Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Coppola has dreamt for 36 years of filming Jack Kerouac’s classic novel. David Gritten tells the story :
It may be the longest gestation period in cinema history: in 1968, Francis Ford Coppola, then a rising director-screenwriter still in his twenties, bought the film rights to Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel On the Road. He sincerely intended to make a film of it, yet, 36 years on, the cameras have still not started rolling. On the Road, hailed as one of the last century’s key novels, has now become one of the great elusive unmade movies.
Hopes were high as recently as two years ago, when Coppola’s company American Zoetrope announced it would finally make On the Road. Joel Schumacher was due to direct; Coppola said Schumacher wanted Colin Farrell (who he had directed in Tigerland) to play a lead role. Novelist Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter, Continental Drift) was writing a script.
But, at the recent International Cinema and Literature Forum in Monaco, where screenwriters and novelists gather to discuss film adaptation, Banks said the project appeared to be off.
"I turned in a script, and Francis liked it very much," he said. "Then I heard he wasn’t going to do it. It was off and on. I’ll be surprised, though of course greatly pleased, if he ever makes it."
On the Road recounts the adventures of two rootless drifters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, hitch-hiking their way across America and living, fuelled by sex and alcohol, on society’s margins.
The two characters were thinly disguised sketches of Kerouac himself and his friend Neal Cassady. When On the Road was published in 1957, becoming an overnight publishing sensation, it introduced the phrase "Beat Generation" to denote a new rebelliousness and restlessness.
In Paris in 1997, Coppola told me he originally wanted to shoot On the Road in black and white on 16 mm film. "I tried to make it, but couldn’t get the money," he said. "Now it keeps becoming more important."
Banks is the fourth screenwriter to try adapting the novel. The first was Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, the acclaimed part-fact, part-fiction work about Vietnam. (He also wrote the narration for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.) The next effort, written several years later, was by novelist-screenwriter Barry Gifford.
It is known that Coppola and his son Roman worked on a version of On the Road in the 1990s, before Banks was chosen to write a fourth script.
Each time news of the planned film surfaces, the hot young actors of the day become linked with the leading roles. "I’d get calls from gossip columnists, asking if I knew Johnny Depp was auditioning?" recalled Banks. "Brad Pitt was mentioned. I’d say, 'What do I know? I’m just the writer.' "
Yet he has a unique insight into the story. He met Kerouac in 1967, two years before his death. Banks was then at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, married and slightly older than most students.
"A friend, hitch-hiking back to town, got picked up by a man who turned out to be Kerouac. He said, 'Where ya going, kid?' My friend said, 'Chapel Hill', and Kerouac said, 'I always wanted to go to Chapel Hill.' He had two Indians with him, who he said were his cousins. They drove, and he was in the back.
"I got a phone call from my friend downtown. He said, 'Hey, Russ, Jack Kerouac’s in town, man, and he wants to party. Can we come to your house?'
"I said, sure, come on out. About 30 people showed up, including Kerouac and the two Indians, and turned our lives upside down for a week.
"Kerouac was sick with alcohol and also mentally in terrible disarray. One minute he’d be a raving anti-Semite, the next he’d be the old Jack. We were all young activists and artists, involved in the anti-war movement, civil rights, and here we were at the feet of one of our heroes. But he was a decidedly mortal man. It was a remarkable event."
Banks used this real-life episode to frame the story of On the Road. He views Kerouac’s novel as a period piece about the last time when Americans could still be innocent.
"After 1968, after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, after Vietnam, you could never have the innocence that On the Road portrays, where two white guys could roll a pack of Luckys up in the sleeves of their T-shirts, get in an old Hudson, drive to Denver and think they’d gone to another planet. You could never again have visions of liberation, freedom and control like that."
Awareness of On the Road remains high. Kerouac wrote the book in 1951 in an astonishing three-week burst, pumped up by caffeine and typing furiously on a continuous scroll of paper 35 metres long. That scroll has now begun a four-year tour of America’s leading museums and libraries. But that doesn’t bring the movie version any closer.
"Francis owns all the rights in perpetuity," Banks says. "Nobody else can make that film.’’
Through his New York publicist, Coppola confirmed he was "serious" about producing On the Road. Yet he conceded that no actors or directors were currently attached. He admitted: "We’ve learned that what makes On the Road great as a read is difficult to transpose to cinema. But we believe we’re closer than ever, and might be in a position to make an announcement as to a filmmaker in the not too distant future."
Coppola has also spent more than a decade on another project, Megalopolis, about attempts to govern the world better through Utopian republics that go wrong. But this is a relatively new idea compared to the 36 years Coppola has had On the Road in mind.
"For all I know, Francis has got script number five under way out there," says Banks. "I’m beginning to think it’s a movie that exists only in Francis’s head."