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Interview: Matthew Mishory

10 min read

One of this year’s most hotly anticipated LGBT releases is Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, starring James Preston as the Hollywood legend. The film shines a light on the lesser known period prior to Dean’s fame and fatal accident, forming an intimate character study of the man behind the legend primarily from the perspective of those closest to him, including his roommate and lover played by Dan Glenn, who found Dean to be extraordinary, talented, and somehow out of reach.

Matthew Mishory
Matthew Mishory

Prior to the release of Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, we caught up with Writer and Director Matthew Mishory to talk about the film and the man himself.

Renowned For Sound: Hi Matthew, first of all I wanted to say that Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is an absolutely fantastic film. I’m a fan of ‘Classic Hollywood’, so it was a great pleasure to see a good biopic of a Hollywood legend. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what led you to make the film, what was your inspiration?

Matthew Mishory: Well, filmmaking for me is always very personal and the inspiration for this film really was my childhood. The first feature film I think I ever saw, the first film I remember my father showing me, was East of Eden. I was a very little boy, but nonetheless I was keenly aware of what a remarkable and very special performance that is and I had a chance to see the film many times over the years. I was just up in Seattle where we did a theatrical run of the movie and they did something interesting in that every night my film would play and they’d run a double feature so it’d be my film and either East of Eden or Rebel [Without a Cause] and you know I was watching East of Eden again for the first time in several years and really sort of thinking that James Dean was acting in an entirely different film than anyone else in that cast. You have these kind of very stolid professional fifties actors and then you have James Dean who moves through the set in a different way, he’s performing in a different way, he’s reading his dialogue in a very different way. He’s reinventing actors’ craft and performance before our very eyes, and I think I must have been aware of that subconsciously as many viewers are even as a child and obviously his career and his performances meant different things to me at different stages. Rebel Without a Cause is the essential adolescent movie and I really came to love it as an adolescent, so in a way the image of James Dean the actor really haunted my childhood and I think it’s appropriate that I made my first feature about him.

RFS: As well you could say his performance in Giant is completely different to anyone else in that movie. It’s breathtaking really.

MM: Absolutely. The performance in Giant is really extraordinary as its coming at a point in his career when Dean is starting to think about how films are made and filmmaking and his performance affects even compositions in the film.

RFS: Absolutely. So what was it, specifically; why did you choose James Dean for your first feature?

MM: Well I had previously done a film about Derek Jarman, who was another artist in history who was really important to me and somebody I had spent a lot of time studying as a student and I made a film about him in 2009 which you can now find on DVD and in the film archive at the BFI [British Film Institute] and that film was taken all around the world, and it got a bit of attention and that was sort of what got me this film. But what was interesting was presenting the film to audiences and having to explain to them who Derek Jarman was as for me he was such a formative figure that it was strange that I should find myself in the position of explaining. So I wanted to make another historical film and initially it was meant to be another short film portrait. I decided to make a film about someone everybody knows, or at least thinks they know, maybe in reality they only know James Dean as the image on a T-shirt or coffee mug. Because of his ubiquity in the popular culture they do feel like they know him in some way, so I saw it as an opportunity to explore an element of his life, the early formative years that people don’t really know but might be interested in learning about.

RFS: Yea, well I was actually going to ask you this question later on but it seems appropriate to come to it now. A lot of biographies or biopics relating to James Dean very much focus on the bad boy rebel element , can you tell me why you chose to portray more of his sensitive side, the guy who can’t quite relate to the world, but really wanted to experience it all, what made you choose that aspect of his character?

MM: Well, my film isn’t a biopic, it’s not even a conventionally biographical film; the by-the-numbers biopic had been made two or three times and those versions are just fine; they weren’t terribly interesting to me, but they were made and they’re out there and they’re well done, so if anything our film is another contribution to the canon of cinematic explorations of Dean. I was interested in the question ‘what are the antecedents of a remarkable life and a career that changed film acting?’ and for me I found those antecedents in the earlier years of his life, you know Dean was someone who was developing new and exciting theories about what acting could be as a sort of aggregate of all other art forms. Also through the Method and through his experience at the Actors’ Studio as a sort of aggregate of one’s experiences in life. Dean was somebody who liked to live his life in extremes and he brought those extremes of emotion to acting to create a type of authenticity in performance that didn’t really exist in the same way especially as relates to young characters, so to me that was an interesting element of his life, and it was also the part that was relatively unexplored.

RFS: How do you think the relationship with his roommate contributed to the choices he made and the way he viewed the world?

MM: As we were crafting the story we realised, initially in script phase, the film was so much more about Dean the young intellectual and these ideas he was developing about acting and performance and as we were shooting and then cutting the movie we realised it was also a film about the relationships in his life and the people who surrounded him and the very particularised effect he had on people that we discovered in the research and speaking to people who knew him. Dean was someone who blew through people’s lives and out the other side and always left this very indelible unforgettable impression and we realised that as that was how people experienced him that needed to be a part of the film. So while it’s a portrait of James Dean, it’s really told through the eyes of people who experienced him in this moment in time, and that’s referenced in the title of the movie, the movie’s very much a moment and place in time and the unifying thread is his relationship with the roommate, and I think that also in a way reflects something bigger, which is this idea that it’s very difficult if not impossible to love somebody who is destined to be great, they’re very hard to hold on to and ultimately I think that’s the decision that character makes at the end of the film.

RFS: It’s a very interesting relationship there, he seemed to be quite a well of strength for Dean in a lot of ways but he couldn’t quite get there, he couldn’t get to Dean’s level.

MM: Yea, and maybe this is one of things that’s controversial about the movie, Dean was a very imperfect person, he was also very young and most of us are pretty insufferable when we’re twenty years old, at least I was, and I didn’t think we needed to whitewash his personality and remove all of those elements. He was someone who took what he needed from everybody around him as the character of the director says at the end, and that’s very much who he was.

RFS: So, you’ve kind of touched on this already, but what was the concept behind the structure of the film, the series of vignettes?

MM: Well, I think the starting point was the notion that Dean was not an ordinary actor and we didn’t want to make an ordinary film about him and certainly not an ordinary biopic where one thing leads very neatly to another and a very complex life becomes a very simple narrative. That simply didn’t make sense given the complexity of the man, and the film in a way is not just a film about his life, its sort of an essay on his life and the episodic structure made sense for what we were trying to accomplish. We weren’t just telling Dean’s story, we were contextualising which is why it opens with the prologue that it does and his life really is a series of episodes it’s not a constant narrative. A narrative is something we impose on life to make it conventionally structural and because Dean was such an unconventional person we really had a carte blanche to make the film in a different way.

RFS: You really found a kinship between Dean and the French poet Rimbaud, can you tell me about that?

MM: Sure. There’s a context for every life and Dean didn’t exist in a vacuum and for me the context was so obviously Arthur Rimbaud who, like Dean, was a young rebel poet who lived his life in extremes and framed those extremities of experience in to beautiful art. I felt Dean did the same thing, so to me it was the context. And of course it was the beat generation and Dean would have been aware of Rimbaud and was an avid consumer of poetry. It seemed like a context that wasn’t merely self indulgence, it fitted neatly into the work of the time period. This is a film about a period of time where people read, and they read a lot and they didn’t just read little micro-blogs online. They read poetry and literature and they committed their passages to memory. It was a very different intellectual climate.

RFS: What do you think was James Dean’s best film?

MM: Well there were only three and I love them all for different reasons. I think the first two. Giant is very complex and problematic but it also has just an astounding performance from Dean, I also really like Elizabeth Taylor in that film. They’re all wonderful films. It would be hard to pick a favourite. If I had to pick one, at this point in my life it’s probably East of Eden because of the extraordinary father son story which always seems to work on film. But the first two are really my favourites, East of Eden and Rebel.

RFS: Both brilliant films. What do you want the audience to take away from your film?

MM: I hope that on the one had they feel they’ve gained a bit of insight in to a life that created a really remarkable set of performances and changed what actors do. On the other hand I hope they’ll in some way be surprised by the film and for audiences that are more accustomed to mainstream biopic format, hopefully they’ll be seeing a film in a slightly different way, a film that’s made in a slightly different way and enjoy that experience.

RFS: So, would you ever make a film about any other high profile Hollywood gay performers like Montgomery Clift or Rock Hudson?

MM: Not specifically for that reason. I would make a film Montgomery Clift because I think he’s one of the most extraordinary actors who ever lived. I think he was very aware of what James Dean was doing and what Brando was doing. It’s hard to mention two of the three of them without mentioning the third, they had a sort of kinship in the type of work they were doing I think.

RFS: Do you think Dean was threatened at all by anything Montgomery Clift or Marlon Brando was doing?

MM: No, I think Dean’s relationship to Brando was very complex because he was incredibly enamoured by what Brando was doing. Brando was a huge inspiration for him, but Dean was getting very different roles, so I think of the two of them as being very distinct as actors and doing very different work. Dean was both enamoured and threatened by a lot of people. He was a young and complex personality. Ironically Brando best summarised Dean’s life and I think this is really what the film is about when he said “Dean was just a young man trying to find himself.” That’s what we tried to convey in the movie.

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is on sale now from Play and will be released from Amazon on 13th May 2013.

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