EDITORS NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. “Trucker” opens in theaters Friday.
John Mottern makes his feature directorial debut with “Trucker.” The film follows Diane Ford (Michelle Monaghan), a truck driver with a tendency for bar benders and one-night stands. That changes when her estranged 11-year old son shows up at her door when her ex-husband (Benjamin Bratt) is hospitalized. Mottern, who previously wrote and directed documentaries for BBC and Discovery, talked to indieWIRE about the film at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
The film “The Last Picture Show; I saw it at eleven and it changed my life. I carried around that film like a diamond in my pocket. Later, I wrote and directed documentaries, mostly for television. I enjoyed it, but still had the diamond. Watched and still watch the greats almost compulsively like Antonioni, Bergman, Schlesinger, Huston, Ford, Godard, Coppolla, Scorsese. I just am so in love with film that I unapologetically consider and call it my religion.
What was the inspiration for this film?
I disappeared into the California desert around Riverside for a while and it’s very close to Los Angeles but still someplace you can get lost if you want to. There’s a lot of trucking, transportation, meth, drinking, trouble, as it’s at the crossroads of big North-South, East-West interstates. It’s a hard place, and some say an ugly place but at night when you drive through the lonely, empty distribution centers and the cool air has come down and the dark is all lit up by these sodium vapors and you see the row upon row of tractor trailers and the acres of steel buildings it makes you feel something and you can see that it is beautiful if you let it be beautiful. And one day I was in a truck stop and I saw this truck driver come in. A woman.
She was all in denim and she had this bleach-blond hair. She turned towards me as she strode and her skin was tanned to leather but her eyes were this bright blue that people get when they have blue eyes and they’ve been in the desert and the sun for too many years. She was in this denim, like I said, and walked like a teamster but sexy as hell and somewhat dangerous and melancholy, too, like she’d lost something great. She had this power to her that was unmistakable. Very visceral. It was troubling. Anyway, when I saw Michelle Monaghan in that picture “North Country” she sort of hit me in the same way and damnit if she didn’t pull it off.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I love the films of the Seventies. “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Detail,” “The Last Picture Show,” so many. And for me there’s an easiness, an openness, a kind of intangible grace to those films that I adore. It’s maybe about the script and the actors but to me I think it’s also about the process of how those films were made. Maybe it’s just that I long for what I perceive as that early Seventies madness and the way filmmaking completely got turned on its ear. Anyway, my approach in making “Trucker” was as an open society. At least I tried to make it that way. As a director I definitely have a vision but my job is to serve the story, and to serve the story one must show humility to the process and the process is a collaborative one. So I really loved crafting the visual style with my DP and production designer, and with my actors, especially Michelle Monaghan, developed and honed each characters voice not just within the story but also to the particular person’s real voice. I would consider it as much Larry Sher, my DP’s film and Michelle Monaghan’s film as my own.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
I optioned this mother fucker a bunch of times and every time I was about to make it someone would call me (or not call me) and tell me that they were sorry but their company was going out of business. I finally took it as a sign that I could depend on nobody but myself to make it happen. Ultimately, with the help of Robert Kessel we got the script to the future president of Paramount Pictures Celine Rattray who got the money and to who I am very grateful. And then there was the lead actress. I could never settle on someone and it made it tough to commit to going for it. I absolutely believed in this movie and the story, really, of this one character, Diane Ford. And although I could sort of see a lot of actresses in the role nobody ever really got into my bones over it until Michelle came along and when she agreed to do it the planets lined up just right and we went and made it.