LOS ANGELES — Bursting with violence and laced with period atmosphere, the Depression-era tale “Lawless” opening Wednesday centers on three adult brothers known as the Bondurants who take up arms to protect their bootlegging trade from corrupt authorities and mobsters. It features stars — the brothers are played by Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke — and, perhaps more notably, a high body count.
And if there’s one thing screenwriter Nick Cave likes, it’s some old-fashioned blood and brutality.
“To me, violence is the dominant principle of the last century,” Cave said in a phone interview. “It’s something we’re all involved with or implicated in. Sometimes I’m surprised there isn’t more of it in entertainment.”
Cave, 54, is primarily known as a musician, most famously with the genre-busting band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a group born in London in 1984 and is still extant after 14 albums.
While sometimes probing religion and romance in his music, Cave is often preoccupied with the dark side of the human soul. Even his unlikely hit, 1996’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” an orchestral ballad sung with pop star Kylie Minogue, is about a man who kills his lady love.
More than most in the entertainment world, Cave has skirted the line between mainstream acceptance and punkish iconoclasm, moonlighting in multiple areas. He’s published two novels and was one of a handful of contributors to the script of a 1988 prison drama called “Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead,” in which he acted as well.
That film was directed by Cave’s friend and fellow Australian John Hillcoat, who also made “Lawless.” Hillcoat has been nudging Cave toward a more serious screenwriting career for several years. About a decade ago, Hillcoat asked him to write an Australian Western. “I thought it was a terrible idea for a movie,” Cave recalled.
But Hillcoat eventually persuaded him, and the result was 2005’s “The Proposition.” Starring Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce and Emily Watson, the 1880s-era story set in the Australian outback looks at the brutal fallout after a family is raped and murdered by an infamous gang.
Several years ago, Cave signed up for “Lawless” because of Hillcoat’s involvement and because he was enthralled by the quality of the prose in the hybrid memoir-novel, “The Wettest County in the World,” on which the film is based.
The book was written by Matt Bondurant, a descendant of the people who inspired the characters in “Lawless.” Cave said he was attracted to the writing, which has a baroque and graphic quality. He also thought the narrative spoke to “a story of survival that’s in all of us.”
Cave did run into back-and-forth with financiers, a process the writer describes as bumpier than his go-round on “The Proposition.” It all seemed to take its toll on the screenwriter.
“I don’t mind artistic pain. It’s all the repetition I find painful,” Cave said. Yet he continues to work in the field, and for the first time is considering screenwriting work on movies directed by people other than Hillcoat.
It’s hardly the only contradiction for Cave, a lanky man with an unkempt mane of black hair who’s a married father of twin boys but still pens macabre lyrics. Though his songs have appeared in such commercial concoctions as “Dumb & Dumber” and “Shrek 2,” he expresses a disdain for the studio world. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, where “Lawless” premiered, Cave joked in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that the only way Hollywood likes originality is if someone else did it first.
“I don’t think Hollywood makes many good films anymore,” he elaborated in the phone interview. “How many directors can you really trust to have an artistic vision, not a corporate vision or a watered-down communal one?”
Then there’s this: Cave writes violent movies — “Lawless” is rated R in part for “strong bloody violence,” and it’s a movie more interested in the mechanics than the morality of brutal survival — even though he believes that there’s a connection between screen violence and real-world savagery.
Asked about the relationship between media and the shootings at a “Dark Knight Rises” screening at a Colorado multiplex last month, he said, “If beautiful movies can influence you to go out and hug your children, then we have to be honest and say that other movies can inspire you to do bad things.” (He said the work he’s done with Hillcoat, though, falls outside this category because it’s handled “responsibly.”)
As for his own interest in writing violent films, he said it would continue — but only as a means to an end.
“A rock musician’s career is short-lived. To extend it you need to do other things to keep yourself fresh,” said Cave. “Writing screenplays makes me a better musician because it clears my head. After writing a movie, I go running back to music as fast as I can.”