Nick Cave: Still Lawless After All These Years
It’s hard to know where to begin with Nick Cave. His music inspires a sort of devotion among fans that few other artists enjoy, a hard-earned loyalty that’s seen him from post-punk provocateur to balladeer, novelist and screenplay writer. This Bad Seed’s latest project is the script for Lawless, which he adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World. Directed by longtime friend and collaborator John Hillcoat, Lawless is a strangely beautiful tale of three bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. Cave and longtime collaborator Warren Ellis did the soundtrack, as well, under the name The Bootleggers; it’s a magnificent, eccentric collection of Lawless-era takes on songs like "White Light/White Heat" by the Velvet Underground and a must for Cave fans.
Tom Hardy stars as Forrest Bondurant, a reticent man who favors cardigans and extreme violence when necessary. He’s a myth, a man who allegedly can’t be killed, and yet a mother hen of sorts to his two screw-up brothers, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Howard (Jason Clarke). The Bondurants’ livelihood is threatened by a new lawman from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, who is played by a nearly unrecognizable Guy Pearce. Sporting slicked-back black hair, a shaved part, and no eyebrows, Pearce is menacing, sadistic, and unforgettable. Rounding out the cast is Jessica Chastain as a former showgirl named Maggie who’s looking for a quiet new life in Franklin County, and Mia Wasikowska as a religious young maiden who seems open to a more worldly life in the arms of Jack.
Although it’s tempting to think of Cave as a myth on par with Forrest Bondurant, he’s human and equally at the mercy of the vicissitudes of technology. The soft-spoken Australian was fighting the good fight against his dying cell phone when he called from Los Angeles to discuss his acting swansong, lyrical violence, and the slog of interviews.
I’m really interested in how Lawless seems to fit right into the world of your songs and even your novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. Was that part of the attraction to adapting the novel, or was that even conscious?
I didn’t look at it in that way. I’m happy to write about anything for screenwriting as long as it serves the director’s vision effectively and that I can write about it. We were just given this book by a couple of producers who thought that John Hillcoat and I could do a good job on it based on The Proposition, the movie we’d done before that. I guess it’s no accident that we were chosen to do it; these producers were quite savvy sort of people, but for me, it wasn’t that I felt that it kind of fitted into something that I was about, it was more that… the beautiful lyricism of the book, the beauty of the writing, the absolutely exquisite dialogue that was in the book, and the great bits of brute violence that were in there as well just made the whole thing irresistible.
Have you ever though about returning to acting, since you met John on the set of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead?
No. [Laughs] No, you’ve got to know your limitations, and acting is always unbelievably painful. I do play a dead gangster in Lawless, and I saw that as my final curtain call for acting. Three bullet holes in the face.
How much time did you spend on set? Did you have a lot of ongoing input?
I spent two days on set when I did that particular scene. The rest of the time I spent ten days working with the actors in Georgia where it was shot, going through the script with them, and rehearsing with them, and giving them the opportunity to have some sort of input into the script or discuss the script or change the script or whatever… And then I left to go back to civilization. You know what I mean. The more civilized world of being a rock singer.
I read your interview in The Observer where Tom Hardy said he wanted to play his character like "an old lesbian," and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
I can’t, really… He also said he wanted to play the character like the old lady in Tweetie Pie, do you know who I mean? Yeah, that was the other person that he based the character on. And at the time this was kind of a [joke], these kind of comments [laughs] but you know, I think that what he was really saying was that he wanted to play the character like a matriarch, and that he was the mother in this family, and that when Jessica Chastain’s character comes in, she isn’t a love interest so much as a direct threat on his authority as a mother figure, and I think that that’s the way he’s playing that character. He’s just amazing in the film.
My favorite line was when Chastain’s character enters the room to seduce him, and he’s so perplexed, and he says, "What are you doing?" It’s beyond him.
Yeah, well, he’s a virgin. He’s a virgin.
Aw, little Forrest!
[Laughs] He’s spent his time looking after his family and sitting on his nest, and anything like love interests and all that sort of stuff, I don’t think he’s ever, you know, he’s never had an opportunity for. That’s the way we’re looking at it.
The process is so much more—you get hamstrung by the studios or the producers or what have you. What’s the payoff in writing the screenplay when you don’t have as much freedom as you do making an album?It must be very frustrating.
In the writing of something, it’s not like that. When you first write something, it’s actually really kind of enjoyable and playful and really all you’re doing is taking a story, and you’re writing the scenes, and at least, because I’ve only written a couple of screenplays, really, maybe three or four, I’m still kind of naive enough to the process to think that what I’m actually writing is gonna get made.
I think that with Lawless, my eyes were opened up to the way films get made a lot more. It was a Hollywood movie, and it’s different, it’s a different process. But I think what makes it enjoyable for me is a kind of naiveté about the process and that you can write scenes that maybe a more experienced writer would know that these scenes will never get made. That there’s no point even putting pen to paper with these scenes because they’re never gonna get made. I think at least initially when I wrote Lawless, there were a lot of scenes like that, that were so enjoyable writing them. A lot of them, as it turned out, didn’t get made, but a lot of them did, and so it’s both. It’s extremely exciting, but it can be frustrating as well.
But there’s a huge amount of people—it’s amazing anything gets done, honestly. There’s so many people involved in the artistic decision-making of a film, and the sort of trajectory that it takes, it’s amazing that a film ever gets made at all.
I understand Crime and the City Solution is preparing to go on tour and release its first new album in years. What inspires you to revisit a certain band’s sound, like, okay, now I want to do some Bad Seeds. Now I’m feeling a little Grinderman. Now I wanna go do something with The Flaming Lips. How does that work?
They’re all different. The Flaming Lips… It was very much about the kind of irrepressible personality of Wayne Coyne. He’s, how shall I say this, he’s a very difficult person to say no to. That turned out real good, but you know, all of these other things—screenplays, novels, and all that sort of stuff—I see as just keeping the songwriting process going.
What I want to be able to do in life is just to write songs, but I know, more than anything, that if I don’t do other things, I’m not going to be able to continue to do that because you just run out of ideas. If you just made one record after another after another, it’s impossible to do. It’s impossible to keep up any quality. And I was kind of seeing that fifteen years ago or something. I understood the trajectory of the band and where it was going in some kind of way, and it was starting to decline. It was in decline, I think, and so I started doing other things just to kind of revitalize that process, and it seemed to work really well.
If I do a script, like something like Lawless, by the time I’m finished with that, I’m running screaming to get out of Hollywood and the film world and get into something more sane, like making a record. It just keeps that process alive.
How do you feel about the kind of promotion you have to do for a movie insofar as going to different festivals and talking to interviewers? Is it exhausting in a way that promoting an album or going on tour isn’t?
Promoting an album, doing interviews, and going on tour are two very different things. With all respect, doing an interview is something where you’re sitting there and selling a product. It’s always that way, and there’s a certain amount of that that I guess needs to be done, really. Going on tour is something that is an extraordinary thing to do. I love going on tour and playing concerts and watching the songs come alive in a live way.
There are actually occasions when you do an interview that makes you think about things and makes you reassess things or gives you ideas and so forth, or makes you even understand what you’re doing in a clearer kind of way, and they can be really good as well, actually. But in general, the interview thing is a bit of a slog. [Laughs] Not this one, of course. Not this one.
[Laughs] That’s very kind of you. What makes an interview not a slog? Seriously, I am always looking to learn.
Really, it’s being able to kind of honest in an interview. You know, that’s the thing about filmmaking in particular, is that no one can really be honest about a film… because so many people are involved, and the kind of destinies of so many people are involved in the outcome of the film that everyone’s just gonna kind of, you know, toe the line. If you know what I mean.
Creativity really ebbs and flows, and it seems like you’re producing work at an incredibly alarming rate. What do you do for your downtime?
I’m trying to work on that, to be honest. That’s my next project, is downtime, because it’s not something that really comes naturally to me, and it becomes worrying on some level how much work I’m doing. Not that I’m exhausted by it, because I find work energizing, but just that there needs to be downtime. There needs to be time when you don’t know what you’re doing… If you don’t have downtime, then you don’t have the epiphanies, either. You need the downtime for the epiphanies to [appear]. I think to work more on downtime. Maybe you’ve got some ideas.