Jet-lagged amid a gruelling promotional schedule, Nick Cave is so relieved that our interview is taking place off camera that he relaxes and makes a wanking motion. Then he sighs with a sudden realisation. “Your opening line is: ‘He relaxes and makes a wanking motion’, isn’t it?” he says. “I can see it now.”
Cave, it seems, is always writing. Since the release of his 14th record with the Bad Seeds, 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the prolific rock polymath has published his second novel, The Death of Bunny Monro, released a second album with his incendiary side-project Grinderman and written the screenplay and score for the brutal moonshine gangster drama Lawless. John Hillcoat, the film’s director, still appears faintly bewildered by his friend’s work rate despite over 20 years of collaboration. Having met on the Australian post-punk scene in the late Eighties, Hillcoat cast Cave as a violent inmate in his 1988 debut Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead about a privately-run maximum security prison. It was 2005’s stunning outback western The Proposition, from an original screenplay by Cave, that grabbed Hollywood’s attention and led to Hillcoat landing the job of directing the big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
When Hillcoat read Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World, about his family’s past as outlaw bootleggers, there was really only one name in the frame to adapt the savage yet cerebral tale for the screen (albeit with the new title Lawless). Today, Cave is dressed in a three-piece Chris Kerr pinstripe suit, golden shades dangling from his waistcoat, while Hillcoat is more understated, pairing a navy t-shirt with a double-breasted blazer. Together, the pair discuss Tom Hardy’s lesbian tendencies, why it’s easier to write a screenplay than a song and which of the Lawless cast is their best-dressed British man.
GQ.com: Going right back to Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead, your work together tends to be characterised by a preoccupation with brutal violence and specifically with…
Nick Cave: Blokes.
So it was surprising to learn that Tom Hardy apparently decided to play his character as if he was an “old lesbian”. Was that something you envisioned?
NC: Yes, in fact I thought all the characters were all old lesbians. [Laughs] No, he had a habit of coming up to you during rehearsals and whispering in your ear: “I’m going to play it like an old lesbian.” Then he’d walk off and you’d be left there going: “Did he just say ‘old lesbian’?” At first we didn’t know if he would be the best possible actor or the worst possible actor for the part because of all these ideas he had, but it became very clear that he had the long game in mind. He knew his character really well and he knew how effective it would be.
John Hillcoat: His character, Forrest, has all this physical power and is like a snake when he strikes: lethal and fast. What I think Tom wanted to explore was the family side and the female, matriarchal qualities that he had to take on as opposed to the obvious hitman stuff.
NC: He wanted scenes put in where he was darning socks, sitting on the porch knitting, all that sort of thing…
JH: We had to draw the line somewhere!
There’s an anachronistic bluegrass cover of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” on the soundtrack. Was that a deliberate decision to draw a parallel between the failure of prohibition and the contemporary war on drugs?
NC: Yeah, for sure. We weren’t doing it with the story, but that was our way of making those issues contemporary as well. We did feel that we were sometimes in danger of pulling the audience out of the story by putting contemporary songs in, so we had them done ‘of the time’ by people who have one foot in that era like Ralph Stanley.
The history of cinema is littered with mediocre literary adaptations. Did you have any particular concerns about tackling Bondurant’s novel?
NC: Not when I was actually writing it, but now that I’ve seen the sorts of things that didn’t make it from the script into the final version I would have been more concerned. There were details of the book that were so beautiful and lyrical and were just there as elements of the story. In the end, they weren’t seen as serving the thrust of the tale so they were slowly cut away. That would have worried me much more when I was writing it if I’d known that. It’s very much that detail that reverberates around the characters that makes that book so special. The story is a basic sort of revenge story, tit for tat, and losing some of that stuff tipped the balance slightly – but all screenwriters are going to say that!
If rights were no issue and you could adapt any book for the screen, which would it be?
NC: I’ve got a book in mind but I don’t want to say what it is because it might actually happen. The problem with books, now that I’ve written one, is that the idea of adaptation is so much easier than sitting down to write something new. People send me books all the time that they want adapting but there is one great book out there – I just can’t say what it is.
JH: I’d still like a stab at Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but there’s a long queue on that one.
Nick, you’ve also just finished making a new Bad Seeds record. Do you think script-writing has changed your song-writing?
NC: Look, it totally keeps it alive because once you’ve been involved in Hollywood you just run screaming back to music where you can just sit in a room and deal with your band. When you’re making a film there are so many people involved that you get opinions and notes from people and you don’t even know who they are. I find that quite difficult and it wears you down. It’s a joyful experience to go back to making music. It keeps it energised and I don’t think without doing other stuff I’d have been able to make 15 or 16 Bad Seeds records.
But has writing screenplays actually informed the way you write narratives in song?
JH: Didn’t you say that writing songs is much tougher?
NC: Oh, it is. Writing songs is actually difficult. Writing a script is…
JH: …a no-brainer!
NC: It’s relatively easy and actually really exciting. Writing The Proposition was probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done in terms of writing because I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what you could do and couldn’t do in a film. I was like a kid with a box of crayons: “Oh, let’s have this happen!” We did get away with a lot withThe Proposition,but sadly I think the more you learn about the art of script-writing the less attractive the whole process becomes.
You don’t want to see how the sausage is made.
NC: Can I use that for the next interview? Exactly. You know when you write something down that probably no-one’s ever going to do it, but you try to get away with it. There are things which aren’t there just to push the story along and it’s often those things in films which are so amazing and rare. Next time I’m going to write a film with no story at all, just a collection of random details.
JH: I’m attached to direct…
Guy Pearce told us that The Proposition is his favourite film that he’s worked on. What made you cast him in such a wildly different role in Lawless?
JH: I think he disappears into so many roles because he’s so remarkably nuanced and subtle. He kind of vanishes. I think all three of us were very keen on him doing something where he actually does the opposite and doesn’t hold back. It was inspired by these Cagney-like characters who are larger-than-life, and also of course by Nick’s suits and hair colour. [laughs]
NC: There’s something so tightly-wound about Guy and that’s what really drew us to him initially. The way he was in LA Confidential and Rules of Engagement or any of those roles where he has a grinding jaw and looks like he’s set to go off. He never actually does go off and that’s an incredible thing to watch. He was first in our minds for The Proposition. WithLawless, in the script that we sent him initially his character Rakes was a small-town country cop, as he is in the book. Guy wanted to play something different and more memorable, so we played around with Rakes quite a lot.
Finally, who would you say is the best-dressed British man?
JH: I’d nominate Nick but I guess he’s not actually British. Maybe Tom Hardy for his cardigan. The team have been calling it the “Hardigan”. Or Gary Oldman, when he suits up.
NC: The British can’t dress for s***. That’s just a general observation from an Australian. That ought to endear me to everyone in this country. I’ll be up there with Germaine Greer!
Originally published by British GQ.