Prohibition proves ripe territory

As a creative duo, they could not appear more different. Nick Cave, Australia's punk laureate turned celebrated screenwriter and author, appears like some Transylvanian count, shoulder-length hair still jet-black, a dark, dandy pin-striped suit hanging off him like a long-flowing cape. Beside him, his gently spoken director, John Hillcoat, quietly, affably allows his friend and collaborator to hold court.

It's hard to picture these two crossing paths, more than a quarter of a century ago, in a Melbourne bar: Cave, an explosive, heroin-fuelled performer kicking out against small-town Australia, Hillcoat a friendly film graduate raised in Canada.

Today, the pair remain as tight as ever. Cave has written - and scored, with Warren Ellis - Hillcoat's startling new film, Lawless: a brutal fact-based drama about bootlegging in Prohibition-era Virginia, based on Matt Bondurant's book The Wettest County in the World. The film, which premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, reunites Cave with Hillcoat, following The Proposition in 2005.

"It feeds into our own personal interests," Cave says of their new film, which stars Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy as the gang leaders, and Australia's Guy Pearce as their nemesis, a corrupt deputy sheriff.

Both Cave and Hillcoat, who count Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and Scarface among their favourite films, were looking for fresh material after the success of The Proposition, when the director was tipped off about the book.

"I'd been looking for a gangster film to do, but couldn't find any new take on it," Hillcoat says. "Then this book from the perspective of the people who created the Capones, in the backwoods, came along."

The film, which boasts a remarkable turn from Pearce, as the psychotic, sexually deviant Rakes, draws a line between what Cave calls "the absolute insanity of the Prohibition era" with America's ongoing war on drugs.

"They are two great failures, the two relate to one another. That's why we took a classic song like the Velvet Underground's White Light, White Heat, about amphetamine use, and got Ralph Stanley, an old-time bluegrass singer, to cover it. What's going on there is playing out today - it's about stretching time."

Cave's only insistence with casting the project was Pearce. "There's something about him that's so wound up, inside that face of his. I reinvented the Rakes character from the book to make him a more memorable villain."

Cave is now busy on a new record, having cleared his schedule from anything film-related for the rest of the year (the film industry "starts eating up everything", he says), while Hillcoat is relieved his labour of love - his first film shot digitally - has finally come to pass.

"I was very anxious about that," he says. "Our big turning point from a logistical, practical point of view, was our budget, which started as a much bigger thing with Sony Pictures. Then the economic crisis hit in 2008 and they said: 'We can't make any more of these pictures again', and they haven't since.

"So it shrunk to an independent film. My biggest fear was it feeling electronic, choosing to shoot digitally, with this new technology. I've got mixed feelings … but there's no stopping it."

Despite reservations about shooting in digital, other forces were also at work, to ensure Lawless did finally make it to screen. Namely, director Terrence Malick.

"He very graciously passed on it, gave us the title," Hillcoat says (Malick was also shooting a film called Lawless, but was happy to switch to help Hillcoat out).

"We'd known each other before. He actually told me about Jessica [Chastain, who plays the central love interest in the film]. I couldn't get him off the phone about her. He was right, of course. She's incredible."

Which leaves a suitably apt closing ode for the film, which so very nearly didn't get made. "It was when the west ended, and the gangsters began,'' Hillcoat says.

''Gangster films nowadays are about pure action, not character. So it feels like a special treat, to have these characters in the film, these thematics, these consequences of violence. There's a lot of rich material in that. I'm just glad that's come to the fore."

Lawless is in cinemas from Thursday.

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