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Via phone, Salles says, "You know, this was ultimately an eight-year search. We interviewed the persons who inspired the characters in the book in San Jose and Los Gatos, [including] several members of the Neal Cassady family. And we met with Al Hinkle, who is Ed Dunkle in the book.
"This in-depth research process allowed us to understand the complexity, the social and cultural background of the book. The late 1940s and early 1950s were very hard times to live. A generation was seeking to redefine their future. The book is at once an ode to freedom, an ode to youth and an ode to literature."
From the start, this version of On the Road added biographical behavior to Kerouac's fictional surrogates. "We were so informed about the real stories that we were able to somehow improvise their logic," Salles says. "The book is so rich and polyphonic that you can actually select the leitmotifs. First is the search for the father at the beginning. Later comes the difficulty these young men have in being fathers themselves. Dean has kids, but the restlessness propels him forward. Sal is trying to father a novel.
"This is a narrative about the transitional years from youth to adulthood. You also have to face pain, and we wanted that to be part of the film. There are moments in the narrative that are extremely painful, and Dean generates some of that pain.
"I wanted the film to carry that ambivalence. Therefore, you soon understand that Dean gives as much as he takes. The jazz-infused letters Neal wrote altered Kerouac's position on literature. It's not difficult to understand why Neal's life was so resonant to Jack." Before the filming, Hedlund came to the South Bay to talk to some of the survivors who remember the real men and women behind the fictional alter-egos.
It was "a wonderful experience," says the 28-year-old actor. First in Montreal, which doubled for post-World War II New York City, Hedlund went through what he described as "Beatnik Boot Camp," reading and listening to tapes of LuAnne Anderson and Jack and Neal Cassady.
"Then I flew to San Francisco," he continues. "While I was here, I also got over to Berkeley to meet Michael McClure—that was incredible. I met with John Cassady [Neal's son, who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains] and heard a lot of anecdotes. I realized how the Cassady family wanted their father perceived, how great a father he was and how much his family loved him."
When I interviewed John Cassady last year in connection with the documentary The Magic Bus, I was surprised at his enthusiasm. Commonly, the children of bohemian types grind an axe about how they suffered from the absenteeism and the bad behavior.
Cassady said, "Are you kidding? My upbringing was the complete opposite. I had an idyllic existence. I felt like a rock star—my father was not famous, he was infamous. I loved the attention. To this day, it's like, don't get me started."
"That's what he told me, too," Hedlund says, "that he couldn't wait for his father to get home from work, that all the kids would be hanging on Neal's biceps."
The actor remet the Cassadys at the Skywalker Ranch for the preview screening of On the Road: "It was one of my fave screenings. They were there, so was Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, as well as Jack's biographer Gerry Nicosia."
Hedlund had read On the Road in high school. "I started with Fitzgerald and Salinger—I moved on to Kerouac, Bukowski and those cats," he told me.
"For the role, I read On the Road, Dharma Bum, Visions of Cody. I read a third of Neal's book, a big diary of the childhood formative years, the published letters and Carolyn Cassady—and I listened to the jazz, Slim Gaillard, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy and Miles. I was fascinated by the spontaneous prose and the thought process—reading about getting out and living life. Of course, you're reading it, and you're still in high school and you have a curfew. You get jealous."
A Kerouac Revival?
On the Road spearheads a small wave of Kerouac adaptations. Coming soon is Michael Polish's version of Big Sur—the story of an alcoholic breakdown previously described in Curt Worden's 2008 documentary One Fast Move or I'm Gone. This new take on Big Sur uses the real names of the characters; Josh Lucas is billed as Neal Cassady.
Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe plays Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, a movie about a key event in Kerouac's life: the time the author (played by Jack Huston) was nearly arrested as a accessory after the fact to a murder.
The other day, a fellow fan and I were wondering why The Dharma Bums, one of Kerouac's best books, never made it to screen. It could be shot for cheap in the Sierra Nevada; moreover, of all Kerouac's mentors, the poet Gary Snyder (called "Japhy Ryder" in the book) is perhaps the least ambiguously admirable.
Kerouac's books are still carried by travelers, who can read the rapid prose and marvel at the eye and ear, the ebullience and the sorrows. We're already nostalgic for the time and space of the pre-Interstate America. Odd that John Waters' new book is going to be about hitchhiking across the United States. Maybe there'll be a re-exploration of the land by literary travelers.
The writers in Kerouac's circle were very taken with Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, the concept of "the fellaheen"—the humble souls at the center of things who would endure no matter what upheavals happened. It's a romantic and pre-Deliverance notion. Who goes out there now? Today's hip writers are more certain they'll be the prey of toothless cannibals in the hinterlands, rapacious yokels ready to punish weirdoes.
The Fort Sumter of the Culture War may have been the 1978 deregulation of airlines, making airfares cheap and making the restless want to go airborne, changing what once was the Heartland into what is now Flyover Country. The film of On the Road, done at last after so many false starts, recovers the beauty of speeding over land, heading no place in particular.
On the Road
Opens Friday March 22
Sparring With Beatnik Ghosts: Exploring the Beat Spirit
A talk and reading with Howard Pugh, Al Hinkle and hosts Lynn Rogers and Bea Garth
Thursday March 28, 6pm