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'Lawless' Author Matt Bondurant On His Book to Movie

The Fairfax County Public School grad based his novel 'The Wettest County in the World' on a true story.

As most authors will tell you, it is not all that common to sell the movie rights to your work as soon as the book is on the shelves.  It is even less common to ever see the story you sold actually translated onscreen. 

"The Wettest County in the World" is a best-selling novel based on a true story. It has now become the film "Lawless," .

Local writer Matt Bondurant, who was born and raised in Alexandria's Mount Vernon area, was inspired by exploits from his grandfather and grand uncles' time as makers and distributors of moonshine in prohibition-era Franklin County, Va.  I spoke to Matt, who still visits the Washington area often to see his family (his dad is the basis for the lead character Jack Bondurant, played by Shia LaBoeuf).  He talked about the experience of researching the book, how it developed, various aspects of the film and how it compared to his book and his experience.

Some of the interview creates spoilers in the movie.  If you'd like to avoid them, come back and read this after a trip to your local cinema.

Cinema Siren: Apparently, getting the story out of your family down South was a bit like pulling teeth…

MB: There's not much of a storytelling culture on my father's side of the family, and a lot of these things were not talked about. Ever. For example, we didn't know that my grandfather had been shot while with his brother Forrest on that bridge in 1930 until my father uncovered a newspaper article, and my grandfather was still alive at the time.

My father uncovered the article like 20 years ago and he went to his father and said "This happened? You never told me that." My grandfather said "Oh, yeah," and he pulled up his shirt and showed him where the bullet hole was, and that was it. 

I don't know how to explain it.  Did they not want to air dirty laundry?  Or didn't they want to talk about illegal activities? No, I don't think it was that, because so many people were complicit in moonshine in those days, it wasn't seen as criminal in the same way as we think of it. 

I think it's just more that there's not much of a tendency or urge to tell stories. Also there was a certain conservative rural attitude about things you talk about and things you don't.  You just don't talk about moonshine.  Back in the day, talking about it could get you in a lot of trouble.  

My mother is an avid reader and I get my tendency towards storytelling from her.  And her interest in stories.   In reading the newspaper articles it described "The Bondurant Boys"  as this notorious gang, like they were this scary group of guys. I had no notion of that until I was 20 or so.  We had a vague understanding that they were involved in moonshine. 

I think I heard the story about Forrest having his throat cut from ear to ear from my father, but that was all around the same time.  It was almost as if my father and I, we both were discovering this past at the same time together, and it was fun to do that.  

Cinema Siren: What was it like researching the book with your dad?

MB: My dad doesn't articulate things like that. It's not something he wants to put into words. My father's side of the family are quiet people.  He was excited and found it thrilling the way I did.  All of a sudden his family, his parents, took on a life he hadn't thought of before.  And when the book came out, and then the movie, it has just increased that.  

I know that he finds it pretty thrilling like I do that my experience of my own history has been deepened or widened somehow.  My family was more than I thought.  Not all in great ways, but there's  a deeper story behind them.  I always thought about that, wanted that to be true, as I'm sure most people do, but it was just amazing to uncover all this stuff. 

And I know that my dad is proud of his family and the lineage. He's a genealogy buff -- all the Bondurants in this country are related; we came to Virginia in 1701. He's traced our family all the way back several centuries further in France.    

As to how my dad and I are, I'd say our experience of it together is ongoing.  I think I'd like to say it brought us closer together in some important ways, but I've always had a great relationship with my dad. 

Our family doesn't express so much how we feel about one another…Part of the way I depicted the characters in the book, the pervasive silence and the veneer of silence that's hard to break through comes directly from my experience with my dad and his family.  They are these quiet people that I can't seem to get stuff out of or they won't volunteer.  That's the personal part of the book.

I'm more like my mother's side of the family, and we are the outsiders. My father moved away from Franklin County when the Korean War started and moved up here and so I grew up here in this area.  We are a different breed.

Cinema Siren: What was it like having the book adapted into a movie?

MB:  I know lots of other writers who have sold rights and nothing gets made.  So I wasn't even thinking about it, but when it looked like it was going to be made, with director John Hillcoat, and Nick Cave and Shia LaBoeuf all attached to it — people whose work I'm familiar with and respect -- I counted myself lucky. 

It's a dream cast. I'm lucky they tried to stay true to the spirit of the book and the three brothers they way that they did.  It's all been munificence piled upon me, wonderful gifts handed to me. I'm blessed in that way.

Cinema Siren: What did you think of how the women in the movie were portrayed and what they bring to the story?

MB: I thought the way they handled the Jessica Chastain character was interesting.  A few of the digressions from the book — the way they adapted the Guy Pierce's character is more a straight villain, and he's from Chicago, but the Jessica Chastain character, they made her a bit more of an exotic character and she's also from Chicago which is not in the book. 

At first I thought well that's strange, I didn't know why they had to do that. Seeing the film now I understand it, it sort of accentuates her difference when she shows up and changes the lives of these three brothers, and of course mostly Forrest. 

I thought that the way they handled the scenes between her and Forrest were some of the strongest moments in the film. A couple of the bits were very close to the way I originally wrote them in the book, so of course it's great [laughs]. 

People ask me "What are your favorite scenes?" and I find myself saying the ones that are the closest to the book.  I think Chastain is an amazing actress and I think she has star power and wattage and lights up the screen and her and Hardy have a nice thing onscreen together. I thought it worked out very well.  

Mia Wasikowska -- in the beginning I wasn't sure what to make of her, but by the end in her final scenes with Jack I found her very charming. I mean she's just a teenager and she carried that off really well.

If anything, the film probably brought those two female characters up more than the book.  It has males that are really dominating and they brought these women in more and balanced it more than I did. 

Cinema Siren: How involved were you in the production? 

MB: I was involved and was in the contract as a consultant, but they weren't contractually obligated to consult me.  I had no real power, which is normal.  I was lucky that several of the actors and John Hillcoat called me several times.  We talked about a few points of historical accuracy here and there.  Mostly they just wanted to keep me updated.  My dad and I visited the set.

I got to see the versions of the scripts Nick Cave was writing.  It seemed to me they wanted my tacit approval, and of course I thought it was great.  I got the sense they really believed in the essential story.

Bondurant is currently teaching at the University of Texas in Dallas. His new novel "The Night Swimmer" was on the top 20 new recommended books on Amazon. He will be speaking at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University on September 28.  He blogs at mattbondurant.blogspot.com

About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. Visit her gallery online at www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.

Bonnie McCain September 30, 2012 at 08:01 AM
The actors and actresses were phenomenal in the way they put their heart into portraying their characters. It wasn't just a script to them, it was personal. The body language of the brothers in their picture shown at the end, validated how the actors had personified their role. I loved the movie! Bonnie McCain Houston, TX bonniemccain@ymail.com

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