Max Allan Collins Talks Road to Perdition

The writer of the graphic novel this fantastic 2002 film was based on talks about his experiences on the film and much more

Back in the summer of 2002, I saw a film in my local Minnesota theater that I thought was a sure lock for several categories at the Oscars, including Best Picture. Sadly, Sam Mendes' utterly gorgeous portrait of Depression-era gangster life, Road To Perdition, only picked up a handful of Oscar nominations, mostly in technical categories, with the only Oscar win going to the late Conrad L. Hall for his stunning cinematography. In my eyes, the film is one of the most tragically underrated films of the 21st Century. Road to Perdition is coming to Blu-ray for the first time on August 3 and hopefully this new release will give the film the awareness needed to become the classic it surely deserves to be. I recently spoke with Max Allan Collins, who wrote the graphic novel this film was based on, about his experiences on the film, and here's what he had to say.

I read that the graphic novel was influence by a manga Lone Wolf and Cub. Can you talk about your experience with that manga and how that lead into writing Road to Perdition?

Max Allan Collins: Yes. I had actually seen the films based off the manga before I had actually discovered the manga itself. The film is an overriding presence here, I guess. They were such really good movies made in Japan and there was an American movie called Shogun Assassin that sort of cobbled together two of them. That got into the American pop culture before the manga did and they were eventually reprinted and they've been reprinted a couple of times. Also, there was a John Woo movie, back before John Woo was famous, that drew upon the same source material and I was an early admirer of John Woo and knew that picture too. That's a movie called Heroes Shed No Tears. The basic premise of Lone Wolf and Cub is the shogun's top executioner is betrayed by the shogun and his people, his wife is killed and he goes on the road with his baby. The baby cart is loaded up with samurai swords and smoke bombs and he goes around trying to avenge his wife's death, while being pursued by other samurai. It occurred to me that there were similarities between a shogun and a godfather and the shogun's executioner and maybe the godfather's top enforcer. So that was sort of the source, but there also was a literal, historical source, which is John Looney, he's called Rooney in the picture, the character that Paul Newman plays. There was a real John Looney and a real Connor Looney and some of Road to Perdition has a strong, historical underpinning.

With your series' on Dick Tracy and Elliot Ness, it seems that you have a real passion for this time period and this really does stand out as well. Can you talk about taking those initial elements and bringing it into this 20s and 30s gangster era?

Max Allan Collins: Well, I always was fascinated with the gangsters and outlaws of the 20s and 30s. It probably began with my fascination with Dick Tracy. It sounds like a PR thing, but Dick Tracy really was my childhood obsession and it came to be the first major break of my career when I was in my early 20s and I got to write the script for 15 years. It sounds made up but it's actually true. Dick Tracy began in 1931 and was, to some degree, based on Elliot Ness and Al Capone by its creator, Chester Gould. When The Untouchables came on TV when I was a little kid, I was very interesting in that. I live in the Midwest, fairly close to Chicago. I live in Iowa where we had a lot of famous outlaws come through here, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Babyface Nelson, this was their territory. My dad told me stories from his childhood about the outlaws coming through his part of the world when he lived in a little Iowa town. That really sparked my interest and I think, too, I've always been interested in finding a reality behind any historical fiction. I still, to this day, if I read historical fiction or I see a historical movie... if I see The Tudors, I'll go out and buy a book on The Tudors. That's just how I'm wired, because I always find out that the reality is even more bizarre than any Hollywood version. I good example is Connor Looney and his father John Looney. Sam Mendes actually changed the name from Looney to Rooney because he thought it was so absurd that this guy would be called Looney, but, in real life, he was John Looney and his son Connor, who was a homicidal maniac, was nicknamed "Crazy" Connor. Now, you would think if your last name was Looney... but this guy was so out there, that they had to add "Crazy" to the Looney cocktail. You can't make stuff up like that.

Exactly. I can see what they were doing too. People won't believe you if it's true anyway.

Max Allan Collins: Right, right. It's where history is too on the nose. Now, the Tom Hanks character and the Tyler Hoechlin character, they're my constructs. They have their roots in Lone Wolf and Cub, but there are some historical underpinnings there too, because there were several betrayed lieutenants of the Looney gang, who had a similar feud and, in fact, Connor Looney died in the street, during a rainstorm, not unlike the way his father dies in the movie. There's some history in there and, I have to say, I think I would be a huge fan of this movie, even if I had nothing to do with it. I just watched it again last night, my first chance to see it on Blu-ray. I probably hadn't seen it in a couple of years and I just feel like I won the lottery, having a movie this good being made out of my work.

The film did well and it won an Oscar but, to me, it's one of the most underrated movies of, at least, this century. I was curious if that might have had something to do with the wholesome Tom Hanks playing a hitman character? Maybe audiences weren't ready for something like that?

Max Allan Collins: Well, with somebody like Tom, he gets the occasional backlash, and that's just the nature of media. Also what happened in that particular year, Perdition appeared early in the year, I think it was in the beginning of the summer. At that time, there was huge Oscar buzz for it. It was thought to be a slam dunk and it got many rave reviews. But what happened, as you know, stuff tends to get forgotten and all the last-minute entries get all the Oscar attention. In fact, the Scorsese film, Gangs of New York, came out and had more nominations than Perdition did. I think, in retrospect, Perdition is a much stronger picture and we have people, almost every day, mention the film to me. I think one of the aspects that have made it endure, and why I think it really is going to be a classic, is the father and son aspect of the story. I did an appearance, not too long ago, with Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Field of Dreams, another Iowa project, and he was talking about the fact that so many fathers and sons come to him and talk about the impact that film had. It absolutely resonated with me about the kind of feedback I've gotten. I give total props to Sam Mendes and (screenwriter) David Self because I think they did even more with the father and son aspect of the story than I did in the graphic novel. I don't always like to admit that somebody else did my own work better than I did, but they really knocked the ball out of the park.

I was really stunned with the visual world that Sam Mendes and Conrad L. Hall created with the film. Can you talk about how the visual look of the film matched up with the visuals of the graphic novel?

Max Allan Collins: My artist, Richard Piers Rayner, on the graphic novel, he drew a lot upon the pulp and magazine illustrations of the day. That same kind of attention to the art of the period, both fine art and commercial art, I think permeated Conrad L. Hall's approach. It's a very somber, low-key movie. I know I heard on the Blu-ray, Sam talk about the fact that he didn't want to do the very stereotypical pinstriped suits and campy 30s thing that we see so often. He wanted it to be this very somber, Depression-era world that you enter into and believe. The art direction on the picture is phenomenal as well.

Is there any thing you can tell us about the status of Road to Purgatory? We reported on it a few years ago that you were adapting your own graphic novel and were directing the film. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

Max Allan Collins: Well, I can only tease, I'm afraid. We seem to be right on the brink, or maybe it's the precipice, I don't know (Laughs), of a deal being signed. Things have gotten very, very serious and I have, for years, held onto it as a project I would direct, because I have directed five independent films. Now it does look like, now, that I won't be directing, but it is my script. That's the most important thing to me, that the material be faithfully rendered. That isn't to say that you have to do it absolutely faithfully. There certainly are differences between my graphic novel and Road to Perdition, but the spirit of the story is there. Mendes really got it and understood it and, I think that, in some ways, enhanced it.

Can you tell us who will be directing this then?

Max Allan Collins: I don't know. We've been approached and the offer seems to be very, very serious. We have signed a round of paper but it is not nailed down yet and it looks to be pretty interesting. I will tell you that this will happen about 10 years after Perdition ends. Michael is 10 years older in Road to Purgatory.

To wrap up, what would you like to say to fans of the film or maybe people who haven't caught this film yet, for whatever reason, about why they should pick up the new Blu-ray?

Max Allan Collins: Well, if you own the DVD, you don't own Road to Perdition. The Blu-ray just blows it away and the bonus features are fantastic, and not just because I'm featured so prominently, which I am (Laughs). I'm a Blu-ray fan from the jump and this is one of the great Blu-ray's.

Excellent. Thanks so much for your time. I was also going to tell you that I'm from Minnesota as well, so we kind of have the same roots.

Max Allan Collins: Everybody in California is from Minnesota or Iowa.

That's what it seems like, yes.

Max Allan Collins: (Laughs) It was great talking to you. Thank you, sir.

Road to Perdition, which is based off Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, hits the shelves on Blu-ray for the first time on August 3.