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Interview: Joey Lauren Adams on "Come Early Morning"

by Peter Sobczynski

The sweetheart from "Chasing Amy" talks about her striking screenwriting and directorial debut, the new drama "Come Early Morning."

Still best known to viewers as the delightful central character of Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy,” Joey Lauren Adams has expanded her horizons with “Come Early Morning,” her impressive writing and directing debut. On the surface, it may sound like just another indie drama destined to play the festival circuit before going to video–it tells of a young woman in a small Southern town who is inspired to break free from a cycle of too many drunken one-night stands when she meets a guy who is interested in more than just that. However, two things elevate the film from being just another programmer about a woman coming to terns with things. The first is Adams’s impressive work as both a screenwriter and a director–although she makes the occasional slip (such as the ham-fisted inclusion of an all-too-symbolic jukebox), she has such a natural facility for capturing the rhythms of small-town life that she could easily give up the day job and become a full-time director if she chose to do so. The other is the electrifying lead performance by Ashley Judd (in a role that will remind some of her breakthrough part in “Ruby in Paradise”)–this is the best work she has done in a long time and serves as a much-needed reminder (to her, if no one else) that she can be one of the most powerful actresses around when given material slightly more challenging than the dull thrillers she has been stuck in for the last few years.

Along with a couple of colleagues, I recently sat down with Adams when she presented “Come Early Morning” at the Chicago International Film Festival and she talked about the film and making the transition from actress to filmmaker.

How did “Come Early Morning” start for you?

You know, it was a lot of things. It probably started with “Dazed and Confused” and just being there and working with Rick [Linklater], who was the writer/director, and he was so great with everyone. I fell in love with Austin and was determined to get out of L.A. So, I was going to go back and make my fortune and become a big movie star. And then, after “Chasing Amy,” I thought there would be more opportunity with better roles. But the reward for getting nominated for a Golden Globe seemed to be “Big Daddy.” That is great fun and people love it but you know what I mean--the character wasn’t a complex, great female role.
And then, just the downtime as an actress, I found myself getting self-destructive and drinking a lot and depressed and miserable in L.A. And, I realized I’m not going to change because of the roles I get as an actress. I didn’t want to become one of those bitter women. I knew I was going to age, you know, and a lot of other things.And then, I saw “Notting Hill” and was, like, I love her but fine movies are like Mecca–is that what I’m trying to get, ‘cause I can’t do it. So, I started writing, just to feel proactive and not just sit around, waiting for Hollywood to come to me. And then, they say, Write what you know. So, that’s where I started.

While the film may not be literally autobiographical, did you know a Lucy in your life or a couple of women like her in Little Rock?

I’d say that it’s emotionally autobiographical, ‘cause I guess it’s me, if anyone, that Lucy’s based on. And then, some of the characters are loosely based on my family members, because it was easier to write, like, what would Granny say in this situation or Momma Doll? Obviously, I took a lot of dramatic license with the characters. Nothing in the movie actually ever happened. I had a dog that died, but that’s about it.

I’ve had a weird relationship with my father and felt a hole from that and wanted to explore that. I wanted to make an honest movie, and I think some people are responding to that and some people find it boring. But, I wasn’t molested and I wasn’t raped, and it didn’t take the death of my mom to really turn me around. My growth has been very incremental, and I wanted to do that with a movie--like Lucy’s journey, she took very small steps. Is that interesting as a film? It is to some people, maybe not so much to others. I don’t know.

One thing I found interesting about the film was this strand where she’s going back to church with her father, and normally in a film like this, you get either a big spiritual awakening, or she has a big speech where she says she doesn’t need this and she’s her own person. And, neither of those things happen in this movie. It’s more like it’s not really working for her, but it’s not because of anything wrong with that, just because it just doesn’t seem to be the thing for her.

Because I was raised Southern Baptist, and the movie is sort of loosely based on…you know, you start off in Sunday school and then you eventually get to go to the big church with the grownups, and one of the first sermons I heard was on this verse, “The sin of the fathers being passed down for three or four generations.” And, it broke my heart, it shattered my concept of God, because to me God was this old man in heaven…and then there’s Jesus and the lambs and the little children, and he loves you. And, why would this ‘man’ pass this sin to innocent children. That’s not fair. I went into the preacher’s office, and he couldn’t explain it to me. And, it just sort of always stuck with me.
And then I moved to L.A., and I met some Jewish people, and went to Bali. It was, like, Oh God, there’s a religion bigger than Southern Baptism? My views sort of changed, and my concept of God changed. And, I realized that God is not some man in heaven, but it’s an energy, and if you beat your kid, it’s a negative energy that will take three or four generations to go away--unless someone in the first or second generation really makes an effort not to pass it on to their kids. So, that’s sort of where Lucy is…in the third generation of this crippled man. And, I do think the preacher should have done God justice, like, it’s not God’s doing. It’s just nature, and you can’t get hung up on it.

But, I wanted to do something where she’s trying to form a relationship with her father, which she ultimately doesn’t get. But through that, she discovers this church and does get a little something from the preacher in that last scene, like, ‘stop knocking and walk in.’ I don’t know, I just sort of think sometimes all the dark in the world and whatever, and at a certain point, you’ve just got to get over it and just move on.

Do you think that’s easy, telling stories that come from your experience?

I think it’s probably different for different people. I know a lot of my favorite writers don’t write about their personal life until much later in life, if they ever do that. But, I think I was just so insecure with my writing that I got Syd Field’s book and tried all of that, like “Reach plot point one by page 11,” and I had to throw it out, because I can’t write that way. There are some great writers that do write that way. It just wasn’t my thing.

I had five years to really hone the script, because we were trying to get the money and not getting it. I did a pretty major rewrite, I guess, a year and a half ago, because I was about to give up. The script had started to feel immature to me, because I had written it then four and a half years ago. So, I did a pretty--not severe--but a pretty major rewrite on the script. And, then we sent it out. And, I decided not to act in it, and it opened up a role. And, then these producers came on board who got the money. We got the money before we got Ashley, which was important to me.

Why did you decide not to act in it?

Originally, I was just going to act [and not direct], and then I realized that we were not going to get, like, Bob Rafelson to come out of retirement and direct it, you know, or Michael Apted or Bruce Beresford, and the directors they were talking about were sort of video directors who were wanting to move into film. It did end up becoming such a personal thing, and I was just terrified that some director would come in and turn these characters into caricatures. And, I really wanted the movie to be my experience of the South. We don’t all live in trailer parks. So, then I was going to write and direct. And then, we had a meeting with the line producer, and she started talking about six-day workweeks and 24 days and equipment, and stuff I didn’t know, and words I didn’t know, and I just realized I don’t know enough about directing to do both and it was more important for me to direct at that point.

What was it like the first day on set as a director? You’ve been on sets before, obviously, but this time you’d worked with the story for years on paper where if you did something wrong you can just toss out the paper or hit ‘delete.’ Was the very first day on the set like when you had all these people around?

Well, the interesting thing was that once they said, Okay, we have the money, they don’t actually bring it out in a suitcase and show it to you, you know, so there’s a large part of me that didn’t believe we actually had the money. So, I was just like, okay, I’m going to go along with you. Oh, you want me to hire a DP, okay, sure. And, did all of that. Then, we got to Arkansas, and we were in preproduction, and it just never really felt real. It just kind of felt like this game, and then you’re dealing with so much, and there were a lot of things going on in preproduction. At one point, my cinematographer said to me, Joey, just so you know, we’re making a movie of the week--like that’s how bad this prep is going. It was three days before shooting, and we didn’t have all the actors. We had two actors cast, who we couldn’t even shoot a scene with because we needed a third actor for the scene with those two actors. And, I called Jon Favreau, and said, “What should I do?’ He said, Just keep going. It’ll come together.

The night before, actually, I was going through and doing the whole intention thing, where you visualize the task ahead of you. And I was, like, okay, I’m going to wake up and my sister, who was my assistant, is going to come and pick me up, and we’re going to get to the set, and…I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do, because as an actress I found my trailer and would go to makeup. I didn’t know where I was supposed to go or stand. So, I called Tim [Orr], my cinematographer, and said, Tim, when I get there in the morning, where do I go? He said, Just find me. But then, when I walked on set and saw everything I had written, and weirdly, we shot the first scene first, which you don’t normally do in film. So, it was, like, the interior motel, and Ashley was laying there. I couldn’t believe it. The wallpaper and everything, it was exactly how I’d pictured it. And, that’s when it hit me that this is real. This is really happening. I had such a great crew that, you know, I wasn’t nervous…I think because we went through so much in preproduction. You just get in that thing where you just deal with the problems and you move on, you deal with the problems…and you just get into that thing. And, I did, I really lucked out.
I know everyone says it, but I had an amazing crew. And, the shoot was really fairly easy. And, I had amazing actors. I didn’t have a difficult actor, which I’ve been, you know, in the past. And, I didn’t have any of those this time. Tim Nelson helped me out. We ran out of time at one location, and we didn’t get a scene shot. And, I was so depressed, and it was on a Friday and then Monday, we were shooting at the church. And, Tim came to set--he wasn’t in the scene--and said, Joey, I was thinking about that scene you lost, and if we took my van, we could just bring it…to shoot it here. And that’s from someone who’s directed films. It was that kind of support and help and collaboration.

I had so many people saying, “Don’t make the movie. Don’t do it.” But Ashley had to go. Once she came on board, she had another movie she was supposed to do. So, it was sort of, like, Can you wait five years? But she wants to do it, and we have to shoot in five weeks. And, a lot of people are saying that’s not enough prep time to make your movie. Don’t do it, you’ve worked too hard. But, at a certain point, you just say, If I don’t do it now, it’s not going to happen. I called David Gordon Green, and he said, “Five weeks is too much time. You don’t need that. It’s much better if you don’t.” It just turned out that we just had to do it. And, everyone’s got their own style. I called Rick Linklater too, and he’s so laid back. And, in hindsight, you do look back and go, like, it wasn’t that important, the amount of stress that I went through.

Were there any films or directors that you looked to for visual or tone inspiration for this film?

Absolutely. “Tender Mercies” was what I made everyone watch, even as far as, like, the look of it, and the production design, and the wardrobe design and everything. And then, unfortunately, I made Tim Orr watch “Urban Cowboy.” I really like the lighting in that, because it’s not dark. I didn’t want the honky-tonk that they go to feel like a dark bar or a club. A honky-tonk in the South is really well lit, and there’s something about it. Those two films were really my big influences.

What about working with Ashley Judd?

It truly was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, because I think that that’s where, as a director, that’s the thing I enjoyed most—directing the actors. I know, some equipment would show up on set and all the camera department, all the guys would go, Ohmigod, the processed reel is here. And, I’m, like, Yeah, it’s here. Great. She couldn’t have--and I’m not just saying this--she couldn’t have been more professional. And, I don’t…that almost sounds negative, but I think it was a timing thing, like, there must have been something she was going through in her life that drove her to the script. And, she was just there and open. It was just like the perfect piece of clay. She would take directions. Before we even started the scene to shoot, she’d just go, What are you looking for? And, I would tell her, and she’d do it. And then she’d say, Hey, can I try this? Sure. And, in five takes, we were done. In all the dailies, in everything we shot, I think there’s one take where she wasn’t 100 percent there and being honest. And, she knew it in that take. She was, like, help me, I can’t get it. It was truly special.

I was worried about casting [the role of Cal], because if I knew Cal, and I know a lot of actors, I’d marry him. I was really concerned about finding someone that had the humor and the masculinity, and yet…I don’t know, there are just so many qualities that Cal was to me. I didn’t know Jeffrey Donovan’s work at all. He just came in and read, and for me, it was, well, there’s Cal. I’m done. Of course, the financiers want a bigger name, and you got to do that whole battle. So, we had six actors come to read with Ashley. And, she was doing her thing or whatever, and everyone read. And, Jeffrey walked in, and they started reading, and I saw her sort of go “Ooooh, I’ve got to get my game on here.” Then he actually made her blush. It’s hard to make Ashley blush. I don’t even know what he did. I think they just had that chemistry. I think he maybe leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, and she wasn’t expecting it. But, he just had that…he had her going, you know, and she knew it.

She’s freaky smart. I don’t know if you guys know that. She’s probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, truly. The last time I talked to her she was going up into the mountains to learn mountain speak. That’s what she does in her free time. And memorizes Martin Luther King speeches. And, she has the most incredible vocabulary of anyone I’ve ever met. So, she’s hard to intimidate, you know? But, that also helps, I think, in directing her. She’s extremely emotionally intelligent and book smart and very easily communicative.

Does having worked as an actor help in terms of directing other actors? You have a better idea of what they need, as opposed to a director who’s never acted.

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s stunning that…I’ve done, I don’t know, over 25 films, and I really feel like, maybe, I’ve been directed four times. I did an entire film, and the director didn’t give me one line of direction. And, it wasn’t because I was so great. It was just that he was either intimidated or…I don’t know, couldn’t communicate with actors.

We had no rehearsal time. We didn’t have one day of rehearsal. As an actor walking onto a set, if you know the director’s an actor, there’s an immediate trust. So, I didn’t have to earn the actors’ trust. I didn’t have to spend the time doing that.And, I think the script sort of attracted actors. Every character--and we ended up having to cut a lot of it--but every character in the script had a whole story. The Tim Blake Nelson character had a relationship with the woman next door that sort of came full circle. The character that Pat Corley plays…we had to cut, but there is a scene where you see why he is such an asshole, and he was so amazing in that scene. So, I think the actors felt good coming in to play the parts to start with. And, they’ve all done these kinds of films.

Are you going to keep acting?

No. The five years that we were trying to get the money, I kept thinking at any moment we were going to get the money, and I was passing on jobs, and then, it got to where I needed money, so I had to do films that I wasn’t necessarily right for the role. And, it sort of put a bad taste in my mouth with acting. So, I’m going to let that go away.

But, if Kevin Smith called and said, Hey, Joey, I would in a heartbeat. Like for “The Break-Up” when Vince [Vaughn] called–that’s really fun for me. But I only want to do it, even if it’s a small role, if it’s really a director I want to work with or something that I feel I’ll grow as an actor. Because, like I said, there are so few directors that really direct. I would love to work with a great director that really works with his actors and that sort of thing.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2007
originally posted: 11/09/06 04:42:57
last updated: 11/10/06 01:37:05
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