Filmmakers take stories on the road


It's as old as Homer and as new as a Hummer. It's the quest tale, the hero or heroine's series of tests, a journey of discovery.

Or, as Hollywood calls it, "the road picture."

It has been one of the movies' most enduring genres, from It Happened One Night to The Sure Thing and Midnight Run to, well, Transamerica or The World's Fastest Indian.

"Road trips go back much further than the movies," says Duncan Tucker, writer-director of Transamerica, about a presurgery transsexual - played by Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee Felicity Huffman - who tries to get to know the son he fathered when the soon-to-be-she was a he. "The Odyssey was a road trip, Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz is a road trip."

It's straight out of Storytelling 101: If you want your character to experience a change, change the scenery first.

"Hitting the road is a great background for almost any kind of story; the act of traveling opens up so many options in characters and plot," says Gregg Hale, a producer on The Blair Witch Project and a director of the road picture Say Yes Quickly, about a cross-country romance and/or stalking. The changing incidental characters and backdrops of a journey story make it "a great canvas to paint on," Hale says. And in its modern movie form, with a car, that car symbolizes "freedom and possibility."

But the road is also a trial, a test of a character's mettle.

"The hero's quest is what we're looking for," Tucker says. "Bree, my hero, is given a quest by her mentor and therapist. You have to go on a quest and perform a task in order to get a treasure [her surgery]. Like Frodo, she has to leave her safe home, unwillingly, to go on a dangerous journey across unknown lands to get rid of a burden she doesn't want."

The World's Fastest Indian sends Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) on a journey from Invercargill, New Zealand, to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. Roger Donaldson, an Aussie director who now calls himself a New Zealander, wanted to do a story that tied together the place he loves as home with the things he loves about the place where he works, the United States. He settled on the story of this aged motorcycle speed demon he used to know, an eccentric charmer who was helped by friendly Americans every time an obstacle moved into his path.

Road trips, with their "you never know what's ahead" quality, made it a natural form to build The World's Fastest Indian around, Donaldson says. "The naivete of this character out there in the real world, on the road, being helped by all these different people, appealed to me."

Sam L. Grogg is dean of the University of Miami's film school. But in an earlier life, he produced The Trip to Bountiful. In the movies, he says, the road is "liberating," a connection to the American myth. There is always "a place to go, a better place" with nothing "but positive opportunity ahead."

And as in classic myths, "the hero or heroine hits troubles along the way," Grogg says. "Sometimes the troubles are so great that there is a complete loss of hope."

On the road, even the most confident character is out of his or her element, Donaldson says. They're all fish out of water because they're dealing with people they do not know, situations they haven't anticipated and places they have usually never been.

"That's why they make good movies," Donaldson says. "The road, it never, ever disappoints."

Roger Moore writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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