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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Little Birds” Director Elgin James

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Little Birds” Director Elgin James

“Little Birds” emanates both a harsh reality and an innocent luster as it explores the vigorous desire to escape one’s home – and the heavy price it can cost.

Fifteen-year-old Lily and her best friend, Alison, live on the shores of the Salton Sea. Sprinting toward adulthood, Lily wants to escape her depressing hometown. But Alison is content with her life; she enjoys being sheltered from the uncertainty of growing up. When the girls meet three street kids, Lily convinces Alison to follow the boys to Los Angeles. Thrust into a world of excitement and danger, the girls must decide how far they are willing to go to get what they want.

Writer/director Elgin James possesses an innate understanding of the fledgling characters, valiantly brought to life on the screen by Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker, who perfectly embody their strength and fragility. Brutally honest and beautifully rendered, “Little Birds” delivers a stunning portrait of innocence lost. [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

“Little Birds”
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Elgin James
Screenwriter: Elgin James
Cast: Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Leslie Mann, Kate Bosworth, Kyle Gallner, Chris Coy
Producer: Jamie Patricof, Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky
Cinematographer: Reed Morano
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
Production Designer: Todd Fjelsted
Costume Designer: Trayce Field
Coproducers: Pavlina Hatoupis, Keith Fairclough

Responses courtesy of “Little Birds” director Elgin James.

The comfort of cinema…
I grew up in an unstable environment.  I was terrified of the world as a kid and the only time I ever felt safe was when I was lost in a movie.  Even as I grew older, and hardened myself with the same violence I’d feared as a kid, the only time I ever felt at peace was in a dark movie theater, dreading the moment the lights came up and I was thrust back into the real world.  So when I changed my life and decided to start over, there was only one thing I wanted to do. And that was to make movies.

Working against the violence…

Studios were originally interested in making a film based on my life story.  There were two writers and a director attached.  I was basically just the dumb “gang” guy in the room.  No one trusted me to write it, and certainly not shoot it. But it became clear their version of my story was developing into something that would romanticize the violence I had fought so hard to leave behind. The last thing I wanted was to glamorize it and lure people into that lifestyle.  

So I walked away from the project and went home and wrote my first script, “Little Birds.”  A story about two fifteen year old girls trying to get out of their small town, and how the world chews them up and spits them out once they do.  What I hadn’t expected was that I would end up with something ten times more autobiographical than if I had tried to write my own so called “life story.”  And what I also hadn’t expected was that Michelle Satter and the Sundance Institute would come into the picture and completely change my life.  They allowed me into the screenwriters and directors labs, taking a giant gamble on a kid with not a lot of education, and not a lot of positive traits on paper. And helped me not only find my voice as an artist, but also helped me find my footing in the world.  I’ve never been as proud of anything as I am to be a sundance fellow.  

A committed production team…

The first thing my producer Jamie Patricof and I decided was that we needed a very female-centric crew.  We were going to be telling the story of two young girls and that’s the energy we needed on set.   I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by amazing, strong women my entire life, and that streak continued with the first two people attached to the film, cinematographer Reed Morano and the actress Juno Temple. Reed was six months pregnant when we filmed.  So not only did she have this incredible maternal energy, but she was also a pitbull. Leading the charge with her pregnant belly and 50 pound camera on her shoulder, shooting 18 hour days in triple digit weather in a barren wasteland of dead fish and bird bone dust.  

The crew could never complain, because they were being led by a full fledged superhero. She and I had worked for two years on the look of the film, spending hours on the phone talking about John Ford, and sending each other William Eggleston books and obscure German films shot in 2:35.  So once we went into production I could basically work with my eyes closed, and spend all my time with the actors.  I trusted her implicitly and was richly rewarded, because the finished product turned out even more beautiful and visually textured than I ever could have imagined. 
And Juno is such an incredible and generous talent, she set the bar incredibly high for the other actors.  She and I had also worked for almost two years before we ever got to shoot a frame.  So the film had become just as much hers as it was mine.  She gave all of her soul every minute, and that made everyone around her be the best they could be too.  

There was one day that first shot called for her and Kay to be in the freezing Pacific Ocean at 4 am.  Juno then went on to be in every single scene we shot for the rest of the day, ending at 3 am the NEXT morning naked in a tub of cold water, full of floating dirt and dead skin from the grips walking in it in their bare feet.  And when I finally called “cut,” 23 hours after my first “action,” Juno asked in her little English voice, if I “was sure,” and maybe we should “get one more take.” She would have died for the film. 
So I’d say my approach to making the film was to find the most brilliant and fiercely loyal collaborators I could, and then head off into battle with them. Reed and Juno made me bulletproof.

“Little Birds” director Elgin James. Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

“An authenticity that can’t be faked…”

One of the reasons we cast Chris Coy (as David, one of the homeless skateboarders), was besides being a great actor,  he also has an authenticity that can’t be faked. The casting director, Wendy O’Brien, and I fought like hell to get him in the film.  We knew no one else could play that role. 
What we didn’t find out though, until he had been cast, was that like his character, Chris had been homeless, too.  And what was even crazier was that he had lived in the very same abandoned building we were set to shoot half of the film in. A decrepit old motel turned squat in Koreatown.
So, in a few years, by working his ass off, and with pure tenacity and talent, Chris went from living in an abandoned building to being an actor in a film shooting in that same spot.  

A contemporary version of “The Grapes of Wrath”…

While we were waiting those two years to make “Little Birds,” Juno and I would get together and talk not only about her character, but also daydream about other movies we wanted to make together.   One night, when it seemed Little Birds would never get off the ground, we decided to start writing another film.  It’s about a forgotten section of our society, similar to the young people struck with wanderlust during the Great Depression. We call it our grimy, modern version of “The Grapes Of Wrath.”  I think Juno’s most excited about it because the story calls for her not having to bathe for months. 

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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