Writer embraced challenges of bringing novel to big screen

When John Hillcoat set about adapting “The Road,” he steeled himself for one of the great challenges of his life.

“It’s like jumping off a cliff,” the Australian director said. “How are you going to land? Is there a parachute that stops your fall or do you hit the ground and splatter?”

After two years of filming, release date switches and industry rumors of financial trouble with the film’s distributor, Hillcoat’s parachute finally opens Wednesday to a curious public and the rabid fans of the Oprah-approved, Cormac McCarthy novel about a father and son on a harrowing journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape.

“Probably the overwhelming feeling I have is relief,” Hillcoat said. “It was that the expectations were always building, and it turned into negative expectations as we got everything better. I feel that Thanksgiving is the perfect time to release the film because it is about human goodness.”

Creating the nightmarishly desolate world that McCarthy envisioned in his book was one of the trickiest elements of Hillcoat’s job. Searching for the right places to create the post-apocalyptic look became a high-tech endeavor that took Hillcoat and his production designer, Chris Kennedy, across the globe.

“My production designer had location people across the nation, but he found the bulk of everything on his computer in Australia,” Hillcoat said. “He spent three weeks on Google Earth, scanning the country, looking for dark patches and zooming in. And that’s how we embarked on this huge journey across eight states.”

That location scouting brought “The Road” to the Pacific Northwest, where several scenes in the movie were filmed in Washington and Oregon.

“Mount St. Helens was so unbelievable because you really realize the force of nature after all these years,” Hillcoat said. “And we went to Oregon because of the beaches – it’s the only place that had the gray sand.

“We used real footage from Katrina, had huge smoke from 9/11 in the background – all these other smaller apocalypses that didn’t become global. So we were deliberately referencing these natural and man-made disasters.”

Hillcoat is no stranger to having the surroundings play an integral part of the film. His prior movie, “The Proposition,” was a dark Western set in the arid Australian desert.

“There are similarities because the landscapes are so extreme,” he said. “The day becomes something that all the characters react to. Also, a big influence on (‘The Proposition’) was ‘Blood Meridian.’ Cormac’s work has a great feeling of landscape and that’s what interested me in ‘The Road.’ It felt like a natural progression.”

One of Hillcoat’s major issues was finding a child actor to fill the critical role of the son.

After seeing thousands of kids, Australian newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee landed the part of a lifetime.

“That was the biggest challenge of all,” Hillcoat said.

“It doesn’t matter if you are somehow able to create this world on a budget and find a stellar, legendary actor like Viggo (Mortenson). All of that would fall over if the kid didn’t work, because he’s in every scene. Viggo shared the same fear, so we were incredibly lucky.”

But things weren’t as smooth getting “The Road” to the screen. Originally set for an October 2008 release, the film was pushed back to allow more time for the digital effects, although rumors persisted about test-screening changes.

Then, the film was scheduled to be released Oct. 16, only to have it get bumped to a Nov. 25 release date. This might be seen as normal jockeying if not for the precarious position of Dimension Films and the Weinstein Co., the cash-strapped distributors in charge of the film, and notorious tinkerers of their films.

Like his characters, Hillcoat is focusing on the destination and not the journey.

“I can’t think about any of that,” he said. “The book had such a powerful, emotional impact on me. I can’t stop thinking about it. This is the kind of material you can’t say no to, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You rarely get that kind of feelings from books and films.

“The fact that Cormac loved the film has meant a great deal to me, as well as the fact that people have responded very well. It’s been a great experience.”