Interview: Matt Bondurant, Lawless

Matt Bondurant is a successful American novelist, whose best known work is “The Wettest County in the World”. While a work of fiction, it was heavily based on the real-life Prohibition era of Franklin County, Virginia, where almost everyone was in on the moonshine business. The events are all real, though certain conversations had to be invented for the plot.

If the book wasn’t enough good news, it soon got picked up by Hollywood and turned into the critically-acclaimed “Lawless”. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, and Jessica Chastain, this is a must see film for anyone interested in the gangster years, or anyone who just likes a good story (with a touch of romance thrown in).

Following the release of “Lawless”, I had the opportunity to chat with Bondurant.

GS: From your book to the screenplay, where does your writing stop and screenwriter Nick Cave’s begin?

MB: There were significant changes from the book to the screenplay. The book, for example, has the character of novelist Sherwood Anderson, which is a whole other plotline. He’s left out entirely. And, of course, things are streamlined in the screenplay as screenplays often do. For the most part, though, all the major scenes from the movie are in the book. Nick Cave writes great dialogue, but much of the dialogue came straight from the book, which I’m very proud of. Him keeping a lot of my lines is a wonderful thing.

There are a couple of added elements that are definitely Nick Cave. For example, the scene where a guy is getting tarred and feathered. That’s all Nick Cave. I had nothing to do with that. When Forrest and Howard exact their revenge for Howard’s throat being slit, and there’s a naked woman running down the street screaming… that’s Nick Cave. He took some of my scenes and “punched them up” a little bit. The book is certainly violent, but I think he depicted them even more graphic, more grisly. That’s somewhat necessary for film. But overall, I’m very pleased with how it came out, especially the courtship of Jack and Bertha.

GS: At one point, there is a group of men who come from outside of Franklin County, and they seem to be sort of mob figures. Were they based on real people?

MB: No, no, that’s actually another Nick Cave creation, and a rather significant one. They wanted to accentuate the idea that these men were being threatened by an outside force to some degree. In real life, Charlie Rakes is a real guy, but he was a Franklin County guy and not from Chicago. The same thing with Maggie. We don’t know a whole lot about her, but I’m pretty sure she’s local, or at least from Virginia. This again is “punching up” the threat. Charlie Rakes is the villain in the book, and I think I give him more time and a more rounded treatment, as novels can do. He was just a guy from the area who got caught up in things, made bad choices, and tried to kill my grandfather. But he also had his own problems, which I tried to portray in the book. Whereas, in the movie, Rakes is a whole different kind of villain altogether.

GS: With you being the author, the story comes from the point of view of your family and presents them as a big part of things. Objectively, how big was their role in bootlegging?

MB: It’s hard to say. In Franklin County, most people were involved… it’s been estimated that up to 90% were involved in bootlegging in some way. What we do know is that from the 1920s to the 1930s, there were numerous articles that referred to “the Bondurant Boys” as a gang. While many people were mentioned in connection with bootlegging, no one else was referred to in this way, as being a gang. They might have partners or work in a group, but didn’t get that gang label. The court transcripts also indicate they were a known group and a rather intimidating group. For example, a sheriff’s deputy says “we’re not scared of you like everybody else is” and Charlie Rakes was quoted as saying, “I thought you Bondurants were some hard-boiled sons of bitches.” Nick Cave used that line in a different context. So they had reputations, they were known, but it was Franklin County, so there wasn’t a gangland culture or a sort of hero worship. If you expand out just to Appalachia, I would say they’re small players. In a way, I think they’re emblematic of moonshiners as a whole, as I’m sure others in other places went through similar things.

GS: As I understand it, the authorities and average citizens of Franklin sort of came together in favor of bootlegging as a way to counter the problems of the Depression. Is this what happened?

MB: There was a generally accepted system of bribes, and it went on throughout Franklin County, and probably many other areas. Police officers looked the other way and allowed this to happen in the open, and we know they were being slipped money or perhaps a case of something. There was an understanding, and this is a small town. The sheriff and police knew everybody. What was unusual was the commonwealth attorney got his sheriffs together and turned bribery into a system. There were specific fees for making moonshine, for transporting it, and the money was going to flow up to the top. This was also done under threat — if the bribes were not paid, the stills could be destroyed. Nobody was innocent. But it was seen as profitable for everyone, from the moonshiners who didn’t have to fear arrest to the law enforcement who made a cut of the profits.

GS: When you watch the film, what is it like for you to see your grandparents, or representations of them?

MB: It’s very strange, very surreal. I had been thinking about my grandfather as a young man, roughly 18, for the last ten years, even though I never saw him that way. As I was writing the book, I built up this image in my head of what all these people looked like, and then the film rights were bought and Shia LaBeouf is attached to play Jack. It’s very surreal, because now I can see my grandfather three or four versions removed from how he was and how I envisioned him. It helps distance me from it emotionally. My direct emotional attachment is to my grandfather and not to the character played by Shia LaBeouf. It’s still really strange, because the scenes that come directly from the book are showing things more or less exactly as I imagined them. The first time I watched it, I spent the whole time not watching but actually evaluating the decisions made by myself, Nick Cave and John Hillcoat. And the actors. I didn’t actually relax and enjoy it as a film until the third or fourth time, and now I find it emotionally moving.

GS: Your grandmother is portrayed as being in a religious sect but it’s not really specified. What was it?

MB: She was a Dunkard, which is basically the old order German Baptist church. Dunkards for short, because of their baptism practices. The old order Germans are related to what are called the Brethren churches, which are similar to groups like Mennonites and Amish. They dress plain, and have austere rules about dress, decor and demeanor. So my grandmother grew up in that church. This is in the book, but I think in the movie they were wary of depicting a lesser-known sect. They didn’t know if people would get it. I think in the script it might say “Mennonite” somewhere. It’s somewhere between a Mennonite and a Baptist, which provided lots of great content for me with a strict religious woman marrying a notorious man.

GS: I bet! Thanks so much for your time, Matt.

MB: Not a problem, thank you!

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