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Michael Polish Talks 'Big Sur' and Kerouac on the Big Screen

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Novelist and poet Jack Kerouac, one of the best-known voices of the Beat Generation, has had an onscreen resurgence lately.

His quintessential and largely autobiographical 1957 novel On the Road follows the adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty—characters modeled closely after the author and his pal Neal Cassady. Last year, Walter Salles attempted to capture the novel onscreen with Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kirsten Stewart in the lead roles. Last month, the film Kill Your Darlings featured the Beats before they were Beats (baby Beats?)—as Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Kerouac (Jack Huston) first meet at Columbia University.

Now it’s director Michael Polish’s turn at Kerouac with this weekend’s release of Big Sur, one of the author’s later novels. In the novel and film, Kerouac’s alter-ego character Jack Duluoz desperately tries to escape his post-Road fame by retreating to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (Anthony Edwards) cabin in Big Sur. His problems with alcohol and pressure only lead to the author’s gradual mental breakdown.

During a recent phone interview with Polish, who also wrote the script, we wondered if he felt pressure bringing one of the works of a hallowed author to the big screen. “I felt that On the Road had a lot of pressure,” Polish said. “I felt that novel going to screen had to carry more weight...and so what I decided to do was try to be as true to Kerouac as possible by keeping his prose and and his words as identical to the book.

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“And if I could do that, and not try to modernize it, I'd be on a good path."

Polish adapted Kerouac's prose in the script and incorporated the use of voiceover prominently throughout the film. "It was very risky because it was have [Kerouac's] voiceover go from beginning to end, back and forth. Nobody had ever tried it, but it worked."

Kerouac/Duluoz (Jean-Marc Barr) flies both solo and with a merry band of mischief-makers in tow to the cabin from San Francisco. Big Sur—with its beauty and danger—provides more than background imagery and scenery in the film.

“I was a big fan of the place, and Big Sur was my favorite Kerouac novel. It's felt the most autobiographical and it's one of the best accounts I could read that chronicled his mental breakdown,” he said. “And because it was Big Sur...I felt it needed to be a character in the film. And it needed to have space and time for people to absorb what it was like to have the environment mimic what was going on inside Kerouac at the time.”

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In addition to the author’s descent into madness, Polish’s film is also focused on the relationships between Kerouac, Cassady (Josh Lucas), and Cassady’s wife Carolyn (Radha Mitchell) and mistress Billie (played by Polish’s wife Kate Bosworth). Needless to say, the relationships are … complicated.

In one scene where Neal first introduces—or “gives”—his mistress to Jack, Billie greets Neal with unbridled enthusiasm; and in the next moment, she turns her affection—all of it—to Jack as Neal somewhat sadly looks on before leaving.

"It was one of the most dynamic scenes I'd ever filmed, and it's strange, but it was great to see it happen," Polish said. "They had a situation where I think they shared things in every way," he added diplomatically.

Later in the film, Jack brings Billie with him to Neal and Carolyn’s house in the Los Gatos suburbs, which was especially uncomfortable for Neal—though his wife knew exactly what was going on. "Carolyn was a strong woman,” he said, and added that while Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs may get most of the headlines and glory, “Neal was the real rock un-saluted rock star."

Big Sur is in theaters now. Today (Nov. 3) at the 4:15 pm screening of the film at Sundance Sunset Cinemas, Polish, Bosworth and Barr will be doing a Q&A about the film.