’Joshua Tree: 1951’ :: the real James Dean?
With a career defined by just three films ("East of Eden," "Rebel Without A Cause" and "Giant"), James Dean remains one of the most iconic and enigmatic figures in popular culture. Biographer Donald Spoto put it this way: "Fierce and lovable, wild and gentle, obdurate and pliant, gauche and graceful, straight and gay, artless and calculating he was and remains all things to everyone."
He was 24 when he died in an automobile accident in September, 1955, shortly after principal shooting was completed on "Giant." His role in that film and "East of Eden" brought him two posthumous Oscar nominations.
"He was something of a latter-day Peter Pan," Spoto observes towards the end of his 1996 book "Rebel," "telling his followers to hurry, to ride, to aim high, but never to grow up, as he never grew up."
Over the years, movies have been made about him, with various degrees of depth and success. His sexuality has been the subject of debate among many circles. His former roommate in UCLA, screenwriter William Bast, had written about his relationship with the actor in the last five years of his life, claiming that their friendship did include sexual intimacy. It was inevitable that a film would be made about this aspect of Dean’s life.
Matthew Mishory conceived "Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean" as a short film; but upon completion, was encouraged to expand the project to full-length, his feature-length debut as a writer/director. The result is a gorgeously filmed stylized piece that meditates on the price of fame and the tornado effect that Dean has left those around him.
In Mishory’s version of events, after a winter in New York, James Dean (James Preston) arrives in Hollywood. Pale and pasty, he’s told to head out to the desert to rest and takes along a roommate, also a struggling actor. (Called the Roommate, he is played by Dan Glenn.) It is this trip that becomes the center of the film, where Dean ponders about life and love. EDGE spoke with writer/director Mishory, and two of his actors, Dan Glenn and Edward Singletary, about their take on this slice of Hollywood history. Singletary plays a fictionalized version of Dean’s real-life mentor Rogers Brackett. He also is one of the film’s producers.
Another James Dean movie?
EDGE: Why a movie about James Dean?
Matthew Mishory: I usually say, I did not find the film but the film found me. My earliest cinematic memories are of James Dean. My father came to the U.S. as an immigrant when he was 16 to study the violin at the Julliard. He learned to speak English by going to the cinemas and the first films that he went to see were the three incredible films of James Dean. So the very first film that I saw when I was a small child was ’East of Eden.’ It was almost an unstoppable force that my first feature that I would make would be a film about James Dean.
EDGE: There have already been many films about James Dean. What makes this film unique?
Matthew Mishory: What is significant about ours is that our film is not a biopic in the traditional sense of the word. It is a portrait. We endeavor to use all of the tools of the portraiture’s kit to create a vision of James Dean that has not been put to screen yet, and we think will be interesting to audiences in that way.
EDGE: What was your approach to this story that you tell?
Matthew Mishory: We have set it in the year before James Dean really became famous. So the primary question we wanted to answer was, ’what are the antecedents to a remarkable life?’ You have three incredible film performances that basically change the history of acting and the way Hollywood portrays young people. We wanted to ask what leads to those performances, what leads to that life. We found, in the journey of discovery, that it is not just incredible talent or ambition or dream, but also from a rather painful life.
Price of fame
EDGE: You touch on the theme of sacrifice for fame in this film...
Matthew Mishory: One of the things we found in researching the life was that James Dean was essentially an awkward young man who comes from Indiana to Los Angeles. He has this enormous dream. He is very ambitious and is never going to let anything get in his way to achieving what he wants to achieve. But there is a price to pay for that; not just for him but the people who surround him.
EDGE: What was your research process to play ’The Roommate’ of James Dean?
Dan Glenn: It was a combination of different things, mostly from watching his famous films but also there is this book called ’Surviving James Dean’ by Bill Bast who was his real life roommate when they were in UCLA together. My character comes from a combination of a bunch of people and ideas. James Dean just came into his life, and died shortly after. My character had to pay the price of knowing and loving James Dean, basically for the rest of his life.
EDGE: Edward. In the film you play Roger, the showbiz player who helped James Dean open the doors to Hollywood. Who is he?
Edward Singletary: He is loosely based on the life of Rogers Brackett (a radio producer who befriended Dean during his first stay in Hollywood in 1949. He was said to advised Dean to move to New York and study at the Actors Studio.) There is also a compilation of a few different people but I have also talked to somebody who knows Rogers who is still alive today. I was able to pull some things from that and I was able to add some things to it. In the film, there were no suggestions of a physical relationship between my character and James Dean. The intercourse is more verbal. They exchanged a lot of ideas, thoughts and quotes back and forth, but there was this almost paternal feeling that I wanted to portray.
Casting James Dean
EDGE: Matthew. What did you learn in your research?
Matthew Mishory: In researching the script, I found a couple of things that were interesting that I decided to build the film around. One, of course, James Dean is this sort of person who steamrolls through people’s lives and he was there for a very short period of time but he always left a very indelible impression. In a sense, throughout our film, James’ character was always making grand entrances and exits in the lives of these other characters. That was certainly one thing that was very intriguing to me. It fits in neatly with the theme that we wanted to explore: the price to pay for ambition.
The other thing that was interesting was, the the late 1940s and the 1950s were a time when words mattered, when people actually read. The did not read micro blogs on the Internet. They read books, poetry, and they quoted extensively. Words and art, in general, were the inspiration for the creative work that they were doing. That is something that we wanted to explore. James was such a contradictory person. He was most likely dyslexic. He could barely read but he was also such an intellectually curious person. He was sort of a human sponge and he surrounded himself with very well read, very smart people and he absorbed. Two of the characters are, of course, Rogers and the Roommate.
EDGE: How did you cast James Preston to play James Dean?
Edward Singletary: (who is also a producer of the film) We saw about thousands of submissions. We had some women. We had all kinds of characters. Any young person or actor wants to play this character. We boiled it down to three or four. James Preston came to us through Dalilah Rain who plays Violet in the film. She met the guy in acting class a year before that and just had his number. It turned out that he was the guy for the role. When he came and read for the role, there was something about his style that was so reminiscent of James Dean to me.
Matthew Mishory: What I liked about him and what ultimately made his performance so successful in the film is he makes no attempt at all to deliver a mimicry or an impersonation. He plays the role as the role was written, of a young man who came to Los Angeles with a deep talent and a big dream and who got eaten alive, which was exactly what James Preston is as well. He is a young kid from Texas who dropped out of art school, got in his truck, drove to Los Angeles and said, ’I’m here. I’m actor. Put me in a movie.’ That is such a similar story.
Dan Glenn: That is pretty much the same story of every actor who comes to Hollywood, whether it was in the 1950s or today.
Beneath the surface
EDGE: How did you come to cast Dan Glenn?
Matthew Mishory: I knew that Dan was the actor to play the Roommate because, both as a person and as an actor, he is the kind of actor that speaks softly but carries a gigantic, dramatic stick. There is a lot going on beneath the surface with Dan. He is a quiet soft-spoken, thoughtful person, but you could tell there is a lot of substance beneath the surface and that is all on screen. Playing the Roommate is as difficult, if not more difficult than playing James Dean, because you are on screen with James Dean constantly. James is portrayed in the film so outwardly, he is this young kid who wears his heart on his sleeve. Everything is there to see. And with the character of the Roommate, everything is beneath the surface, and that is who the guy is. That to me, is a very nuanced, complex character to play.
EDGE: As an actor, how did James Dean influenced you?
Dan Glenn: He took no chances. He had no filter. Physically or emotionally, he just did what his impulse told him to do and he stuck with it. There are stories where sometimes he annoyed people in his acting classes and his co-stars but I think that was just his total commitment to his art.
A classic look
EDGE: The film was shot mainly on monochrome 35mm giving it a look of classic cinema of years past. How did you decide on this look of the picture?
Matthew Mishory: It is generally important to me that films are beautiful. I cannot imagine spending two years making a film that is not a beautiful piece of visual art. That is why we make films. My inspirations are not so much other filmmakers as much as still photographers and painters. We looked at some period and contemporary films, really the influences were people like Ansel Adams and the painter Caravaggio, who to me, invented film lighting before the medium even existed. Beauty is just as important to us for the film, but also for this story, we are exploring the early fifties, a period in American life that is looked back upon and lived through the cinema and through the sheen of the silver screen. So we want to present the period both in the way people imagined it and simultaneously the way it actually happened, the underbelly of that era.
EDGE: Let’s talk about the treatment of sex in the movie.
Matthew Mishory: What I love about our treatment of sexuality in the film is that it is completely angst free. There is no hand wringing about sex in this movie, which is threatening to some audience but to most, it is a fresh and new way of presenting it. We present the character as they are, as people, and people sometimes have sex. The word ’gay’ does not even appear in the movie. The characters are just who they are as people. We present the full array of human sexuality. Sometimes, sex in this movie is about intimacy, sometimes it is about power, sometimes it is about getting to where you want to go. That is very true to life.
EDGE: Were the love scenes between the Roommate and James Dean challenging for you?
Dan Glenn: Not at all. For me the most challenging scenes were the ones in the desert.
Matthew Mishory: Shooting sex in movies is usually much more technical and dry than people imagine it is. It is certainly more about the shot design. The difficult moments are the emotional moments.
EDGE: What is the most challenging aspect about making this film?
Edward Singletary: Besides raising money in the middle of a recession, this film started out as a short film. Matthew and I were working on something entirely different when this film came along. We shot the short film, we saw the footage and thought this is really something. If we had 60 more minutes of this, it would be incredible and we felt that this is a story that needs to be told and Matthew went off and cut a teaser trailer that just blew up on the Internet. That is how people came to us coming on board to help us physically and financially to make the film. It was a perfect storm.
Matthew Mishory: They tell you for your first film, you should have as many days and one location. We had 18 days and 30 locations, and an additional 70 pages to shoot. Fortunately, we were just very uncompromising in our planning and execution.
No cookie-cutter portrait
EDGE: What is your main concern while making a film about James Dean?
Matthew Mishory: I did not want to make a film for the cookie cutter made-for-television mold, and I did not want to make a film about James Dean that did not contribute to the conversation that already existed. I also did not want to make a film frankly that was just limited to people who are interested about James Dean. If you took the title ’James Dean’ out of the movie, you still have a very successful, interesting story about a young man who comes to Hollywood with a big dream and who gets eaten alive by the system.
Edward Singletary: You could actually draw a straight line from the 1951 till now, as far as like how that machine is working. Certain things have changed but a lot of the same stuff is still there. We think it is very poignant today. People are talking a lot about being gay in Hollywood, and what that means and how that defines you as an actor, what it does and does not do to your career. These are things that still come up today in 2012. We call it out.
Matthew Mishory: The great thing about making this film, not for a studio, at a modest budget is that we could make the film the way we want to make it and tell the story we wanted to tell. At the end of the day, some people will like it but some will feel threatened by it, but we were able to make it the way we wanted, both in form and content.
EDGE: What is your take on being gay in Hollywood?
Matthew Mishory: What is interesting is that in 1951 as we have shown in the film, privacy still existed. There was no TMZ. There was not a camera at every corner. You could basically live your life the way you wanted to live it, just behind closed doors. Nobody really bothered you. In 2012, you have the opposite situation where there is no privacy. People are suddenly very cagey and guarded about the way they live. To me, it is an untenable situation, I just do not think it can last much longer, the way it is going.
EDGE: It is probably easier to make a gay themed movie independently than with a studio.
Matthew Mishory: I think what has been interesting for us showing the film to all types of audiences, primarily straight audiences have an equally interesting but sometimes different reaction. I think there is something for everyone in this movie. There is a entry point for just about anybody. We also deal with a strong female character in the fifties in the movie. We have a character of color. We had to come up with a very interesting way of working that in, that was based on some interviews we did with people who remembered the era.
EDGE: What do you hope the audience get out of this movie?
Matthew Mishory: I hope that they realize that maybe the image of James Dean that is portrayed on posters, coffee mugs and t-shirts really has nothing to do with what this remarkable young man actually was. He was certainly very clever in creating his own self mythology. Marketers have since been even more clever in perpetuating this image. This was a very talented, very brilliant, somewhat troubled, confused young man. That is a very universal situation that anybody who goes and sees the movie can understand.
Dan Glenn: You do not have to be a James Dean fan or of a certain sexuality or age to get something from this film, just universal theme.
Matthew Mishory: I think the central love story in the film is so moving. I hope people also spend just a little time thinking about the love story, and what it means to be a character like the Roommate, who loves somebody who is great and who is going to be great.
"Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean" will be seen on Monday, July 16 at QFest in Philadelphia; on Monday, July 16 at Outfest in Los Angeles. The film will also travel to film festivals in Dublin, Portugal, Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver among others in the following months. For more on the film, the flm’s website.
Watch the trailer to
"Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean":