Son and an Interview with Alison Maclean
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.
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.
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
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.
Nechak: Are the films you make a way to keep your own demons at bay?
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.
Do you ever identify with a character in a particular film or is there a
little of you in all of them?
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
What attracted you to Denis Johnson's writings?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I heard a rumor once that you were under contract to Disney. It seems
like a very odd pairing.
(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.
I also heard you were attached to a script by John Sayles called Bedlam.
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.
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
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.
Tell me about the fantastic cast -- Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack
Black, Holly Hunter, Denis Leary, Dennis Hopper.
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.
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?
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.
There's an irony to the fact that both Crush and Jesus' Son
begin on the road and with a car crash.
(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.