There wasnt much
press coverage of the 3rd annual Roger Ebert Overlooked
Film Festival (presented April 25-29 by the University
of Illinois' College of Communications in Champaign).
Each of the fourteen films played to a packed house of
more than 1500 seats, filmmakers and actors from around
the world were in attendance, and yet ironically enough,
the festival itself wasby
contemporary media coverage standardsoverlooked.
Still, each year more and more people attend, avid filmgoers
who respect Roger Eberts film criticism enough to
come out here and see the films that he thinks are worth
watching (many of which hes never reviewed, as they
havent been theatrically released). The swelling
attendance is not lost on Ebert, who seemed shocked by
the attendance each time he stepped up to introduce a
film. He smiled looking out at us, happy to see us all
playing hooky with him.
Unlike traditional fests such as Cannes
this one is simply about seeing and discussing
movies. No dealmaking, no hype or PR blitz. Just movies
all day and discussions with members of the cast or crew
The first film was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which can
hardly be considered "overlooked." But as Ebert
stated in his remarks opening the festival, it is the format
of the film that has been overlooked, and it was being presented
here, along with a new soundtrack, in a 70mm print. His
statement was met with vibrant cheers and applause, to which
Ebert responded, "Thats why I love this audience.
It takes a very sophisticated audience to applaud a format."
The movie itself was overwhelming. Having seen it twice
before, once on home video and once by video projection,
I knew what was coming but still wasnt prepared for
it. The viewer takes pleasure in the images, the uncorrupted
vistas of the Dawn of Man sequences, the space ballet of
the space ships docking and the comfortable camera movement
during the Jupiter Mission. Add to this the rich sound of
unforgettable music, and you have 1,540 people who are now
ruined for good, never to be satisfied watching films on
that small box at home.
I found myself making even more connections than before,
visual themes that run throughout the film. How could I
not have noticed that HALs yellowish pupil inside
an iris of red is one of the early images of the movie in
the form of the blazing sunset in the desert?
Afterwards, Ebert came out onto the stage, along with Keir
Dullea, who played Dave Bowman in the film, and Jan Harlan,
Stanley Kubricks producer and brother-in-law. Sir
Arthur C. Clarke, co-screenwriter and author of the novel,
joined us by telephone from Sri Lanka.
While sidestepping any specific "explanations"
of the films meaning, all four men highlighted how
it appeals to ones emotions. We may not be able to
articulate what it all meansthe stargate, the dinner
in the stately, antiseptic, post-modern Versailles Palace,
we understand it at a gut level. And thats why it
stays with us. As Ebert said to his guests and the audience
about the first time he saw it, "I couldnt paraphrase
exactly what it meant, but I intuitively knew what the art
Perhaps surprisingly, the discussion had great humor; Dullea
did an amusing impression of the Cockney-accented assistant
director who did the line readings for HAL while they were
shooting. Harlan joked that when people ask him what Kubricks
fears were, he always gives them the same glib answer: A
bunch of strangers in a room asking him to explain the meaning
The films that followed the opening night varied in their
quality, but none was not worth contending with. Some highlights:
- The Joy of Stanley
Kubrick, A Life in Pictures, a long documentary
about this enigmatic man.
- Girl on the Bridge,
a French film about a knife thrower and his assistants,
that honors old Hollywood in its old way.
- The discussion with
the real-life subjects of the boxing (and so much more
than that) documentary On the Ropes.
- The 1922 silent film
Nosferatu, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.
- Spotting Mark Borschardt,
the subject of the documentary American Movie,
kicking back and enjoying himself at the screenings
as any cinephile would.
- The line of children
onstage, each politely asking King of Masks director
Wu Tianming a question about his delicate, loving film.
- The quiet befuddlement
felt by the cranky audience after midnight, when the
lights came up after the confounding Robert Altman film,
favorite was Jesus Son, chosen as #3 of Gadflys
top ten films of 2000. It is a delightful film, deserved
of accolades for how it finds a tone of absurd decrepitude
and tragic, sublime magical realism. It was well received
by the audience here, where it was followed by a discussion
with star Billy Crudup, director Alison MacLean and producer/screenwriter
David Urrutia. In addition to their discussion with Ebert,
I sat down with Urrutia, discussing in detail the process
of getting the film made.
"It was a celebration
of good films," Ebert told me when I asked his thoughts
after the festivals conclusion. " A sort of community
developed in the theater, with people standing around debating
films between screenings, exchanging e-mail addresses, etc.
People want to see good films. They hunger for them."
for a complete list of the
films and guests.
to Kind of Gasp At"
talks to David Urrutia, screenwriter/producer of Jesus
Son, about adapting an intimidating writers prose
for the screen, Holly Hunters backstage serendipity,
playing a Mennonite and trying to convince Neil Young to
be generous with his music.
did the production of the film come about?
Evenstar Films is the production company that produced
it. Evenstar is myself and my business partner, Elizabeth
Cuthrell. We formed the company in early 1996 and went
about looking for projectsread a lot of books, drew
stuff from our past. This book, [Denis Johnsons]
Jesus Son, Elizabeth had given me back in
1992. Shed been familiar with the short stories
[that comprise the book], as theyd been published
in individual magazines. When the book was finally published,
she gave it to me. I read it and loved it, and four years
later we started the company
actually, she first
recommended Angels, which is Johnsons first
novel. We tracked down his agent and learned that it wasnt
available. Then she suggested Jesus Son.
It had just become available, having been under option
for awhile, and that option had expired. That person was
unable to buy the rights, so others bid on it. We called
right at that time and threw our hat into the ring. About
three months later, we ended up with it.
This is a book that is revered by many writers and
readers of modern fiction. How do you begin to approach
an adaptation of a text like this?
That was one of the things that I was a little afraid
of because I wasnt clear how it could be a film,
at first. So we had a lot of discussion about it. The
thing that we landed on was that we were interested in
the short story structure. And that if we were going to
adapt it into a film, we did not want to flatten it out.
We wanted to preserve the episodic nature in some way
and thought that it could be done if we found devices
and links within the stories to make it a little bit more
of a cohesive wholewithout sacrificing the fractured
narrative. Once we figured that out, we got really excited
about the project and started competing for the option.
Did I answer your question? Im not so sure (laughs).
Well, more or less (laughs). You did bring up some
of the things I wanted to talk about: the character of
Michelle (played by Samantha Morton) is obviously much
more prominent in the film. This is what you were talking
about in regard to the cohesiveness.
Yeah. She was one of the ways that we were able to
tie the stories together. And we decided on Michelle because
of her prominence in the story "Dirty Wedding,"
which was an important turning point in Fuckheads
life. In early adaptations, we had some of the other women
was never married [like he is in the book] in our adaptation.
All the early stuff where he had a wife and a childwe
decided early on we werent going to deal with that.
The only other woman that really survives is the Holly
Hunter character, who we call Mira and is actually a combination
of the two women he hooks up with at the Beverly Homethe
dwarf and the woman with cerebral palsy.
I thought it was encephalitis.
Encephalitis, thank you
well, she had encephalitis,
and thats what gave her multiple sclerosis; he thinks
But then she doesnt need the crutches at the
dance at the end
On a side note, I noticed that the font used for the
credits in the filmand the book before itare
the same as the credits for Dr. Strangelove.
Youve just answered my question. So it wasnt
intentional by the books publisher? A deliberate
For us, we just loved the handwriting. So the woman who
did the films title design took it off the book.
She hand wrote every end credit. It was pretty big. Even
the Union logos and stuff are completely hand-drawn. It
Some of the chronology of the film differs from that
of the book. Is what we see onscreen now always the same
chronology as it was in the script, or were decisions
made in post-production?
What you see in the film is what we wrote. Its exactly
what we wrote, with one exceptionthe "Emergency"
episode. In the film, midway through, you flash back to
Fuckhead and Michelles first time in his apartment.
That was done in the editing room. That originally took
place in the section we call "Holiday," which
was originally called "Work" [in the book].
But we divided "Work" in two. That was also
done in the editing room. In the script, we called the
whole episode "Work." We knew in the script
stage that the story "Emergency" was a little
problematic because we lose Michelle for the length. And
we wrote various scenes of Michelle in there, that we
made up, that didnt appear in the book at all. And
none of them worked. So we ultimately cut all of those
and didnt shoot them. But in the editing room, we
found a way to bring Michelle back. But everything else
in the film is ultimately edited the way we wrote it.
Including the voice-over?
Yes. Some of the voice-over we wrote after the film was
shot, but most of it beforehand. We wrote or changed some
things once the film was more in a form we saw it was
going to go, filled in some things we thought we would
need. But most was written before. In fact, there was
a lot more written. Billy [Crudup, who plays Fuckhead]
recorded a lot more than we ultimately used.
Verbatim from the book?
A lot of it is, but not all of it. Where we could, we
used it because its so great. We had Billy who could
take this sometimes very poetic language and just sort
of colloquialize it, make it sound like hes making
it up as he goes. And we even did that within scenes.
Lines of dialogue. We took narrative, not dialogue, from
Denis book and put it into dialogue, and Billy made
it sound like it was coming out of him. It was great.
How did the cast come together?
It was a mix of things. With Billy, he went to NYU with
Elizabeth Cuthrell. So she thought of him for the role.
At the time, Billy was not as well known as he is now.
Sleepers had come out, which he has a small role
in, and he had shot Without Limits and Inventing
the Abbotts, but they hadnt been released. So
people didnt really know him. She thought he would
be great so I went and saw those films, as well as an
off-Broadway production of Three Sisters. So we
wrote it with him in mind. Samantha Morton we had seen
in Under the Skin, a small British film. And she
was just incredible, but we didnt know if she could
do an American accent or even who she was. But she really
inspired a lot of the role as we were writing, because
we saw that film as we were writing the script. And then
when it came down to shooting, our casting director is
Woody Allens casting director, and she said, "Theres
this Samantha Morton in town" [to shoot the Woody
Allen film Sweet and Lowdown], and it was just
serendipitous. She got ahold of the script and loved it.
So that worked out well.
Dennis Hopper did not know the book, but he liked the
part and wanted to work with Billy. And it was a short
amount of timehe came in for one day. Denis Leary
was a little bit of the same thing. We sent the script
to his manager, who turned it down because it was too
small. But our cinematographer had shot Monument Ave.,
a film, with Denis and said, "Well, look. I know
Denis, and he probably doesnt know that Billy [who
had a small part in Monument Ave.] is doing it,"
so he got it to him. And Denis said of course, hed
Holly Hunter was doing a play in New York and saw the
script backstage. An actor who had come in to read for
the film had left it lying around or something. She knew
Denis Johnson previously, because she had done a reading
of some scenes of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man
straight from the book a number of years before. But she
knew the book Jesus Son and was intrigued
that it was now a screenplay. She took it home, and out
of the bluewe were in pre-production, a couple of
weeks away from shootingwe got a call from her agent
who asked if the part of Mira had been cast because Holly
wanted to play it. It was cast, however. Actually Elizabeth
was going to play it. Since Mira was our creation, Elizabeth
had written that role for herself. She and I have acting
backgrounds, and we improvised all those scenes and wrote
them down. And she was all set to play it. Holly Hunter
was really the one person (laughs) who Elizabeth would
have stepped aside for. Because she was just too perfect
for the role, and of course her name would help the film.
And you brought your brilliance to the Mennonite husband.
That was actually the casting directors idea.
A friend of mine watched the film the other day and thought
that the Mennonite woman was blind. Not just that she
couldnt see outside the window because of the lighting.
Do you hear that a lot?
Sometimes. Actually, this is one of the hazards of independent
filmmaking, working on a budget. We had the reverse shot
written in the script, what she sees looking out the window.
But we only had one night at this location, this house
in Philadelphia before we went to Arizona. We just ran
out of time. But ultimately, its whatever people
think. Some think she does see him, that she knows hes
out there and shes hiding him from her husband.
Because when her husband comes into the room, she turns
her back and seems to be blocking his view. We like the
ambiguity. Is she blind, does she see him? For me, its
like the book. She cant see him.
I saw that section as a play on Mary Shelleys
Frankenstein, where he learns a form of humanity
while spying on a family outside their home.
Last night, after the screening of Robert Altmans
film 3 Women, Alison [MacLean, director of Jesus
Son] spoke about how directors are loath to discuss
what their films mean. To try to funnel it down to one
statement of what a film is about is ridiculous. It cheats
the complexities of a film.
I would add to Alisons remarks that answers to those
kinds of questions, especially answers that come from
the writer or director, tend to stop the audience from
thinking any further. And how good is that?
How did Alison come to the project?
Once we decided how we wanted to approach the script,
we went around looking for a director who would get behind
that idea. We werent interested in just turning
it over to a director who was just going to go off and
do her own thing. We really felt possessive of this project,
more and more as time went on. We looked at a lot of different
films and reels of directors and thought Alison would
be a good match. Over the course of writing it, she would
read various drafts along the way. This was another intention
of ours. We didnt want to come up with a finished
script and hand it over to the director. We wanted someone
who was familiar with the process at the earliest stage
possible, so that by the time of shooting there would
be a consensus of what would be done.
I remember reading Pauline Kaels review of Last
Tango in Paris and her comments about how the film
uses Brando and his reputation so fully, as an actor and
a man and all the baggage he brings from past characters,
etc. It seems clear to me that the Dennis Hopper scene
in Jesus Son is employing the same ideas,
using his past in films like Easy Rider and Apocalypse
Now and others. Presenting him now as an amalgam of
those men now, decades later. This is made even more the
case by having Fuckhead doing a mock interview with him,
asking about his casualty of a life.
Oh, yeah. Hopper was perfect. It seemed right to have
an actor with that much baggage behind him that fit into
the film. It lent the film an authenticity in a way. The
dialogue sounds right coming out of his mouth. Its
an understated performance, much more like the man is
himself. Its him, more than any other character.
What are you working on now?
Actually we are writing a script based on Resuscitation
of a Hanged Man. Were turning into the Denis
Johnson factory because were going to produce, off-Broadway,
a play hes written, the second of a trilogy. To
work on his material is such a joy. We started working
on Jesus Son in 1996, and really it took
up the majority of my workday all the way through last
December. We were very fortunate in that Lions Gate
Films involved us in every aspect of distribution. I thought
that once we sold it our job would be over, but that was
not the case at all; the work just continued everyday.
To be involved with something that long, you really have
to love the material. And as Elizabeth says, Denis asks
the right type of questions. To live in those questions
that his material asks of you is a nice place to be. A
place we like. I hope to do more of his stuff.
What has Denis thought of the film? How involved was
We only talked to his agent, never dealt with him. He
called us up about six months into our writing of the
script and said (a laid back, spacey voice), "Yeah,
hey, this is Denis, and you know, I was wondering if you
guys were ever going to call me." We were terrified
because we held him in such high esteem. What were we
going to say to him? He asked if he could read the script,
and we said, "No, what if you hate it?" We knew
we had two years to raise the money and buy the rights.
So even if he read it and hated it within those two years,
legally, it wouldnt matter. We could go ahead and
make the film we wanted to make. But after a year, we
decided that we had a draft that we felt comfortable enough
to take a chance with. His response was just incredible.
He was coming to New York for a book reading, and we decided
to meet. One of the first questions he asked was if we
had been doing research on him, talking to people. Because
apparently some of the things we made up, particularly
about Michelle, had happened. "Those things happened
to girls I knew" and "I did that and that,"
and so on. He was shocked. So it was a good feeling, that
we had really tapped into the world he created and extended
One of his big influences was with the music for the film.
He made great suggestions. Never pushed anything, but
encouraged us to experiment. And we felt a responsibility
to preserve, if not as much of the story as possible,
at least the integrity and feel of what was going on.
So he sent us tapes, compilations of stuff he said he
was listening to while he wrote it or stuff that he remembers
from the period or songs that would be in Fuckheads
mind. It was just amazing stuff. A lot of which is in
the film. And some of the songs are in the stories themselves,
like "Misty Blue." But a lot of the music came
from Denis tapes. We had a great music supervisor
[Randall Poster] who chose great places to put them and
was inspired by the tapes and came up with other stuff
A lot of the songs in the film are more contemporary,
like Joe Henry and Wilco, for example. How did Joe Henry
get involved? I know he composed the main theme for the
The music supervisor suggested Joe. I think he knew him
or had worked with him before and thought it would be
a good match.
Yeah. When I heard the opening theme
it was perfect.
And the Wilco stuff is great, too. Much of it came after
the first version of the film that we took to Venice,
Telluride and Toronto. But we didnt have all the
clearances for the music, only festival clearances. At
the time there were four Neil Young songs, four period
songs. At first Neil didnt want us to use any music
at all. He was totally against it. He heard the film had
drugs in it, hes a huge anti-drugs guy, and said
no. And we went back to him and he said, "$100,000
a song." Well, we couldn't do that and started looking
for other material. And thats how "Shes
a Jar" came in. The only Neil Young song we were
able to keep was "Cowgirl in the Sand." It was
in the book. Ultimately what happened was Dennis Hopper
called Neil and said, "You got it wrong. Im
in the film. Its a film about recovery and redemption.
Its an anti-drug movie." Neil said okay, and
we made a contribution to the Bridge School.
How many times have you seen the film?
Hundreds. I love seeing it every single time. I never
get sick of it, primarily because I like seeing it with
different audiences. But also its the performances.
I always find something new in Billys performance.
Once you started writing, how much did you refer to the
The book was at our side all the time. Many who write
adaptations read it once and throw it away, but we werent
like that at all. It was a constant reference for us.
I read the book hundreds of times, and I still pick it
up and read a story every now and then. We each took chapters
to adapt, and we would read each others stuff in
the script and say, "Where did you get that, thats
not in the book." And yes it was. I constantly find
words, sentences or images that I swear Ive never
read before. With this book in particular, I would read
something that would blow my mind and be thinking about
where it takes me while my eyes keep reading, so there
is a lot of stuff I would miss. And then you go back and
find these little gems, places to kind of gasp at.