Jesus' Son and an Interview with Alison Maclean
interview by Paula Nechak, 7 July 2000

Her films are dark as tar pitch and yet emit a stream of humor and light. Beginning with the macabre short Kitchen Sink and then challenging conventional film standards by scrawling fingernails against the chalkboard of what is cinematically acknowledged as a "film femme fatale," New Zealander Alison Maclean made Crush.

This 1993 film was a true modern psychological horror classic with Marcia Gay Harden's anti-heroine, Lane, invitingly seductive and borderline empty at her core. Maclean created a dimensional film in which we rooted for the bad girl and which, though it ended in the inevitable genre equation -- death -- remains unforgettable for its depth of character, sexual phobia and cinematic metaphor -- with some thanks due to Harden's performance. 

Now Maclean, after some start and stop projects, has tackled the writings of dark-souled Denis Johnson -- poet, reformed madman, purger of private demons and stream of consciousness crusader -- in her critically applauded adaptation of a book of Johnson's short stories called Jesus' Son.      Tackling Denis Johnson on a good day would be one thing. To string and form a cohesive narrative out of a set of his internalized, soul searching, pyscho-psychedelic stories is quite another, and yet Maclean's done it by laminating the angst and out there outlaw mentality with a distinctly personal touch.

Over coffee and tea on a rainy Seattle Saturday, Maclean told Nitrate Online about how she got the film made, her star Billy Crudup, and where she's been these past six years.  


Paula Nechak: Are the films you make a way to keep your own demons at bay? 

Alison Maclean: I guess so. You don't really know where things come from. Kitchen Sink literally popped into my head and in retrospect I suppose I prefer not to analyze it too much. When I look back at the films I've done, they're very much wrapped up in certain preoccupations with my life at that time. They all have a personal genesis somewhere in them. 


PN: Do you ever identify with a character in a particular film or is there a little of you in all of them? 

AM: Crush is myself fractured into three (laughs), if not four, and also some other people as well. But I definitely felt a real identification with Fuckhead, the character in Denis Johnson's book. I felt it quite strongly in fact. 


PN: What attracted you to Denis Johnson's writings? 

AM: I was stunned by this book when it first came out. It was my introduction to Denis Johnson's writing and I went on to read most of his other novels and became sort of obsessed with him. For awhile I was even attached to an adaptation of his novel The Stars At Noon. What I like about Jesus' Son is it's so compressed, it's like a perfect little jewel of a book because it has the compression of poetry more than any of his other works. Individual lines, well, when I was reading it, they just stopped me cold. His language, the way he described a person or situation, held such honesty. He nailed the observation in such a vivid way that I'd have to put the book down for a time, think about it and then come back to it. It really doesn't happen all that often in fiction. 


PN: The book is a microcosm of America and a certain era in a way. You aren't American though you live in New York which is another microcosm. Does that metaphor attract you? 

AM: You sort of know the landscape from other films as well as the myth that goes with it. In one way it's quite familiar and in another, daunting to think about making as a non-American because I felt like an outsider and I worried whether I would be able to make it in a way that's accurate. But I worked with people who are of that world and the book itself is an incredible reference. 


PN: I look at foreign directors who have come to the States to make a film and many of them bring an outsider's objectivity and it's ultimately an advantage for the project. 

AM: Yeah, I think you do see what others take for granted as being strange or like darkness -- things you can't see when you're swimming in it. 


PN: I heard a rumor once that you were under contract to Disney. It seems like a very odd pairing. 

AM: (laughs) Yeah, I know. They gave me a development deal and sent me a bunch of scripts. The one I was really drawn to was Up Close and Personal which, as you know, became that dreadful film which was supposedly based on Jessica Savitch and the book Golden Girl. I was fascinated by her life but the screenwriters barely took anything from it and we ended up with a difference of opinion. But it brought me to the States and I thought I'd stay for a year and they paid my overhead and then I fell in love with it and stayed. 


PN: I also heard you were attached to a script by John Sayles called Bedlam.

AM: But it fell apart for a number of reasons I don't want to go into. It was a remake of a Val Lewton film from the 1940's that starred Boris Karloff. In a way it was an historical fantasy. The original was really theatrical and bad, but it was a fascinating period and it's still a script I'd like to make. It's hard to make a period film because it's so expensive and the whole thing just got bogged down. Maybe it'll happen one day. 


PN: So how do you pick your projects? Does your decision-making capacity depend upon where you are in your own life? For example, could you make Crush now? 

AM: No, no. I was very unsettled at that time, trying to decide if I wanted to remain in New Zealand. I seem to be drawn to doing something that's different from what I've just done because I don't like to feels as though I'm repeating myself and then it's just a gut feeling. It's like it feels urgent. It's a combination of your instinct and what's right but also what's possible. I never could have made a first film like Crush in the States. Not with that kind of cast. To be honest, Jesus' Son wouldn't have gotten financing if it hadn't been for private investors with a relationship to the producers. We sent it out initially to several companies who admired the script and the cast and essentially said they'd love to see it after it was made. Since I moved to New York it's been a frustrating six years trying to get work as a director and for a long time I only got script development deals. I wrote three features in a row and hit a huge wall of frustration. Then this came my way out of left field. 


PN: Tell me about the fantastic cast -- Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Holly Hunter, Denis Leary, Dennis Hopper. 

AM: Billy Crudup was the first person we talked about to play Fuckhead and one of the co-writers and producers had gone to NYU with him and she knew him so we had an "in" in getting to him. He read the book and loved it and connected to it. He understood its honesty and tenderness and one of the things we were concerned about was making the female part in the story more significant than in the book. So we wrote the love story as the connecting thread between the stories. When I read the book I initially couldn't see it as a film. It was a very difficult adaptation and we insisted on being very bold by keeping its discontinuous structure and the way that the narrative shuffles back and forth in time and redefines itself. 


PN: Do you like working with actors who are on the fringe of breaking through or who have just broken through or do you prefer established names? 

AM: There's a discovery about new actors. The danger in using well-known names is they pop out. Though in this case Dennis Hopper is perfect for the role because we all know what kind of extraordinary life he's led. 


PN: There's an irony to the fact that both Crush and Jesus' Son begin on the road and with a car crash. 

AM: (laughs) It's completely coincidental. It's odd: they're both red cars, too. I didn't even choose the car in Jesus' Son. It didn't wind up this way but the original script ended up with a wide shot of a landscape and if you remember, Crush ended that way as well. It's all very weird. 


Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.

 

 


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