Writing the Prohibition-era bootlegger crime film "Lawless" -- his second realized script and largest movie production yet -- taught Australian songwriter Nick Cave certain foundational lessons of Hollywood moviemaking.
"I learned that it's a waste of time to graphically kill animals in scripts," Cave says, laughing. "It's going to hit the cutting room floor."
The education and development of Nick Cave, screenwriter, continues with "Lawless," a tale of three bootlegging brothers (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke) in rural 1920s Virginia. In adapting Matt Bondurant's novel, Cave was predictably moved to include scenes from the book of a pig's slaughter and a dead calf's birth, but had to settle for gangster gunplay and an ominous atmosphere alive with the constant threat of sudden brutality.
The film marks Cave's continuing dalliance with screenwriting, "an extracurricular" activity, he calls it, along with novel and poetry writing. That's in addition to his "No. 1 job" as a musician and frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the currently dormant Grinderman.
"I became a script writer with absolutely no idea of how to write a script whatsoever," says Cave, who also wrote the 2005 Australian outback Western, "The Proposition." "I still feel a bit of an outsider in that regard. If I can maintain that approach to screenwriting, it can continue to be enjoyable. But as soon as that's gone and I understand the process, I don't think I'll have much interest in writing scripts at all."
Violence has been a rich vein for Cave since he emerged in the 1980s with the London-based punk outfit The Birthday Party. As a theatrical lyricist of spare fables, his gothic songs of death and mean men with a "red right hand" have often carried a murderous gravity and narrative bent.
Like the bloody "Proposition," "Lawless" is another kind of murder ballad for Cave, one populated with colorful characters compelled by primal urges.
"I don't know where that comes from except that it's a particular talent I have to write about that stuff," says Cave, a native of rural Victoria who now lives in Brighton, England, with his wife and twin sons. "Whether that's from being a country boy walking around the ranges with a shotgun as a child and all that sort of stuff, but that was very much what my childhood was like."
Cave spoke in an interview first in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where "Lawless" competed for the Palm d'Or, and again by phone from Los Angeles, where he's recently recorded a new album with the Bad Seeds.
Erudite and droll, Cave, the son of an English teacher and librarian, is an engaging subject whose dry wit captivated Cannes more than the star power of the film's cast, which also includes Guy Pearce and Jessica Chastain.
LaBeouf attached himself to the script early on and stuck with the project through delays due to financing. He remained with it because of Cave's screenplay and the prospect of working with director John Hillcoat, a friend of Cave's who also directed "The Proposition."
"When a man says to you, 'I'm planning on making "Goodfellas" in the woods,' it's really hard to get away from that idea," says LaBeouf.
Cave says that the larger size of "Lawless," which the Weinstein Co. is releasing in theaters Friday, "opened my eyes to how film is made," referring to the necessary compromising of a project with many interested parties.
But screenwriting remains a fascinating process for Cave, who says it comes far more natural to him than songwriting. Despite the 54-year-old's decades in music, he calls songwriting torturous.
"Songwriting is something where I have to go into a room on my own and battle it out and squeeze out these songs," says Cave. "It's like giving birth out of the tiniest of apertures. It's painful and it's kind of bloody, whereas writing scripts, I feel like a little boy."
When Cave writes a script, he simultaneously is considering the score. For "Lawless," he wanted to avoid the Americana route, wary of competing with T-Bone Burnett's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Instead, he and Bad Seeds violinist Warren Ellis went for a "raw, punky feel."
The score is thus full of countrified versions of more recent rock songs not typically done that way, most notably bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing the Velvet Underground tune "White Light/White Heat." Cave believes the song, which is about methamphetamine use, connects the film's criticism of Prohibition with contemporary anti-drug policy.
Though Cave now finds himself an in-demand screenwriter, he says it reenergizes him for his "bread and butter" occupation.
"Screenwriting is something I use to help keep the process of songwriting alive," he says. "If that's all I was doing, I would have dried up or gone into a real decline years ago with songwriting. I'm always coming back to songwriting. In fact, I'm always running back to songwriting screaming."