From Japan to Iran via Ireland, there’s a new generation at the wheel of this classic cinematic form
A rapturously received breakout hit at the Cannes film festival in 2021, Hit the Road, the debut film of Panah Panahi (the 38-year-old son of the Iranian director Jafar Panahi), has had quite a journey since its premiere. The film, a tender, tragicomic road trip that crams a mother, a father, a brooding older son, a hyperactive six-year-old and an ailing dog into an overstuffed people carrier travelling towards the mountain country of the north-west of Iran, has accumulated prizes and glowing reviews at festivals around the world.
But one place it has yet to show, officially at least, is Iran. Panahi, talking through an interpreter from his home in Tehran, says: “The moment we submitted it to Cannes, we also sent it to the administration here that delivers the authorisation to screen and until now, I haven’t received a clear response. Now, I know that it won’t have a [cinema] release in Iran and I have to give up on that dream. But they keep you in limbo.” Points of contention include the fact that a woman’s singing voice can be heard when the actor who plays the mother sings along to a tape of pre-revolution Iranian pop. The censors also took issue with the “cursing”. “But these are pretexts. If we made those changes, it’s not as if suddenly they would be fine with it. The problem is the very nature of the film, in that it is a film that is thought-provoking. And they hate films that make people reflect.”
The rigid framework of rules that Iranian film-makers have to abide by in order to tell their stories is one reason, Panahi explains, that cars, and by extension road movies, are so common in Iranian cinema. Panahi follows his own father, and Abbas Kiarostami among others, in his choice to set his film largely inside a vehicle.
“People often ask why cars are so present in Iranian cinema. If you knew life in Iran then you wouldn’t ask that question. It’s not a thematic device or an artistic choice, it’s just how we live. There is nowhere you can have social peace. You can’t outside and just live your life. But inside your car, they won’t bother you if you listen to music or if your scarf falls down.”
One of the censors’ diktats states that women in cinema cannot be shown with their hair uncovered, which effectively means that film-makers can’t shoot domestic scenes without immediately running into credibility issues. “If I chose an interior scene, it would be nonsense because a woman has to wear a scarf whereas no woman covers her head at home.” The city streets are also tricky as a location. “The streets of Tehran: there is so much tension, so much anger. So once you have eliminated those options, there is not much left. Taking a car, hitting the road out to the countryside is what we all do.”
The process of shooting within a car was not without its challenges, not least containing the boundless energy of the film’s six-year-old child actor, Rayan Sarlak, who bounces off the sides of the vehicle like a squash ball. “For the crew, it was just like it was for his family in the film. He was at the same time endearing and bringing a lot of joy, but he is tiring! One day, we had to drive from one location to another, it was a two-hour drive. And I took him in my car with the first AD [assistant director], just the three of us. And just in the two hours I spent with him, he talked so much, he was so super-excited, that by the end of the journey I was almost crying from exhaustion.”
Interview by Wendy Ide
Hit the Road is in cinemas on 29 July
If road movies aren’t quite the staple of British and Irish cinema that they are in Hollywood, that’s down to geography: head out on the highways of these tiny islands and you’ll reach the end of the road in a matter of hours. In Joyride, however, director Emer Reynolds sets out to marry the genre’s escapist spirit to the particular winding landscape of Ireland, specifically County Kerry, where this dark-edged comedy was shot. In it, new mother Joy (Olivia Colman) seeks to flee maternal responsibilities by hitting the road with a troubled teenage lad (newcomer Charlie Reid) as her driver.
Reynolds describes her first fiction feature – after a long career in film editing and documentary directing – as “a classic buddy road movie: two strangers are thrown together in a car, and they don’t want to be there together, but they need each other to achieve their goal”. But it was the quirkier narrative details and regional flavour of Ailbhe Keogan’s script that drew her to the project: “There’s a young boy driving a car, a little baby, and this irrational woman, all driving over the wilds of County Kerry on the west coast of Ireland, which is kind of underrepresented in film. It’s a beautiful landscape: wild and magical, with wonderful locals and poetry in the air.”
It’s also a landscape that Reynolds felt free to reinvent slightly for the screen. “The journey is fictional,” she says. “They’re not real towns. As they move away from what they know, we were able to mix it up and really have it happen in an almost dreamlike landscape: wild mountain roads, a ferry across an estuary…”
Wim Wenders’s melancholic Paris, Texas was a significant influence but so was the mismatched buddy farce of Midnight Run – and, of course, Thelma & Louise, the ultimate tale of feminist escape by road. “I always loved that ending, how ambiguous it is. In one version of it, these women who dare to challenge the patriarchy and choose their own lives end up going off a cliff and dying. Or is it a moment of hope? They look at each other and they won’t be cowed and they’re not going back, they’re setting themselves free.”
Reynolds likes to think of Colman’s protagonist as similarly nuanced and defiant: “She’s not in florals and pastel, you know, she’s vivid, alive, cantankerous, snarky, independent. She doesn’t want to be liked. And she has an incredibly complex journey in the film of learning to love herself, to forgive herself, to love her mother, to love her child. As a feminist, to put a woman like that on screen is a great joy – excuse the pun.”
Though Reynolds cut her directing teeth on documentaries – winning an Emmy for her acclaimed astronomy-themed feature The Farthest – fiction has always been on her agenda. Having got the hang of it, she’s now preparing an adaptation of Irish American novelist Karl Geary’s cross-generational romance Montpelier Parade. It’s a long way from what Reynolds describes as a “strange start” as a film-maker: she in fact studied theoretical physics and mathematics, before catching the cinephile bug via her university’s film society. “I remember coming home after watching 12 Angry Men and arguing with my father for like five or six hours about the nature of the world and persuasion and prejudice,” she recalls. “And then I lay in bed at night feeling that film could change the world.” Interview by Guy Lodge
Joyride is in cinemas from 29 July
C’mon C’mon is a fabulous, freewheeling odd-couple drama, rolling from Los Angeles to New Orleans just as Easy Rider did once before. It shows us a nation in flux and its people in motion. The title alone is a call to adventure. I think C’mon C’mon might be the finest American road movie in years. But its writer-director, Mike Mills, isn’t sure. “Maybe I’m being really literal but a road movie requires a car,” he says. “So at best it’s a plane film, an air film, a sky film.”
At heart, he feels, C’mon C’mon is a relationship film in that it’s about two mismatched souls in search of common ground. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny, a radio journalist on assignment, who finds himself saddled with Jesse (Woody Norman), his precocious nine-year-nephew. In a more conventional picture, Jesse would either be insufferably cute or impossibly angelic, the heaven-sent child, come to cure the sick man. But Mills’s tale, to its credit, takes the less-travelled path. It implies that everyone’s lost and no one knows a damn thing. The young and the old have to muddle along side by side.
The way Mills tells it, he’s similarly in the dark. He doesn’t trust his own voice, hates writing screenplays and prefers to piece his pictures together from a range of secondhand sources. C’mon C’mon, for example, was inspired by Wim Wenders’s 1970s road movie Alice in the Cities, about a German writer and an abandoned girl. “That provided the basic structure,” he explains. “It was like a little fire to warm myself on. Or a blues riff that I could put my own lyrics around.” The locations helped, because they drove the action. So he moved the characters from sun-splashed Los Angeles to frenetic New York before alighting in New Orleans, “a big, beautiful open wound of a place”. Each city served as a stepping stone, allowing him to carry his drama from one point to the next.
He says: “Here’s the thing: I suck at plot. I suck at causality and structure. Plots are mysteries to me. It’s like I have a learning difficulty with them. One of my favourite readers of my work always says, ‘Mike, you have such a problem with forward motion.’ And I’m like, ‘I know, I’m sorry, it’s so static.’” He brightens. “But maybe I’ve happened upon a neat trick here. In moving through space, through cities, I’ve given the false appearance of a plot. I’ve used the structure of a road movie to make it appear that stuff is happening.”
Road movies involve journeys, but the very word makes him wince. It implies that his film might have some life lessons to teach and a final destination in mind. Which is totally ridiculous; that’s not what his work is about. “We’re all living in this false dream that we’re gonna figure ourselves out or get fixed or get good enough,” he says. “And it never happens. So our job as human beings is to learn to live with that instability, that ungrounded-ness, that lack of knowing.”
There is a quote that he likes by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun: “We are always in some kind of in-between state, always in process. We never fully arrive.” The best road movies, Mills reckons, are deliberately open-ended. They’re a ticket to ride, a licence to go with the flow. Or, as Jesse puts it towards the end of the film: “Whatever you plan on happening never happens. Stuff you would never think of happens. So you just have to c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.”
Interview by Xan Brooks
A pair of strangers – a widowed theatre director and his young, female driver – make cursory, slightly stilted conversation in a Saab 900 which purrs around Japan’s Honshu island for a considerable chunk of a film’s hefty three-hour running time. On paper, it’s not the most compelling proposition. But the fact that Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s meditative quasi-road movie Drive My Car became one of the breakout arthouse successes of the past few years, scoring three Oscar nominations and one win, is testament to something that Hamaguchi has long known: a kind of dramatic alchemy occurs in the interior of a car. What characterises his distinctive take on the road movie, however, is that it is more about the vehicle than the road itself. The wheels could be going pretty much anywhere as long as they are turning, as long as the scenery is changing.
Hamaguchi, a regular on the festival circuit since his breakthrough film Happy Hour in 2015, and its follow-up, Asako I & II, in 2018, first realised the dramatic potential of car journeys thanks to his own social awkwardness. He co-directed a trilogy of documentaries about the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tidal wave with Kô Sakai, a project that required a great deal of driving. After a while, he noticed that while he and his fellow director didn’t chat as a general rule, in a car together, something broke down their natural reserve and they found themselves conversing at length. “In a car, visually you’re satisfied – you’ve got information from the scenery from the windows,” he later mused. “But sonically you only get the engine revving and that’s pretty much it. So I think we tend to want to fill that void.” He lists the films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Wim Wenders as influences. Reflecting on the German director’s “transportation scenes” he has said: “A relationship changes and the fact that the surroundings change at the same time helps you understand that something is evolving.”
The sense of the car as a kind of confessional is a theme that crops up in Hamaguchi’s earlier film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. This triptych of stories premiered in the same year as Drive My Car and Hamaguchi described it as a trial run for the extended car interior scenes in his celebrated follow-up. In the first chapter of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a model and her booker share confidences in a breathless rush of intimacy in a late-night Tokyo taxi. And during the conversation, one woman has the bombshell realisation that her friend’s prospective new boyfriend is her own ex.
The enforced proximity of a car, that slight discomfort that tips characters off balance, is crucial for Hamaguchi. It was to create that sense of uneasy intimacy that Hamaguchi made a notable change to the source material of Drive My Car, a short story by Haruki Murakami. In the original story, the Saab 900 is a yellow soft-top. In the film, it is red, and no longer a convertible, a decision that further insulates the characters from the world outside the vehicle and compels a degree of introspection. “I think there’s a reason why we can have these deep conversations, maybe for the first time, when we’re in cars,” Hamaguchi has said. “The passengers are also facing the same direction. They’re not looking at each other, so in a way they’re forced to look inwards as they’re talking.” WI
Drive My Car is on streaming platforms now and available on DVD from 18 Jul
From Japan to Iran via Ireland, there’s a new generation at the wheel of this classic cinematic form