Nick Cave on Writing the 'Lawless' Screenplay and Compiling and Playing Its Music (Q&A)
The veteran writer-musician spills to THR about his limited bluegrass chops, Ralph Stanley covering The Velvet Underground and how writing on tour keeps him "off the porn channel."
Just as in the new Prohibition-era film Lawless, which opened Wednesday, themes of macabre murder and sensuality are no strangers to Nick Cave. Leading genre-bending rock bands The Bad Seeds and Grinderman for the past three decades, Cave’s creative inspiration has developed a romantic infatuation with extreme peaks and troughs of human existence, finding mainstream acceptance with an untouchable irreverence.
For Lawless, the established punk of many talents -- having authored several screenplays and two novels -- brought his combined skill sets to director John Hillcoat’s film, adapting the screenplay from Matt Bondurant's novel “The Wettest County in the World” and creating its soundtrack with his frequent musical collaborator Warren Ellis. With limited knowledge of the genre, Cave and Ellis formed their own bluegrass band, The Bootleggers, recruiting singers Emmylou Harris and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, The Twilight Singers), and set about recording guttural hillbilly originals and covers of contemporary rock songs. Meanwhile, peppered about are haunting solo covers by bluegrass hero Ralph Stanley, including Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s “Sure ’Nuff n’ Yes I Do,” The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone.”
Both in performance and song selection, Cave and Ellis injected a raw tone of rock ’n’ roll that accents the film’s narrative like bullet holes from its heroes, the backcountry-bootlegging Bondurant brothers. The Hollywood Reporter sat with Cave to discuss pulling double duties on the film, the agonizing process of songwriting and how writing keeps him off the porn channel.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did this project first come to you, and what about it initially appealed to you?
Nick Cave: [Producers] Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher brought it to us. I think they'd seen the Proposition that John and I had done and felt that this story suited our temperament. Initially I had no particular interest in writing a script of somebody else's story, but it was so engaging and so beautifully written and such an incredible story that it was irresistible in the end.
THR: How about the setting, the time period -- did that appeal to you too?
Cave: Not particularly. I'm an Australian, and when I grew up much of my influences were American -- blues music and country music, all that sort of thing. So I've always had an interest in that side of things, but I was more taken away by the way this book was written, by the beautiful lyrical-ness of the novel and the extreme violence and the balance between the two.
THR: What sort of creative liberties did you allow yourself to take in the adaptation?
Cave: We tried to stay as true to the original story as possible, but things kind of happened along the way. For example, there's the character of the villain in the story, Rakes. We sent that to Guy Pearce, and Guy was very interested in playing this role if we could do more with that particular villain. He wanted to play it, but he wanted to play a more memorable villain. So we kind of changed aspects of the personality and temperament of Rakes to get him involved. There are always things like that that happen, but I think the Bondurants came out looking pretty good.
THR: Like Jack, the main character, you also have two older brothers. Did you find any similarities in your own relationships?
Cave: I never thought of that one. No, I'm the tough one.
THR: When writing a score and a screenplay, being in charge of both of these elements, how do they interact for you creatively?
Cave: You know, obviously I'm thinking about the music at the same time because me and Warren Ellis are gonna do the music, and John is hugely interested in sound and music within film. So we had a lot of discussions about what conceptually the score would be. The idea of doing relatively modern songs in a style of the period seemed to be the right way about tackling what is going on back then in the 1930s and how that still reverberates today. And that was our way of doing that, by doing contemporary drug songs -- let's say -- in a bluegrass style. Or at least having someone like the great Ralph Stanley sing "White Light/White Heat" by The Velvet Underground, this we felt was a way of tying the Prohibition story into what's going on today.
That song, it's a great song, and it was a tiny, tiny chance that this could happen, that we could get Ralph Stanley, who is the jewel in the crown of bluegrass music, to actually sing a rock ’n’ roll song by The Velvet Underground. It was a very, very slim chance of being able to do that, but he did it, and it was an absolute coup. And his version of it is in equal parts chilling and beautiful and very much complimented the way of the film itself. So we were thrilled by that. And I think that that stated an enormous about the intentions of the film.
THR: What roles do you and Warren Ellis assume when working on a film, and how are those the same or different to when you're working with The Bad Seeds or Grinderman?
Cave: It's very different. It's very different. When I go in to make a record with The Bad Seeds, The Bad Seeds go in to the studio with a technician and a producer possibly, and that's it. We never see anybody else. We don't see anyone from the record company, we don't see any A&R people. And we've been doing it this way for years. We do exactly what we want. And we're not afforded the same luxury when we're making the score for a film. There's a lot of people involved; there's a lot of people who want to hear the music, there's a lot of people are concerned about where the music might be going and what direction it might be going in. So it's a different experience all together.
Really, what we tend to do is work with directors that we know and that we trust and that have some authority, and that seems to be important. Then we can do our best to kind of realize the visions of the film.
THR: In writing the score and the screenplay, what musical or instrumental themes stood out to you and how did you choose to highlight those?
Cave: What we didn't want to do is do an Americana soundtrack in the sense that we didn't want to do the kind of top-shelf. … We wanted to make this music ourselves. And what I mean by "ourselves" is we actually play it -- me and Warren and a couple of musicians that we know, even though we don't know anything about bluegrass music or our bluegrass chops are pretty limited. And in that way we could get something that was very raw and brutal and punky, and that's what we were really aiming at rather than doing something that was more respectful of the genre. We were determined to take these songs and do them in our own way.
THR: It's not O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Cave: It is not O Brother, Where Art Thou? That is a great soundtrack, but it's not the type of soundtrack we wanted for this movie.
THR: So how did you choose the guest collaborators?
Cave: It was just between me, Warren and John, really. Dave Sardy was involved initially; he was the music supervisor and had some great suggestions. He brought the Grandaddy song, which I'd never heard before, which is wonderful in the film, "So You’ll Aim Towards the Sky." I'd worked with Emmylou Harris on some. … I'd worked near Emmylou Harris on some other projects, so she became an obvious voice because she's just such a beautiful singer. And, Mark Lanegan was brought in because he's a relatively young singer and we wanted to bring that element into it as well. And I didn't want to sing that stuff. I just didn't want my voice all over that film. It just seemed like that was the last thing it needed. I already had too many fingers in pie as it was.
THR: In contrast to making an album, what kind of ownership do you feel over a film? Are there similarities, or is it more just like a job well done?
Cave: I think the sense of ownership comes about when you find out how well it does in the box office, you know? [Laughs] I think that happens with everybody. On some level, my job was to be respectful to Matt Bondurant's book; I always kind of had that in the back of my mind. Not that I needed to stay true to the story so much but as to be respectful and not f--- up a great book. That's what really worried me, and it was something that I put a lot of effort into. I was involved quite closely with a lot of things with this film; it's difficult to say, to be honest.
THR: Was there any back-and-forth writing between the screenplay and songs or pretty much just the one then the other?
Cave: It would be nice if it was that way, but unfortunately things never are that cut and dry. So I would be on tour with my band, and suddenly these notes would drop through in my e-mail from the producers, which were kind of eleventh-hour changes. And stuff like that that came in pretty regularly. It went on for a long time, the script work for Lawless; there were a lot of changes that got made.
THR: That doesn't sound like the best creative work environment. What is an ideal setting where do you work best?
Cave: It's not so bad. Weirdly enough, being on tour is a great place to write because there's a lot of sitting around in hotel rooms, there's a lot of times when you're kind of up all night -- the basic stuff that is part of being in a band. So it's actually -- it keeps me off the porn channel.
THR: And so, in that setting, it’s preferred working on something like this than something that's completely original like a song or story?
Cave: Writing songs is, for me -- as far as the creative process goes -- relatively agonizing. These songs are really kind of squeezed out over a long period of time, and they're much more abstract kind of things to grab a hold of. The screenplay is really something where you sit down and you have some larger understanding of the form. It's really about sitting down and pursuing an idea. It's, on some level, a lot easier to do. There are not the same agonies involved. Songwriting's a bitch of a thing to get involved in. I would not recommend it anybody.