Fall 2018 Director's Profile: John Hillcoat
John Hilcoat
Meshing disciplines in a heartfelt manner

Feature director (The Road, The Proposition) John Hillcoat successfully extended his reach to commercials back in 2010, making an auspicious ad debut with Levi’s “To Work” for Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore. Fast forward to today and Hillcoat has gone far beyond just crossing over from one filmmaking discipline to another. He has stirringly meshed the feature and branding sectors with Corazón, a 48-minute film about organ donation for Montefiore hospital out of agency JohnXHannes, New York.

Corazón has received assorted accolades this awards season, including the Cannes Lions Health & Wellness Grand Prix as well as an Entertainment Gold Lion. Produced by Hillcoat’s spot/branded content roost Serial Pictures, Corazón depicts the real-life story of Elena Ramirez (portrayed by Ana de Armas whose credits include Blade Runner 2049 and Hands of Stone), a young Dominican woman living in Santo Domingo who is selling her body to provide for her family—only Ramirez’s body is failing her. She has a bad heart and has been given months to live unless she gets a new heart. After fainting, Elena meets a U.S.-based cardiologist, Dr. Mario Garcia (portrayed by Demian Bichir, an Oscar nominee for A Better Life), who is volunteering in his native hometown of Santo Domingo. Ramirez is past the point of help from conventional medicine, but Dr. Garcia gives her a fighting chance to live via a mechanical heart surgery that he and his colleagues can only perform at Montefiore in the Bronx. Ramirez sets out on a journey from Santo Domingo to New York City, facing challenges along the way, but always motivated by her conviction to live. This is a story of chance, hope, courage, friendship, love and generosity.

Lensed by Oscar-nominated (Arrival) cinematographer Bradford Young, ASC, and scored by Oscar-winning (The Social Network) composer Atticus Ross, Corazón caries the tagline, “Give Your Heart,” which serves as a call to action designed to prompt people to register with Donate Life America, a short process which applicants can initiate by pressing their phones to their hearts.

The film exhibits a continuing thread which runs through Hillcoat’s work—an affinity for the delving into the human condition and sparking empathy—often for characters with whom an audience doesn’t typically identify with, or chooses to ignore. In the case of Corazón, that protagonist is a sex worker from a Third World country. But once we are put in her shoes, a caring for her and her plight emerges—and it’s shared by the medical professionals at Montefiore who strive to save her.

Hillcoat also sees the story as helping to break down barriers in terms of how immigrants are perceived—by introducing us to patient Ramirez and Dr. Garcia who’s originally from Argentina but grew up in the Dominican Republic and goes back there regularly to help those in need. 

It’s a rich narrative vein that Hillcoat has tapped into through his filmmaking endeavors—a case in point being Expedia’s “Train” spot. “That’s a piece which showed how travel and interacting with other cultures can be an incredible way to develop your understanding of the world and you as a person,” observed Hillcoat. “It’s interesting because they put that spot out on the day of Trump’s inauguration. I’ve been lucky to come across a number of spots that carry poignancy.”

Hillcoat has also received backlash from some of that work, most famously his 2014 Super Bowl ad for Coca-Cola, “It’s Beautiful” out of Wieden+Kennedy. The :60 shows adults and children from all walks of life and from all over the country singing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages. The beautifully done spot focuses on what unites us all, which seems a perfect fit for the Super Bowl. In this era of fragmented media, the Super bowl represents a rare, shared experience capturing most of the country’s eyeballs, bringing us together not only for the game and celebrations but also for the commercials. However, “It’s Beautiful” generated controversy in some circles, with objections over hearing “America the Beautiful” sung in languages other than English. Others took issue with the inclusion of two gay dads in the commercial. A blog post from former Republican Congressman Allen West read, “If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing ‘America the Beautiful’ in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come—doggone we are on the road to perdition.” A Fox News Radio host tweeted, “So was Coca-Cola saying America is beautiful because new immigrants don’t learn to speak English?”

Hillcoat at the time said it was “sad to see how deeply rooted these reactionary views are. Various immigrant communities literally have built and created this country. These negative reactions come out of ignorance about this country’s history.”
There was much pushback to the negative reactions. Social media contained much outrage in response to the outrage against the ad. Still, outrage is the antithesis of what “It’s Beautiful” hoped to stir and depict.

Short and long-form fare
Hillcoat continues to spread his wings in both short and long-form. Last year he helmed the “Crocodile” episode of Black Mirror (Netflix). And Hillcoat has a music video lineage. He has, for example, a long-time, collaborative with close friend Nick Cave. Originally teenage friends, the two have worked on more than a dozen projects together—Hillcoat directing some of Cave’s music videos and Cave writing, composing and performing many of Hillcoat’s most well-known films. Cave wrote the screenplay for Hillcoat’s feature The Proposition.

Throughout his music video career, Hillcoat has worked closely with such performers as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Depeche Mode, and Robert Plant. And Hillcoat helmed a Johnny Cash video marking an album of his that never got released. The video was for the song “She Used To Love Me A Lot.” On one level, it’s a classic simple, mournful, beautiful love song. On another level, it’s a song that can be a metaphor for Cash and America, what he was fighting for, his penchant for championing underdogs and those often overlooked in society.

Hillcoat’s feature filmmaking career dates back to his first movie, Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, which won the La Sapienza University Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Since then he has directed The Proposition, then the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” starring Viggo Mortenson and Charlize Theron, Lawless featuring Tom Hardy, and the cop heist, Triple 9, starring Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Hillcoat’s body of work has earned nominations for the Cannes Palm d’Or, the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion, and a BAFTA Film Award.

But transcending the recognition he’s received ranging from the Cannes Film Festival to this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is what Hillcoat’s work has yielded in society, the most important impact coming from Corazón. “The last time I checked, the film had initiated 4,000 new organ donors—that’s equivalent to saving or improving 30,000 lives in that one person can donate eight vital organs,” said Hillcoat. “One donor can save eight lives. My hope is that the film continues to gain exposure. I’m proud of the work and what it’s doing.”

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