"Because of him we used a beer bottle," Hedlund said. "He said half of one strip could give you the energy of Kenyan runner for eight hours, and if you did a whole strip it would keep you up for 24 hours. It was funny to see his face when I pulled out the mock bennie inhaler. His eyes lit up, 'There's that little beauty.'"
As casting proceeded, so did an enervating search for financing. In the end the bulk of the less-than-$25-million budget for a film of a groundbreaking American novel came from French sources, for a Brazilian director, a Puerto Rican screenwriter and a cast including British actors in key roles. Asked whether the foreign financing wasn't a bit surprising, Rivera raised his eyebrows. "I believe the word you're searching for is 'ironic,'" he said.
One generational change the filmmakers had to contend with was Kerouac's women — Marylou, who was based on Cassady's real teenage bride, LuAnne Henderson, and Camille (Kirsten Dunst), based on his wife, Carolyn Cassady, have been criticized as mere sexual objects in "On the Road."
"We didn't want them to be victims," Rivera said. "The girls that just get left behind, get pregnant and cry. We really wanted to make them three-dimensional heroes in their own worlds."
As a result, Marylou spends much of the film warming men's beds, but she makes her own decisions. "The reason the book has never been irrelevant is that people have certain fundamental desires," said Stewart, who couldn't come along for the ride in the Hudson but spoke by phone. "Marylou would have been well ahead of her time even now."
Off the highway
As Kale steered the Hudson into the parking lot of El Coyote restaurant, a woman in a neighboring car flashed a thumbs-up. In the book and in Salles' film, the Hudson, which Cassady is said to have bought for a small down payment and later had repossessed, is as much a character as any person. It also has the benefit of being spacious enough for a small crew.
In 2010, more than 50 years after it was first published, cameras finally rolled on "On the Road" — in Montreal, Argentina, Chile, New Orleans, Arizona, Mexico City, San Francisco and Calgary, Canada, varying somewhat from Kerouac's route for the sake of scenery. For one sequence, a goggles-clad Hedlund drove the Hudson in the Andes during a blizzard, howling out his window while Salles sat in the passenger seat holding a camera, with another mounted on the hood.
Among the chief difficulties while shooting was avoiding Wal-Mart and McDonald's.
"If you take the exact same path as Kerouac took, you drive 1,000 miles and you see the same fast-food shops every here and there," Salles said. "You have to go further and take the smaller roads, those that are not in the map. When you do that, you end up understanding that there is still a world out there that is genuine and raw and unspoiled. You can still find it, but you have to go much further."
"On the Road" premiered at the Cannes Film festival in May to mixed reviews — critics praised Hedlund's seductive performance and cinematographer Eric Gautier's lush camera work, but some felt that in its faithfulness to Kerouac's text, the movie sacrificed the book's feverish thrill.
After shooting wrapped, Hedlund drove the 1949 Hudson used in the film from L.A. to San Francisco to the Beat Museum, with Neal Cassady's son, John, and Hinkle along for much of the ride.
For the movie's makers, the journey of "On the Road" will never really end, Salles said. "When you gain distance from where you live," Salles said as we wound down the historic Route 66 stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, "you better understand who you are."