As most authors will tell you, it is not all that common to sell the movie rights to your work as soon as the book is on the shelves. It is even less common to ever see the story you sold actually translated onscreen.
"The Wettest County in the World" is the best-selling novel based on a true story. It has now become the film "Lawless", which is just being released in theaters. Local writer Matt Bondurant, who was born and raised in Alexandria's Mount Vernon area, was inspired by exploits from his grandfather and grand uncles' time as makers and distributors of moonshine in prohibition-era Franklin County, Va.
I spoke with Matt, who visits the area often to see his family (his dad is the basis for the lead character Jack Bondurant, played by Shia LaBoeuf). He talked about the experience of researching the book, how it developed and various aspects of the film and how it compared to his book and his experience...
*NOTE: some of the interview creates spoilers in the movie. If you'd like to avoid them, come back and read this after a trip to your local cinema house.
Cinema Siren: Apparently, getting the story out of your family down South was a bit like pulling teeth…
MB: There's not much of a storytelling culture on my father's side of the family, and a lot of these things were not talked about. Ever. Most of It was not discovered until we found out… for example we didn't know that my grandfather had been shot while with his brother Forrest on that bridge in 1930 until my father uncovered a newspaper article, and my grandfather was still alive at the time.
My father uncovered the article like 20 years ago and he went to his father and said "this happened? You never told me that" and my grandfather said "Oh, yeah" and he pulled up his shirt and showed him where the bullet hole was, and that was it. I don't know how to explain it. Did they not want to air dirty laundry? Or didn't they want to talk about illegal activities?
No, I don't think it was that, because so many people were complicit in moonshine in those days, it wasn't seen as criminal in the same way as we think of it. I think it's just more that there's not much of a tendency or urge to tell stories… Also there was a certain conservative rural attitude about things you talk about and things you don't. You just don't talk about moonshine. Back in the day, talking about it could get you in a lot of trouble.
My mother is an avid reader and I get my tendency towards storytelling from her and her interest in stories. In reading the newspaper articles it described "The Bondurant Boys" as this notorious gang, like they were this scary group of guys. I had no notion of that until I was 20 or so. We had a vague understanding that they were involved in moonshine. I think I heard the story about Forrest having his throat cut from ear to ear from my father, but that was all around the same time. It was almost as if my father and I, we both were discovering this past at the same time together, and it was fun to do that.
Cinema Siren: What was it like researching the book with your dad?
MB: My dad doesn't articulate things like that. I'm sure it has, it's not something he wants to put into words. My father's side of the family are quiet people. He was excited and found it thrilling the way I did. All of a sudden his family, his parents, took on a life he hadn't thought of before. And when the book came out, and then the movie, it has just increased that. I know that he finds it pretty thrilling like I do that my experience of my own history has been deepened or widened somehow. My family was more than I thought. Not all in great ways, but there's a deeper story behind them. I always thought about that, wanted that to be true, as I'm sure most people do, but it was just amazing to uncover all this stuff. nd I know that my dad is proud of his family and the lineage, he's a genealogy buff-all the Bondurants in this country are related, we came to Virginia in 1701. He's traced our family all the way back several centuries further in France.
As to how my dad and I are, I'd say our experience of it together is ongoing. For example tonight he'll see the movie for the first time. That should be interesting. I think I'd like to say it brought us closer together in some important ways but I've always had a great relationship with my dad. Our family doesn't express so much how we feel about one another.
Part of the way I depicted the characters in the book, the pervasive silence and the veneer of silence that's hard to break through comes directly from my experience with my dad and his family. They are these quiet people that I can't seem to get stuff out of or they won't volunteer. That's the personal part of the book, I'm more like my mother's side of the family and we are the outsiders. My father moved away from Franklin County when the Korean War started and moved up here and so I grew up here in this area.
We are a different breed--when i was going down there showing up as a kid I was always an outsider. I wish I had questioned more back when I was a kid. I didn't think they had anything of value to tell me. I wasn't smart enough to ask. As an adult I would have liked to talk to my grandfather and asked him questions.
Cinema Siren: What was it like having the book adapted into a movie?
MB: I assumed when they started to make it I knew they'd have to simplify it to some degree. You sell the rights to a film and you don't think it's going to get made, they send you a check and you think, wow, I got a check for doing nothing!
You don't think anything is going to happen, tons of people sell the rights all the time and the vast majority of them don't get made. I know lots of other writers who have sold rights and nothing gets made. So, I wasn't even thinking about it, but when it looked like it was going to get made, with director John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, Shia LaBoeuf all attached to it — people whose work I'm familiar with and respect — I like "The Road" a lot, I thought it was a beautiful film... I counted myself lucky. Then when you started adding the rest of these people, then it was like they could have turned it into a science fiction movie, I'd still be lucky! It's a dream cast and I'm lucky they tried to stay true to the spirit of the book and the three brothers they way that they did.
Cinema Siren: What did you think of how the women in the movie were portrayed and what they bring to the story?
MB: I thought the way they handled the Jessica Chastain character was interesting. A few of the digressions from the book — the way they adapted the Guy Pierce's character is more a straight villain, and he's from Chicago, but the Jessica Chastain character, they made her a bit more of an exotic character and she's also from Chicago which is not in the book. At first I thought well that's strange, I didn't know why they had to do that, seeing the film now I understand it, it sort of accentuates her difference when she shows up and changes the lives of these three brothers, and of course mostly Forrest. I thought that the way they handled the scenes between her and Forrest were some of the strongest moments in the film. A couple of the bits were very close to the way I originally wrote them in the book so of course it's great [laughs].
People ask me 'What are your favorite scenes?' and I find myself saying the ones that are the closest to the book. I think Chastain is an amazing actress and I think she has star power and wattage and lights up the screen and her and Hardy have a nice thing onscreen together. I thought it worked out very well.
Mia Wasikowska in the beginning I wasn't sure what to make of her but by the end in her final scenes with Jack I found her very charming — I mean she's just a teenager and she carried that off really well and being the older German Baptist and the way of living and conservative and how Jack was this flashy character…I thought that worked really well. And the scenes with them together, I thought they were great. If anything, the film probably brought those two female characters up more than the book. It has males that are really dominating and they brought these women in more and balanced it more than I did.
Cinema Siren: How involved were you in the production?
MB: I was involved and was in the contract as a consultant, but they weren't contractually obligated to consult me. I had no real power which is normal. I was lucky that several of the actors and John Hillcoat called me several times. We talked about a few points of historical accuracy here and there. Mostly they just wanted to keep me updated and I did get to go to the set. Me and my dad got to go on the set and that was cool. We watched a scene where Tom Hardy was in the bar and punches some guys out and we saw it at least 16 times from different angles, and it was freaking me out after a while. Tom Hardy is a very imposing figure and when he starts flying around up close it's pretty wild.
I got to see the versions of the scripts Nick Cave was writing. I saw a couple of those. They wanted to keep me involved. It seemed to me they wanted my tacit approval and of course I thought it was great. I got the sense they really believed in the essential story.
So the first time I saw it I had read the script and I knew what was going to happen — but it was a very surreal experience seeing it the first time! It's very strange thing — you see something I thought about it before I wrote the book and then I imagined it while I was writing it then they are going to make a film and I imagine that then they are making a film and I imagine that but to see it it isn't like any of that. So the first time was very strange. I was watching it in a room with the producer and director. The second time I saw it in a theatre with the cast and crew and I was able to relax and enjoy it.
Cinema Siren: What was it like to see actors portray your family onscreen?
MB: It's funny I thought that Jason Clark and his portrayal of Howard reminded me a lot of my family and some of my cousins I thought that he was really the guy who disappeared into the role. It's hard because the other guys are stars. But Jason Clark looked and sounded right. I think that Shia's performance was excellent and he certainly caught the spirit of my grandfather, of him as a young man. When I knew him he was an old guy — I had to re-imagine him as an 18 year-old guy. I thought Shia did a really good job of portraying that kind of earnestness and a desire to have things…When he's in the store buying things or he's doing his courting with Bertha outside the feed store — which is straight up how I wrote it so it was excellent [laughs] I thought he carried that off really well, he's earnest but a little bit cocky a little full of himself to some degree and the way he gets beat up a few times and I thought he did a good job with that, the frailty about Jack that's important for the story and Shia did a good job of showing that. Trying really hard to be tough and like his brothers but he's not.
Cinema Siren: What was it like learning how to make moonshine for research?
MB: It doesn't mean I made any but I did learn how. I researched the chemical process and looked at old stills that are operating and did a lot of research on the product. In general making moonshine isn't particularly difficult but good moonshine is very difficult to make. I had these friends at the time that would say oh i have this farm we should make it just for fun to try it and I'd say first of all, you are talking about flammable liquid that could blow up on you, secondly it can make you blind if you make it wrong, and thirdly it's going to taste like hell the first 20 times you do it. It isn't like making wine or beer. That was fun learning the whole process and I wanted to depict it in a very natural way in the book so that was the first thing I did was learn about it.
Bondurant is currently teaching at the University of Texas in Dallas. His new novel "The Night Swimmer" was on the top 20 new recommended books on Amazon, and has been as critically acclaimed as his first two books have been.
To read his blog on the writing of his newest book and find out what Matt is up to, check out mattbondurant.blogspot.com.
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren", is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. Visit her gallery online at www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.