"Maxim"izing our time with the star and director of Junebug
August 7, 2005|Colorado girl--and freshly-minted Sundance sensation (just don't hold it against her)--Amy Adams, flying out that evening for a job in New York, was joined for a cup of coffee on this rare overcast summer day in the bowels of Denver's chichi Hotel Monaco by her Junebug director Phil Morrison. I tend to prepare between five and ten questions for an interview scheduled to last this long (45 minutes-an hour), confident that the conversation will go where it goes and, more, that if there's no vein to be mined, we can both cut our losses before I start tossing off the "What was it like to work with?"s and "What were the challenges of making?"s. But for Ms. Adams and Mr. Morrison, I came armed with a single question--I felt only one thing was the key to understanding the film in a larger perspective. That this lone inquiry led to a discussion punctuated by passionate declarations and fast retreats (more "off the records" in this one than in the previous five combined, I confess) is testament to Ms. Adams's and Mr. Morrison's closely-held opinions--and their desire to save movies from themselves, one Junebug at a time.
FREAK CENTRAL: What's the role of outsider art inside and
outside your film and how does that translate to you shooting your film?
PHIL MORRISON: Wow. There are a lot of things I could say about that...
with the choice to shoot on location in Winston-Salem, NC.
PM: There's a guy who's dead now named James Harold Jennings who lived in Winston-Salem and he started to make a name for himself in those folk art circles as a person who unearths self-taught artists. He was meaningful to me when I was a kid so it's hard for me to separate what is sort of an essential part of me with the kind of intellectualization that you're asking me to perform on it. I think what I'm trying to say is that it's difficult to come to any conclusions about it. Not just for me, but for anyone. But that it's important and interesting to think about what it is about this art that is so alluring to the so-called "sophisticates" who are--sometimes the only--connoisseurs of it. I think we need to be very cautious, and very honest with ourselves, about what it's tapping in us. There aren't many fields that I can think of that are classified based almost entirely on the biographical details of the artist rather than the work itself.
you find it to be invalidating of the work or of the critic?
PM: No, not invalidating of either, really--I don't think it's illegitimate either way. It's confusing. I mean, there's this sense of why is this guy considered an outsider artist? Is he crazy or is he black?
PM: (laughs) Right--suddenly there's this insane categorical hegemony, right? He went to college, but he's crazy. He's not crazy, but he's poor. He's not crazy or poor, but he's black, and his brother's crazy.
AMY ADAMS: (laughs) By that standard, I think I do outsider art.
PM: No question. (laughs) But the art itself--the stuff for the film that we commissioned from Ann Wood--I think that it speaks for itself as works of high quality and intellectual worth, but like any art, a knowledge of its creator can only enrich a conversation.
AA: So long as it doesn't overwhelm it.
PM: Exactly right. It can't be the only thing you talk about, but it shouldn't be shut out, either.
tends to overwhelm it?
AA: [Screenwriter] Angus [MacLachlan] says something about that in regards to the idea of patronage--of how closely that word ties in with the idea of being patronizing, or patronized, of how there's this question of distance that allows you to be unaffected in a way by the art. You recognize the transgression of the art without being moved by it--I should let Angus say it, he's a lot more eloquent than I am about this--but he always talked about Junebug in relation to that tension.
you feel as though the characters in Junebug are
each addressing that distance, in an extratextual sense, between
themselves and film portrayals of them?
PM: Pirandello, right? I'm gonna jump around that, get back to that in a minute, because I think you're onto something there that I'm not really prepared to talk about with any kind of coherence. While I was working on this film the thing that was in the back of my head the whole time was that homily of how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And the turning point for me in the preparation for the picture was something so simple as flipping that around and considering that the road to Heaven is paved with good intentions, too. I wanted to strike a really firm balance--if there is such a thing--between acknowledging the stereotypes that drive films like this usually, and then, in as gentle a way as possible, undermining those stereotypes through the backdoor.
AA: Letting the characters be human's the best way to attack the perception of them as inhuman.
PM: Right, and most important not to slide off the other way into Noble Savage syndrome.
me more about your background in outsider art.
PM: In college, in the Eighties, I went and visited [Georgian artist] Howard Finster and there was kind of a vogue for that sort of art.
just done album covers for Talking Heads
and R.E.M., right?
PM: Exactly, so it was really cutting edge--the absolute cool thing... There is something glamorous about this art. I'm feeling around here for the right way to express this feeling, but there's this sense of the fantastic, almost the supernatural--a sense of electricity that is tied up a lot in this sort of I can't believe this stuff has come out of this person.
a lot of ways, it's like the birth of art appreciation in a lot of
people: Hey, this shit's universal!
PM: That's right, exactly right. When I visited Finster in his Paradise Garden, it was peculiar in the most exhilarating kind of way, you know. I was really into how amazing this environment was, how strange he was, how immediate his painting was--and yet I was divorced enough to remain unpunctured by his evangelical message that, for him, was the whole point. I was sort of sampling him, you know, getting from him what I wanted. Totally selfish, and yet as he became more famous, it became a factory down there, just cranking it out. His grandkids were doing the work and aesthetically, the people who discovered him in the first place lost interest--but the point for Finster was always to spread the word and for him, he was doing that. He was getting his message more and more, so for as much as I was displaced from his intention, well, so was he, and that's a long way of me answering the question of the characters involved in this Pirandello meta exercise: I wasn't going for that, but it's a good way to get into the picture, so as part of a continuing interpretation, it's valid and possibly spot on.
exploiting himself, of course, complicates the idea of paternal
PM: Absolutely. All of these issues are so complicated, you know, there's no soapbox big enough... When we started on this project, for as much as I've talked about what I don't think was intended, I do want to say that we wanted to address the thing of how southerners are portrayed in film.
AA: But we wanted very much to avoid doing it with a lot of defensiveness and hostility. Honestly, of course, but not angrily because that can feel artificial.
PM: Right, you always run the risk of mocking your character the other way, swinging the pendulum too far into the salt of the earth sort of problem. To me, the challenge was to explore the stereotypes without...
AA: It's like walking in a minefield--you want to point them out, but you don't want to walk so heavily that you trip them off.
PM: So many films make the mistake of hammering so hard that suddenly you create these virtuous sons of the earth.
AA: I have to say that it never occurred to me that we were making a regional film. I never felt like we were making outsider art, you know, at least from where I'm coming from I felt as though I wanted to be a part of an unintentional film that has a really strict design.
you think that too much intentionality torques people off?
PM: Well, yes, and God bless those people that have delicate pretension sensors, but a lack of intentionality can also turn people off because the kind of intentionality that I think of as demagoguery, which happens a lot in art movies--and Hollywood, too--but just as much if not more in the arthouse, you get these easy platforms that appease the consensus.
|Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola in Junebug|
PM: I can't bite the hand that feeds. Sundance has been very good for us, but there's a problem now with Sundance in that it's become part of the status quo instead of part of the underground. It's a brand, a label.
AA: I'm already being touted as the new "indie queen" and I have to say that that kind of label terrifies me--any kind of label terrifies me. There's this value attached to being easily identified with a certain thing that can make people lazy. Casting directors, directors, writers, it'll be easier for them to not consider me for something if they can just snap their fingers and say, Oh, right, that girl, she's in indie movies, we need someone who's not an indie girl. It's a meaningless title except that it changes everything.
PM: You're right, though, in that I've noticed that success at Sundance is the number one thing that has made people really suspicious of this film, sight unseen. And the great irony of that suspicion is that we intended to make a movie that explores that very thing: that idea that this subject matter ought not be illegitimate just because it's about a family, it's set off the beaten path, that it's about dysfunction and character and relationships.
do you counteract that stigma?
PM: (laughs) Good reviews?
believe that critics are in bed with Sundance as it is.
AA: Well, I could say yes to the MAXIM people (laughs). Phil, I believe enough in this film to do a spread in MAXIM.
PM: Well, bless your heart.
AA: But I have to do it with the pregnancy belly. That's the condition. I do wonder if we'd attract the wrong kind of audience, though.
and Jessica Simpson, right?
AA: (laughs) Oh, well that wouldn't be bad--she could be in her Daisy Dukes and I could be in my elastic maternity sweats.
PM: That's interesting what you say about critics and how people perceive them anymore, I mean, what's happened to the profession?
and sycophants and "entertainment writers" instead of film critics. But
it's always been this way--there's just more of the bad now and the
same number of the good.
PM: I've been hearing rumours that the NEW YORK PRESS might go out of business and it's killing me thinking of a time when I won't be able to sit down and read my Armond White. I mean, that's what I do, you know, and if the Press folds, I can't imagine one other place right now that would hire him. He's this great, great, great writer who was actually super-influential on Junebug though he doesn't know it. He's so uncompromising about all these issues that we're talking about here. It's depressing to see the quality of writing decline year after year. A job opens when someone I like retires or moves on and the person or people they get to replace him is almost always a gimmick writer, you know, one of those "wordsmith" people who use puns in place of any kind of real analysis.
the perception that the "Joe Lunchbox" demographic hates to have their
notions challenged about what they perceive to be a democratic artform.
PM: Right. And unhappy idiots means declining subscriptions...Which means declining ad revenue, which means that "Entertainment Tonight" wins.
AA: I'm getting a little depressed here.
PM: I mean there are critics who are considered to be in highbrow positions, traditionally, positions of some influence that are no better than just clever stylists.
how do you find your audience?
PM: You just have to trust that your work is honest--at the end of the day, that's all that you can control. The idea of outsider art is central to this film because the picture is a means for me to confront my own preconceptions and if we've accomplished that, if we've caused a few people to think about how they colour the world, then we have to be happy with that.
AA: And we have to hope that people want to be challenged that way.
it hard for you to juggle that in yourself--as an actress, you're
suddenly the commodity.
AA: It is hard, it's terribly hard. I joke about MAXIM because if you I didn't, I'd get really down about it. It's a truism of being a girl in Hollywood, that you have to have a look, you can't rock the boat, you have to make yourself marketable and the way to do that is to traffic in your attractiveness. The hope is that once you convince people that you're marketable, then you can begin to fund your Junebugs--but if all I did were Junebugs, I wouldn't be able to keep doing this as a career. So you have to find in every role that you take a place in the middle that's true, that you can sleep at night knowing that you made a place for yourself that's real. With something like Junebug, that's easy. If they came asking, I'd actually do MAXIM or this movie.
what you ask for.
AA:(laughs) Ah, right, mum's the word.
PM: Look, I wanna believe that there's life yet for termite cinema.
Junebug is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. Click here to read our review.