Which makes "The Broken Tower" by no means an easy sit. The abstract structure is challenging and fascinating in equal measure. I'm guessing you didn't make this with the intention of getting it seen by a wide audience; it's a thesis project. Were you wary of releasing this, in fear of polorazing your loyal fan base?
Some comments I've heard or read online…"It's a mix between art film and student film." To me, that's just a really easy way to try and describe what it is. I'm an older student for film school. I didn't need to go to film school to get movies made. I went because it put me in touch with younger filmmakers. It gave me permission to just experiment and try things. You don't need to be guided by the commercial theatrical marketplace that I've been working in as an actor.
The film is exactly how I intended it. And I had teachers at film school who would read the script and say, "James, comes on. Give it more of a conventional arc." And I'd say, "No, I want to be loyal to Hart Crane. The way I'm going to do that is not make a traditional biopic or a Lifetime movie. The way to do that is to make it as rigorous of a viewing as reading his poetry is."
I know that will limit the audience for this kind of film, but I'm aware of that and responsible. I didn't make it for a huge amount of money. I let those restraints influence the style. I feel like it has a very intimate, but also very epic feel at the same time.
One of the things I've learned as a filmmaker is to have some aspect of the movie be something that I admire greatly, whether that's an actor I'm working with, the subject matter, or a book. That makes me raise myself to their level. In this case, it's Crane. I did it for him.
I know I might face critical response, or won't have much commercial success, like if I had made a romantic comedy. But I've been involved in the biggest commercial movies, movies that broke box-office records. I've been in movies that won Academy Awards. To me, neither of those things were goals -- the critical praise or the commercial success. It was about making something as true to the subject as I could, but not being reckless about it.
You've since directed "Child of God," an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel; a film with no doubt a bigger budget and more riding on it to perform commercial wise. What did you take over from your experience making "The Broken Tower," to "Child of God"?
"Child of God" is a little bigger, but it's also a very difficult subject matter. It's about a murderer who's also a necrophiliac. But it's not a horror film. I feel like it's really a poetic psychological study. Almost like a metaphor. And so again I was thinking responsibly. I felt so honored that I got to use Cormac's book; he's probably my favorite novelist. So I wanted to rise to the occasion.
I feel like sometimes people do an injustice to people like Cormac by spending too much. People have been trying to make a "Blood Meridian" movie, but the budgets I heard were hundreds of millions. That is going to have an effect on content. Yeah, you're going to get some spectacular visuals, but one of the keys to that book is the darkness, and one of the keys to my book is the darkness. Once you have more money, you have more people invested in how it's going to play in theaters. They're not going to want that darkness. So I made it for a fairly modest budget so I could keep that integrity. I never want to do something for a low budget that will then start to take away from my subject. I'm always very careful to make sure that we still have everything we need.
The main thing: it enables to make movies I really feel would never be made otherwise. I mean, once I started making "Child of God," I heard all these stories. Sean Penn at one point had the rights and wanted to make it; Harmony Korine's wife told me she was talking to Lynne Ramsay about the book years ago, but nobody made it! And I know for a fact, Tim Blake Nelson, who's in my movie, was going to direct Penn's version. And they were trying to do it for a certain budget, because there's a big flood scene. I just thought, if that flood scene is going to prevent us from doing it, then we'll just do it in a certain way.
Just be smart about how you do it, and be aware of its potential, and then be responsible to that.