Actor, novelist, musician and now screenwriter Nick Cave has proven that there’s hardly a craft that he can’t master. Recently, Cave sat down to talk about the unique creative process that went into not only the writing, but the score for the western “Lawless” opening today starring, Shia LeBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain.
Billy Tatum: How long have you been working with John Hillcoat?
Nick Cave: Well, it’s been going since he came out of art school at 19 or 20. We’ve been friends in Melbourne since then and working on different things since then, rock videos and stuff and his films that he made before “The Proposition” where I was brought in to write the script. But it basically came about from a frustration that John was having trying to get an Australian western together. He kept getting these scripts written and they were American westerns arbitrarily dumped in Australia. I would say “These are (expletive), man. They’re not Australian westerns at all. They’re American westerns.” So he said “Well, you write it.” and I wrote that script for John.
Billy Tatum: Had you written screenplays before?
Nick Cave: No, I had no idea how to do that and I think that was primarily why it was quite good. I didn’t know my stuff. Since then, we’ve been trying to write good stuff together.
Billy Tatum: How’d you get attached to this project?
Nick Cave: Someone had seen “The Proposition”. They liked what me and John had done together. Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher found this particular book and brought it to us on the strength of that. At the time, I had no interest in doing someone else’s story, but Matt Bondurant’s book was stunning. It had, very much, the kind of elements that bound me and John together, which was a kind of lyricism and a love of a kind of brute violence. That was very much in that book. We did it and now we’re fishing around for something else.
Billy Tatum: With so many characters, was there ever any thought to turn it into a mini-series?
Nick Cave: No, but it’s a good idea, though (laughs). Actually, I’m very interested in doing a TV series and I’m working on getting something off the ground at the moment. I would love to do a ten-parter or something like that, only because what you can do on TV, you simply can’t do in movies anymore. You can go to places that you can’t go in film.
Billy Tatum: What was the process like for you of adapting the novel as opposed to writing the first screenplay?
Nick Cave: The process is not that dissimilar, because with “The Proposition” and I wrote another script for John called “The Death of Bunny Monroe”. This was John Hillcoat coming to me saying “I want to make an Australian western”, for example or whatever the particulars. He gives me the premise and I write the story. Once I have the premise, the story is pretty much there.
Billy Tatum: Had you met the author prior to writing the screenplay?
Nick Cave: I met him just now. I’d never met him. I just talked to him. I didn’t even know who he was. I’m standing there and he’s like “I’m Matt Bondurant.” I’m like “Hi.”
Billy Tatum: Was there any part of the finished film that you wished you didn’t have to cut?
Nick Cave: Yeah (laughs). There’s no point in talking about what’s isn’t there. That’s what writing a script is all about. You learn that a little bit more with each script you do. I think what I have over a lot of other scriptwriters is that I don’t know how to write a script. I’m not sort of self-censoring myself all of the time and I’m thinking “Hey, this would be a great scene.” I think a more astute scriptwriter would realize that that’s going to hit the cutting room floor. There’s sort
of ideas that I have that I can put in quite naively. On some level, it’s a good way to approach anything, as an amateur and an outsider.
Billy Tatum: As a musician, did you give thought to the music when you wrote the script?
Nick Cave: No. It was always set that me and Warren Ellis were going to do the score. Me and John Hillcoat talked about the score as I was writing it and we knew were going to have songs in it. We knew that in regards to Forrest’s [incident], we knew that we wanted that to be brutally violent but have this sort of haunting, dreamlike quality.
Billy Tatum: Were both of the versions of “White Light, White Heat” originals to this film?
Nick Cave: No, we did those.
Billy Tatum: Were you in the studio with Ralph Stanley when he did his version?
Nick Cave: We skyped. Basically, we couldn’t do it because we were deep in doing the score and Ralph said that he could do it and he had a window. He got a friend of mine, Hal Wilner, who often works with older guys and gets them to do other things outside their limit. Ralph had heard our versions of “White Light, White Heat” that we had played and we wanted him to sing on top of these versions. He said “I’m not going to sing on top of this (expletive).” Not quite those words, but what I’d gathered, because they were rough and amateurish. That’s the sort of sound we wanted. We had a pretty entertaining time trying to get him to sing some of his stuff. In the end, he sang them a capella. We were skyping him and we just wanted to get him to sing it in the right time and in the right key. Then, we could take it and put it on top of this stuff. He had this guitarist there. Ralph didn’t really speak to us. He just sort of sat there. His guitarist, with whom he had worked with for many years…we had said “Could you just sing this one in C, Ralph?” And the guitarist was like “Ralph don’t do C.” We said “Could you sing it in 4/4?” He said “Ralph don’t do 4/4.” In the end, he did it exactly the way he wanted to and it was incredible.
Billy Tatum: Did Lou Reed get to hear it?
Nick Cave: Yes, he came into the studio and listened to it. He was actually recording the Lulu record with Metallica just up the road and he was in tears when he heard Ralph doing the a capella version of “White Light, White Heat”.
Billy Tatum: What did Reed think of your version?
Nick Cave: I didn’t play him that. I’m not that courageous.
Billy Tatum: You look like you put a lot of heart into your writing. Do you think that’s a prerequisite for an artist?
Nick Cave: You can do it in that way or it can really be a craft. I think that scriptwriting of anything is a craft in a sense that you’re a functionary that’s serving a greater machine. Your heart and soul is not really even wanted. You’ve just got to do the job that’s required to realize the vision of the director and the producers. That’s what you learn as a scriptwriter. For me, as someone who is directly involved in songwriting, where I’m just sitting in a room on my own night and day when I’m writing songs, to come out and work collaboratively and to work for someone else is a huge relief. That’s how I feel about scriptwriting. It’s something that I have some kind o af talent for and it’s not really my vision, but it’s the director’s vision that I’m trying to find out what that is. I’m not saying that to be humble or anything. It’s actually a huge relief to have that responsibility and do something for somebody else. It’s not what I want to do all my life, but it offers me some relief from songwriting and that sort of thing.
Billy Tatum: Is screenwriting your new career?
Nick Cave: Scriptwriting isn’t my present career. It’s kind of an extracurricular thing that goes on. My career is my band and music and that sort of stuff.
Billy Tatum: Does it bother you if people think of you as a dark or brooding guy based on your music?
Nick Cave: Oh, I’m just doing an interview. You wait until the sun goes down (laughs). I don’t know what people think about me. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t really care less, to be honest. At the end of the day, I’ve got to get on with it and do what I’ve got to do. The whole dark, gothic thing, I don’t know. It’s only an image that I have to people who aren’t really acquainted with what I do, in a way. People who know my music and know what I’ve been doing for the last whatever, understand that what I do is full of humor and light and this sort of stuff. There’s a dark element as well, but there’s more to it than that.
Billy Tatum: Are you still working on projects with Warren Ellis?
Nick Cave: I work with him now on everything musically. It’s a collaboration. It’s very much a 50-50 kind of thing. In fact, the score work lends more to what Warren does musically, but it’s very much a collaboration now, including The Bad Seeds and my other band.
Lawless opens August 29th. For my latest reviews and interviews, follow me on twitter: @lamoviedude