Boston native Elgin James talks exclusively about working with superstar talent Juno Temple (Maleficent, Safelight), in the critically acclaimed feature that rocked Temple to fame 2011’s independent film Little Birds. Elgin also tells us how the Sundance Institute Labs became essential in the making of Little Birds.
Little Birds was your directorial debut. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a Director?
I grew up in an environment where the very things that make someone an artist, empathy and vulnerability, were the things you had to bury inside yourself and keep hidden at all costs. When I was young I was terrified of the world and of the violence inside my home and developed nervous tics. The only time they wouldn’t affect me was when I was watching a movie, so film became my escape. I beat the tics by trying to become worse than all of the things I was scared of. Even when I was older and fully engaged in a criminal mindset, movies were still my refuge. I’d slip away from my friends and spend the day in one of Boston’s art house theaters like The Coolidge or The Brattle, discovering Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green, Larry Clark.
When I finally had to leave Boston, I had nothing, so I had nothing to lose. I decided to dream big and try to make movies in Hollywood. It wasn’t until I got out here that I realized how utterly foolish that was. I didn’t know anyone, had no film education and absolutely no skills. I showed up and was like “How do you make a movie?
Little Birds tells the story of a restless teen that convinces her best friend to help her steal a truck and head to Los Angeles. Can you tell us where the original idea came from?
My best friend and I had ended up homeless in Boston as teenagers, and we, with a few others, helped form a multi-ethnic street gang that attacked Neo Nazis and robbed drug dealers. The gang would spread not only across the country but also to other parts of the world. We had nothing and we built, what we saw as, a kingdom. A lot of people, including law enforcement, saw it as only a kingdom of shit, of needless violence and terror. But at least we built something.
And after a year or so after I got to L.A trying to figure out how the hell to make a movie, suddenly people were interested in the numerous articles and media specials about myself and the gang at the time. A studio project of my “life story” quickly got set up with an A-List director and an A-list actor attached. And I was like “It’s easy to make movies, what’s everyone complaining about? (Obviously even more foolish on my part.) I wasn’t even going to write this version or direct this version; I was just the “dumb gang member” in the room to give it “authenticity.” But when the project began to take on a different tone, glorifying the violence I was just coming to terms with, I decided to write and direct it myself.
I’d never written a real script before, and in trying to do so I realized I didn’t want to tell the story of us building this “empire.” I wanted to tell the story of how we both got there. Of the hopelessness and the lack of opportunity and the constant desire to set the world on fire, only to always end up getting burned yourself. And to capture that emotionally I realized I had to strip away the sensationalism. So I turned our characters into two fifteen year old girls trying to leave their small town for L.A.
Ironically the day after we got the financing for the film, I was arrested by a dozen FBI agents outside my home for an old gang related charge (I had extorted someone with white power ties into giving money to an anti-racist charity.) So we lost our financing and had to somehow find the money again, and shoot the film before I inevitably went to prison. And after my arrest, so many of my “brothers in arms” three hundred pounds face tattooed criminals, ran for the hills. While a little English actress named Juno Temple never left my side. Leading us to your next question…
Rising actress Juno Temple achieved worldwide acclaim after playing Lily Hobart. How did you end-up casting Juno?
The producers had told me to make two lists of actresses. One of whom I wanted to play Lily. And one of whom I wanted to play Alison. I put Juno Temple (who I’d never met at the time) at the top of both lists. We were told by her agents that she wouldn’t be able to audition because she was leaving to go back to the UK, but on the very first day of casting she surprised everyone and showed up (like a fucking rock star, hangover in a leopard jacket.) And as soon as we laid eyes on each other, we were like two lost tribesman who’d finally found each other. She never did audition we just hung out and talked. And I told her she could have whatever part she wanted. She chose Lily, because she wanted to set Lily free.
And after my arrest she stayed with me and with the project. We didn’t know if the money would ever come back, and if we’d even get to shoot before I went to prison, but we still would get together several times a week to talk about the film, to talk about Lily, to talk about life. And we became family. Which we still are six years later.
Kay Panabaker played best friend Alison Hoffman a complete contrast to Lily. What went through your mind while creating the character?
Initially the characters of Lily and Alison were my best friend and I. But as I worked on it, I had incredible mentors who pushed me to make the script even more personal, and the characters became the two different parts of me. Like Lily, I grew up suffocating in a small town, wanting to get out into the world. And when I did, the world ate me up and spat me back out. And like Alison, what I wouldn’t give now to go back to that small town, to hear my mother’s voice calling me in for dinner. To understand how important the very things I was trying to leave, actually were.
Little Birds was filmed in the California desert. What made you change locations from Boston to the desert?
I’d spent my childhood in a small rural New England town, and I always felt like I was suffocating. I was a twelve-year-old brown-skinned punk rocker wanting to get out. I wanted asphalt and cement and adrenaline and I was surrounded by pigs and sheep and confederate flags in pickup windows. So when I went to the Salton Sea, with it’s dead water, dead bird bones lined beaches, and harsh acrid desert wind, I realized that even though it looked completely different, it perfectly captured how my small town felt emotionally to me.
The feature was produced though the Sundance Institute Labs. What kinds of opportunities come out of the Sundance Labs for Little Birds?
Robert Redford, Michelle Satter and all of the Sundance institute changed my life. I was a gang member, and they made me an artist. There was no reason for them to take a chance on me. I didn’t even know what a grip was, I’d never been on a film set. But they saw something in me and gave me the tools to express myself in a different way than violence. And they pushed me constantly to go further inside myself to find truth. And after I was arrested, when I was bonded out they were the first people I talked to. They rallied behind me. And when I went to prison they sent me letters and books. The film had so many opportunities because of the labs, from it’s creation, to help getting film stock, to grants etc… But more than anything the labs and the institute gave me not only my career but also my life.
Both drug use and skateboarding culture are a strong underlining theme in the film. Was this based off any personal experiences?
Truth is, when I was growing up we were doing worst things than the boys in the film. Definitely worse than robbing people off of Craigslist. But these girls would come around and hang out or live with us for a while. At the time I was only interested in them for what teenage boys are interested in teenage girls for. But later, as I grew older I thought back on what the hell had led these people to us. And what happened to them after us. They’d come in seeing only this candy shell of excitement and danger and fun. But then end up getting close enough to see the real darkness and hopelessness in the center. I wasn’t as interested in the homeless boys in Little Birds, who become a family and pull off petty crimes to survive. I’d lived that. I was more interested in the girls, who even though they were smarter than us, had ended up snared in our web. Like Lily and Alison.
You developed a long-lasting working friendship with Juno. Did you give her any career advice before she hit superstardom?
It’s been incredible to watch Juno take off. She, and Reed Morano (Little Birds cinematographer) were really my bulletproof vest on Little Birds. No way I could have made that movie without them. That’s why they are still two of the closest people in my life. And it’s been really incredible to all be coming up career wise together, though I’m always trying to catch up to them, because those women are killing it. And no, no real advice, except the advice we all regularly ask of each other – about projects, our opinions on people we may possibly work with, reading scripts etc… But Juno doesn’t need my advice on her success. She is the most loyal, bravest and toughest soul I know. She’s gonna be fine.
I personally found little pockets of humor in Little Birds. How did you approach the humor in Juno Temple’s character?
I love Lily. She’s challenging, for sure, because she’s real. And she’s real because Juno played her that way. Juno did not care if anyone liked Lily, all she wanted was to bring her to life. Which I would later realize I was so spoiled by. The majority of actors, especially once, who’ve had success, are cowards, worrying if their character is “relatable.” Which is just code word for the actor is lazy and scared. It’s like a cinematographer asking if you could shoot the climactic rain-soaked night scene during the day when it’s sunny, because that would be much easier for him. If you’re an actor it’s your job to make the character human, no matter who they are and what they do. I met with a quite successful actor on a project where his character would be playing a fugitive on the run, which’s forced to do some pretty heinous things to survive. And he asked if I could write in that he had a little daughter he was doing it all for, so even though he has to kill people, the audience would still “like” him. I will never work with that guy.
Can you give us a small preview of your next film?
I’m currently in Pre-production on a film adaptation of the novel A Million Little Pieces with Plan B. Juno and I have another project we’ve been working on together since before we got to shoot Little Birds, a love story about traveling homeless kids. TV is an incredibly interesting place right now, so the journalist Lisa Ling and actor Diego Luna and I have a show in development at a cable network. And I’ve got a feature I’m doing with Jamie Patricof and Lynette Howell (Electric City) that I wrote with Justin Marks, where a fugitive has to do some heinous things to survive, but I promise you, he will not have a little daughter he’s trying to save.
Little Birds is available on DVD at Amazon and digitally on itunes.
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