Interview with Dennis Lee Director of Jesus Henry Christ
I recently sat down with Dennis Lee, writer and director of the new indie film Jesus Henry Christ, staring Michael Sheen, Toni Collette, and Jason Spevack. Jesus Henry Christ follows the 10 year old, hyper intelligent Henry on his search for his biological father. More generally, it explores the meaning of family and identity in the 21st century. Lee discusses the process of moving the project from a student film short into a full fledged feature on a budget, casting and working with child actors, the themes behind his work, and more.
MovieRoomReviews: Originally this started out as your thesis film, and now, nine years later, it's a feature. So I'm kind of curious, was that something you always intended?
Director Dennis Lee: No, it wasn't something that I intended; to turn the short into a feature. They tell you at film you should always have your scripts ready, and if your short is going to be your calling card, you should have a feature version of your short. That's all advise I didn't listen to.
But the short did well, and because it did so well, when I was meeting people in Hollywood, everybody was asking me for the feature version of the script. This was before I was married and had children, so I was able to sit down and just really crank one out. From that, the script at first got a lot of attention and was optioned by Tribeca. Then it was obvious, despite everything that was happening at Tribeca in terms of making it into a feature film, it wasn't the right home at the time. That's when Red Om stepped in, and we made the feature.
MRR: Obviously, you did some work between the two, and you did a full feature before this one, so what was it like kind of going back to a previous piece of work, coming back to it and giving a new dimension?
Lee: You spend so much time writing a script, and you spend so much time working on these projects that it's not difficult, at least it wasn't difficult for me, to go back and revisit it and imagine it.
The way that I try to write is I see what I see, in my head, and I try to get that on a piece of paper. So in terms of that, there wasn't any difficulty. The only difficulty is the anxiety of trying to get a movie made. It's a hard, hard process. I don't really think that many people understand just how difficult it is to get a movie to the screen. So I'm just thankful that nine years after the short film, the feature's finally coming out, seeing the light of day.
MRR: Yeah, that's always the best part of a projects, when it's finally out.
One of the other things that struck me, whether it's film, or TV, I always find one of the most difficult things for any projects to pull off is child characters, and child actors are famously difficult. Of course, this has two, and I think the process came together magnificently. Your lead, and one of your principal supporting actresses, are both younger. Was there any difficulty or trepidation as far as casting, or in any part of that process?
Lee: I think there's always trepidation casting children, especially if they play your leads. There are a lot of things going against casting children, period, especially for an independent feature, because you're on a limited budget, and, thank God there are child labor laws, they limit the amount of time you can work during the day. So you have to be really nimble, quick, and fast when you're on set. But when you're casting, I think what you're looking for is children that naturally have the qualities that you want out of your performances.
Jason and Samantha were just terrific. They were so easy to work with. In my first film, I had a lot of child actors as well. I think my background as being a teacher really came into play in terms of guiding their performances. But they brought a lot to the table themselves.
MRR: When you're doing a drama /comedy, it's pretty difficult to find the line. So I was wondering where were you trying to put that line? Some scenes definitely played more comedic, and sometimes it's really hard to find that line, and I was wondering where you were looking for, and if you feel like you wound up where you wanted to be.
Lee: In terms of drawing that line or staying consistent with the tone, I'm pretty confident that we did. There's an absurdest element to this whole film. So I wanted to keep true to that, the black comedy, absurdest element to what this family's going through on this journey for Henry to find his father.
The actors don't really know that they're playing comedy. They play everything straight. So it's the situation itself that makes something funny. I think you'll find that in most comedies. Maybe not The Three Stooges, but in most comedies, you'll find that the actors have no idea that they're actually in a comedy. It's the situation that brings out the funny.
MRR: The overall takeaway of the story, I kind of found it as basically finding Family. The two separate worlds of the two separate families, and then the people inside those two families were also very separate from each other. I saw them finding a version of a family at least. Is that what you were looking for, or is there anything I missed?
Lee: No, I think you hit it on the nail actually. In this day and age, it's about how you define family. There are so many ways to do it. That's why in the film, at the very beginning you have a daughter who's lost her mom, and who's lost her brothers, and she becomes the primary caregiver for the family, not only for her father, but then for her son. So you have a single mom. Then on the other side, you have a single dad who's gone through a divorce. Then you have the character of Nurse Mitchel, who has constructed his own family through adoption. You have the whole element of manufacturing a family, in terms of the in vitro. So, the thing I wanted to show was that Family isn't necessarily the strict definition of nuclear family that was so popular years ago and still is probably, and now with the election campaign is going to come out again: Mother, Father, biological mother, biological father, son, and daughter. That there are all sorts of permutations that create a family.
MRR: That's actually kind of interesting, because at the same time, the story is predicated on Henry finding his biological father. So is it a little of both, because the entire experience, it wouldn't have happened if he didn't care. So how does that interact?
Lee: It's a question. It's a question of “Who am I in this world?” and “Where's my place?” Henry's gotten old enough now to start asking those questions about making his own decisions and choices. So he feels that there's this hole in his life, that he's made up stories to try to fill, and that Patricia, his mom, has over compensated to fill. When the truth finally does come out, Henry's still young enough to see things in black and white, so he believes in the search for his father that will find more answers in the search about who he is as a person. That's the line that we wanted to go with. Whether or not you find those answers... In Henry's case, he was lucky enough to find it. That's not always the case, as we know. But of course, we're making a movie, and a happy ending.
MRR: Completely changing tracks, I was fairly impressed with the music, both the score and also some of the soundtrack choices. It just really helped the tone. I was wondering, how did you find that, and where did you go looking. How'd that come to fruition?
Lee: The score came about in two ways actually. A good friend of mine is Simon Taufique, who was the co-composer. We knew about David Torn's work through a lot of movies that I admired and a lot of the soundtracks that I listen to. So when we found out that the two were friends, we thought this would be a great opportunity for them to collaborate on a project like Jesus Henry Christ. It was tireless for them. There's a lot of music in there, and the music is, for lack of a better word, eclectic in the way that it sounds. David and Simon played most of the instruments. It was a give and take process. They're both based out of New York. So we would have the Skype chats and send files digitally back and forth, put them up against picture, see how it played, we'd give notes and the like. I think they did a remarkable job with the composition of the soundtrack and the execution.
In terms of the needle drops, or the songs, we had a great music supervisor named Koo Abuali, and she brought a lot of music to the table of bands that I hadn't heard of, but that, one, fit the tone of the film, two, where up and coming, and three, we could afford them, quite frankly.
Then, the other thing is, I would drive to the editing bay in the morning, which was in Culver City, and on my drive out listen to NPR. The show that was one was always the Morning Eclectic, and I would hear a band, and go, “Wow, I really love that song.” I had my iPhone, and I'd just Shazam it and find out who it was. Then I would hand the song off to my music supervisor and say, “Can we get this song from this band?” That's how I found the Avi Buffalo song that's in the soundtrack, and the Edward Sharpe songs. They're the darlings of NPR, KCRW, and that's how I found them here.
MRR: It's always fascinating to see all the permutations of modern technology. Twenty years ago, you 'd be like, “Oh, that was a great song, but I forgot about it by the time I got to my desk.”
Lee: Right, and you would try to hum it to everybody, in your off key voice, and maybe if you were lucky one person got it. Yeah, it was completely: Here I am, in my car, listening to NPR, hear a great song, pull out the iPhone, press the app, and get not only the lyrics, but where I can buy it, how much it costs. When I found out about Avi Buffalo, their whole album's great, but they're a bunch of kids, who live in Long Beach who started the band in high school. I just thought that was cool. That's how the music was found.
MRR: Just to kind of dovetail, speaking of distribution, I know that this is getting a VOD release. That's a personal interest of mine, is the way that content in general, and certainly movies and features, getting released in different and new ways. I'm always interested to find out what filmmakers are thinking in that regard.
Lee: I think a filmmaker's main goal is to make sure that their story gets an audience, or is able reach out to an audience. Especially now, I think the numbers are deceiving, at least in my point of view, that they're a bit deceiving in terms of how many people actually go to the theater. There are less and less movies out there like Henry that get theatrical distribution, because most of the cineplexes play your big tent poles or your franchise films. You'll have six theaters dedicated to one movie. Hunger Games I think is the most recent example where that is the case. So it's harder for a movie like Jesus Henry Christ to find a theatrical distribution. Thankfully, through a great partnership with Tribeca and E One, they've been able to manage to put it out there in some theaters and see how it does and do a grass roots campaign to spread the word. But now with the way that people have massive TVs in their homes and Netflix and streaming and VOD, I think it's a great way to get audience, to simultaneously tap both markets. I just know as a parent, it's really hard for me to go out to a theater and see a film. Not only hard, but incredibly expensive now. My wife and I will sit on the couch and say, “Okay, well, we want to watch this movie, what can we do?” VOD is the way to do it. Streaming through Netflix, or any of those other services. So it's good to see that the movie industry, in terms of it's distribution, has reacted to the marketplace and what's out there, unlike what I think music did. I certainly don't want to see film turn into what happened with music. You buy one song. The concept of an album has disappeared.
MRR: We talked a little bit about casting two of the leads. It's always interesting finding out how you filled the other roles. Any thoughts on casting the rest of the roles?
Lee: We were a small budget film, so we had restrictions. The restrictions were actually great. What it did was it took this enormous pool of possible actor and shrunk it down to, “Alright, now we need to find Canadian actors who have residency in Toronto, because we're filming in Toronto and we need the tax break in order to be able to actually complete this film.” Thank God Toronto has an amazing actor base and talent pool.
Both Jason and Samantha are Toronto residents. When they came in, Samantha especially, she just nailed her performance in the audition. Every other actor who came in was playing so angry and just so bitter, and screaming, that it was the exact opposite of what I wanted. Then Samantha came in. She was completely calm, serene, and happy, and then when you called “Action,” her face went slack. She just embodied, facially, everything that I wanted in the character.
That tends to be the problem with a lot of young actors who are coming through, that they have acting coaches. There are always three or four acting coaches who seem to have the market on child actors. So all of these kids are coming in, there were performing in exactly the same way as the other kids before them. I'd ask them, “Who's your acting coach?”, and it was inevitably one of three names. So what you try to do is you try to just, “Forget everything your acting coach ever told you. Let's just start with who you are.” That makes for a longer audition process, but if you do your homework with that and you give them adjustments during the audition to see what they really have, then if lightning strikes twice, you can find two great actors. But you got to do your homework.
MRR: As far as Michael Sheen and the other principal supporting actors, where do those connections come from?
Lee: Toni was more traditional attachment I guess. We started with a list of who we wanted for the role of Patricia, and Toni was at the top of the list. So we went through her agency, William Morris Endeavor, and gave it to her agent, and her agent gave it to Toni. Toni was here for the Golden Globes when United States of Tara was on and she was nominated for Lead Actress. So that's when we met, and she was one the project from that point.
Micheal, I'm repped by ICM, and Michael is as well through Tony Howard. So that was a case of inner agency, from one agent to another. One of the producers is a good friend also with Michael's manager. So the script was given to Michael's manager by the producer Sukee Chew. She read and she gave it to Michael, and Michael responded to the material. We had a meeting up in Studio City, and.... This is Michael Sheen. He's going to win an Oscar some day. He needs the right role, and he's going to get it. His talent is just so amazingly undeniable that when I saw him, I was kind of in awe. I just saw the Damned United, which I don't think a lot of people saw, which is a shame. It's a really good film. He just responded to the character. So those were two of the more traditional ways to attach an actor to the project, through the agencies, through the management companies.
MRR: Sometimes traditional works out pretty well.
Lee: Sometimes its does, sometimes you have to find other avenues to get the talent for your script.
MRR: Going back to the tone. You mentioned kind of an absurdest quality, which definitely was there. Did you ever have a fear of going to far or not going far enough and keeping it too straight? Sometimes you watch a movie like this, and it's just like, “God, I can't even sit through this,” and other times, it's like, “What's there to watch?” and I think you threaded that pretty well. So I'm really curious what process you went through to find where you wanted to go and keep it at that level.
Lee: I think as long as you're emotionally grounded within the scene, and audience can connect emotionally to what's happening, you can push it pretty far. You can push it as far as you need to or want to. You can go over that line as long as the audience is engaged emotionally. So that's what we tried to do, to make sure that there's that emotional foundation in which you relate to the characters and what they're going through in terms of the conflict in the scene. Then you can push it, and we pushed it. We definitely pushed it.
There was a lot of stuff that we pushed that didn't make the final cut. So in terms of post process, in terms of editing, that's always another chance to be able to revisit that line and to see, “Okay, are we going too far in one direction, or do we need to bring it back, or can we amp it up?”
Jesus Henry Christ, I don't think it's for everyone, but if you go into it with the right attitude and just let yourself go, it's a fun ride. You have to be willing to do that, and I hope the audience does. I hope they enjoy it. That's the most important thing to me. I hope they get it, and they take the time to think, “Well, why were certain choices made?” and they think about those choices. I'm sure they can come up with their own explanation. I certainly have mine, why certain choices were made. I know why I made the choice, so just let the audience make their own. Trust in their intelligence.
MRR: Trust in the audience's intelligence. What a wonderful, beautiful concept. I wish more people in this town had that attitude.
Lee: What a concept. It's always amazing to me, because as a teacher, you notice right away.... My students were considered “at risk,” because they didn't perform well on standardized tests or whatever, truancy and all that stuff, but their visual literacy is through the roof, because they've been bombarded with all these images. They watch a 30 second commercial with like 100 shots it in and they get the story. Yet for the most part, we don't trust in our audience's visual literacy? God, you look through smart phones and tablets and the Web, and you realize, no, we're as visually literate as we're going to be. You should trust your audience a little bit more.
Jesus Henry Christ premiers nationwide via VOD on April 17th, and in theaters in LA, New York, and Washington, DC on April 20th.