After countless books, documentaries, and film biographies of the gone-too-soon screen rebel James Dean, director Matthew Mishory achieves something close to impossible. With Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, Mishory offers an unforgettably original and often dream-like look at the pre-fame and sexually adventurous years of the actor as he struggled to make a name for himself in Hollywood.
Mishory's feature directorial debut, already a hit at film festivals around the globe, goes into limited theatrical release December 12 in Long Beach, Calif., before expanding into other U.S. cities. Set in the early 1950s when the charismatic Indiana native was just another determined hopeful, Mishory’s Dean (embodied by The Gates star James Preston) is a sexually frank portrayal of a young man depending on the kindess of well-to-do gentlemen friends. Mishory tells Out why his film isn't just another biopic and why Dean continues to fascinate us six decades after his death.
Out: Why did you decide to make a film about someone whose life has been covered so thoroughly with other films?
Matthew Mishory: We wanted to make a film that was nothing like all of the previous films that have been made about his life. They’ve all really been perfectly serviceable, very traditional Hollywood biopics, and our film is not. It’s not a biopic. It’s not even really traditionally a biographical film. It’s a portrait, as the title suggests. I think that gave us a little more free reign to find the truth about who this guy actually was and not just as an artist or an actor, but also as a person.
When did you first become aware of Dean?
The very first film I saw as a very little boy was East of Eden. My father had actually come to the U.S. to study music at Julliard when he was 16 and he learned to speak English by going to the movies. He saw all the Dean films on their first run. So the first film I ever saw as a child was East of Eden. So I’ve really been living with the images of James Dean as actor, as icon — but mostly as actor and as a very different kind of actor as I’ve experienced — since I was a little boy, so I think it was almost inevitable that I was going to one day be drawn to make a film about him.
What was your impression of him when you watched East of Eden for the first time?
He was larger than life. That performance is just so very intense and captivating. It’s just an unforgettable performance and all three of them — all three of the film performances he left us are really like that. He was an actor who I think sort of redefined what intensity meant vis-a-vis the screen. When I went back and revisited the films later as a teenager, in film school, and subsequently — I really think he was the first actor to bring realistic and captivating portrayals of young people to screen. That documentary they made years later was very aptly titled. It was called The First American Teenager. There wasn't just an intensity, but also a sort of emotional rawness to his acting that had never really been seen before in Hollywood and while many have tried to emulate it since, it’s never really been fully realized again.
It’s been nearly 60 years since Dean died. He had such a paltry filmography. Why do people still care about this man? Why are we still talking about him?
I think part of it is the role he fills in popular culture. He’s certainly ubiquitous as a sort of icon of that era. Interestingly, I don’t personally think — and people who knew him I think would agree — he was really nothing like the sort of iconic image that people have come to associate with him. I do feel most people know who this guy was because of something they’ve seen on a T-shirt or a coffee mug in a souvenir shop, but really he was a very different sort of person. And maybe, in a way, he was the first postmodern film star. While I think he was cynical about the constraints of the Hollywood system and the star system, I think he was also very aware of its possibility. I think that the famous photo shoot in New York that seems to be how most people remember James Dean — that was something that was entirely constructed by the man himself. That was maybe an image he wanted to portray.
Are you referring to the famous "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" photo?
Exactly. Yeah, the brownie camera... the sort of dark, brooding, sensitive bad boy walking through the rain in New York City. There's a very interesting sort of fuck-it-all toughness to those images that was very much constructed. But it was a brilliant construction.
So I think he filled this role in popular culture as a sort of icon of an era. Maybe he wasn’t anything like people imagined him to be. On the one hand, that’s what I think led to his enduring popularity, on the other, I think he was an actor who fundamentally changed the way actors act on screen. He’s the first actor to bring a sort of realism to young characters in films, but he was also one of the first actors to really take the method and act out — what Brando and Clift were doing —and taking it to its natural light. His performances were so much more intense than anything that has come before or anything that’s come since.
Hence his being referred to as “the first American teenager.”
Exactly. I think he endures because of his constructed status as an icon, but also because, in a very real way, he changed the way actors act. And that’s a very significant life achievement.
One area of his persona that people are still talking about is his sexual orientation. Your film covers how he used his sexuality to get ahead. He was often kept by gentlemen who could further his career. What is your take on his sexual orientation?
My take is that everything I have to say about it is in the film. I think the notion that he was non-heterosexual — whatever that means to people — is pretty uncontroversial by now. Another interviewer pointed out a few months back that Elizabeth Taylor said as much on national television. So it’s strange to me that it’s still "controversial." I do get that question a lot, I guess more conservative audiences consider this controversial because it has been something they’ve latched onto. The film has not been without controversy, but to me it’s a completely uncontroversial stance. In fact, Dean himself was very witty and sort of open about the possibilities of sexuality even in his press interviews in the 1950s. And wasn’t that progressive for the time?
Do you get the feeling that people today want him to have been this gay pioneer? Do you get that sense from people who watch the film?
No, I guess I’ve gotten the sense that there’s still an element of danger and intrigue to the way Dean lived and not just in terms of sexuality but in terms of the ways he experimented with pleasure and pain, the way he lived his life in an intense series of extremities, not unlike Arthur Rimbaud which is why the film starts with Rimbaud before we even make our way into Dean’s life. I think he was somebody who was very aware of the possibility of extremes and how they could be channeled into art. In our — in many ways — more conservative modern time, I think that’s something that is still appealing in its dangerousness.
Speaking further in that regard, there are so many crazy myths and urban legends and such that have sprung up around him. People project their fantasies onto this guy. What do think of the kind of things or stories that call him “a human ashtray?” You touch on that in the film, right?
Yeah, we do. What we don’t do in the film is make it clear whether what you’re seeing on screen is reality, is a dream, is Jimmy’s fantasy, is mine, is the audience’s... I mean, I think whether the human ashtray story is true or not, Dean certainly propagated it, so again I think he was somebody who probably would have enjoyed the legacy that he’s left in all its ambiguities.
James Preston is mesmerizing. How did you decide he was right to play Dean?
My feeling — I mean, and tell me if you agree — his performance is really not like any of the ones that came before. I think it was a totally different and very interesting reading of the part.
Yeah, I’ll give you that. He’s beautiful to look at, but he conveys this essence that was like Dean in East of Eden, this sort of innocent-looking kid finding his way — that’s what stood out to me.
Yeah, well, you know, James Preston was a kid from Texas finding his way in Los Angeles and he found his way into this movie. He was a 19-year-old who dropped out art school, got in his truck and drove to LA to become an actor and — like so many — had a tough time getting anyone to listen to him here. So I think there’s kind an interesting and really fruitful correlation between his life and Dean’s. Dean was a kid from Indiana who moved to Los Angeles dropped out of UCLA, and really got eaten alive by the Hollywood system, trying to find his way into a movie. So I think that’s something our James certainly channeled as he was preparing for the role, what it’s like to sort of be uprooted and lost swimming with sharks in Hollywood.
The film has played festivals around the world. It definitely has a European sensibility. How differently was the film received outside of the U.S.?
One thing that’s been sort of fascinating to me is that the film has been maybe more controversial and more splitting of audience not in its content but in its form. It’s formally very different than a standard Hollywood biopic. It’s not really told in the language of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s told in the language of dreams and memories because that’s really how Dean endures and that’s how we felt it was best to tell the story.
So I think one interesting difference in the reception is that in the U.S., the film is perceived as being more experimental or belonging to the canon of art cinema. And in Europe, the reception has been more of a mainstream film about an icon who is beloved the world over. And that’s more of how we saw the film. We just embraced a language of filmmaking that maybe is a little more challenging than what’s at the multiplex every week, but I think it was the only way to tell the story in an interesting and refreshing way. It’s also kind of a sexy film. And I think that’s definitely in the plus category when a movie comes out in Europe.
Are audiences surprised by the sexuality in the film?
Well, I don’t think that there’s anything particularly shocking about the movie. What I like about it is — unlike many films — there’s no hand-wringing about sex or sexuality in this movie. There’s no gay angst — in fact, there’s no sexual angst whatsoever. It’s a movie where the sex is actually sexy. So many American films — especially sort of mainstream studio American films — portray sex in a really crass and unappealing way. It’s either a joke or something to feel terrible about afterwards, and that’s not a part of our movie. I think the portrayal of sexuality in the film has certainly been well received abroad. It’s slightly more controversial here.
When and where can readers expect to see the film?
It’s opening theatrically December 12 in Southern California. The L.A. county theatrical release is at the Art Theatre in Long Beach for seven days, and then it’s going to expand from there to five or six cities around the country and possibly also around the world as it continues to play festivals through May or June 2013. And the DVD release will be in June or July of 2013. And that will be worldwide.
What’s your next project?
I am doing something very different but I think challenging and enjoyable in its own way. It's a political thriller with James Duke Mason who I think is known to Out readers.
Yes, he’s a past Out100 honoree.
This is essentially his star vehicle as an actor. His father, who’s kind of a legendary producer [Morgan Mason] in Hollywood, produced Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape and is coming out of retirement to produce. It should be a hugely exciting project. We start filming in the new year in the spring of 2013.
Any final words on why Out readers should seek out your film?
I do think that it’s interesting that in the last five or six years queer audiences have not really been turning out and supporting major queer films which are hard to make, so I’m hoping people will come out and support this movie.
Watch the trailer for Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean below: