How Walter Salles and José Rivera Turned Kerouac’s “On the Road” into a Film

The director and writer, who worked together previously on “The Motorcycle Diaries,” used the tools of that collaboration to tackle this uniquely challenging work.


“When Walter [Salles] asked me to write On the Road, what went through my mind was, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going to do another iconic revolutionary book? Do we want to go and explore that territory again?’” But José Rivera soon put aside his doubts. “I thought, if Walter is going to do it, I’ll do it.”


The two had managed to successfully turn the mythical, episodic, and culturally loaded memoir of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s early life and radicalizing road trip into a critically acclaimed film. “We had such a great partnership on The Motorcycle Diaries, in terms of writer-director relationships it was as good as it could possibly be–and I’ve had some bad ones,” says the Puerto Rican-born screenwriter. “I knew it would be a fruitful and exciting journey.”

So off they went, figuring out how to adapt Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical road-trip novel On the Road, one of the defining works of radical, post-war America. Salles, a Brazilian filmmaker who made an international splash with the Oscar-nominated 1998 film Central Station, also was unsure whether they could pull it off. Which is why they started by making a documentary about the Beats. “I needed to immerse myself in that social-cultural background,” Salles says of the five-year process of following the same path that Kerouac journeyed–literally, he traveled from New York to Virginia, New Orleans, Denver, and San Francisco, interviewing characters in the book who were still alive and the sons of daughters of those who are not. “I have more than 100 hours of material to edit.” (Rivera has seen a rough cut and proclaims it “really good.”)

The interviews Salles did–with poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and controversial essayist Amiri Baraka–gave him the confidence and understanding to be able to go ahead with the fictional film.

Adapting a novel said to define a generation is fraught with pitfalls. First, there’s the prose–stream-of-consciousness visions that crackle with electricity. “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me,” Kerouac wrote. But how do you adapt jazz-like writing without dipping into cliché? Frankly, who needs to see another drug-fueled, hippie odyssey?

Still, legions of people revere the book. Salles is one of them. “I had been nurtured by this book since I was 18,” he says. “It represented so much to me.” The director explains that he first read On the Road under very specific circumstances, in mid-1970’s Brazil. “We were living in a military dictatorship, there was censorship of all art forms, there was exile, there was torture. And the characters in On the Road investigated all the different forms of freedom that we were not allowed to live in that culture at that specific time. It had a very emblematic quality–not only for me, but for many friends of mine had a very direct connection to it.” It wasn’t published in Brazil at the time, so Salles read it in English. “My copy traveled from hands to hands at the university and when it came back to me it had notes from 30 different people written in the margins–it had touched them so much on a personal level.”


Luckily, Rivera came to it with no such weighty history. “I love the book but I had an intellectual relationship to it–I knew its impact on the culture,” he says. “It didn’t change my life when I read it; it just didn’t have that effect. So, in a way, I was a good choice. I didn’t approach it with a sense of awe and fear and weight that another writer might have. I approached it analytically, this is a problem to be solved. These are the circumstances of this book, these are the things cinema must have–how do I bring those two together?”

Ironically, he then fell in love with it. “Eventually I was like, I can’t believe I’m writing this, I don’t want to fuck it up.” Examining On the Road line by line stoked Rivera’s sense of Kerouac’s brilliance. “So much of the wellspring of American culture begins with this book, and Howl, and Naked Lunch. You realize how rich that treasure is.”

Rivera sums up his second collaboration with Salles this way: “The best definition of a director is one who directs you. He says, ‘This is the direction that we’re going.’ It’s never a mandate. A lot of it is asking questions…What are the themes?” For instance, the screenwriter says of The Motorcycle Diaries, “Our sense of the themes of that movie crystallized when we were talking about the swim Ernesto takes at the end of the book; his moral choice was between being on one side of the river with the healthy and the possessed or being on the other side of the river with the unhealthy and the dispossessed. When you make that moral choice, where will you be? With that question, the entire structure of the movie became clear to me. You realize everything had to lead to that moment.”

Salles and Rivera chose to veer from what was published in 1957 and go back to the source. John Sampas, the author’s brother-in-law and executor of the Kerouac estate, generously lent the filmmakers a copy of “the scroll,” the original manuscript with Kerouac’s hand-written corrections. “I was struck by the fact that even the first line of the scroll started differently than the 1957 version,” explains Salles. “The 1957 version starts with ‘I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.’ This version says, ‘I first met Dean not long after my father died.’” This helped to define what Salles refers to as “the missing father leitmotif. This is a theme that interests both of us.”

They used that theme to construct the architecture of the movie. “In the film, when [Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty] first meet they have a long conversation about their lost fathers. This is the common ground on which that friendship will be based. This led José to build a structure that allowed the characters to have common fallibility.”


Says Rivera: “Jack Kerouac, or Sal, in this case, had to–like all of us who have fathers who were very strong–have to, in a way bury our fathers in order to become fathers. Especially in the way it’s cut, Sal can’t write the book until he disassociates himself from Dean and at that point he’s able to be the father of the novel. So Sal himself fathers the novel after in a way symbolically emancipating himself from the father figure that Dean had become.”

Rivera turns to his collaborator. “Really, it’s the way you cut it,” he says to Salles. “You go back and forth from the last goodbye to him typing so it’s so clear that severing the past enables you to create the future.”

[Images: Gregory Smith; An IFC Films / Sundance Selects Release]

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.