to, it would be Terrence.

How did the environment affect the actors and mood on set?

I mean, it’s huge. It’s dangerous. You’re on a cliff the whole time. There are mountains and ocean. I call it purgatory because you’re either going to fall off, or you’re going to climb up: heaven or hell. And it’s loud. The waves are crashing, and they’d reverberate up the canyon, and there’s wind and fogs going in and out. It’s a real lively place, so the actors had an amazing time. A lot of them had never been there before, or at least not for very long. And we were there for weeks, so on the weekends, you’d see these guys on the beach running around or smoking on a rock. It was nice to watch everybody come together. Nobody knew anyone else out there or had any relatives nearby. Jean-Marc, Balthazar [Getty], and John Robinson became really close. Obviously Kate and I got really close. Josh was always around.

After this, would you tackle a different work of Beat literature?

I don’t know if I could do it again. I don’t know if there’s something…Big Sur to me is the full picture. It was gorgeous to shoot, and it was gorgeous to listen to. I don’t know if there’s another thing like that. You always want to know how the Beats ended up, and in this film, we saw how they ended up.

Gabrielle Lipton

Gabrielle Lipton is the editor in chief of Landscape News.

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