Critics may have been mixed after this morning’s press screening, but the World Premiere audience at Wednesday night’s Cannes gala of director Walter Salles’ long-gestating film On The Road was highly enthusiastic giving the film about the Beat Generation a 10 minute standing ovation. Co-producer Rebecca Yeldham said it was sweet justification for the 8 years she has been shepherding the picture with Salles. I caught up with her and the cast at the ultra-crowded after-party next door to the Palais at the oddly-named club, Magic Garden Meets LeBaron. The film based on the famous 1957 classic book by Jack Kerouac (actually written in 1951) has had several people attempt a film version with no luck and it has taken 55 years to get to the screen. Kerouac himself even sent it to Marlon Brando right after publication but never got a response. Francis Ford Coppola eventually secured the rights over 30 years ago but couldn’t come up with a way to make the complex film work. Finally Salles and his The Motorcycle Diaries screenwriter Jose Rivera cracked the code and after some false starts finally got the job done (Roman Coppola is also a producer on the film for American Zoetrope). IFC and Sundance Selects will distribute the film but it won’t be part of their VOD platform, but rather a major theatrical release. IFC’s and Sundance Selects President Jonathan Sehring, also at the party , said he couldn’t be higher on the film and they plan to open it in December and mount a major awards campaign. “We are going for it in a big way,” he said. “And initially I was skeptical about the whole thing. I didn’t know if it could work. I had never really seen a good Beat film done right before but Walter has done a magnificent job and all the actors are great. “She’s great,” he said pointing to Kristen Stewart who was standing in a nearby corner of the party talking with Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson (RPat is in Cannes for his own premiere on Friday, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis). Sehring’s been busy here. He is also high on the acquistion title, Sightseers, a wickedly dark and clever British comedy I saw today in Directors Fortnight. It’s one of the more entertaining films I have seen here this year and should find an audience. Director Ben Wheatley has a following. Sehring just viewed the film this week and quickly snapped it up for release in 2013. ” We had handled Kill List, a film he wrote, but a lot of people were after this one,” he said. Sehring sees so many films so quickly at film fests he always chews gum thoughout each one so he doesn’t doze off. He said he got the tip from a journalist. I think I will try it. Some of these films are real endurance tests.
When I got my chance to chat with Stewart who is here (with her mother too) for her first Cannes ever, she told me she didn’t know what to make of the visible glowing reaction from the Grand Lumiere crowd after the film ended. “It was a very surreal experience for me. I didn’t know what to think. But if they had all roundly booed us I believe everyone in our row would have stood up and said ‘yeah, you go!’,” she said in the counter-cultural spirit of the film’s characters who behave in anything but conventional ways. Stewart has some topless nude scenes in the film which epouses sexual freedom even in the uptight era of the 50’s in which the beatnik story is set. For her playing Marylou (based on Luanne Henderson who at age 15 married Neal Cassady – known in the film as Dean Moriarty) was a challenge and one she was eager to take. Salles had seen her in Into The Wild and cast her in 2007 before Twilight turned her into a pop culture icon. Like most of the cast members she had to hang in there for a while before it finally came to fruition. Her agents urged her to drop out. “They kept saying ‘don’t do it’. It’s not on the page’ but I disagreed and I am so glad we all did it. I do relate to her in some ways but I am nothing like Marylou at all. I internalize everything. She’s the opposite,” she said. It certainly worked out. Stewart delivers here and audiences will see a side of the star they haven’t seen before.
Sam Riley plays the Kerouac character Sal Paradise and told me he actually first got the role right down the street here in Cannes when his wife Alexandra Maria Lara was a juror for the festival in 2008, the same year Salles had a film in competition, Linha De Passe. Salles told Lara he really liked Riley in Control, the movie in which they co-starred the previous year and so a meeting was arranged. Riley said the role was quite challenging because he has to listen a lot. Quite frankly it is never easy getting the essence and passion of a writer on film but this one, particularly in the kinetic final scene in which he starts to write his book , gets it right. Writers should eat it up. Riley obviously had been to Cannes before but he too was totally perplexed by the power of the ovation they all got. “I stood there wondering, ‘Do they pay these people to clap like that?’.” he asked.
Garrett Hedlund, previously best known as Jeff Bridges’s son in Tron Legacy and for the musical , Country Strong, plays the most flamboyant of the characters Dean Moriarty (based on Cassidy), a free loving and living Beat poet who often travelled with Kerouac. This is potentially a real breakout role for him. He dominates every scene he’s in. There’s one killer breakup sequence with wife Camille played with bite by Kirsten Dunst who also is back in Cannes for this film after winning Best Actress here one year ago for Melancholia and of course that famous press conference where her director Lars Von Trier said he sympathized with Hitler “a little” and caused an uproar. No such controversy this year.