The Slowest Film Ever Made: On The Road The Movie

Has any other Hollywood movie taken this long to get made? I wonder if the upcoming Walter Salles film of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road will set the world’s record for years in development when it finally hits the screens sometime next year.

Yes, my friends, after 15 years of planning, On The Road: The Movie is actually happening. It now has an IMDB listing. It’s shooting in Montreal. Some actress from some movie called Twilight is apparently the star attraction (strange, since it’s a story about the friendship between two men).

But, then, it’s probably good that big stars aren’t going to play Dean Moriarty (the character based on Neal Cassady) and Sal Paradise (the character Kerouac based on himself). These actors will have a hard enough time trying to appear natural in these iconic roles.

Longtime readers of Literary Kicks will remember that I tried to audition for this film myself back in 1995, and met Francis Ford Coppola and Allen Ginsberg on the set (we didn’t get much time to chat, since there were five thousand other hopefuls also trying to get Coppola’s attention). Back then, I was skeptical of the film’s chances for cinematic greatness. Today, I’m sorry to say I’m even more skeptical, because the long gestation isn’t likely to have helped. It’s the slapdash casual offhandedness of On The Road that makes the novel seem so fresh and alive, and 15 years of preparation isn’t likely to set a tone for slapdash casual offhandedness.

Any film version of On The Road at any time would have had to deal with this problem. It’s part of the book’s legend, and certainly part of its appeal, that the story is an unstructured mass, a stream of experience, an unfolding scroll. A satisfying plotline or an artificial characterization will pop the bubble. On The Road: the Movie should feel like cinema verite, or else it will lose its most essential attribute — spontaneity.

That’s the challenge that lead actors Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley face, and I truly wish them well.

It’s interesting to imagine other pairings for the Dean/Sal parts. Back when I first heard about (and auditioned for) this film, I suggested Woody Harrelson and Rob Lowe to play Dean and Sal. Back when Kerouac was alive and the possibility of the film was first discussed (Kerouac was eager to see it happen), Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift (see photos above) were considered a possible pairing. Marlon Brando’s name came up in these discussions too, but I don’t see how he could have fit: he was too cocky to play Sal, and not cheerful enough to play Dean.

I don’t know much about Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Amy Adams or Kristen Stewart, but I do know who Kirsten Dunst is, and I hope she’ll make a great Carolyn Cassady. I’m also psyched that Viggo Mortensen, who was great in History of Violence, will be playing Old Bull Lee, the character based on William S. Burroughs. The IMDB listing doesn’t say who the excellent character actor Steve Buscemi will play, but Buscemi knows Beat literature and will certainly be an asset to the film. I suspect Mr. Pink will show up as Elmer Hassel, or maybe Denver B. Doll.

It will be a while before we’ll get to see this film, but meanwhile there’s a new film about Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl coming out soon. A well-written piece by James Franco in Vanity Fair about his experience playing Allen Ginsberg is an encouraging sign for this one, and it’s opening in October. I’ll certainly be reviewing it here.

Are you looking forward to either or both of these movies?

23 Responses

  1. I am very much looking
    I am very much looking forward to this movie, though, like you, I am skeptical of its connection to the book. I consider On the Road to be my greatest influence as a writer, and a blockbuster film that doesn’t do justice to the source material would crush me (though I’m not the type of person who only loves movies the masses hate).

  2. For me, the gold standard
    For me, the gold standard beat movie is Naked Lunch. Peter Weller was a note-perfect Mr. Lee. (Today he’s a historian and narrates for the History Channel.)

  3. Interesting to hear that it’s
    Interesting to hear that it’s actually shooting, though I still will only believe it when I see it.

    For some reason, this reminds me a bit of the saga of another of my favorite books, David James Duncan’s “The River Why.” A much-loved book for 20 years, it was suddenly announced that someone was finally making it into a movie. They put together a B-list cast with actors who were generally prettier than artistic. Then it was announced that the book’s author was suing the filmmakers and the people who had sold the film rights. He lost the suit, but essentially disowned the film and has vowed to make his own version. Very bizarre.

    Not sure where that was going. I thought your comments about a film so over-wrought in production not being able to capture the book’s original spontaneity were right on.

  4. I envision Homer Simpson
    I envision Homer Simpson talking to the filmmakers, doing his trademark fist-shake accompanied by his most threatening voice, “It better burn like a roman caaandle…”

  5. As long as George Peppard
    As long as George Peppard isn’t in it … seriously, a film version has been talked about for so long about “On the Road” that any finished movie fifty years on is likely to fail expectations. Newman & Clift would have made an interesting cast, though.

  6. Just checked the IMDB listing
    Just checked the IMDB listing and saw Steve Buscemi’s name in the cast. I’ll check out the movie if only to see him acting beat, though I fear, without knowing the producers or distributors, if this movie is meant for American cinema, the spontaneity (the whole point and brilliance of the book) will be forsaken for a measured plot and edge-of-your-seat resolution.

  7. And, yes, I’m looking forward
    And, yes, I’m looking forward to seeing On the Road.

    A nit: Herbert Huncke was portrayed as “Elmo Hassel,” not Elmer.

  8. Dan, it’s funny that you
    Dan, it’s funny that you should mention Elmo vs. Elmer Hassel. I don’t know what the source of this confusion is, but I believe both names have been used in different editions of the book. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why both names are in circulation among Kerouac readers. Google both names, and you’ll see what I mean.

  9. Levi – I did Google both
    Levi – I did Google both names – and I called a friend of mine who has a first edition of Road (the lucky bastard); additionally, I looked in my copy, the second printing of the British edition, published in 1958.

    Both of these editions of Road do specify Elmer Hassel. It appears that biographers and “name list” people, probably originating with Ann Charters, called him Elmo Hassel in error and the mistake stuck.

    I stand corrected – but this was fun!

    How about a Mystery Location based on a beat novel?

  10. I’ve said this before and
    I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. They need to film portions of this movie with the technique used by Janusz Kaminski in Saving Private Ryan, using 90-degree shutters, or even 45-degree shutters for many of the battle sequences, as opposed to today’s standard of 180-degree shutters. “In this way,” says Kaminski, “We attained a certain staccato in the actors’ movements and a certain crispness in the explosions, which makes them slightly more realistic.”

    markbromberg…George Peppard, that’s a good one. Does anyone remember the TV series Route 66? George Maharis and Martin Milner, baby! On the Road in our middle-class living rooms!

  11. Some people might get this
    Some people might get this cryptic joke:

    “No, don’t kill Cedric…”

    Mortensen is like 52 now. Burroughs was 33 – 36 during the time covered in On the Road.

    Joan was 24 – 27 during that time, Amy Adams is 36.

    Joan was a year younger than Kerouac. Burroughs was 8 years older. The age differences wasn’t as much as this.

    Kristen Stewart is only 20, a bit older than LuAnne Henderson at that time, but pretty darn close.

    But, it is acting and its a story not a biography.

    Who’s Carlo Marx?

  12. wow, 15 years, thats really
    wow, 15 years, thats really slow 🙂 Even if I didn’t enjoy J. Kerouac’s On The Road, I’m looking forward to see the movie.

  13. While the content of Franco’s
    While the content of Franco’s Vanity Fair piece was a great peek into the actor’s impressive research and dedication to authenticity, the repetitive diction makes me weary of reading his upcoming “Palo Alto.”

    I found this other article on Vanity Fair about what another little travelogue – Eat, Pray, Love – has done to the book industry interesting:

  14. well, if big sur is ever
    well, if big sur is ever made, there’s still time to get billy crudup cast as kerouac.

    i like the idea of a british actor playing jack, because maybe he’ll actually have an easier time finding that awkward canuck/NE accent he had than american actors would.

    i, personally, am excited about the film. as long as dunst is able to dispense with enough of her lazy cutsy-pie shtick to give us a believable carolyn…ahem—camille—sorry. i wasnt thrilled about stewart until i saw her in adventureland, and i think she’ll do great.

    i’m not sure anyone can do dean moriarty. neal cassady couldnt even do dean moriarty.

    buscemi has GOT to be hassel, right? there’s no other way for that to come down. maybe they can get james gandolfini for remi, to get that tony soprano paranoia-con thing going and work against a times square buscemi.

    there’s a site that last week posted a first description and pretty detailed outline of the script. i didnt read it, because i dont want to know that much going in.

  15. both the screenwriter and the
    both the screenwriter and the director have found themselves being nominated and / or winning an oscar (do some digging and you’ll be delighted)

    my hope is piqued…. and i think the latin american hand will add gritty, tender perspective…. a necessity…..

    and while on topic of adaptations…. if anyone HASN’T listened to “One Fast Move Or I’m Gone Yet”…. consider yourselves assigned homework……. Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt) pay INCREDIBLY delicate, respectful homage to “Big Sur” in the form of some great songs…. mostly using Kerouac’s exact lines…..

    a good, good album worthy of his words……

    peace out.

  16. Being from Lowell and having
    Being from Lowell and having had drink or two with Jack, I am very glad On The Road is being filmed as we speak. I am 69 years old and I know very well who these fine young actors are, especialy Kristen Stewart having recently been seen playing Joan Jett, as I am a fan of Joan Jett. Still young at heart.


  17. Has HOWL not been released in
    Has HOWL not been released in the US yet? I saw it here at the Revelation Film Festival
    back in July.
    Thoroughly recommended. James Franco caught the essence of a man who was so much out of synch with the world around him, and his manner of coming to terms with that. And how the world came to terms with him.
    Personally though, I’d nominate the original Solaris as the slowest film ever made. 165 minutes felt like five years.

  18. I’ll be very interested to
    I’ll be very interested to see if Salles was able to get Kristen to keep her mouth shut and her eyes open. All the mouth breathing, gasping and spastic eye blinking is a huge distraction in all her films so far. I think she was horribly miscast in this, but only time will tell. And she can only be in so many films that don’t even earn their budget back before she stops being cast at all. She can’t ride on Twilight’s coattails forever. The other joke is that the majority of her diehard fans can’t even buy tickets to R rated films.

  19. I’m not too concerned about
    I’m not too concerned about the amount of time it’s taking to film On The Road. It seems fitting, actually I’d worry more if they blew through it like most Hollywood productions. So many expectations surround this film, but from what I’ve read all the actors are keenly aware of this and the crucifixtion, warranted or not, they’ll receive if it doesn’t live up to the preconceived expectations. I do love this modern day casting. Particularly Sam Riley. Garret looks the part, but I’m anxious to see and hear him with Sam. Kristen Stewart was cast before Twilight and I think she’s perfect for Marylou. Every man I know always loves any and all casting of the Viggo. So there you go. I say take your time Salles no need to rush, just make it great. No pressure.

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