Mention the words ‘road movie’ and most people will think of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding down the highway to the tune of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’. Easy Rider may remain the daddy of road movies but there is more to the genre than this, as Jason Wood’s book on the subject amply demonstrates. With detailed entries on films that explore many variations on the template, 100 Road Movies is a thoroughly enjoyable read in which classics such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde sit next to more unexpected entries such as The Wizard of Oz and The Searchers as well as modern updates like The Motorcycle Diaries. We met up with Jason Wood, a man whose knowledge of cinema is as phenomenal as his enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, to talk about his book.
Virginie Sélavy: In your introduction you say that you think the book should provoke debate and discussion and it certainly has done that for me.
Jason Wood: Yeah, I’ve already had lots of people asking ‘why isn’t that in there?’ but I like that, I think a book should do that. A hundred films seems a lot to begin with but when you start scaling back, it’s not. There are ones now that I wish I’d put in there, for example I don’t have a children’s road movie. I guess The Wizard of Oz just about counts, but not really. There are lots of arguments over what should have been in there.
VS: It makes you think about what a road movie actually is, and how you define it, which is good. What made you think of writing about road movies?
JW: I got a bit of a reputation as somebody who wrote only about American independent film. The first book I did was on Steven Soderbergh. Then I did a book on Hal Hartley and another book for the BFI in the same series, 100 American Independent Films. So I didn’t want to just write about one subject. And I’ve always been interested in the way that road movies have used music, the way that sequences are often cut to particular records or songs. I’m as interested and inspired by music as I am by film. When I first started driving, I had an old car and a tape machine and one of the things I loved to do was to make tapes and just drive and listen to music.One of the things that I really like about this road movies book is actually the part of it that I didn’t write, which is the preface by one of my favourite filmmakers, Chris Petit, who made Radio On. He says something in that preface that I immediately related to, which is the intersection between the road movie and music. The other thing I like about road movies is the fact that that they teach you something about yourself. I think the whole idea of the road movie is a journey towards some sort of selfhood and self-knowledge. I think the back of the book says that road movies are a metaphor for life. You might set out in life having the intention of travelling in one direction but fate and circumstance find you moving in another direction. I like the fact that road movies don’t stick to the itinerary, they often go off road, they take different courses. I find that quite liberating because I think that life is like that.
VS: How difficult was it to select the films?
JW: It was really tough and I knew what was going to happen because I’d done this 100 American Independent Films. For that book I got two filmmakers I like very much, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who made Suture and The Deep End, to write the preface for it. And their whole preface was kind of having a go at me in mock tones for leaving out their favourite film, a film called Billy Jack. So I knew from doing that that no matter what one hundred films you select, there’s always going to be one or two that people are going to take you to task for for not including. So for the road movies book I actually cheated. In the introduction I list ten other films that I wish I could have included just to try and cover myself. What I tried to do was to select films that are important to road movies in the historical sense, films that are important in terms of key directors and films that might not necessarily have been considered previously as being road movies. I would regard a road movie as something that doesn’t necessarily have to involve a road or even a car, but as something that involves a journey. So I tried to select films that were a new way of thinking about road movies, The Wizard of Oz for instance, and The Searchers, which is a Western. The key goal for me was as broad a selection as possible. To begin with I tried to do a film for every single country but I was selecting films that maybe weren’t the best examples just because they came from a particular country and the selection was suffering because of that. So in the end I just decided to pick the hundred films that were most representative, films that meant something to me, also films that people would expect to see there, such as Thelma and Louise, which is an important film, but not one that I particularly like very much. But even doing it that way I realised that a hundred films isn’t nearly enough.
VS: When I came across the entry on The Wizard of Oz I thought, ‘What? The Wizard of Oz is a road movie?’ I have to say that for me road movies have to definitely definitely involve a car. If they don’t, how do you define a road movie?
JW: I think they certainly can include cars, and motorbikes, and so on, but my definition of a road movie would be the idea of a journey. They have to involve travel, they can’t be stationary, but the idea of them having to involve a car would for me rule out quite a lot of good road movies. The Searchers is obviously set in a period before cars were invented and I think it is a very good example because it clearly involves some kind of personal quest. It’s about the idea that the character played by John Wayne finds out something about himself that he didn’t necessarily know. So I think that to have not included that film would have been a shame. One of the sub-genres that has originated from road movies, and there are several, is the idea of the walking movie as in Beat Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro or Paris, Texas. I think that road movies don’t even have to necessarily involve a road. I mentioned right at the end of the book a film called London to Brighton, which is a train journey towards selfhood and away from a crime scene. Of course the fetishisation of the vehicles is an important factor of road movies. This book caught the attention of people who wouldn’t normally be interested in film books, a lot of car magazines, and Top Gear… I can’t believe that Jeremy Clarkson would be interested in this… So ideally the road movie would involve a car but for me the essence of the road movie is a journey, which invariably turns into some sort of personal quest.
VS: Why did you not include Paris, Texas, a work that sounds quite important to you or films such as They Live By Night, Wild At Heart and The Wild One, which you mention in your list of ten, instead of films such as Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, which I think are rather mediocre films and which you don’t seem to like very much yourself?
JW: The only other self-imposed rule that I had was that I tried to limit the amount of films per director. So Wim Wenders for example, who is perhaps the filmmaker most commonly associated with the road movie – he even named his production company ‘Road Movies’ – made films in Germany that explored the same terrain as Paris, Texas – films such as Alice in the City, Kings of the Road and The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick. I could have had five or six films by Wenders but I wanted to limit it to just two or three, so that’s why Paris, Texas wasn’t included. I absolutely agree with you with regard to Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers, I think they’re both very mediocre films. But they emerged at quite an interesting time in filmmaking, a time when filmmakers were trying to look at the influence of the media and how events were covered, specifically the almost obsessive interest in killers and murder sprees. So Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers had to be included almost as an update of films such as Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde for the way they take on some of the ideas explored in those films. The other film that I’m not a big fan of but that I had to include was Thelma and Louise. It’s one of the few road movies which is written by a woman and has a female protagonist. I actually think that the film is completely compromised by its ending but it’s an interesting one to have in there because it has a certain amount of cachet with feminist writers. And I probably bowed to a little bit of pressure to include it because people would expect to see it there. If people are interested in Thelma and Louise they should certainly see a film called Messidor by Alain Tanner, which is included in the book. It is a very similar film but it takes the feminist perspective of Thelma and Louise that much further. It was made something like twenty years before but it’s a much more audacious film. With regard to some the other films that you mentioned, instead of They Live By Night I actually included the update, Thieves Like Us, by Robert Altman, which is a virtual remake – it’s based on the same book. They Live By Night is one of my favourite films but I realised that I already had a number of films that were covering the film noir angle. That’s one of the other ones that I regret not having. If I could go back, I probably would have included it.
VS: What about The Wild One? It seems to me that it should definitely have been in there.
JW: The Wild One is interesting. It’s one of the ten films that I say I wish I had included in the introduction. I watched all the films again and I thought that The Wild One had dated very much, which is not to detract from the film; it’s still an important film. But instead of The Wild One, I decided to include a British film called The Leather Boys because it takes many aspects of The Wild One, the idea of the teenage tearaways, the idea of counter-culture, the idea of using motor vehicles as a way to break free from the constricting norms of society, but it also had a whole homoerotic aspect between the two male leads. The other thing is that The Leather Boys perhaps isn’t a film that people would expect to see in there. One of the things I wanted to do was to get people to go away and see films that they maybe hadn’t seen. I’m sure everybody reading the book will know of or will have seen The Wild One but maybe they won’t know The Leather Boys. In the entry I wrote about The Leather Boys I make lots of references to The Wild One by way of saying, you’re probably expecting to be reading about The Wild One, but you’re not, you’re reading The Leather Boys, and this is why… I wish I could have had both.
VS: One of the things that you’ve touched on earlier is how some filmmakers construct almost all of their films as road movies of some kind. You’ve mentioned Wim Wenders; I would probably pick Jim Jarmusch as the ultimate example of that. So it must have been difficult to deal with filmmakers like that in a book like yours because so many of their films are very interesting, diverse examples of the road movie.
JW: Yes, it was kind of that three films per director rule. There’s a quote from Truffaut where he says, ‘I’ve always just remade the same film several times’. I think Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, not to say that they’re just remaking the same film, but they’ve obviously struck upon something that they feel very comfortable doing. And Jim Jarmusch is another director, who you could arguably say, has made only road movies. Dead Man is one of those interesting films, which again isn’t in there but I wish it was, because it’s a Western but it’s obviously a road movie. Both Jarmusch and Wenders – and in real life they are very close – are interested in the way that the road movie opens up the possibility to look at these kind of insular characters. Their characters are all ridden by ennui, melancholia and self-doubt and the road movie is a perfect template to explore that. I don’t think Wenders and Jarmusch are unique as directors associated with a particular genre. John Ford for example is very much associated with Westerns and he certainly didn’t only make Westerns. And you could say the same thing about directors that are associated with the horror genre. With regard to Wenders and Jarmusch this idea of a journey is something that obviously fits the characters that they like to explore. I think it also fits the way in which they like to work. When Wim Wenders made Kings of the Road, which is one of my favourite road movies, he very famously didn’t have a script. He had a very rough outline of the kind of film that he wanted to make. He went out with a very minimal crew and he would visit a location and the night before he was due to shoot he would write a few pages of dialogue. Then they would improvise as they went along. I think Jarmusch works in a similar way. He obviously has a script, a template of what he wants to do. But the idea of being out on the road gives him a certain amount of freedom. As they work with bigger stars it probably becomes more difficult for them to do that. If you look at Jarmusch’s last film, Broken Flowers, it’s obviously a road movie and does involve a journey but it’s more structured and less esoteric in its approach than Stranger than Paradise or Dead Man were.
VS: Stranger Than Paradise – that was a massive turning point in the history of the road movie and of American cinema, right?
JW: Stranger Than Paradise is such an important film for numerous reasons. There’s a book called Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, which is a history of American independent cinema from the 1980s. And the writer of the book, John Pierson, pinpoints Stranger Than Paradise as a defining moment in American independent filmmaking in that it radically altered the way that American independent films were not only made but also marketed. Stranger Than Paradise came out of the tradition of films such as John Cassavetes’ and the European filmmakers of the sixties and seventies. Jarmusch always cites Wenders as well as Ozu as an influence and Stranger Than Paradise is shot in monochrome black and white with extremely long takes and a very static camera. It has at its centre a relationship between two men and a woman, which is also linked to the key American road movies of the early seventies – themselves influenced by European filmmakers, specifically Antonioni – like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop in that it looks at the breakdown in communication between the sexes. So Stranger Than Paradise almost encapsulates the history of American and European cinema from about the 1950s. But it does it in a very un-self-conscious way and when the film was made, it really didn’t feel like there’d been anything like it at that time. If I remember correctly the tagline for Stranger Than Paradise when it was released was ‘a new kind of American movie’. And it really did feel like that, although if you analyse it carefully it wasn’t especially that new. But it redefined the boundaries. It said films don’t have to go ABC, they can go ACB; they can do things in a different way, they don’t have to have big stars in, they don’t have to have this pay-off ending, they can leave questions unanswered. And it had great music. It was a film that felt… I hate to use the word cool… but people often compare Stranger Than Paradise to jazz and it felt like rules were being broken and all bets were off. There are other films that came out in the wake of Stranger Than Paradise that were equally influential. I talked about this book by John Pierson and it analyses the huge impetus that it gave to the career of people like John Sayles, but also Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, all these American independent directors that did things in their own way and on their own terms. And the fact that the characters in Stranger Than Paradise were on the margins of society also gave rise to movements such as the New Queer Cinema. The Living End by Gregg Araki is a film that isn’t a road movie but that I felt was very important because it takes characters on the margins of society, which road movies have always done, and it goes one step further: they’re outsiders not only because of their sexuality but also because they’re HIV positive. And they really don’t give a damn, they’re going to take what they want from life, they’re going to refuse to let society dictate to them how they’re going to live their lives, and it feels very liberating. Without Stranger Than Paradise you probably wouldn’t have had films such as The Living End.
VS: For you what is the defining road movie, the one that established the genre? I’m afraid it has to be one that includes a car… How about Easy Rider?
JW: But that’s got bikes in it.
VS: Yeah, bikes work too.
JW: Easy Rider is often called the godfather of the road movie and I think it’s certainly a key film. When we were talking about Stranger Than Paradise we talked about films that were influenced by European filmmakers from the sixties and Easy Rider is certainly one of those films. I think the film that gave birth to the whole idea of the road movie has to be John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. It deals with the American Depression and with having to go on the road for economic reasons. The Grapes of Wrath is important because it makes clear the links between technology and the development of road movies. Road movies began to come about very early on with the films of D.W. Griffith when it became clear that you could mount a camera onto a car. The Grapes of Wrath took that idea and ran with it. It established some of the iconic visual references of the road movie, the shots through windscreens, the use of wing mirrors, the idea of a car travelling on a highway and the shots of the people on the highway. Then you have the film noirs of the 40s and 50s such as They Live By Night, where you also have those iconic visuals, the looks in the wing mirrors, the tension, the kind of enclosed claustrophobia of the car. But those film noirs also took this idea of an America that was very unsure of itself, and unsure of where it was going; a kind of America that was suffering a hangover from WWII and didn’t know what its future direction was going to be; an America that started to view the open road not as something to go out on and celebrate but as something to be fearful of, with the idea that you didn’t really know where the road was going to take you. Instead of the road offering this kind of escape and adventure it began to be seen as something that was fraught with danger. So in the 40s and 50s this whole idea of paranoia crept in and it was the European filmmakers, Bergman with Wild Strawberries and Fellini with La Strada, who developed this idea that the road wasn’t going to bring happiness but misery and introspection. Because of films like that you had the birthing of films such as Easy Rider. Easy Rider is also important in terms of the way it uses music. I mentioned at the start that one of the reasons I like Chris Petit’s Radio On and Wenders’ films is this idea of music in motion, or sound and vision, to use a Bowie quote. And Easy Rider certainly did that; it cut entire sequences to pop records. It still has one of the biggest selling soundtracks in motion pictures history. But it’s also important in that at the end of the film – I won’t spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it – this idea of an America where possibilities are open is shown to be false. The tagline for the poster was something like ‘free men that went in search of America and couldn’t find it anywhere’. Easy Rider is very much a film about an America that has lost touch with itself. It harks back to the film noirs of the 40s and 50s but replaces WWII with Vietnam. It shows characters from all walks of life, you have a lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, a pot-head played by Dennis Hopper, and everybody is lost and everybody is looking for something. But the road doesn’t bring any easy answers, what it brings is frustration and ultimately death. I like the bleakness of road movies. There’s another quote I really like from a Hal Hartley movie called Simple Men, which I described in the book as a road movie with a flat tyre. One of the characters, who wants to leave this small town that he’s marooned in, says to someone: ‘I want adventure, I want romance’. And the other character says: ‘There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.’ I think that’s very much what the road movie is about.
VS: There’s obviously a strong link between road movies and America, and most of the films we’ve talked about are American films. In the book you include films from other countries. How do you feel they compare with American films? Do you feel that the road movie remains essentially an American genre?
JW: People have described the road movie as being America’s greatest gift to contemporary culture and I think there’s a strong argument with that. The motor car was properly developed within America and the road movie is very much linked with the development of not only car technology but also the building of roads, and America was certainly at the forefront of that too. But the important thing about the book was to show that it’s not unique to America. I already mentioned Wild Strawberries and La Strada, two very important European road movies. In recent years we’ve seen a huge boom in road movies from Latin America with Y tu mamÃ¡ también, BombÃÂ³n el perro and The Motorcycle Diaries. A lot of the filmmakers working in Europe and further afield saw all those American films and said OK, this is a really interesting way of looking at not only the geography of our countries but also at how we view ourselves. Wild Strawberries did for Sweden what a lot of these road movies were doing for America. It was a way of showing to the Swedish people how their lives were changing and how their aspirations perhaps weren’t being met. But what’s interesting is that a lot of these filmmakers not only used the road movie template as a means to analyse their own social and political situations but they also began to use it as a dialogue with American culture and American imperialism. The best example of that is Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. The whole film is about the dominance of American culture. The dialogue between the two lead characters is all about pop songs and the film travels through villages where rural cinemas are no longer able to operate because of the dominance of American movies. The film concludes in a kind of abandoned border patrol hut between East and West Germany with one of the characters saying to the other one: ‘The Yanks have even colonised our subconscious’. These filmmakers took the road movie template, held it as a mirror and turned it back on America. In turn American movies such as Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point began to be influenced by that. They took the melancholia and introspection of these European films and they injected it into their own films. If you look at a film like Familia Rodante, the Pablo Trapero film, it is a very clear influence on Little Miss Sunshine. So I don’t think that films from America have just influenced the rest of the world. I think it’s now a situation where the rest of the world is equally influential on road movies from America. I think of it as a cultural exchange.
VS: To end this interview I’d like to ask you what is probably a very difficult question: what is your favourite road movie?
JW: Can I pick two?
VS: All right then.
JW: For very personal reasons I’m a very big fan of a film called Candy Mountain. It’s directed by Robert Frank and it’s written by Rudy Wurlitzer. It opened at the ICA several years ago and I went to see it every single night for about a week. I became obsessed with it because it looks at the interaction between movies and music. The cast is made up of people like Tom Waits, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Joe Strummer, Arto Lindsay. It’s a real who’s who of musicians. The other reason I became obsessed with it is that it’s written by my favourite screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop, which is another film that would be in there if I could pick three. I became so obsessed with Candy Mountain that I named my youngest son Rudy after Rudy Wurlitzer. And one of the greatest things for me to come out of this book was that I recently had an email from Rudy Wurlitzer saying that he’d seen the book and he liked it and I emailed back saying, ‘it’s a real honour for me because I like your work so much that I named my son after you’… I love the fact that the hero of Candy Mountain, played by Kevin J. O’Connor, who’s almost like a character from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, goes on this journey and at the end of it he’s left disillusioned but still standing. It says that the road can bend you and it can break you but it can never completely destroy you, and I like that. The other film that I would pick is Radio On by Chris Petit. It’s widely considered to be the first British road movie. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s certainly the best. It’s hugely influenced by Wim Wenders; it was executively produced by Wenders, it uses Martin Schäfer, one of Wenders’ cinematographers, and it casts one of Wim Wenders’ leading ladies, Lisa Kreuzer. It’s a film that looks at Britain at a very particular time, a Britain in economic decline, a Britain that was thirsting for social and cultural change, but was really unsure of its identity and its future. It catches Britain right before the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism. It’s also a film that is about introspection, about the idea of not really knowing who you are or where you want to go in life. And it has an absolutely fantastic soundtrack. It’s very audacious and it certainly broke boundaries; if anything it was ahead of its time. When Radio On was released I think it was met with a certain amount of confusion because people hadn’t seen anything like it. Thirty years later it’s held as a classic.