Joshua Tree, 1951 Resurrects James Dean in South Beach Tonight
Matthew Mishory: I am very lucky to get to work with one of the great cinematographers, Michael Marius Pessah. And one thing we share is an innate belief that films exist to be beautiful (and that can mean many things) and to stand on their own as a purely visual medium. Of course, great films do a lot of other things, too, but for me, the look of a film is part of the narrative, part of the performance, part of the emotional fabric. I see too many films where a director never bothered thinking about where the camera is placed or what props should make up the set. Those are essential story elements, and they convey meaning and information whether intentionally or otherwise. Joshua Tree is not a traditional biographical film, so it is not told in traditional language. It is told in the language of memories and dreams, because that is how James Dean, who died so young and so many years ago, lingers even today. One of the ways we created that dreamscape is through the images. Another, of course, was sound.
What was your own relationship with the works of James Dean? What made you want to make this film?
Ultimately, I think this film found me. My father immigrated to America at 16 to study music at Juilliard, and he learned English by going to the cinemas. He saw East of Eden in first run as a young man in New York, and it was the first feature film he showed me when I was a little boy. It is among my earliest cinematic memories. I have seen thousands of movies now, but few, if any, screen performances can compare to James Dean's. And behind that performance was a very compelling, very vulnerable young man who forever changed the art and craft of screen acting. I wanted to make a film about him.
What filmmakers inform your work? Whose body of work do you most admire?
In this case, I think our influences were more stills photographers and painters. We looked a lot to Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, and many of the studio photographers of the day. And, for me, the greatest filmmaker who ever lived was Caravaggio, who invented the essence of cinematic lighting before the medium even existed.
With both Delphinium and Joshua Tree, you've developed a visual look and an interest in enigmatic queer film figures that has marked your work. As a filmmaker, are you most interested in telling LGBT stories?
As a filmmaker, I am most interested in telling outsider stories -- of all sorts. And I am very interested in history (something I have inherited from my mother), both known and hidden. Delphinium and Joshua Tree are both projects that ultimately confront and personalize history.
Your work seems reminiscent of a bygone era. How important is this to you? What do you think of the proliferation of digital filmmaking?
Digital filmmaking has its uses, especially for documentary work. But as a narrative feature filmmaker, I will always prefer celluloid. There is an emotional, intellectual, and memory-sense component to its physicality and preciousness that does not exist in digital data streams. I am not anti-technology (quite the opposite), but it was important to me to shoot JT1951 on film. And I am shooting my next feature on Super 16.