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FilmOut Q&A: “Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait Of James Dean” with Matthew Mishory | VIDEO

(Editor's note: SDGLN will be featuring Q&A interviews with leading filmmakers from around the world who are participating in FilmOut San Diego's 15th annual LGBT Film Festival, running May 29 to June 2 at the historic Birch North Park Theatre. This is the first of more than a dozen stories that will give readers an inside glimpse of the filmmaking process. Follow SDGLN for all the news about one of the top LGBT film festivals in the U.S.)

The legendary James Dean, astonishingly enough, only made three films - “East Of Eden” (1955), “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955) and “Giant” (1956) - before his untimely death at the tender age of 24.

Yet during that time, Dean collected two Academy Award nominations in back-to-back years for “East Of Eden” and “Giant,” and was robbed of a third nomination when he was snubbed for his role as Jim Stark in “Rebel Without A Cause.”

Dean’s portrayal of Jim Stark made an enormous mark on a generation of young Americans who were in rebellion against the stuffy establishment of the 1950s that was slow to embrace societal changes that were sweeping across America. Dean also exuded an ambivalent sexuality on screen that apparently reflected his off-screen sexuality, where he was rumored to have had relationships with both men and women.

Although Dean died in a car crash on Sept. 30, 1955, the mercurial actor left his mark permanently on Hollywood and on society. Even today, new generations are discovering the magic that Dean brings to the screen.

A beautifully filmed movie, “Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait Of James Dean” (2012), looks at the Dean legend from a fresh new perspective before the actor made it big in Tinsel Town, where the casting couch made it possible to ramp up one's promising career. The film unabashedly intimates that the actor may have had strong feelings for "The Roommate," and did "trade" with other men before finding success on the big screen.

Writer-director Matthew Mishory chats with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about his film, which stars James Preston in the title role and Dan Glenn as "The Roommate."

SDGLN: Why a fictionalized film now about James Dean?

My film has nothing to do with any other film that has ever been made about James Dean. It is not a biopic or even a traditional biographical Hollywood film. It is, as the title suggests, a portrait, and it explores (in a very different way, formally) a period in Dean's life that never been properly put to film. In a sense, filmed history is always "fictionalized," but to me, our portrait comes closest to portraying a truth about who Dean was -- or might have been.

SDGLN: Can you talk about the casting of James Preston as James Dean, how difficult it was to find the right actor for the role, and what advice you gave Preston to play the part?

I think James's performance is extraordinary precisely because he does not attempt a mimicry. Although James was extremely well-researched, I invited him to forget all about his research and study the moment he arrived on set and to play the character as he was: a young man (with interesting ideas about the possibilities of acting) who found his way to Hollywood from the middle of the country and got eaten alive in the system. James's own story wasn't so very different, and I think that authenticity and rawness shows through in his performance. I find it so much more interesting than an impersonation based on a constructed image Dean himself created.

SDGLN: Was James Dean a male hustler before he shot to fame?

Not literally, no. But our film does deal with the process of star-making, the machine that existed in Hollywood in 1951 and persists to this day. And that machine commodifies flesh -- including, of course, male flesh.

SDGLN: What was the relationship between James Dean and “The Roommate” character?

I think Dean was the sort of person who blew through people's lives and out the other side, leaving an indelible impression. He was, as so many great people are, impossible to hold on to and difficult to love.

SDGLN: What is the genesis of this movie, and what is the buzz on the gay film festival circuit?

In a sense it is a film that was willed to be, expanding from a short to a feature through the power of social media. The original teaser trailer drew a lot of attention, and that allowed us to raise a modest budget to make the film. Since the world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival and the European premiere at the Transilvania International Film Festival in Romania, we have played both mainstream international festivals and some niche LGBT festivals, and each city (nearly 60 now) and audience has yielded an interesting conversation. Sharing and discussing the film with audiences is really the best part of the process.

SDGLN: Why was it important to you to make this particular movie?

Because it was so personal. Filmmaking is always obsessive and personal for me. And James Dean was the first actor who ever made a life-changing impression on me. The first film I ever saw as a little boy was “East Of Eden.” Dean undeniably changed film acting, but he also haunted my childhood. And that prompted me to make a movie about him.

SDGLN: Where did you shoot the movie, and why did you choose this location?

What could be better than James Dean in the California desert?

SDGLN: How did you and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah shoot the movie to create such a luscious and artsy look in black and white, as well as create the “old color home movies” feel?

We shot on film (35mm, super16, and some super8) and paid very careful attention to the look and feel of the film. I wish more filmmakers would do that; "mumblecore" does not interest me very much. I also generally think that the bifurcation of "style" and "substance" is a false one. The materials of filmmaking are part of the "substance," and the style is a part of the narrative. Our film is about ideas, and ideas and conveyed not only through words but also, crucially, through images.

SDGLN: What do you want audiences to remember about the film after they leave the theater?

James Dean was no ordinary actor, and I didn't want to make an ordinary film about him. I hope audiences feel we've made a very different portrait of an actor who changed acting. And I hope people appreciate that films can be made in new and different ways.

SDGLN: Do you prefer the LGBT genre?

Not as it is currently constructed. The New Queer Cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s was seminal, but the current slate of low-production-value rom-coms and "coming-of-age" dramas does not interest me very much.

SDGLN: Has LGBT cinema grown up, is it “crossing over” to attract mainstream audiences, or do you sense it will remain a niche product?

That is a question for the critics -- and cultural theorists. But can't it maybe be both of those things?

SDGLN: What’s next for you?

“Disappear Here,” a thriller set in the twin shadow worlds of Hollywood and high-stakes national politics. It is a star vehicle for the young actor James Duke Mason, grandson of the great James Mason and son of pop star Belinda Carlisle. Morgan Mason (“Sex, Lies & Videotape”) will produce. Also two personal documentary projects and an Eastern Bloc horror-noir, “Wolf At The Door,” written by Travis Jeppesen.

SDGLN: What is something your fans don’t know about you?

Hard to say, as I think my mother knows me pretty well.

SDGLN: Will you be coming to California for the FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival?

Yes, with our cast and crew. Who can argue with a weekend in San Diego by the sea?

SDGLN: If you were granted three wishes, what would you do with them?

Probably what I'm doing now: spend far too much time mulling over the options.


Time – 5 pm
Sponsored by Stella Artois
Co-presented by The Old Globe, Wells Fargo Bank and La Jolla Playhouse

“Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait Of James Dean” (2012), directed by Matthew Mishory, 93 minutes, USA.

An intimate portrait of James Dean on the cusp of achieving notoriety as both a great actor and an American icon. This film presents a side of James Dean seldom seen. Aware of his own potential to be legendary, he is at once childlike and world-weary; a brute and a romantic; an intellectual and an Indiana shit-kicker; a playboy and a man of great sensitivity. An unflinching and honest exploration of Dean’s complicated sexuality and formative relationships.

Festival tickets are now on sale at the FilmOut San Diego website HERE.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.