Earlier this week, PFS members previewed the new film, Lawless, by director John Hillcoat; starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Guy Pearce.
Based on international best-selling author Matt Bondurant’s second novel, The Wettest County in the World, the film recounts true events of the Bondurant family’s involvement in Great Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Matt Bondurant one-on-one and talk about his experience writing the novel and seeing it transformed onto the big screen with some of the biggest players in Hollywood.
PFS: In recent years, TV shows like Boardwalk Empire have shed some light on the prohibition period here in the US. However, there’s not a lot of information out there about the moonshine conspiracy in Virginia. It’s interesting that you found so much material to create this story. Where did you find your resources?
MB: Well, there are a couple of key sources. One of which is the collected court transcripts from grand jury testimony of the Great Moonshine Conspiracy trial of 1935. It was actually a book. There was a lawyer out of Virginia who compiled the court transcripts, added an introduction and divided it into different sections. He essentially self-published this book about 10 years ago. That has 600 pages of court transcripts in it. My grandfather and his brothers are in it in a dozen places and there are whole dialogues with them that were recorded down; descriptions of incidents and things. So, that was a pretty key resource that is available out there. Other than that, there were a few newspaper articles mostly.
For example, there is a recording on the December 1930 shooting at the bridge, where my grandfather and his brother were shot by Charlie Rakes. Those incidents were recorded in transcriptions and also in a few different newspaper articles. There are also a few other newspaper articles that refer to a couple of the other incidents that are seen in the film. Other than that, most of the other events that are depicted are total creations and fabrications.
When I wrote the book, I had the shooting at the creek; I had Forrest getting his throat cut; I had a couple others that deal with Maggie; I had a couple things that were either historically accurate or a mixture of some loose or vague historical reference, but sort of a family story. So I had a series of those things.
The challenge was as a novelist; the fun part was to create plausible and dramatic scenarios, some dramatic arcs to connect these things. We know a lot about that shooting but we don’t know what they were doing in the months preceding or what was going on or why Charlie Rakes was so particularly upset with them and hated them so badly that he wanted to murder them. That’s the part I made up.
A lot of the research that was done was on the chemistry of moonshine and how it is made, distillation processes. I also researched things about bootlegging in general. Also on all of the attended stuff that goes along with writing a historical novel: What was life like in 1930 Franklin County? What kind of clothes were they wearing? What kind of cars were they driving? How much did things cost? What did they eat? All that kind of stuff.
A lot of the research was on the historical setting, the world of the story, and only a few of the incidents really have direct relation – fortunately, they are the most important ones. I felt confident building the story around that. The story of Franklin County isn’t as well known. Until now, it was thought that moonshine in Appalachia was small time stuff. There of course were many people doing small time moonshine production but especially during prohibition the output was pretty impressive. Unremarkable amounts of booze were flowing out of the county and it did create some notice but we usually think of New York and rum running across the Canadian border. When we think about prohibition we don’t think about our independent, homegrown distillers. I am glad that the book and the film are getting notice because of that. People have expressed similar thoughts that you just did that it is an unusual take on it so I am glad to be able to bring that out in the open.
PFS: How did you feel about fabricating portions of your family’s history? Were you afraid of offending some of your current family members? The Bondurant brothers are not always shown in the finest light, even if just for dramatic purposes.
MB: Yes, it was a big concern. I weighed all of those things heavily throughout. I still am concerned about it. Luckily the records showed a few things that made me feel better about it and more free to represent them this way. The record is pretty clear that my grandfather and his brothers were breaking the law, they were criminals, and they engaged in criminal behavior and they involved themselves in some violent behavior. So it is not as I am painting them in too negative of a light. They did some bad things. Secondly, during prohibition especially, one of the reasons why we like stories about it and we are fascinated by them, and especially fascinated by stories of gangsters during prohibition, is because we all kind of agree in the modern days that it was a really bad idea. Breaking the law during prohibition wasn’t really like bad.
In Franklin County there is such a long tradition and culture of moonshining that it was basically ubiquitous. ALmost the whole county was involved in it, so it wasn’t seen as a major crime, like drug dealing or something of that nature. It was actually seen as part of the culture. It was not that big of deal.
The things that were problematic for me were the violence, the violent episodes. At some point as a novelist, that’s where my urges lie – it’s in fabricating and it’s in making things up. Creating these different scenarios and scenes and situations and imagining things and trying to imagine my grandfather as an 18 year old. That’s what really gives me the thrill to do it. Without that, I wouldn’t have done it I don’t think.
PFS: You just mentioned the episodes of violence. When you watch those scenes, what do you think about them? There are some cringe-worthy moments in the film.
MB: There totally are. I was hiding my eyes the first time or two that I saw some of that stuff. I know I was talking about that to somebody else, about how John Hillcoat is sort of known for looking directly at the violence as one of his trademarks, which I think comes from Peckinpah. I admire that, I like that tendency. I was talking to my editor today and she was like well, that’s also what you do Matt. It’s true that I think that about my writing.
There’s an old writing adage that you tell students – you should try to look directly at the things you are most afraid to look at. That you look at this horrifying thing no matter what it may be. That doesn’t necessarily have to be violence it can be any kind of gruesome thing but it can also be an emotional moment. Looking directly at the face of somebody after the most terrible thing has happened to them or something like that. That is the hardest stuff to do, that is the hardest stuff to write and that is the hardest stuff to act. When you put it right front and center, it is asking a lot of the viewer or reader. It is asking us to confront it directly, head on. So, I wrote the scenes like that. So I should be fine with it, but that being said, there is something about the visual aspect on a giant screen in particular, that when you write about scenes like that there’s a more personal and intimate experience with it. Obviously with novels, I think it is ultimately a deeper cringing going on when this horrible thing is being presented because you are working with it, creating it in your mind as you are experiencing it, whereas when you are seeing it on the screen, it’s closer to somebody jumping out and saying “Boo!” It’s like “Wow!” So they are different mediums and that stuff is the way they work but, I like what Hillcoat does. I respect the way that he handles it. I think without that, it would be a lesser movie. I think those scenes are important because that kind of violence happened. I think it is important to look directly at it and confront it. Especially because it is kind of funny how those moments punctuate something when otherwise, the dramatic action isn’t particularly extreme. It’s not like things are blowing up or people are jumping out of buildings. It’s moderate domestic scenes for the most part and a few altercations here and there but then all of a sudden, it’s just like pow and it just kind of keeps you on your toes. This is serious stakes here, people are playing for real, so I appreciate that.
PFS: You mentioned Peckinpah. That has been resonating in my head. So, you’re a film buff?
PFS: Which I think is pretty cool. It was probably cool for you to see your film go through the movie making process. What was that like? We have so many members that are aspiring screenplay writers and authors. They dream to be where you are – your second novel comes out and now it’s being made into a major motion picture a couple of years later.
MB: A lot of it at the beginning was happening in faraway California. They sell the rights and your agent notifies you with the news and you are like “Great!”, but you don’t think anything is going to happen. They tell you that Shia LaBeouf and John Hillcoat are attached to it now. “Great, what does that mean?” Nothing really. You know, that doesn’t mean they are contracted. They may or may not do it. They seem to like it. Then it kind of goes on from there. It doesn’t become real until they actually start to make it. I don’t think it became real to me until I went to the set with my father in Georgia and watched them film for a couple of days. Met the actors, I talked to Hillcoat, I had talked to people here and there, I didn’t have any direct role in the film, but they did keep me included. People were calling me, Hillcoat and some of the actors and stuff. On set is where it really sunk in and that it was actually happening and it became surreal. Of course there are things being portrayed and played out, it was a very bizarre experience. It still seems very strange, it all seems very bizarre. So much of it happens away from you, as the author of a novel, there is a fair amount of separation. I felt like it was this thing that was being built and happening faraway. I thought about it a lot. It wasn’t like I was in it watching it happen.
PFS: Did you correspond with Nick Cave at all when he was writing the screenplay adaptation?
MB: No, not at all and it makes sense. I watched in Cannes, during a Q&A, they had a Q&A in Cannes and somebody asked him that and he talked to me and he said “nope.” We kind of got a laugh out of it. At first instinct that seems weird, like why wouldn’t you want to talk to me? But on the other hand I understand that because I don’t know what talking to me would do because my versions already there. If he has read it, he knows what it is. He needed the freedom and the space to come up with his own artistic vision based on this. So consulting with the original, I wouldn’t do it either; I wouldn’t have talked to me either. Of course I would love to talk to Nick Cave now, or after the fact or whatever, I respect him as a writer and musician and I am a fan of his. He said he is a fan of mine, he liked the book a lot and that’s plenty for me. I understand what he was doing.
PFS: Were there any elements that he took out or added that surprised you or disappointed you at all?
MB: Well, I was surprised that he kept as much in as he did. He kept a lot of dialogue, for example. A lot of the key lines and the key scenes of the movie are the dialogue that I wrote and I’m really proud of. It’s wonderful, those were my favorite scenes, those ones that I wrote. You know I knew that the character Short Anderson would be removed and I had a feeling that they would condense things and amplify things in the way that they do so I wasn’t that particularly surprised by any of the changes that they made. The character of Charlie Rakes is significantly different from the book. The fact that they make him from Chicago more of just an abject villain. Charlie Rakes in the novel is a bit more complicated and sort of nuanced character who I play with to try to create a plausible reason as to why he would have such a vendetta. He’s not just this guy they bring in. But, that’s what you have to do for a movie. You have to get that villain introduced quickly. Set into action, you don’t have all this time.
PFS: Nick Cave wrote The Proposition which Guy Pearce was also in. It was interesting to see how he used Rakes’ character to fit the Guy Pearce persona.
MB: I think I had something to with it too. When I was talking to him, Guy came up with ideas and I know for example the haircut was Guy’s idea. Apparently Guy came out of his trailer one day and had shaved just the center part of his head and they were like “What are you doing?!” He shaved his eyebrows off. They were like “You freak?!” That’s the way he wanted to do it. They collaborate, yeah. Clearly they are good friends.
PFS: In the film, there’s this idea that the Bondurants, Forrest Bondurant especially, are immortal. At the end of the movie, we’re told that Forrest died of pneumonia. Why did you choose to tell this to the audience instead of letting us go on believing that he was immortal?
MB: Because, it’s a myth. It’s just not true. There was also something very tragic about the irony of his death. Dying from something so simple. As simple as he fell into a creek and caught pneumonia later. In the book it is actually presented in a dramatic way. Which they tried to do in the film but it didn’t work as well. They kind of did it off camera that he falls in and they didn’t show him die, they just say it. It’s the irony of it. I think it is kind of important, there is myth making going on throughout the movie, and that at the end kind of punctures it a little bit. It kind of brings it down to earth a little bit. Yes, yes, this was an extraordinary person, did some extraordinary things, he was a human being, he did succumb to those most banal, ridiculous things just as most of us do unfortunately and I thought that was kind of important. It was just some kind of an interesting tragic ending.
PFS: Was the myth something that you created or was it something you heard through family stories?
MB: The truth is that he got his throat cut and all this kind of thing and he walked around with this ghastly scar. The myth part is that he walked to the hospital. Well nobody knows what happened, but the going story is that he walked to the hospital, which by my calculations is about 9 miles and seems almost impossibl. How could that have possibly happened? So I created the scenarios that led to the way that he was treated there. There was the shootout at the bridge and all that kind of stuff. Basically the big events have happened and have this core of truth and then there are things built up around them. In the movie for example, there is that shoot out at the end there with far more gun play going on than the real story. Essentially in the myth, there is evidence of the Bondurants being people that were feared. Part of the reasons that they were feared was because it seemed that it was hard to kill Forrest. The movie took the invincibility and really pushes it out as a much bigger thing than it is in the book. In the book it is just one of several co-factors. That’s the myth making that the movie indulges in. There is a kernel of truth to it, but in the movie it is in the third iteration of it. There is what actually happened, and then there is my novelization about it, so it gets closer to a certain extreme. That’s how it is for me. The classic American legends we think about, something like Davie Crocket, that’s how it works. I’m thrilled to death that I am possibly playing a part in the myth making process. If it ever works out that way, it’s a pretty cool thing.
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