ND/NF INTERVIEW: Alison Maclean's Acclaimed Second Coming with "Jesus' Son
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/4.6.2000) -- Dangerously close to becoming one of those 'What ever happened to's,' writer-director Alison Maclean has sufficiently bounced back from obscurity with her new feature "Jesus' Son," a remarkably faithful adaptation of Denis Johnson's beloved short story collection of drugs and redemption. After successful premieres in Telluride, Venice and Toronto -- all heralding the return of Maclean since her award-winning short "Kitchen Sink" (1989) and Cannes competition entry "Crush" (1992) thrust her into the industry limelight some years ago -- "Jesus' Son" screens this weekend at the New Directors/New Films series and opens in theaters this June.
An anecdotal journey involving a charming loser named Fuckhead (Billy Crudup), the film chronicles his meandering adventures, from domestic life with his drug-addicted girlfriend (Samantha Moreton), to gutting a house with his drunken friend (Denis Leary) to a brief stint in a hospital with a drugged-up orderly (the hilarious Jack Black). Other notable cameos include Dennis Hopper as a man shot by his wife and Holly Hunter as a woman who's survived her many lovers.
Maclean has kept herself busy in these intervening years writing scripts, trying to get projects off the ground with Zoetrope, Miramax, and Good Machine, directing music videos (Natalie Imbruglia) and episodes of HBO's "Subway Stories," Barry Levinson's "Homicide," and the HBO series, "Sex and the City," but it is with "Jesus' Son" that the Canadian-born, New Zealand-raised Manhattan transplant may finally get her Green Card.
At the Telluride Film Festival last September, just days after the first print came from the lab, indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman spoke with Maclean about car crashes, narrative structure, drugs, and taking risks.
indieWIRE: You've been ready to make another feature for awhile now? "Crush" was in '92. You've had some other work, but getting your second feature off the ground took some time, yes?
Alison Maclean: It really did take a while. I spent most of the time, writing, writing my own scripts, and then going through a lot of frustration and not being able to finance them, so that's what I've really done since then -- apart from a little bit of television which has happened in the last year and a half.
iW: When did you get involved with this particular script?
Maclean: I didn't originate it at all. [Executive Producers] Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia formed a company called Evenstar Films and they got the option to this book and it was the first thing they bought. And then they looked around for a director and approached me.
iW: So they were the ones that got the financing together?
Maclean: Yes, we went to many different companies, as we started to piece the cast together. There was a great deal of interest in the script and a number of companies were tracking it, but I think, they were a little bit nervous about the structure, and in some cases, were nervous about the drugs. So, they all ultimately passed, but wanted to see it when it was finished. Then Alliance and Lions Gate ended up making a deal right before it was finished.
It was private money. Actually, we ended up shooting it union, which turned out to be tough. We got a good deal from the East Coast Counsel and SAG, but it was very, very hard. It was an extremely difficult shoot. We were trying to do something extremely ambitious with the money we had. We ended up working some terrible hours, like 18-hour days, so we did the whole thing in 34 days. And it was really hard. We had such high expectations for every single, little part of it. So it was ambitious in that sense.
iW: I wanted to ask you about car crashes. Both "Crush" and "Jesus' Son" begin with them.
Maclean: I realized early on in the screenwriting process that it would be two films in a row that start with a car crash and actually, we didn't end up using the scene in the film, but they both originally ended with a shot of a landscape. It was really bizarre. Both films start with someone by the side of the road and a car crash. It was pure coincidence. They were both red cars. So it's funny. But I'll never do it again.
"That was the biggest challenge; to find some kind of through line that wouldn't be too heavy-handed, that wouldn't tie it up neat and pat."
iW: Let's talk some about that structure that initially scared off financiers.
Maclean: That was the biggest challenge of writing the script. It took two years of full time work with three writers, and they just worked and worked and worked, over and over, they were pretty unrelenting about it. But that was the biggest challenge; to find some kind of through line that wouldn't be too heavy-handed, that wouldn't tie it up neat and pat. But that would give you some sense of progression and transformation and we just fell in love with the way Denis Johnson would say in the book, "Oh, but I never finished telling you about this."
iW: How about in the directing; it seems you fell in love with the anecdotal way of telling the story.
Maclean: Yeah, that he was sort of this fallible narrator and storyteller. That was the thing that was most exhilarating about directing the film is that it's a set of stories. So for me, that gave me a tremendous sense of license and freedom to have a degree of stylization at times or heightened moments, visually or performance. Because each of the stories in the book, they all have their different tones. "Emergency" really stands out as being this pure, black comedy that's quite different, almost like a tall tale. So working with the DP and the designer and everybody else, we wanted to give each story its own particular color and tone and shooting style and even editing rhythm. A story like "Dirty Wedding" is completely handheld, and it's the only story like that, and it has much more of an itchy, jumpy rhythm to it, whereas something like "Beverly Home" is much smoother and choreographed. They're all, in subtle ways, different.
iW: And keeping them united is really the character of FH.
Maclean: Absolutely, he is the heart of the film and the script. One of the things the writers did, that we really worked hard on, was creating a character for Michelle. Because in the book, he refers to an ex-girlfriend and also a wife, so we combined them. In the book, she has only two lines, and one of them is "no, no, no." So all those scenes were written from scratch. That was daunting, to match Denis' phenomenal writing dialogue and to match his tone and humor -- that was definitely a challenge. At some point, when we were quite far on, we approached Denis and he came to New York and read a draft and liked it very much. We asked him if he'd write an extra scene for us, so he did, the scene between FH and Michelle, where she says, "Pretend it's the first time."
iW: It's an important scene. Getting back to Billy's character, you only did three days of rehearsal you said, but you have these moments where you rest on him for these extra beats. Was it always your intention to linger on him?
Maclean: I guess that sort of emerged in the editing. Not completely, I just think it's important not to be constantly cutting away from something that's happening -- you want to have a bit of time to take it in or have your response. So we shot with that in mind. But also, knowing that it's a very subjective story and he is the storyteller. And so the only way for a film like this to work is if you find a way to get inside him.
iW: Were you talking a lot during the shooting?
Maclean: Small things. Billy likes to take risks, likes to be pushed, and will try things in very different ways and very responsive always to direction -- very inventive and always coming up with something new.
iW: So you were open to that?
Maclean: I enjoy that with actors. I love to be surprised more than anything else.
iW: What about sticking to the script?
Maclean: Yeah, we're pretty strict about that. There really was very little that was improvised. Actually, it's funny, because some of my favorite lines in the film are things that he just came up with. Like remember the scene when he just comes in with Michelle after the park bench, he just says, "this is the kitchen aera." That was something he just came up with. Of course, I loved it, but generally, we all stuck close to the script. Denis has a particular tone in terms of his dialogue. We found, because we're all a bit obsessive about trying things out and making it perfect, we would try rewriting lines and so often, it just wouldn't have the right rhythm, so we ended up going back to what was originally there.
"You just keep developing, the films that you see, and the experiences that you have, you just keep almost making films hypothetically in your mind. So in that time, you're evolving, even though you're not actually doing it."
iW: How does the music date to the film's timeframe?
Maclean: Randy Poster, who brought the music to us, wanted to bring a lot of late 60's songs, even earlier, this sort of pop sensibility, which I might not have thought of. So it tended to be on the early side before it got into the psychedelia.
iW: Is there any sort of Irvine Welsh connection?
Maclean: Obviously, we thought about that. And "Trainspotting" had just come out and it was very popular and we thought about how was this film different from that. And it was really, really important to us that this not be perceived as a drug movie, even in the way that "Trainspotting" is. It is, of course, an important part of the story. He's messed up on one thing or another for quite a large part of the film, but it's really not what the film is about. It's part of a larger confusion and chaos that he goes into. FH has this fatal curiosity, where he just thinks he'll just go down that path and go down that path, and looking for some kind of transcendent experience. But it seems like that that's a step along the way and he doesn't need the drugs and survives on his own.
iW: Do you think you could have made this film the way it looks and feels now right after you made "Crush." Do you think you needed the time to grow as a director?
Maclean: That's sort of hard to answer, because all this time I was writing. I would have huge amounts of frustration and think that I was just wasting my time. But I think you just keep developing, the films that you see, and the experiences that you have, you just keep almost making films hypothetically in your mind. So in that time, you're evolving, even though you're not actually doing it.
iW: It's very mature filmmaking. You do a lot of interesting things with light and editing.
Maclean: I definitely wanted to. One of the things that I felt when I made "Crush" was I thought it was a little too controlled, which is my temperament. So I have to really push myself to loosen up and do something that's more energetic and has more movement and that's just messier in a way. One of the things that I did between the two films, was I did some music videos for Natalie Imbruglia, and that gave me a lot of confidence, in terms of doing something more stylized and with music and more improvising, so that gave me the confidence to take some risks. And there have been some films that have inspired me like Wong Kar-Wai's films like "Fallen Angels," which goes so much further -- a film like that was completely exhilarating to me, in terms of the filmmaking. It kind of gives you courage.
iW: In treating the anecdotes of "Jesus' Son," was that like shooting several short films?
Maclean: It was sort of exhilarating, because each time, new actors would come in just for a few days. You wouldn't have a lot of time to work with them, but you'd have to create this world, the characters, everything. Billy was having to form a relationship very quickly, and it was kind of crazy and exhilarating.
iW: My guess is that the best films are created out of crazy and exhilarating circumstances. So tell me about all of these scripts you have? The success of this film should help you, I'd think. What are some of these other projects?
Maclean: There's one I've been working on again, which I've been writing off and on for the last 4 years, that I've been developing with Good Machine. It's a psychological thriller/horror film about a woman who remembers things from her childhood that didn't in fact happen. It's about this whole confabulation that comes out of what is a falsity. At the moment, that feels what I'd like to do next, I'd like to work on my own material.
iW: I wonder how that will be different for you.
Maclean: They're both rewarding in different ways, but I guess I feel like I just follow my own guts and see where it leads me. This was a very collaborative process, almost unusually so, and it was challenging at times, and very difficult, but also very rewarding. There was definitely conflict at times, as there is when people feel very passionately about the material. So in some cases, we would have to argue through things. But I feel like the film is stronger for that, which is saying quite a bit.