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Walter Salles: Back on the road

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  • Walter Salles is working on a film adaptation of "On the Road"
  • The Brazilian director has helped lead a resurgence in Latin American cinema
  • His latest movie, "Linha de Passe," embodies his improvisational style
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By Grace Wong
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Brazilian director Walter Salles films a movie, the journey is often more interesting than the final destination.

Walter Salles at the closing ceremony of the Cannes International Film Festival, 2008

Salles, the director of "The Motorcycle Diaries," likes to let the fabric of his films develop as he shoots, and as a result, his movies often take on an improvisational quality.

The approach couldn't be more fitting for his current project, the adaptation of Jack Kerouac's seminal novel, "On the Road." Kerouac, who famously typed the manuscript on a single scroll of paper, wrote in a loose, free-form style that captured the energy and excitement of spontaneous creation.

First published in 1957, Kerouac's story about Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty -- two young men who journey across the North American landscape in pursuit of self-knowledge and experience -- still resonates in today's world, according to Salles.

"I am not really interested in doing a period piece that wouldn't have a correlation with what we are living right now," he told CNN. "There is a strange modernity to the theme, and maybe "On the Road" is more contemporary today than it ever was," Salles said.

The film adaptation of the novel has been stuck in development since Francis Ford Coppola optioned the rights nearly three decades ago. But the film appears to be moving ahead with Salles at the helm.

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Salles, 52, started out making documentaries, and his fiction films still possess a strong sense of realism. To achieve that authenticity, Salles often casts non-actors and relies heavily on improvisation.

In his latest movie "Linha de Passe," all of the actors, with the exception of one, were making their film debut. About half of the film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year, was improvised, according to Salles.

Filming on the road, which injects an element of uncertainty, is another method Salles uses to foster natural improvisation. He has directed three road movies: "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004), "Central Station" (1998) and "Foreign Land" (1996), which he co-directed with Daniela Thomas.

"The beauty of road movies is that they teach you that the further you go from the place where you originate from, the better you understand where you are from," said Salles, "and that is kind of a blessing to be able to discover one's identity."

The son of a diplomat, Salles grew up moving from country to country and developed an interest in filmmaking because he wanted to explore his roots and better understand his homeland.

His films are as much about place as they are about people, and have often drawn attention to the political and social problems facing Brazil. "Linha de Passe" takes a poignant look at Sao Paulo's underclass through the lives of four brothers, who have different fathers, and their mother.

Salles is at the forefront of a new wave of Latin American cinema and has played a central role cultivating a sense of unity among the region's filmmakers. He is known for nurturing local talent and runs a production company with his brother that promotes first-time directors.

Adapting a novel like "On the Road," which has attracted legions of fans over the last half-century and inspired many to hit the open road, is no easy task. "It's very difficult. It's like jumping without a parachute," Salles told CNN.

Salles has succeeded in taking on revered works before. He filmed Che Guevara's cult journal, "The Motorcycle Diaries," and was hailed for his humanistic portrayal of the revolutionary's early life.

Part of his success can be attributed to his meticulous preparation. When making "The Motorcycle Diaries," he conducted years of in-depth research into Latin America culture in the 1950s and completed Che's journey through South America's rugged landscape three times.

Salles is approaching "On the Road" in a similarly thorough manner. He followed the route Kerouac took when he wrote the book and made a documentary along the way as he interviewed Beat poets and other characters from the novel who are still living.

That experience him better understand the roots of the Beat movement and the inspiration behind the Kerouac's book, Salles said, who is committed to staying faithful to the essence of the book.

But he noted, as with any adaptation, the resulting film will reflect his understanding of the book and the interpretation of the actors and crew working with him.

"This is a collective endeavor, so it is the result of that blending of perceptions that will actually generate a film and hopefully this interpretation will generate a dialogue with the Kerouac fans."

Salles is currently working on an adaptation of "On the Road" with Francis Ford Coppola and aims to start filming in the spring.

Watch The Screening Room's Brazil on the following dates:

Wednesday 22 October: 0830, 1730 Saturday 25 October: 0730, 1700 Sunday 26 October: 1630, 1730 Monday 27 October: 0300 (all times GMT)'

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