Directed by John Hillcoat, Lawless is a story of outlaws in the tumultuous time of Prohibition in the 1920s. Taking place in Virgina's Franklin County, nicknamed "The Wettest County in the World," it follows the actions of the three Bondurant brothers Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke). While leading the illegal alcohol business in the state's backwoods, the Bondurants receive pressure from rival gangsters like Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), and a dirty deputy named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). The film, adapted by writer/musician Nick Cave, is based on the book "The Wettest County in the World" by Matt Bondurant. This Bondurant, a teacher at a southern university and a writer with three books to his name, is a direct descendant of the Bondurant brothers celebrated in this film. LaBeouf's character Jack is his paternal grandfather.
I sat down with this real Bondurant to discuss the film made from his book, his appreciation for author Cormac MacCarthy, the best things to mix with moonshine, and more.
Lawless opens in theaters nationwide on August 29.
Who is your favorite fictional bad-ass, and do you think would they be able to beat up your grand-uncle Forrest in a fight?
That's tough. I think it's kind of a toss-up between Captain Ahab and The Judge from "Blood Meridian," by Cormac McCarthy. Captain Ahab, I think Forrest would definitely be able to kick his ass. But The Judge is about seven-feet-tall, 300 pounds, and he's basically semi-supernatural, and a genius. I don't think that's going to work out for Forrest there; I think the Judge is a badder man. He is probably one of the ultimate villains in all of literature.
Was "Blood Meridian" at all a literary influence on your book in the sense that it supported making something meaningful out of a violent story?
Yeah, or just how violence can function in a story. What McCarthy does, there's a language style that he does which is wonderful. Descriptive phrases. And I love that. I tried to emulate it, especially with this book. But he does something with depictions of evil and violence that is kind of unique. He looks at them in a frank, uncompromising way. Especially with the violence he looks directly at, he gives it to you very straight, and that's something I try to do, to look at it directly on, and that's also what Hillcoat does. He'll show you that bloody bit, which a camera would normally pan away from, even just briefly. It relates to all things. And it's about emotional situations. As a writer, it's hard to write about a look on a person's face when they get certain news. And I think it's important to look directly at what they call the "White Hot Center." As readers and viewers, we are challenged by that. We often tend to look away. I think that's why Hillcoat liked this story.
When people were adapting this story, was that something you tried to insist on? The grisliness?
Yeah. I didn't have any time to think about it, because the film rights were bought, and they said, "Hillcoat and Nick Cave are attached," and that was when The Road had come out, and I loved The Road. At that point I was immediately fine with the violence or anything else. And when I spoke with him, he was very clear in his desire to remain true to the spirit of the book. I always felt very secure.
What do you think of Nick Cave's unusual music choices in the film? Are you a fan of Grandaddy or Velvet Underground?
I'm a huge fan of Emmylou Harris, that's for sure. And I'm a huge fan of Willie Nelson. And of Ralph Stanley, probably the greatest bluegrass player alive. I like Velvet Underground. When they first told me that, I was like "Huh?" But it worked out. I think in the beginning he was going to do all Velvet Underground songs sung by contemporaries like Emmylou Harris, but I don't know what happened. But I think his choices are good. I think one thing that was smart is that he wasn't going to compete with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Cave knew he needed to come out and not just do old timey standards, he had to give them a little finesse. The way they were integrated in the film worked pretty well, especially the Emmylou Harris song that's playing when Forrest gets his throat cut. That's a good example of when Cave is really nailing it.
What does moonshine taste like to you? Though it gets such a negative rap, does it have a redeeming quality?
It gets you drunk really quickly. If you drink scotch, or bourbon on the rocks, taking a sip of corn whiskey isn't going to be that strange. Moonshine smells pretty bad. The alcohol content is higher, so it's just more burn. Rarely do people sit around and just drink moonshine. They mix it with something.
What do you normally mix moonshine with?
The best thing to do is put fruit in it. You get a jar, and then put peaches in there, or berries. It makes a really strong Schnapps. If you don't have time for that, a Mountain Dew-type soda works well. It's excellent with eggnog as well. My family used to drink it with eggnog a lot. I remember as a kid, the adults would be drinking eggnog out back, shooting skeet. It disappears into eggnog really well. You get a faint taste of it, and you can put a shocking amount on moonshine in it. At a party, I added some cinnamon and nutmeg to the eggnog. I even put a sign up. People drank it up in five minutes, and they got slaughtered.
Is moonshine hard to find?
It's hard to find if you don't know anybody. If you're an outsider, you're not going to be able to get it. It's kind of like weed. But these days, because so much of it is being batched for family and friends, there is a market for it, and there's still busts, at least one a year. Usually in a barn or a warehouse. I would say it's a niche market. It's just something that's casual. It's predominantly drunk by men in a parking lot or the woods. You don't talk about it. And if you do drink it, it's in an opaque container. There's this old fashioned, conservative drinking thing that you drink away from everyone else, and with the guys, etc. But it's not out in the open.
When you were adapting this story for the book, were there any stories that were just too fantastical to be believable?
The going story in Franklin County, up until now, was that when [a certain character] got his throat cut at the county line, that he walked to the hospital. When I did the math, it was nine miles. I knew that I was going to have to come up with a more plausible explanation for it. So I came up with the Maggie concept. I had to account for that. He's not superhuman, in that way. There's a lot of interesting anecdotal things in the book that made it in. A lot of crazy stuff, like the guy in Franklin County who built a still into the plumbing of his house. The movie amplifies a lot of things, and makes it seem crazier. And that's what movies do. And that's part of Nick Cave's thing. Like when a certain character gets shot six times, in reality it was only once. I think they came up with more crazy stuff than I did.
Do you have any interest in screenwriting yourself?
I have never written a movie screenplay before. I am very new to that art form. I don't know. I am really busy now, and if there were opportunities, I would certainly consider it. There have been TV things. I am not sure about movies. If someone wanted me to do a screenplay treatment, I would be up for that. And it would be fun, as a kind of new challenge.
Do you have any family members nowadays who lend themselves to flattering casting choices?
I have lots of big cousins in my family, and big people. Cousins that are legitimate NFL linemen size. I'm one of the smaller people. As far as country big guys, to be the big muscle in the film, that'd be funny. But there's also a fair number of redheads, like my mother.
Did you see Tom Hardy in Dark Knight Rises? Or Bronson?
I didn't see Dark Knight Rises, but I am looking forward to it. [When casting] they said "[Hardy movies] Inception, and RocknRolla." But when I saw Bronson I was like, "That's a tour-de-force. That's an amazing piece of work."
If you were alive during this period, who do you think you would have been most like? And do you think you would have lived?
I don't know. That world was such an extreme subsistence of living that I haven't been presented with those stark choices before. The parts with Jack, and the book goes into greater detail about his version of the bloody parts of the business, that's something that I share with him. Forrest is interesting because he has a relationship in which he doesn't go seeking this stuff out. He dislikes having to resort to violence, and he looks kind of annoyed, like when he's wiping the blood off the brass knuckles. That's something that I feel too. I would be someone trying to avoid this situation. If I had some brothers who were crazy bad-asses, I probably would have jumped in too. I have an older brother, and I idolize him.
Quick Questions with Matt Bondurant
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Some scrambled eggs, and some potatoes in a cherry tomato salad, and a peach smoothie. That was weird. I was at a hotel in Atlanta. Where am I? I'm in Chicago. I was in Atlanta this morning.
How many cities have you done for this tour? It will be ten in total.
Not bad for an author. It's not bad at all. It's Weinstein, they asked me to do it.
What is something you can't wait to do? The appropriate answer is that I can't wait to get home and see my kids. But also the premiere event in August 22nd in Los Angeles. I kind of can't wait for this all to slow down a little bit because I have a fourth book I am working on, and a teaching job. This is a pretty good summer for a teacher. It's a great summer. It's a wonderful problem to have. I would do it again.
Age of first kiss? The first time I kissed a girl was on full-out making out, and that was in eighth grade. So I was 13? It's kind of old surprisingly. I remember when it happened I realized, "This is the first time I actually kissed somebody."