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"He who sows the wind… shall reap the whirlwind.” Those are the lines from the Bible that came into Tom Hanks’ head when he first read Road to Perdition. Max Levant discovers what he meant.

Two things made the news when Road to Perdition was initially announced. The first - the story that really got the headlines - was that this would be the film in which Tom Hanks would finally get to play the bad guy. The second, which didn't get quite as much coverage, was that Sam Mendes would direct, finally following up his Oscar-winning debut, American Beauty.

Like most entertainment journalism angles, these stories were basically true but a tad misleading. To take them in reverse order, yes, this would be Mendes’ second feature, but only a follow-up to Beauty in the sense that one came after the other and both are about families. As for Hanks’ role, he certainly plays the bad guy in terms of his job description: Michael Sullivan, his character in Road to Perdition, is a hit man for the Irish mob in Depression-era Chicago.

"a good man or a bad man"

But the question of whether he is the bad guy is something that the film resolutely refuses to answer. “As an audience,” notes Mendes, “we just don’t know if this is somebody who - without wanting to be too simplistic - is a good man or a bad man from the beginning of the story to the end.”

This ambiguity apart, it is not hard to see what attracted Mendes, with his extensive stage background, to the film: Road to Perdition has all the makings of a classical tragedy without ever losing sight of the narrative drive that makes it successful in movie terms.

Like so many hit movies these days, the film is adapted from a comic - or, to give it its polite term, a ‘serialised graphic novel’. But there are no supernatural elements, no superheroes and no intergalactic warriors in this story. Instead, Max Allan Collins (who wrote the original graphic novel) and Richard Piers Rayner (who did the illustrations) took advantage of the stripped-down, mythic world that the format encourages, to tell a story about two fathers and two sons on the road to hell. Hell is their destination both literally (Perdition, the titular town for which they are all heading, is a synonym for hell) and metaphorically: everything they believe in is about to be destroyed. Either way, there is no turning back, and the screenplay by David Self (Thirteen Days) preserves the hellish simplicity of the scheme while fleshing out the characters into real people. 

It also provides Hanks’ Michael with a chance to redeem his relationship with his son through one final, climactic act.

“David has made some clever additions to the graphic novel,” says Mendes, “but it remains an incredibly simple, powerful story. At its heart, there is the father/son relationship. But it is also a serious gangster movie set in what I consider to be the last mythic American landscape - the thirties, the Depression era, when there was still space to lose yourself in the vastness of America. So there is this amazingly varied and enormous canvas on which to tell the story. And, as a narrative, it has a very clear linear drive: it doesn’t stop. It moves relentlessly forward, and it has this fascinating central character who is morally ambivalent.”

Road to Perdition’s central character is Michael Sullivan (Hanks), who has been raised from childhood by Mr John Rooney (Paul Newman), the godfather of the Irish mob in Chicago (and woe betide anyone who doesn’t use the ‘Mr’).

On the surface, Michael lives a very ordinary life with a nice house in a comfortable suburb. He has a wife and two children. He is happy: we need to know this before fate blows it all away. As in all good tragedies, we get a brief glimpse of heaven - of Michael’s happiness - before the mouth of hell opens up. But then the dream is quickly destroyed and Michael and his surviving son (Michael Jr, played by newcomer Tyler Hoechlin) are travelling down the dead-end road to revenge and tragedy.

"don’t choose what I have chosen"

“The message from Michael the father to Michael the son is that you get to choose the road you’re on in this life, but don’t choose what I have chosen - the road I’ve been on all my life,” says Hanks. “Somewhere in my past, I made the choice to go in a certain direction, and it leads right to perdition.

“While I was reading the script, I actually thought of the verse from the Bible that says, ‘He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind’. That’s what happens to Sullivan: he’s married, the father of two, and has one of the bigger houses in town… and it’s been paid for with fear, intimidation, violence and blood. Now he’s in the midst of something he should have known was coming.
“Somehow, he is able to block out the reality of his world and believe it will have no consequences. But, of course, it finally does. At the moment we’re dropped into the story, it is literally the last day of that false perspective.”

Dean Zanuck, son of veteran producer Richard D, received the original graphic novel as part of a pitch. Intending to do no more than glance through it, he found himself hooked, so he sent it off to his father who was in Morocco shooting Rules of Engagement. The elder Zanuck was as enthusiastic as his son.

“I read it and was instantly attracted to it,” he recalls. “It had wonderful action and colourful characters, and just had all the elements of being a very entertaining, provocative picture.

“But it was the relationship between the father and son that develops through the course of the story that really got me. I called Dean and asked him to send a copy over to Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks. To my amazement, two days later the phone rang in my humble little room in Morocco and it was Steven. He said, ‘I love this. Let’s do it.’ And that’s how it happened.”

In the end, DreamWorks teamed up with Fox to make the film. Spielberg, meanwhile, also sent the project out to Hanks, who expressed interest just on the basis of the original graphic novel. The Zanucks began to cast around for a director, and among those they talked to was Mendes. The young Englishman’s enthusiasm immediately won them over. “The way he spoke about the story and his plans for the film, we felt the movie elevating before our very eyes,” says Dean Zanuck. “He had an extraordinary grasp of the material.”

Mendes reunited with veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall, who also won an Oscar for American Beauty (his second, after the one he received for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - which, of course, starred Road to Perdition’s Paul Newman when he was Hanks’ age).

"I point it at the story"

He couldn’t have imagined making the film with anyone else, says the director. “In the midst of the chaos and the siege mentality that happens on a movie set, when Conrad puts his eye to the eyepiece of the camera, magic begins to happen. If you ask him how he knows where to point the camera, he’ll tell you, ‘I point it at the story’. But it’s more than that: his artistry with light adds a dimension that you could not have imagined. There is no such thing as an unimportant shot for him, and he can drive you mad spending longer to light than you ever expected. But when you’re in the screening room, you thank God every day for Conrad Hall.”

The way Road to Perdition looked was all-important for both men. “The film shouldn’t be colourful,” says Hall, “so I tried to make it as monochromatic as I could. It’s not exactly film noir, more of a soft noir, if you will - soft shadows rather than harsh ones. I especially loved all the costumes with the hats. I could burn a light down and keep the face totally shaded.”

With a cast that also included Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sullivan’s wife and Stanley Tucci as real-life gangster Frank Nitti (plus a cameo from Anthony LaPaglia as Al Capone), production began in and around Chicago in early March, when the area is at its least inviting. “Winter in the Midwest is a pretty bleak time,” says Hanks. “It was bitter cold, but I think that breeds a hardy type of person. You have to be tough to get through winters back there.”

Even so, there wasn’t enough of the snow which Mendes had been determined to have at the start of the movie. “There is an enormous amount of manufactured weather in the film,” he admits. “We had snow, rain, ice, sleet - you name it. And let me tell you, they don’t always mix: they become a kind of awful mush. There were times I cursed the day I ever decided that the first 20 minutes of the movie should take place in a snowscape.

“But,” he continues, “there was a very deliberate reason for it. The reason there is snow and ice in the opening of the story is it symbolises a frozen world… frozen in the emotional sense. It’s a paralysed family until the father and oldest son are thrown together by tragedy and they begin to have the relationship they never had before. So, out of the bad comes good, and everything that was intended to be set in ice at the beginning begins to thaw.”

Reflecting the melting-pot that was Chicago in the thirties, the film brings together not just a British director and an American story, but British and American actors as well. Mr Rooney’s real-life son - as opposed to Sullivan, whom he has adopted - is played by Daniel Craig, with Jude Law in the central role of a press photographer who is also a part-time hit man. But those looking for the heart-throb of The Talented Mr Ripley and AI are in for a shock: Law is sallow-looking, with bad teeth and thinning hair (“It was painstaking work and the initial cut took two days,” recalls hair stylist Kathryn Blondell. “I went section-by-section and hair-by-hair, cutting them out with very tiny scissors. I needed jeweller’s glasses to do it!”).

"there are actually two fathers and two sons"

With the look of the movie so carefully taken care of - something which also involved having cloth specially woven to make suits that were heavy enough to hang in the correct way for 1930 - Mendes was able to get back to the powerfully simple tale that lies at the heart of Road to Perdition.

“At the centre of the film is the relationship between a father and a son,” he says. “But there are actually two fathers and two sons. One of the great ironies of the film is that, although the two fathers love each other, with each having to protect his less favoured son, they are set on a course of mutual destruction. That is the core of the story: two men protecting their children. In the end, what can be more important than that?”

Published October 10, 2002

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Sam Mendes

Paul Newman

Tom Hanks

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