Reimagining the story of a Hollywood icon like James Dean is not a task exempt from pressure and expectation. With A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree 1951, LA based director Matthew Mishory has crafted an bold black and white episodic film that captures the star at perhaps the most interesting point: his transition into an acting genius. Here Matthew talks to us about James Dean, the filmmaking process and the state of cinema itself.
A Portrait of James Dean: Joshua Tree 1951 is a really interesting take on the biographical film, how did you approaching making the film?
We were very aware making the film that there had already been several very conventional biopics made that dealt mostly with the very short and I thought not very interesting time in which he was actually famous. So our approach was to do something very, very different, to make a film that was episodic in structure, it was almost like a filmed essay that really asked the question ‘what were the antecedents of the really remarkable life and career that come a little bit later?’ And to me that’s really the most interesting question in any life…
What does the location of the Joshua Tree desert say to you about Dean?
To me the Mojave desert is where people in California come to be inspired, to create for a very long time. Its hard to describe to somebody who hasn’t been there. He did actually go to the desert. It happened a few years later when he was sort of plucked off the stage by Elia Kazan and brought to California to do East of Eden. You know, Dean had spent an entire winter in New York and the studio sent him and his roommate out to the desert to tan; that’s a fantastic metaphor for everything that comprises a Hollywood career. That this very, very profound and serious person was sent to a profound and serious place for the completely trivial purpose of getting a tan.
The scene in the desert was quite pertinent when the character Violet tells Dean that he will never get his mother back…
We all become artists out of the need for some lack, I think that’s been proven many times in history and obviously intrinsic in the desire to be an actor is the desire to be loved by a greater audience and usually to atone for some lack of love in every day life. I think that was a part of Dean’s story as well.
He certainly had a father who, well he might have loved him, but certainly didn’t know how to show it and we do deal with that in one episode in the film and I think it haunts the rest of the film. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that perhaps the most extraordinary Dean performance is in a father, son story, in East of Eden. And that was actually the film that really drew me to him as an actor in the first place.
At what point did you decide to make a film about his homosexuality, or his bisexuality? That’s an angle on the story that people might be surprised by:
Yeah, I suppose I’m always surprised that people are surprised. Maybe I should be playing up the shocking or controversial nature of the film to sell some theatre tickets and discs, but to me what has basically been common knowledge for decades is completely uncontroversial. I think his friend Elizabeth Taylor really said it on national television one night and nobody really bats an eye.
We certainly weren’t starting out to make any great statement about sexuality or Dean’s sexuality. We just made the film as the characters were. I think one thing I do like about the film is that there is no handwringing or angst or well, there’s just no angst about sexuality in the film. I think that’s reflective of the time in a way in that people were often, especially in Hollywood much more sexually libertine in the late 40’s and 50’s than they are today, but that entire world just happened behind closed doors and you didn’t have paparazzi cameras and cell phone cameras thrust in everybody’s face all the time.
How did you decide to include the literary references? Because perhaps people don’t use literary references as a part of how they see themselves as much these days:
Well, I do, but maybe it makes me antiquated. I hope people would go and look them up and discover that the most interesting and rebellious and violent rock star who ever lived was Arthur Rimbaud and certainly he’s very interesting to read about and I hope that people might use that as an entry point to those references, but for me it’s a fabric of the story and it was a different time, people did commit entire poems to memory, you know they read incessantly.
You know a great contradiction in Dean was that he could barely read. He was most likely intensely dyslexic. He had a very hard time reading and an immensely hard time memorising scripts. He had people read to him. He took quite a few pictures with his nose in a book, which I think is actually a reflection of how difficult it was for him to actually read. But he had people read to him and he was a great sort of intellectual sponge who absorbed from all sides.
I’m interested in another textural aspect, the use of colour. What was your concept there? I felt that the shots of him in colour looked like they were showing us a glimpse of what he was going to become, the Dean of Rebel Without A Cause, and the black and white was him becoming what we know him to be…
Wow, that’s quite profound. If we ever get a special edition DVD maybe you can write the essay book for the DVD… I agree! I think that for me colour in the film suggests subjectivity and particularly the subjectivity of The Roommate. You know these Technicolor sequences that are very rich and lush on the hillside and that to me represents the subjectivity of The Roommate years later, maybe thinking back on those moments, because we do sometimes see our own history in romanticised terms.
I think Super 8, which is very rough and raw, kind of a sexy format and usually evokes memory, family films, that sort of thing. But we used it in a different way where its kind of raw and in the moment and to me that reflects the subjectivity of The Roommate in that moment, where he’s quite literally watching Jimmy and imagining what he could become…
It’s interesting that you’ve used Super 8 as a flash forwards, rather than a flash back and that’s so opposite to the way its normally used.
Yeah, I think often in this film we’re using materials you wouldn’t expect. I like to shoot on film, I like to use small gauges, there’s also Super 16 in the film. I think that audiences will hopefully find that there some surprising choices in the materials. It makes for a different viewing experience also I hope.
It absolutely does, the film is very bold in its style. That also brings me on to your previous film about the work of Derek Jarman:
I did I made a film about… well I guess its also about the work of Derek Jarman. Its about his childhood, a moment from his childhood, but its really a… I suppose it’s a homage, it’s a visual love letter to Derek Jarman’s work and also to the idea that childhood experiences, early life experiences can inspire us to do something very unusual or great in our lives.
It’s interesting because you have said that you watched East of Eden when you were very young. Since you’ve made this film (Portrait of James Dean) now, this seems like a very pertinent theme for your work:
I suppose it’s just all very personal and obsessive for me. It’s very difficult to make films, it’s especially difficult now in America because we don’t have any public or arts funding for films anymore. It’s just such a difficult, torturous process now that you really have to make films that you really care about and it’s such a lengthy process. Its takes several years to make a film and I think now the way distribution works, distribution is a several year process. We took this film to just dozens and dozens of film festivals before it was even in theatres.
I was wondering what your references making the film were, aside from James Dean’s himself?
The cinematographer Michael Pessah is a very good friend of mine, this is our third collaboration. We didn’t really talk about a lot of films when we prepped to make the movie. We looked at Todd Haynes’ Poison and I’m Not There, we looked at The Tarnished Angels and some of the black and white work that Douglas Sirk was doing. We even looked at Swoon. And then more generally we looked at things like 8½ and Manhatten.
I mean we went back and looked at things that we thought were a group of really great black and white films and then realised that none of them really reflected the style that we were going for and what really influenced us was stills photography and also painting. You know for me the greatest filmmaker of all time is Caravaggio and he wasn’t even making films, but everything we do in film lighting comes from the work of that school of painters.
But we looked at a lot of stills photographs, you know the studio photographers of the day, Irving Penn and others. And I think most significantly not just because we were shooting in the California desert but also because of his work with colour filters and black and white photographs, Ansel Adams, a lot of his work also.
How did you go about casting the film?
Yeah so we found James Preston, who I think is really fantastic in the film, in the most conventionally possible way. When James came in and did his final audition we were all pretty sure we had our guy. What I like about his performance is it’s not a mimicry.
I told James who had spent a lot of time researching every personality tick he could find in James Dean biographies, to throw all that out the second he got on set and just play the character as he was, as this young man who makes his way to Hollywood from somewhere in the centre of the country, in his case Indiana, in James’ case its Texas and finds himself basically eaten alive in Hollywood and that was James’ story as well.
We needed an actor who was frankly so young and green and fearless that he was willing to take it on and James was that actor. He played it without fear because he didn’t know any better. Sometimes that’s the best possible thing.
What have you learned now you’ve directed your first feature?
I think that really its important to do it your way and at least for the first film to carve out one’s own unique voice and way of seeing things and maybe it will work perfectly and maybe it wont and maybe some audiences will really connect with it and others wont. The system of finance and approvals exists to sort of stamp out those voices and bring everybody to the mean, as close to the centre as possible. You know young filmmakers have an entire career to get there, you have an entire lifetime to become utterly boring and irrelevant.
I think what’s really important, what’s interesting, because I’m not just a filmmaker; I’m a consumer of film. I like seeing films that are strange in some way, that make me see the world a little bit differently. The United States doesn’t really make those kinds of films anymore, its really a shame, but we don’t…
Where do you think or who do you think is making the most interesting films if they’re not being made in the States?
I’m just finishing serving on the jury of the South East European Film Festival and I really like the films that are coming out of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It’s a completely insane part of the world, I mean just immeasurably crazy. It’s a group of countries that have not only fought a war with each other, but have often fought internal wars at the same time, so its an incredibly fractured and strife ridden part of the world but its also home to some of the most interesting culture.
Romania and Hungary, Turkey has a really interesting cinema now. I think the Persian cinema is very, very interesting. I thought one of the most interesting films I saw last year was a Persian film called This Is Not A Movie. The director was held under home arrest. A friend of mine is a French documentary director Jerôme De Missolz and his last doc Kids of Today was I probably my favourite film of last year.
Do you feel like its difficult as a filmmaker working in America to find a voice?
I think it’s a paradox. Certainly the industry here is not pushing at all for that kind of storytelling. Yet the most interesting and talented people all seem to find their way here even if for a short period of time. It’s sort of a gathering place and I think there’s something very appealing about making strange films right in the middle of Hollywood. As this film’s gone out and played around the world, often one of the questions we get is ‘what was it like making a film with a European point of view in the United States?’ and I guess we didn’t really see it that way. We just made the film we wanted to make and maybe it doesn’t entirely align with traditional Hollywood sensibilities.
What can we expect next from you?
Yeah sure, a couple of personal documentary projects, one of which is in post, one of which we’ll shoot in North Eastern Romania in Moldova in the fall and then I’m doing a bigger feature in the winter. It’s a political thriller and it’s a star vehicle for a young actor whose the grandson of the great British actor James Mason. And Morgan Mason who produced Sex, Lies and Videotape is producing the film.
It’s in many ways a bigger and more mainstream project but in other ways I think it is actually an interesting follow up to Joshua Tree because its also a Hollywood portrait, it’s about a young actor, but it deals with a related and contemporary theme which I alluded to earlier: the complete non-existence of privacy in celebrity life, so I see it as the sort of a second in maybe a series of films dealing with the strange paradoxes of the machinery of star-making. In its own way it’s a homage to the great paranoia thrillers of the 70’s, like the Parallax View. It’s being shot on Super 16, so more unusual materials.