Nick Cave: 'Lawless is not so much a true story as a true myth'

Nick Cave, who wrote the script to Lawless, explains how the film brings the violence and lyricism of the book on which it was based to the screen and merges the genres of the urban gangster and rural western

Nick Cave is explaining why Lawless, a film punctuated by scenes of brutal violence, could have been even more visceral. "In my original draft of the script, the opening scene culminated with a pig having its throat cut," he says, chuckling. "It was bloody and shocking and it kind of signalled what was to come, but they discovered you just can't pull a pig's snout back without it going crazy. This," he says drily, "is the kind of stuff that film-making teaches you."

We are sitting, sipping tea, in the bright and spacious kitchen of the large Regency house in Brighton where Cave, 54, lives with his wife, former model Susie Bick, and their twin sons, Arthur and Earl. There are books, a mono record player, a piano and several paintings of strange-looking cats on the walls. Cave is dressed in his characteristically sharp sartorial style – tailored pinstripe trousers, immaculately shiny shoes, an open-necked shirt with a big collar – and looks lean and healthy, seeming to thrive on a work-rate that, as he grows older, becomes ever more prodigious. In the last year, he has written several drafts of the script for Lawless as well as the songs for a new album with his longtime band, the Bad Seeds.

"I spent eight months on those songs," he says, shaking his head, "which is a hell of a long time for me. Screenwriting is just not like that. You write a scene and it works or it doesn't. It's immediate. I can really bat that stuff out fast and it feels totally natural to do that. To tell the truth, it's a huge relief after the labour of songwriting. In a way, it sometimes feels like what I was put on Earth to do."

Lawless is the second script that Cave has written for director John Hillcoat, his longtime friend and Australian-born fellow traveller, best known for his recent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's dystopian novel, The Road. In 2005, Cave and Hillcoat collaborated on critically acclaimed outback western The Proposition. Way back in 1988, Cave co-wrote and acted in Hillcoat's debut feature, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, a brooding prison drama in which the singer played a violent psychopath with a degree of relish that suggested some disturbingly deep connection with the role.

If his acting debut did not exactly set Hollywood alight, Cave now finds himself in considerable demand as a scriptwriter. "There's a pile of stuff waiting for me in my office," he says. (Cave famously works 9am to 5pm daily in his basement office.) "All I seem to read at the moment is novels that have been optioned or ideas for scripts. I'm in this strange position right now insofar as I have to decide whether I continue working only with John, which I really enjoy doing, or make a leap into being a screenwriter for hire. I'm not sure that's where I want to go. It seems like a step too far into that world. I can see myself suddenly waking up one morning and asking myself, 'What the fuck am I doing this for?'"

Cave has already dubbed Lawless a "wangster" movie, a rather unfortunate label for a film that deftly merges the tropes of the urban gangster and the rural western with considerable style. With nods to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, it stars Tom Hardy as the leader of the three Bondurant brothers, backwoods bootleggers who battle the law and anyone else who crosses their path in Prohibition-era Virginia. Gary Oldman shines as Floyd Banner, a city gangster whose criminal empire is spreading inexorably into Franklin County, where the Bondurants are revered as local legends, but it is the arrival of a malevolent marshal, Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce, that ignites the war of attrition that escalates throughout the film's long narrative arc.

Lawless also merges the lyrical and the ultra-violent, with a pair of protracted romances providing welcome light relief from the often bloody set-pieces. (Paradoxically, in a film full of extravagant male acting, it is Jessica Chastain as the sexy, but haunted, Maggie, and the brilliant Mia Wasikowska as the innocent, but mischievous, Bertha, that command most attention with their understated performances.) Revenge is the driving force of the story and the world the brothers inhabit often seems as brutal and unforgiving as a certain kind of broodingly melodramatic Nick Cave song – The Mercy Seat, say, or Your Funeral… My Trial.

"Well, the violence was there in the book, which is pretty savage in places," says Cave, somewhat defensively, when I mention this. (The film is based on The Wettest County in the World, subsequently republished as Lawless, a historical novel by Matt Bondurant, a grandson of Jack, the youngest brother, who is played by Shia LaBeouf.) "In fact, a lot of the truly brutal stuff did not make it through into the film. In the book, you get lulled by the beautiful lyricism of the writing, then suddenly you are slapped in the face by a graphic description of a killing. I tried to be true to that as much as I could."

The film, like the book, plays with the mythology of the seemingly invincible outlaw, in this instance Forrest Bondurant, the middle brother, who, as the violence around him escalates, somehow survives against the odds to fight again. "It's not so much a true story as a true myth," says Cave. "Forrest is a bit like Ned Kelly: he just keeps on coming back."

Hardy plays Forrest as a kind of taciturn patriarch, all grunts and sighs and very few words, someone who is passive in all respects apart from one – his capacity for brutal vengeance. "Tom really interpreted the character in such a different way than what was on the page," says Cave. "It confounded John to begin with, but he really created something interesting. I was totally impressed by his unique way of thinking. At one point, he said to me: 'I just want to play it like an old lesbian.' That blew me away. He saw the role as being essentially maternal, so when Maggie [Jessica Chastain] comes in, there's a tension in the family. It was a lesson for me in how far an actor can go in interpreting a role."

Pearce, another Australian, also ups the ante with his portrayal of special agent Rakes, a city cop with some simmering psychosexual issues that predictably manifest themselves in moments of sadistic violence. In the novel, Rakes is a redneck country cop. Where did all the other baggage come from? "Well, initially, Guy Pearce said he would play the role if I made it more memorable," says Cave, grinning. "So, I just based it loosely on myself."

More than once, Cave mentions how much he has learned from screenwriting. This begs the obvious question: how different is film-making from music-making? "Oh, it's another world. With Lawless, I saw what it was like to work at the cliff face of film-making. It's tough and it's taxing and you wonder how they get through it. There are so many people involved, for a start. There isn't that sense of anxiety about making a record. There is something beautiful about going into the studio with your friends and making music together. It's essentially a beautiful thing – if it works. As far as I can see, there is never that moment in a film where it's just you and what you have created."

Following on from The Proposition and The Road, Cave has also composed the soundtrack for Lawless with his now-constant collaborator, Warren Ellis, violinist with the Bad Seeds. Using a core group of friends called the Bootleggers, they invited several guest vocalists, including Emmylou Harris and Mark Lanegan, to interpret standards such as Link Wray's Fire and Brimstone and the Velvet Underground's White Light, White Heat. Over the closing credits, the latter is dramatically reinterpreted as a trad-country ballad about bootlegging by bluegrass veteran Ralph Stanley. It works, but Stanley took some persuading.

"It was extraordinary the way that happened," says Cave, shaking his head as if he still has not quite made sense of the encounter. "Initially, we sent him some version we had recorded that we thought he could sing on, but he was like: 'What is this shit? I can't fucking sing over this!' Not exactly those words, right, but that was the general impression that came back to us. But we didn't want to make a pristine score. People kept saying, 'Wait until we get to LA, then we can get some real musicians to play the songs properly,' and we were like, 'Fuck you. We're going to play them the way we want to play them.'"

Things became even more surreal when they hooked up with Stanley and his guitarist on Skype. "Ralph is a serious guy and his guitarist is even more so. We asked him to cover Link Wray's Fire and Brimstone and he did it in 3/4 time, with a swing, because that's what he knows. So, there's Warren and me trying to explain that we want it in 4/4 time – rock'n'roll. Ralph is saying nothing and the guitarist is just looking at us as like he wants to string us up. It was like: 'Who the hell are these freaks telling Ralph Stanley how to sing?'"

In the end, they employed the services of renowned musical curator and producer Hal Willner, who had the good sense to let Stanley sing the songs in his own way. The result, particularly on White Light, White Heat, is pure gold. "Hal got in touch with Lou Reed [who wrote the song], who was working in a studio down the road in LA. We played it to him and he was just blown away. It was an amazing moment."

I ask Nick Cave, in conclusion, if writing scripts has made writing songs any easier. "Sadly, I don't think so. Songwriting is a much more intangible thing. It comes out of a place that I don't really understand and I am always grappling with it. Often, it feels more like it's in the hands of the gods, insofar as you never really know if what you are working on is any good. But, you know, songwriting is what I do. Making music is still the primary function. In a way," he says, smiling, "screenwriting is something to do between records."


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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