Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy Author Cormac McCarthy, 76, talked about love, religion, his 11-year-old son, the end of the world and the movie based on his novel ‘The Road.’ He was just getting going.

John Jurgensen – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
(an excerpt)
The Wall Street Journal: When you sell the rights to your books, do the contracts give you some oversight over the screenplay, or is it out of your hands?
Mr. McCarthy: No, you sell it and you go home and go to bed. You don’t embroil yourself in somebody else’s project.
WSJ: When you first went to the film set, how did it compare with how you saw “The Road” in your head?
CM: I guess my notion of what was going on in “The Road” did not include 60 to 80 people and a bunch of cameras. [Director] Dick Pearce and I made a film in North Carolina about 30 years ago and I thought, “This is just hell. Who would do this?” Instead, I get up and have a cup of coffee and wander around and read a little bit, sit down and type a few words and look out the window.
WSJ: But is there something compelling about the collaborative process compared to the solitary job of writing?
CM: Yes, it would compel you to avoid it at all costs.
WSJ: When you discussed making “The Road” into a movie with John, did he press you on what had caused the disaster in the story?
CM: A lot of people ask me. I don’t have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I’m with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who’ve gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday. No one knows.
WSJ: What kind of things make you worry?
CM: If you think about some of the things that are being talked about by thoughtful, intelligent scientists, you realize that in 100 years the human race won’t even be recognizable. We may indeed be part machine and we may have computers implanted. It’s more than theoretically possible to implant a chip in the brain that would contain all the information in all the libraries in the world. As people who have talked about this say, it’s just a matter of figuring out the wiring. Now there’s a problem you can take to bed with you at night.
WSJ: “The Road” is this love story between father and son, but they never say, “I love you.”
CM: No. I didn’t think that would add anything to the story at all. But a lot of the lines that are in there are verbatim conversations my son John and I had. I mean just that when I say that he’s the co-author of the book. A lot of the things that the kid [in the book] says are things that John said. John said, “Papa, what would you do if I died?” I said, “I’d want to die, too,” and he said, “So you could be with me?” I said, “Yes, so I could be with you.” Just a conversation that two guys would have.
WSJ: Why don’t you sign copies of “The Road”
CM: There are signed copies of the book, but they all belong to my son John, so when he turns 18 he can sell them and go to Las Vegas or whatever. No, those are the only signed copies of the book.
WSJ: How many did you have?
CM: 250. So occasionally I get letters from book dealers or whoever that say, “I have a signed copy of the ‘The Road,'” and I say, “No. You don’t.”
WSJ: What was your relationship like with the Coen brothers on “No Country for Old Men”?
CM: We met and chatted a few times. I enjoyed their company. They’re smart and they’re very talented. Like John, they didn’t need any help from me to make a movie.
WSJ: “All the Pretty Horses” was also turned into a film [starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz]. Were you happy with the way it came out?
CM: It could’ve been better. As it stands today it could be cut and made into a pretty good movie. The director had the notion that he could put the entire book up on the screen. Well, you can’t do that. You have to pick out the story that you want to tell and put that on the screen. And so he made this four-hour film and then he found that if he was actually going to get it released, he would have to cut it down to two hours.
WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?
CM: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.
WSJ: People have said “Blood Meridian” is unfilmable because of the sheer darkness and violence of the story.
Fathers and Sons
‘The Road’ is part of a long history of films about dads and their boys. It’s often the kid who does the most teaching.
A boy named Dink (Jackie Cooper) sticks by his dad, a boozy fighter, through Tijuana boxing matches, desperate gambling and the misfortunes of their race horse Little Champ. Wallace Beery earned an Oscar as the father who insists on a final fight to redeem himself and provide for his son.
When the key to a poor man’s livelihood, his bicycle, is stolen, he desperately tracks the culprit through Rome, shadowed by his son Bruno. Director Vittorio De Sica’s intimate study of postwar poverty is a prime example of Italy’s neorealist movement, which prized authentic detail over plot.
Tackling two then-daring subjects for Hollywood—divorce and single fatherhood—Dustin Hoffman played a career-obsessed dad who learns to care for his young son. His misadventures in the kitchen are played for laughs, but Mr. Hoffman’s performance (and that of co-star Meryl Streep) reflected serious social shifts, resulting in a box-office smash.
[ mccarthyside ] Everett Collection
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
The film opens in 1939 as Roberto Benigni’s clownish Guido courts his future wife, then shifts to a concentration camp, where Guido convinces his son that their imprisonment is just part of an elaborate game. Also, the film’s director, Mr. Benigni, walked a risky line between Holocaust drama and comedy, and was rewarded with multiple Oscars.
Playing a coal miner, Chris Cooper joined a long line of overbearing celluloid fathers who oppress gifted sons, inadvertently driving them to greatness. The boy in question, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), was a real-life rocketry buff in West Virginia during the Sputnik scare, and grew up to be a NASA engineer.
[ mccarthyside ] Walt Disney/Everett Collection
Finding Nemo (2003)
Pixar scored points with critics for its trademark animation style—The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called the movie “a prodigy of visual energy”—but audiences also responded to a father-son story heavy on loss. A clownfish named Marlin loses his mate to a predator, then goes on a quest for his son, who’s been plunked into a dentist’s aquarium.
CM: That’s all crap. The fact that’s it’s a bleak and bloody story has nothing to do with whether or not you can put it on the screen. That’s not the issue. The issue is it would be very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary.
WSJ: How does the notion of aging and death affect the work you do? Has it become more urgent?
CM: Your future gets shorter and you recognize that. In recent years, I have had no desire to do anything but work and be with [son] John. I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.
WSJ: How does that ticking clock affect your work? Does it make you want to write more shorter pieces, or to cap things with a large, all-encompassing work?
CM: I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.
WSJ: The last five years have seemed very productive for you. Have there been fallow periods in your writing?
CM: I don’t think there’s any rich period or fallow period. That’s just a perception you get from what’s published. Your busiest day might be watching some ants carrying bread crumbs. Someone asked Flannery O’Connor why she wrote, and she said, “Because I was good at it.” And I think that’s the right answer. If you’re good at something it’s very hard not to do it. In talking to older people who’ve had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, “The most significant thing in my life is that I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.” And when you hear that you know you’re hearing the truth. It doesn’t diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.
WSJ: Can you tell me about the book you’re working on, in terms of story or setting?
CM: I’m not very good at talking about this stuff. It’s mostly set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.
WSJ: Some critics focus on how rarely you go deep with female characters.
CM: This long book is largely about a young woman. There are interesting scenes that cut in throughout the book, all dealing with the past. She’s committed suicide about seven years before. I was planning on writing about a woman for 50 years. I will never be competent enough to do so, but at some point you have to try.
WSJ: You were born in Rhode Island and grew up in Tennessee. Why did you end up in the Southwest?
CM: I ended up in the Southwest because I knew that nobody had ever written about it. Besides Coca-Cola, the other thing that is universally known is cowboys and Indians. You can go to a mountain village in Mongolia and they’ll know about cowboys. But nobody had taken it seriously, not in 200 years. I thought, here’s a good subject. And it was.
WSJ: You grew up Irish Catholic.
CM: I did, a bit. It wasn’t a big issue. We went to church on Sunday. I don’t even remember religion ever even being discussed.
WSJ: Is the God that you grew up with in church every Sunday the same God that the man in “The Road” questions and curses?
CM: It may be. I have a great sympathy for the spiritual view of life, and I think that it’s meaningful. But am I a spiritual person? I would like to be. Not that I am thinking about some afterlife that I want to go to, but just in terms of being a better person. I have friends at the Institute. They’re just really bright guys who do really difficult work solving difficult problems, who say, “It’s really more important to be good than it is to be smart.” And I agree it is more important to be good than it is to be smart. That is all I can offer you.
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