Junebug: Interview with Morrison

Inspiration for Making the Film

I’ve never had that feeling of “this story must be told.” That’s sort of a prose-based inspiration, I guess, and thank God people have it. I’ve been inspired more by moments, or by phenomena, in movies. It makes sense to me that some movies are called transcendental. Just a couple transcendent moments are enough to make a movie worthwhile to me; and if there are more, and they work together in some mysterious way to create the moral-mystical-delirious experience that’s unique to movies, then Im inspired. Im inspired by an obvious list of great directors: Demy, Demme, Minnelli, Cukor, Burnett, Imamura, Kiarostami, Bresson, Sturges, Nicholas Ray, Ozu, Renoir, Leigh, Spielberg, Zhang, Makhmalbaf. It seems like a good idea to look to them for guidance.

Angus’s script for “Junebug” was appealing to me primarily because I could see opportunities to attempt those moments. And hopefully those moments converge to become something worthwhile. Not a something we planned in advance, but an alchemical something that’s an unforeseen result of our planning in advance.

Effect of Living in the South

Living in the South absolutely informs the pace of the movie. I don’t find the clich of Southern slowness to be inapt. What I hope we reflect is the contemplativeness that sits in the slowness. We aimed for “Junebug” to feel contemplative. Certainly the politics of the South and the relationship between the South and the rest of the world are of great interest to me, and lots of choices in the movie are informed by that interest. Making “Junebug” has been interesting to me as a means of discovering ideas and raising questions, as opposed to asserting a formed outlook about the South.

One idea that arose is a phenomenon of the South reflexively defining itself with traits that are perhaps interesting or evocative, but are essentially uncommon. Peculiarities are proudly presented as if they are quintessential. And so we become complicit, even eager in the furthering of biases and clichs about our own selves. Im interested in how this can overwhelm a connection to, or exploration of, what is actually “common” (good things, and evil too). I don’t suggest this is particular to the South, but that’s where we were thinking about it.

Relationship between George and his Family

Cosmopolitan country music has lyrics about rambling, hitting the road, etc. But nearer the mountains, you get songs like “No Desire to Roam” and “I Long To See the Old Folks.” To be in the family is to stay near. George’s desire to be gone is a betrayal. That desire was probably evident since he was a kid, and the family flattered him and wooed him to stay. But he still left.

George’s Brother Johnny

There might be an idea in the family that if George wanted to, he could have Johnny’s life. But Johnny could never be George. (And toward the end of the movie, George takes it upon himself to, in a way, stand-in for Johnny at an important time). This is enough to make Johnny feel that George is an obliterating presence, or at least an asshole.

The Project’s History

Angus has always been a hero of mine. When I was in college, we adapted part of his play “Behold, Zebulon” into my junior project “Tater Tomater,” a 20-minute short. The short was in Sundance in 1992. It took a long time to be able to make a feature. Angus wrote “Junebug,” and then we worked together on it off and on for a long time, while trying to figure out how people actually find the money to make movies.

It was hard to figure out what to call it. At one point Angus called it “Divertimento,” which I think connects to the answer above. At another point, we called it “Look Away, Look Away, Look Away,” in reference to “Dixie.” I showed the script to Mindy Goldberg and she believed in it and started to help. And it still took a long, long time. Meanwhile, we did other things too. Angus’ play “The Dead Eye Boy” was produced in New York and I directed “Upright Citizens Brigade” for Comedy Central. Certainly, the movie would be very different if wed made it when we first started thinking about it.

Teaming with the Producers

Ive known Mindy Goldberg a long time. Weve worked together making music videos and commercials at her company, Epoch Films. I had no idea if shed be interested in trying to make a movie, but I knew shed be great at it. And she seemed to see in Angus’s script the same things I did. So we agreed to try to make Epoch’s first movie, and keep it small. Angus and I had been trying to get “Junebug” made for a while, but it only became a real movie when Mindy got involved. Mike Ryan, fresh off “Palindromes” and “40 Shades of Blue,” agreed to join us and show us the ropes. He was excellent at reminding me when I strayed from our Ozu-derived principles, which was often.

Casting

Celia Weston went to Salem College in Winston-Salem, and Angus has known her a long time. She agreed to be Peg early on, which blew my mind and gave me hope. She was very loyal to our struggle. For a few years, she would call to check our progress before agreeing to be in some huge movie. It felt funny to say, “No Celia, it doesn’t look like were quite ready to get started, so you can go do The Hulk.”

In my first meeting with Mark Bennett, our casting director, I started to talk about the character Ashley. He said, “There are a lot of good people for that part, but, mark my words, it’s going to be Amy Adams.” And sure enough there were a lot of good people, but no other Amy. During her audition, it struck me that she was really teaching me about the movie. Not just her character, but the whole movie. That continued until the day she wrapped. While we were in Winston-Salem, we went to Green St. Methodist Church. One Sunday the minister said, “God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way.” There was no way Amy was going to let the shoot end without Ashley repeating that. So it’s in the movie.

I hadn’t seen “The O.C., ” so when Ben McKenzie read for Johnny, his Texas/Virginia essence was unmitigated. When we were doing the scene where Johnny tries to tape the television show about meerkats, I had to stop the audition and pounce on him at one point because he was about to destroy someone else’s audition tape. Im confident he was in character and it was not a ploy to diminish someone’s chances. I knew we were in good shape with our Ben/Johnny transformation when Ben could walk around the stock car races at Bowman Gray Stadium and not get recognized (and I don’t think it was just his mustache).

Watching Scott Wilson’s harrowing performance in “Monster,” it occurred to me he would be a great Eugene. I hadn’t seen “In Cold Blood” in quite some time. I think it’s funny that my experience of Scott was bookended by these horrible murders, and yet he seemed so perfect to be the gentle character of Eugene.

I also think it’s funny that when we cast Alessandro Nivola as George. Many people said, “Oh it’s interesting that youre having an English guy play that part.” Our shooting schedule got a little screwy so Alessandro had many days free before we ever got around to shooting him. He was very patient. At one point he drove four hours to watch Italians play soccer via satellite. I hooked him up with a nice family in town so he could go to their house during the day and watch matches on pay-per-view. His accommodations did not have such frills. I think he had his own key to their house. Id like to believe he wouldve stayed in the movie even if we hadn’t made this arrangement.

The screwy schedule required Embeth Davidtz to spend her first day half-naked and her second in the strange, difficult book report scene. I knew from our meetings that she had Madeleine’s beauty and grace and that she had her own clear understanding of the character’s inner life. But I almost got teary when she arrived in Winston-Salem and I saw her script. I have no idea how, in the short time she had the script, she managed to get it so dog-eared and fill up every margin with notes.

Frank Hoyt Taylor almost never let me see him out of character, which was inspiring and unnerving (and therefore appropriate to his part). The dialect Frank uses for David Wark is very particular to a part of northwest North Carolina between where I grew up and where Frank lives at the Virginia border. Wark’s accent is particularly inspired by N.C. storyteller Ray Hicks.

I saw Joanne Pankow in “Love Liza” and thought shed be perfect to play David Wark’s sister. Little did I know shed be in two other movies in competition at Sundance this year (“Loggerheads” and “40 Shades of Blue”).

Locations and Shooting

We had 20 shoot days. We shot mostly in Winston-Salem, N.C. and near Pilot Mountain, N.C. Both Angus and I were born and raised in Winston-Salem. Angus lives there with his wife and daughter. At the beginning of the movie, George says he’s from Pfafftown, which is nearby. Many people think he’s saying “Pufftown.” I guess we should have thought of that. Pilot Mountain, incidentally, is the “Mount Pilot” often referenced on the “Andy Griffith Show.” It’s just down the road from Mt. Airy, which was the model for Mayberry. You can see it in one shot toward the end of “Junebug.”

Im happy for the movie to pay its respects to the “Andy Griffith Show. ” I don’t think anyone has better captured Western N.C. than the people who made that show. And while their genius enabled them to do it on a back lot in Hollywood, I wasn’t ready to try anything like that. We didn’t have much time or money, so there was talk of saving both by shooting near New York. But that was too scary. I didn’t have the confidence to fake it. I didn’t want to assert my memory of home, but for the environment to assert itself.

Our dauntless location scout, Corey Walter, found a perfect neighborhood in Winston-Salem. Most of the houses were empty because before too long the city will be expanding the nearby landfill. So for a couple weeks we had a back lot after all, right there in Piedmont North Carolina. The landfill crew was our friends and liaisons. It was tranquil and a couple days before we started shooting, all the lawns were covered with junebugs. You can see them flying in some shots. That location may have been the greatest fortune our movie had.