Director Jay Russell spoke at the 2012 Little Rock Film Festival. Russell’s film credits include My Dog Skip, The Water Horse, and Tuck Everlasting.
Jay presented a clip of his first major film End of the Line, which according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), tells the story of ”two railroad workers from Clifford, Arkansas [who] become heroes when they hijack a locomotive to protest the closing of the local railroad company.”
In the clip, one of the actors tells a personal story that wasn’t in the script. Says Jay, “I try to always be open to things that happen spontaneously.”
The movie was made when there “was no such thing as independent film… I didn’t realize this was supposed to be sub-par… We took it to Sundance as a workshop project, and the next thing you know we’re down here in Arkansas making a movie.”
The script caught actors Kevin Bacon, Holly Hunter, and Mary Steenburgen’s attention. Once a group of talented performers had been assembled, Jay was able to obtain financing.
Jay says that he’s “been a fan of folk tales” all of his life. His “idea was to do a little folk tale about [his] life in Arkansas.”
You “learn a tremendous amount from the first [film]” says Jay, and “not everything works.”
He felt a sense of accomplishment with End of the Line, which has become a cult film among railroad aficianados.
But after making this movie, he “fell off the map and wasn’t sure what to do… On the freeway that is Hollywood, there are many off ramps. But once you get off, you have to get back on.”
He made some short documentaries, including one about Mort Hurst, a champion collard-green eater in North Carolina who was determined to break his own record. Hurst billed himself as the “Mohammed Ali of collard-green eating.”
Jay received the go-ahead for a PBS travelog that reported on people living along Highway 61. While filming an episode, the three-person crew made a detour to Jackson, Mississippi, to interview Eudora Welty. Welty was famous for her stories and novels about life in the South. A man in Jackson suggested Jay also interview author Willie Morris, who lived nearby.
“A few glasses of whiskey later [Willie and Jay} were still talking." Jay told Willie that he'd love to read the manuscript that the author was then working on. "A few months later, I got a package in the mail," says Jay. After reading the book (My Dog Skip), he asked Willie if he could make it into a movie.
But, says Jay, "Nobody wanted to make this movie." Then Fred Smith, owner of Federal Express, said that he'd finance it.
My Dog Skip stars Frankie Muniz, Kevin Bacon, and Diane Lane. Jay quotes a teacher that he admired in film school. "Casting is 75% of directing." And casting Willie's part was particularly important. Jay told himself, "You cannot settle on this kid; it has to be the kid." And "I easily saw 400 kids for that part. After a long, long, long process... I was fast-forwarding through faces, and this face hit me." He chose Muniz in spite of the fact that his reading wasn't particularly good -- a barely-audible whisper.
Jay says the main challenge in working with kids is to keep them focussed on the scene. But one big advantage to working with children is that they "haven't lost that ability to play pretend." With adults, "if it gets real artificial, that's where the trouble starts. [With kids] you can say, ‘pretend the dog is sitting right there. Pretend there’s a Loch Ness monster’.”
Jay says he already knew Kevin Bacon, who he’d worked with before on End of the Line. But at the time, most of the cast was unknowns.
The other boys in the film were “all first-timers,” and all from different areas of the country. Everyone else was cast locally, from Little Rock, Jackson, or Memphis.
Casting the dog was a particular challenge. “I had an idea,” says Jay, “before we got in rehearsals, that I wasn’t going to get one of those trained dogs. I was going to get a real dog. I was going to get Frankie and the dog to bond” and then just film their relationship. But the first day, the dog chosen “ran into a field, [then] into the woods. It took us forever to get it back. Then we called Mathilde DeCagney,” who’d trained Moose, the dog who played Eddie in Frazier.
Five dogs were used in the making of the movie. One was in a single shot. In this scene, Willie hits his dog Skip. Frankie would swing as though meaning to make contact, but the trained dogs “would just sit there and wag their tails.” So they used a dog that wasn’t trained yet. When Frankie swung, it ran.
Originally, Jay wanted to shoot the film in Yazoo, Mississippi, where the story takes place. But the town had modernized so much that it didn’t look right. Instead they filmed in Canton, a half mile south of Jackson.
The film was on a tight budget. “Canton allowed us to get a lot more for very little money… We literally went door to door asking to borrow antiques.” And actor Luke Wilson received no pay other than the greens fees for his golfing.
Jay says he’s “had a dog [his] entire life.” Most of his childhood he “had a dog just like Skip — the same coloring and everything.”
But at the end of the movie, he says “we’re not crying because the dog dies; it’s because we’re losing our childhood.”
“This [movie] will always be the one for me,” says Jay. “The first movie that broke out and put me on the map.
Jay showed another clip from Tuck Everlasting, based on the book by Natalie Babbitt. The clip showed a seductive Ben Kingsley speaking with a young and attractive Alexis Bledel.
“Book adaptations are tough,” says Jay, “because you’re competing with the audience’s imagination.”
He gives much credit to the performers. “Each and every one of them brought a [distinct] style.” Ben Kingsley believes that “you’ve got to have a secret job within a movie.” The actors are all in on the joke. In this case, the secret job was to tell about a girls’ coming of age.
In casting the lead, Jay “saw Alexis, and then 100-150 other girls” before coming “full circle back to Alexis.”
Next Jay presented a dramatic film clip from Ladder 49, which had the audience on edge. In one of the scenes, a fire-fighter makes his way through a burning building to a victim.
In a burning building, says Jay, it’s “pitch dark; it’s hard to simulate.”
He says you have to feel your way around “and suddenly [the floor's] not there, and you don’t know whether it’s a three-foot or twenty-foot drop.”
Joaquin Phoenix, who played the lead, spent three months at the Baltimore Fire Academy studying for the part. “Working with him is like walking on a tightrope,” says Jay. “You lean forward and go, ‘what’s he going to do?’” Jay’s amazed. He “can create absolute reality in the moment.”
Jay lets the actors use their know-how. “I just want everyone on the crew to know I care about them and what they’re doing, but I wouldn’t dream of telling them how to do their job.
The final clip shown was from The Water Horse, based on a book by Dick King-Smith. The story tells of a boy who finds a large egg — belonging to the Loch Ness Monster.
This was Jay’s first chance to work with digital and green screen technology. The creature “was all numbers — all digital.”
The film took two to three years to make, and all of the digital work was done in New Zealand over a year and a half. Jay spent a lot of time going to various computer stations each day, watching the film’s progression.
For Jay, this was the first time he’d seen clips from any of his movies in in many years. “I don’t usually watch a film after its premiere,” he explains. ”All I see is the mistakes.”