Writing the Prohibition-era bootlegger crime film “Lawless” — his second realized script and largest movie production yet — taught Australian songwriter Nick Cave certain foundational lessons of Hollywood moviemaking.
“I learned that it’s a waste of time to graphically kill animals in scripts,” Cave says, laughing. “It’s going to hit the cutting room floor.”
The education and development of Nick Cave, screenwriter, continues with “Lawless,” a tale of three bootlegging brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke) in rural 1920s Virginia. In adapting Matt Bondurant’s novel, Cave was predictably moved to include scenes from the book of a pig’s slaughter and a dead calf’s birth, but had to settle for gangster gunplay and an ominous atmosphere alive with the constant threat of sudden brutality.
The film marks Cave’s continuing dalliance with screenwriting, “an extracurricular” activity, he calls it, along with novel and poetry writing. That’s in addition to his “No. 1 job” as a musician and frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the currently dormant Grinderman.
“I became a script writer with absolutely no idea of how to write a script whatsoever,” says Cave, who also wrote the 2005 Australian outback Western, “The Proposition.” ”I still feel a bit of an outsider in that regard. If I can maintain that approach to screenwriting, it can continue to be enjoyable. But as soon as that’s gone and I understand the process, I don’t think I’ll have much interest in writing scripts at all.”
Violence has been a rich vein for Cave since he emerged in the 1980s with the London-based punk outfit The Birthday Party. As a theatrical lyricist of spare fables, his gothic songs of death and mean men with a “red right hand” have often carried a murderous gravity and narrative bent.
Like the bloody “Proposition,” ”Lawless” is another kind of murder ballad for Cave, one populated with colorful characters compelled by primal urges.
“I don’t know where that comes from except that it’s a particular talent I have to write about that stuff,” says Cave, a native of rural Victoria who now lives in Brighton, England, with his wife and twin sons. “Whether that’s from being a country boy walking around the ranges with a shotgun as a child and all that sort of stuff, but that was very much what my childhood was like.”
Cave spoke in an interview first in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where “Lawless” competed for the Palm d’Or, and again by phone from Los Angeles, where he’s recently recorded a new album with the Bad Seeds.
Erudite and droll, Cave, the son of an English teacher and librarian, is an engaging subject whose dry wit captivated Cannes more than the star power of the film’s cast, which also includes Guy Pearce and Jessica Chastain.
LaBeouf attached himself to the script early on and stuck with the project through delays due to financing. He remained with it because of Cave’s screenplay and the prospect of working with director John Hillcoat, a friend of Cave’s who also directed “The Proposition.”
“When a man says to you, ‘I’m planning on making “Goodfellas” in the woods,’ it’s really hard to get away from that idea,” says LaBeouf.
Cave says that the larger size of “Lawless,” which the Weinstein Co. is releasing in theaters Friday, “opened my eyes to how film is made,” referring to the necessary compromising of a project with many interested parties.
But screenwriting remains a fascinating process for Cave, who says it comes far more natural to him than songwriting. Despite the 54-year-old’s decades in music, he calls songwriting torturous.
“Songwriting is something where I have to go into a room on my own and battle it out and squeeze out these songs,” says Cave. “It’s like giving birth out of the tiniest of apertures. It’s painful and it’s kind of bloody, whereas writing scripts, I feel like a little boy.”
When Cave writes a script, he simultaneously is considering the score. For “Lawless,” he wanted to avoid the Americana route, wary of competing with T-Bone Burnett’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. Instead, he and Bad Seeds violinist Warren Ellis went for a “raw, punky feel.”
The score is thus full of countrified versions of more recent rock songs not typically done that way, most notably bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing the Velvet Underground tune “White Light/White Heat.” Cave believes the song, which is about methamphetamine use, connects the film’s criticism of Prohibition with contemporary anti-drug policy.
Though Cave now finds himself an in-demand screenwriter, he says it reenergizes him for his “bread and butter” occupation.
“Screenwriting is something I use to help keep the process of songwriting alive,” he says. “If that’s all I was doing, I would have dried up or gone into a real decline years ago with songwriting. I’m always coming back to songwriting. In fact, I’m always running back to songwriting screaming.”
Nicholas Edward “Nick” Cave (born 22 September 1957) is an Australian musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional film actor.
He is best known for his work as a frontman of the critically acclaimed rock band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, established in 1983, a group known for its eclectic influences and musical styles. Before that, he had fronted the group The Birthday Party in the early 1980s, a band renowned for its highly gothic, challenging lyrics and violent sound influenced by free jazz, blues, and post-punk. In 2006, he formed the garage rock band Grinderman that released its debut the following year. Cave’s music is generally characterised by emotional intensity, a wide variety of influences, and lyrical obsessions with religion, death, love and violence.
Upon Cave’s induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame, ARIA Awards committee chairman Ed St John said, “Nick Cave has enjoyed—and continues to enjoy—one of the most extraordinary careers in the annals of popular music. He is an Australian artist like Sidney Nolan is an Australian artist—beyond comparison, beyond genre, beyond dispute.”
Cave has made occasional appearances as an actor. He appears alongside Blixa Bargeld in the 1988 Peter Sempel film “Dandy”, playing dice, singing and speaking from his Berlin apartment. He is most prominently featured in the 1989 film Ghosts … of the Civil Dead, written and directed by John Hillcoat, and in the 1991 film Johnny Suede with Brad Pitt.
Cave appeared in the 2005 homage to Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, in which he performed “I’m Your Man” solo, and “Suzanne” with Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. He also appeared in the 2007 film adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where he sings a song about Jesse James. Cave and Warren Ellis are credited for the film’s soundtrack.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are also featured in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire.
Displaying a keen interest in other aspects of film, Cave wrote the screenplay for The Proposition, a film set in the colonial Australian Outback. Directed by John Hillcoat and filmed in Queensland in 2004, it premiered in October 2005 and has since been released worldwide to critical acclaim. The movie reviewer for British newspaper The Independent called it “peerless,” “a star-studded and uncompromisingly violent outlaw film.” It even features on a website promoting tourism to the area.The generally ambient soundtrack was recorded by Cave and Warren Ellis.
At the request of friend Russell Crowe, Cave wrote a script for a proposed sequel to Gladiator which was rejected by the studio.
His interest in the work of Edward Gorey led to his participation in the BBC Radio 3 programme, guest+host=ghost, featuring Peter Blegvad and the radiophonic sound of the Langham Research Centre.
Cave has also lent his voice in narrating an award winning animated film called The Cat Piano. It was directed by Eddie White and Ari Gibson (of The People’s Republic Of Animation), produced by Jessica Brentnall and has music by Benjamin Speed.
Cave wrote the screenplay for The Wettest County in the World,which was renamed Lawless, and has completed the script for a new film titled Death of a Ladies’ Man and will rewrite the script of The Crow remake.
Currently, Cave is collaborating with Andy Serkis to develop a screen version of the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht musical, The Threepenny Opera.
Cave wrote both the screenplay and the music for John Hillcoat’s movie Lawless which stars Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, and Gary Oldman. The film opened in theaters 29 August 2012 and the soundtrack was released on 28 August.