Before showing the film at the Austin Film Festival, director Terry George spoke with Paste about Reservation Road (which stars Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Connelly) and the impact of his award winning film, Hotel Rwanda.
The first few minutes (of Reservation Road) is an emotional experience, especially if you have children.
Terry George: The opening of the film really sets the context for it in that Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly are returning from an idyllic summer afternoon and stop at a gas station and in a series of coincidences their son ends up being killed in a hit-and-run accident. The driver of the truck that kills him is Mark Ruffalo. He also has his son in the car. And that sets the context for the movie which is about the disintegration of the lives of everyone involved and how they struggle to recover, or not.
P: Where did the idea for the film come from?
TG: Well, this one was simple in that Joaquin Phoenix read the script and liked it a lot. And I was looking for something to work with him on. He’s a friend and I worked with him twice before. He gave me the script. I read it and I liked it and I thought there was context and subtext that I could really say something with. It also came from a book by John Burnham Schwartz, so I had a lot of material.
P: There is a lot of depth in the film. It’s not just about a family’s sadness in losing a son. There’s the “doing the right thing” battle that Mark Ruffalo’s character has.
TG: That’s one of the things. There’s a particular subtext that I was really interested in which is the concept of revenge, an eye-for-an-eye, and in the process of searching for revenge, Joaquin’s character creates a monster, demonizes the perpetrator to the point where he can do violence to him. Joaquin’s character is a mild mannered college professor but just goes into this torment of rage. And what I did is alternate between the two characters so that you see what the reality of this monster is that Joaquin created. And I think post 9/11, the motivation of revenge and the kind of knee-jerk sense that we have to visit retribution on this enemy without stepping back and deciding what were the motivations. Where should we go? How should we deal with this? How can we work around it? There’s a real difference between righteous indignation and revenge. And I think that the world, on many levels, is working on revenge. I come from Northern Ireland where we obviously had a long period of violence and revenge. Anger was a primary driving force. I think I’ve created an anti-vengeance movie with a cautionary and hopefully redemptive aspect to it.
P: In some ways, I was thinking of how different the film was from Hotel Rwanda, but then in other ways I was thinking of how similar it is—loss of family and how you will do everything you can to hang on to that family. Mark Ruffalo’s character, who has his own son, realizes he needs to turn himself in and struggles with that because he’s afraid of losing his son, and his son’s respect.
TG: It is exactly that. There’s a catastrophic event that happens to all these people. Mark’s character is a loser in many senses of the word, what I call a blameheart in that he finds people to blame for all of his flaws and foibles and tends to run away from things and this is the ultimate running away. At the same time he’s building up perhaps the purest adult relationship of his life, developing a strong relationship with his son. So, all of those elements that are pulling to and fro with his character and with Joaquin’s character are like on the level of a Greek tragedy kind of drama of mythical proportions. I like finding real characters - human beings that you can see that the audience can either be with or become.
P: As a viewer you actually start having sympathy for Ruffalo’s character.
TG: Which, a) was why we wanted to cast Mark and, b) is the genius of his acting in that he can take the despicable on the face of this character and play the pathos and the regret and masking and hiding. You never sympathize or empathize with the action itself, but by the end of it I feel you really are empathetic with the situation the man finds himself in. And that was my whole thing about he not being the monster that Joaquin’s character imagines. That was really important.
P: After Hotel Rwanda, with the impact that it had, what kind of ideas do people approach you with? How do they pigeonhole you from something like that? Does that happen?
TG: After Hotel Rwanda, I got what I call the Amnesty International movies, the humanitarian/human rights movies. You do get pigeonholed a lot. But I like to flex my muscles and break away from that pigeonholing while still in the context of making humanist films. And with Reservation Road, it’s certainly the most American of the films I’ve done. And it’s also, in a strange way, the most accessible in that it’s a situation where the audience can imagine themselves in the shoes of the characters on screen. Whereas in Hotel Rwanda, you can definitely cheer for and be with Paul Rusesabagina but you never for a moment think that you would be in that situation. Reservation Road’s a situation where I think you leave the cinema thinking, “What would I do?” and “There but for the grace of God go I.”
P: After making a film like Hotel Rwanda, is there a sense of responsibility that is basically with you for the rest of your life?
TG: An enormous sense. Having seen what went on. Seeing what’s going on in Darfur now. Having a sense of just how amazing Africa is and just how it’s been exploited and deprived, and the possibilities that are there. I’ll always feel connected to that and try to do stuff. Just out of the nature of directing you don’t get that much time once you’ve started on a process, so on a smaller level I’ve been involved in a charity called Water which basically digs clean water wells in villages throughout Africa. And I keep in touch with the broader humanitarian community.