Of all of the hot-shot pop stars and the oh-too-handsome pretty boys who walk the red carpet at today's Hollywood premieres, none can hold a candle to the original Hollywood bad boy, James Dean.
In the fickle world of Hollywood, longevity is king, and Dean has had one of the most enduring careers that Tinseltown has ever known. It's nearly impossible to make it through a day without confronting an image of James Dean himself or the rebellious look he made popular. Though Dean's life came to an abrupt end at age 24, in his wake he left an indelible impression that is still vivid nearly six decades later.
Tonight, the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival presents filmmaker Matthew Mishory's Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean as part of it's GLOW Film Series.
Mishory's gorgeously shot and beautifully edited film is in many ways unlike anything you've seen: a present-day film that manages to be both rooted in the past but very much moving forward. Unlike many of the Dean biopics of the past, Joshua Tree is less interested in the creation of the iconic Dean image we've all committed to memory, but refreshingly focuses on the doe-eyed young man who dared to go after his dreams in a town known for shattering them.
Much like his celebrated short film, Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, which was acquired by the British Film Institute for it's archives; Joshua Tree has a visual aesthetic that is nothing short of stunning. Shot in sumptuous black and white, the film's most ethereal and emotional moments are eventually given up to color, heightening viewers' emotions the same way opera performances do when they switch from liberetto to aria.
Dean's sexuality has long been a topic of debate, and Mishory tackles it head-on, ensuring that the complexity of Dean's alleged homosexuality or bisexuality is not relegated to a speculative footnote in history and underscoring the importance he thinks it played in the young actor's life. Yet for all Joshua Tree's artistic merits, it is important to remember that the film is an imagined glimpse into the life of the young actor -- a narrative that relies on some historical facts but draws upon the filmmaker's own creativity and opinions to flesh out the details. This doesn't make Joshua Tree any less watchable. Seeing Dean through the eyes of Mishory, himself clearly a young talent worthy of our attention, is a joyful experience.
We spoke with Mishory about Joshua Tree's retro look, the appeal of the outsider, and his upcoming projects.
Cultist: You chose a very clear aesthetic for your film by shooting it primarily in black and white and creating a noir-like essence. What made you decide on this look?
Matthew Mishory: I am very lucky to get to work with one of the great cinematographers, Michael Marius Pessah. And one thing we share is an innate belief that films exist to be beautiful (and that can mean many things) and to stand on their own as a purely visual medium. Of course, great films do a lot of other things, too, but for me, the look of a film is part of the narrative, part of the performance, part of the emotional fabric. I see too many films where a director never bothered thinking about where the camera is placed or what props should make up the set. Those are essential story elements, and they convey meaning and information whether intentionally or otherwise. Joshua Tree is not a traditional biographical film, so it is not told in traditional language. It is told in the language of memories and dreams, because that is how James Dean, who died so young and so many years ago, lingers even today. One of the ways we created that dreamscape is through the images. Another, of course, was sound.
What was your own relationship with the works of James Dean? What made you want to make this film?
Ultimately, I think this film found me. My father immigrated to America at 16 to study music at Juilliard, and he learned English by going to the cinemas. He saw East of Eden in first run as a young man in New York, and it was the first feature film he showed me when I was a little boy. It is among my earliest cinematic memories. I have seen thousands of movies now, but few, if any, screen performances can compare to James Dean's. And behind that performance was a very compelling, very vulnerable young man who forever changed the art and craft of screen acting. I wanted to make a film about him.
What filmmakers inform your work? Whose body of work do you most admire?
In this case, I think our influences were more stills photographers and painters. We looked a lot to Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, and many of the studio photographers of the day. And, for me, the greatest filmmaker who ever lived was Caravaggio, who invented the essence of cinematic lighting before the medium even existed.
With both Delphinium and Joshua Tree, you've developed a visual look and an interest in enigmatic queer film figures that has marked your work. As a filmmaker, are you most interested in telling LGBT stories?
As a filmmaker, I am most interested in telling outsider stories -- of all sorts. And I am very interested in history (something I have inherited from my mother), both known and hidden. Delphinium and Joshua Tree are both projects that ultimately confront and personalize history.
Your work seems reminiscent of a bygone era. How important is this to you? What do you think of the proliferation of digital filmmaking?
Digital filmmaking has its uses, especially for documentary work. But as a narrative feature filmmaker, I will always prefer celluloid. There is an emotional, intellectual, and memory-sense component to its physicality and preciousness that does not exist in digital data streams. I am not anti-technology (quite the opposite), but it was important to me to shoot JT1951 on film. And I am shooting my next feature on Super 16.
What are the plans for Joshua Tree post-festival-circuit? Distributor?
We are in the final stages of setting our theatrical run, and that will be followed by VOD and DVD in most territories. We're excited to begin sharing it with a wider audience. And those interested can follow along on the website and the Facebook page, or on Twitter @joshuatree1951.
What was the most important aspect for you in casting the role of Dean?
I wasn't interested in an actor who could perform a mimicry. That has been done before. I was interested in casting an actor who connected not to some elusive sense of legend or icon but to the character as I understood him: a young man who makes his way to Los Angeles with a big dream, very little support, and a radically new way of seeing things -- and gets eaten alive by the Hollywood machine. That is the Jimmy Dean of our film, which is set so narrowly in the period before even the first inclinations of success. James Preston was willing to take that journey with us, and I think his performance is very, very special. He has a long career ahead of him.
How important was accuracy in your story telling? How much of Joshua Tree is fact-based, and how did you research?
We started with the histories, messy as they might be, and set about arriving at a truth. In doing so, we used every tool in the portraitist's kit. Of course we did a lot of research, culling from the many biographies, autobiographies of contemporaries, and personal interviews we carried out with survivors of the era and Jimmy's circle. But this is not a traditional Hollywood biopic, and that's why we also looked to Arthur Rimbaud for context (Dean truly did live in the Rimbaud paradigm of artist as fire-thief) and to the desert for a symbolic, emotional component.
What is next on the horizon for Matthew Mishory?
I am completing filming on a documentary, a very personal and modest story about a friend and his wife who, after the birth of their child, decided to radically change their lives and became uniquely modern urban farmers in Los Angeles. It is never preachy or political, just a very painterly and observant portrait of living in a new and exciting way.
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And in November I start filming on a neo-noir thriller that is the debut feature of the actor James Duke Mason, grandson of the James Mason and son of rocker Belinda Carlisle. It reunites most of the creative team from Joshua Tree, 1951.
What are you most looking forward to about your visit to Miami?
I have not spent nearly enough time in Miami! I am really looking forward to our screening at the Botanical Gardens, the Cuban food and culture, and the beautiful beach weather, and sea views -- if it doesn't rain!
Joshua Tree, 1951 will be screened at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden and be preceded by a cocktail reception with free flowing cocktails courtesy of 1492 Rum. The boozing starts at 6 p.m. followed by the movie at 8 p.m. with a Q&A with Mishory to follow. Tickets cost $20. Visit mglff.com.