May 26, 2017

For Denis Johnson

Sad news about the death of Denis Johnson, a wonderful writer still best known for Jesus’ Son. I talked to Alison Maclean, who adapted it, in 2001. The story ran in the Listener exactly as it does below. The top picture is of Billy Crudup as Fuckhead. The second picture is of Maclean directing James Rolleston in The Rehearsal (2016). The third is of Johnson himself, and I have no idea where or when it was taken.

Hollywood: the place where nothing happens. John Gregory Dunne’s book Monster is ­a funny, insightful, sometimes frightening account of Dunne and his wife Joan Didion’s trials and nightmares getting a screenplay into production – specifically, the true, nasty story of crash-and-burn newsreader Jessica Savitch that, over eight years, became the Michelle Pfeiffer/Robert Redford soft-soaper Up Close & Personal. A defining moment? In an early meeting, former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg asks Dunne and Didion if Savitch really needs to die at the end.
In passing, Dunne mentions taking a meeting with an unnamed woman director from New Zealand who was briefly attached to the project. And, assuming that it wasn’t Jane Campion? Yes, that director was Alison Maclean who was then learning the ins and outs of development hell. “When I came on board, there had been something like eight drafts,” Maclean says. “It was absurdity, a real horror story.”
A tranquil weekday afternoon at the Ponsonby headquarters of the New Zealand Writers’ Guild – Maclean is back in town to inaugurate a “screenwriter’s laboratory” ­– feels like a long way from all the industry gameplaying. Maclean has a stillness and reticence that lets her relate these Hollywood war stories with a kind of lofty, amused stoicism. But you might still wonder what the auteur of two solid art features – the New Zealand-made Crush (1992) and the US-made Jesus’ Son (2000) ­– was doing with stuff like this?
“I love Joan Didion’s writing and I thought there was some very sharp writing within the script. I also read the original biography of Jessica Savitch [Golden Girl]. I thought it was interesting, a tough story. She was wildly self-destructive and an addict and had a very messy life, and was an unusually ambitious, driven woman, but obviously a successful, charismatic anchorwoman. But they kept wanting to turn it into A Star is Born and her into this fluffy, airhead protégé.”
In the end, the film was directed by the undistinguished Jon Avnet and the wider lesson meant more than the product. “I saw it and I thought it was junk, really,” Maclean says. “You hear so many stories like that, of a story or an idea being so hugely compromised that nothing good can come from it, and having so many writers involved rewriting each other. It makes me very nervous about making a film in the studio system. Unless you have the clout of someone like Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) ­– ie your last film made a lot of money – then it’s something to be avoided.”
Again and again, the system lets you down, even if you are at the Martin Scorsese level. Another project that came and went over two years without ever going into production was a remake of the 1946 asylum film Bedlam. This looked good: Scorsese as director with Maclean as writer. “That was a sad story. I had a disagreement with Scorsese about casting and we parted company. Then, ultimately, it didn’t get made anyway because the company that owns the rights was obstructive and not really serious about making films.
“There was more than six years between Crush and Jesus’ Son. There were a number of projects, but there were three scripts that I wrote and spent two years each on. That’s more than meetings, that’s hard work. Casting them and finding locations and putting all that burning drive into something that doesn’t happen. It’s made me a bit more cautious in the sense of only taking on something that has a pretty real chance of happening. As much as you can ever know.”
Canadian-born, a New Zealand resident from the age of 14, Maclean left for good after the Cannes success of Crush. At times, though, it must have seemed like it was easier to make films even in cash-strapped New Zealand than the US. “In certain ways,” she says. “It seems like it’s easier to make a first film here. I’m not sure about beyond that. The problem with the US is that it feels like there are so many opportunities – suitors, in a way – that ultimately may not be very real.”

But the genesis of Jesus’ Son was something else. This was “a strange, charmed convergence,” she says. It felt fated, inevitable, meant to be. The film is adapted from a book by US writer Denis Johnson, a loosely connected, semi-autobiographical series of short stories, with the title taken from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin”. Johnson’s narrator, known as Fuckhead, is a hipster saint slouching towards some form of redemption through a midwestern 1970s of cheap hotels, dives and drug abuse.
The book first appeared in 1992 and Maclean read it not long after. “I loved the book, it’s one of my favourites. It’s so compressed, it does so much with so little, a perfect book in a way. But I probably considered making it a film for five minutes and didn’t go any further.”
Equally, though, she was inspired enough to track the author down in remote northern Idaho, phone him to congratulate him on his terrific book and pursue him to collaborate on another script. Even later, she was involved in an unproduced script adapted from another Johnson book, The Stars at Noon, set in Nicaragua.
Through this period, there was all the other shadowboxing, the grappling with illusion: meetings and proposals, living off development money, writing in her apartment in New York’s East Village. She directed some TV, including Homicide and the first two episodes of Sex and the City, which is not considered slumming: Kathryn Bigelow, John McNaughton, Steve Buscemi and others have directed Homicide. She also shot the video clip for Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”, and got a memorably emotional performance from the singer.
But that’s all just business. Some time later, she got a call out of the blue from producers/writers Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman, who had seen Crush and figured that Maclean would be perfect for a property that they had recently acquired: Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. They even had an idea for the script.
But even with this beautiful fluke, it was a hard project to get moving. The thing was budgeted for a tiny US $2.5 million and had a solid cast signed up  Holly Hunter, Samantha Morton, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary and then unknowns Jack Black (High Fidelity) and Billy Crudup (Almost Famous). The package should have been a dead cert.
“We sent that script out to everyone, to all the usual distributors and companies in the US and Europe that might be interested in that kind of slightly offbeat drama, and we got turned down by everybody. Even with the actors we had. It seemed shocking and disturbing to me. The only reason that film got made is because the producers had access to private money.”
Still, what really matters is what’s on the screen and that is the best work that Maclean has ever done  simultaneously downbeat and rapturous, sharp and soulful. In the lead, Crudup has a soft, crumpled, easy charm. The film’s mordant humour is typically Maclean, and a great example is the scene in which Crudup and Black’s characters, who are pill-popping hospital orderlies, receive a man who has a knife lodged in his eye. “Patient complains of knife in head,” writes Black. The scene is as blasé and low-key as his reaction, and is all the better for it.

If Jesus’ Son belongs anywhere, it is with films by Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Mystery Train) – both in the reluctance to accept Hollywood sentiment and convention, and in the deglamorised tone, the washed-out ambience, which makes its odd sense of the miraculous even more striking and unusual. The drug thing was the red herring that the studios couldn’t move past, Maclean says. It took the Catholic Church to see what studios couldn’t – the church gave it an award at the Venice Film Festival. “That was interesting and surprising. They said it was a film about healing. They got it.”
More than a year after a limited release – it did well in US metropolitan centres, ran for more than two months in New York – Jesus’ Son has paid back the initial investment, “which is respectable, but not great”. It may make the next feature easier to fund, though, and that looks like being a thriller about false memory from Maclean’s own script. There is also another, strictly bottom-drawer idea – a meditation on Moby Dick from the perspective of a woman posing as a man – which has kicked around ever since Maclean moved to New York.
It’s possible, too, that the newfound celebrity of Billy Crudup could lend Jesus’ Son a second life on video and DVD. Alison Maclean, talent scout: the recent Oscar won by the extraordinary Marcia Gay Harden (for her work as Lee Krasner against Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock in Pollock) might equally boost the fortunes of the only other movie to really use Harden well – Maclean’s Crush. There, she played the vampish antagonist Lane to Donogh Rees’ helpless, bed-ridden Christina. The mere mention of Harden’s Oscar win puts a wide smile on Maclean’s face. “I just think she’s brilliant,” she says, with characteristic economy.