When his debut feature Junebug premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, North Carolina filmmaker Phil Morrison suddenly found himself -- alongside Memphians Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue) and fellow North Carolinian Tim Kirkman (whose Loggerheads will open the IndieMemphis Film Festival next month) -- at the forefront of a makeshift "movement," a group of new Southern films and filmmakers that became the story of the festival.
Morrison's film, about a prodigal son bringing his new art-gallery-owner wife home to rural/suburban North Carolina to meet his family, is both palpably Southern and yet wary of the Southern clichés that tend to animate art both about and of the region. It's a film that establishes the thirtysomething Southerner as one of the country's most interesting new directors. (See capsule review, page 53.)
With Junebug opening in Memphis Friday, September 9th, Morrison spoke with the Flyer about the Sundance experience, the burden of being a Southern artist, and the under-recognized connections between Japanese art cinema and The Andy Griffith Show.
Flyer: I have to ask you about Sundance, which is of particular interest to people here because of Hustle & Flow and Forty Shades of Blue.
Phil Morrison: Well, I knew Ira before Sundance, and I met Craig the first day, when we were both registering. We were all on a panel together about movies and the South, in which we all struggled to say we're not trying to define the South with our movies. You can tie your brain in knots trying to talk about that.
I really loved both of their movies. It's so clear in Forty Shades of Blue and Hustle & Flow that they are the same place, even though the perspective on that place is so completely different. They both do this thing that I love in movies where the experience of them is different from just following a story. Instead, you get this rush from certain moments, when every aspect of the movie suddenly clicks and becomes almost a mystical experience. When [the Hustle & Flow character] Shug covers her mouth when she first hears her voice played back? Oh my God. To me, that's what movies are for.
Totally. People complained about the narrative being so familiar, but the pleasures are in the details and the textures.
I love familiar narratives. If you're setting out to devise a completely new story, then unless you're a genius you're going to get caught up in trying to be clever instead of discovering a moment like that one in Hustle & Flow. I would much rather experience that moment than a story with a trillion twists and turns that I didn't expect.
Was the collective attention you all got as Southern filmmakers a positive or did it get to be a drag?
It really did have a lot of both. There's a cool feeling you get when you feel like you're part of a cohort. But I think for all of us it felt more like an accident than a movement. People talked a lot about regionalism. I'm from North Carolina, so I feel comfortable making a story that takes place [there]. I think that absolutely makes the story different than if it had been set in another place.
Most Hollywood depictions of the South are driven by the same series of familiar clichés and stereotypes. But as a Southern artist working outside the studio system, was the danger for you more about not indulging the more flattering stereotypes we tend to give ourselves?
Sure. That was as important as avoiding the ones that are pushed on us. It's a hard question to answer because a lot of artists and musicians that I really love also, I think, fall into that trap. And I'm not ready to call anybody out, because I have no business doing that. But I do think it's easy to fall into that trap of romanticizing the peculiarities of the South.
In Junebug, I think of the church supper scene, which is so realistic probably because of how understated it is. I would think that would be a hard scene to pull off, to get right without overdoing the "Southernness" of it.
I think you can only figure that out decision by decision. For instance, I talked to my friend Amy a lot about that scene because her dad's a preacher. I told her that I felt the need to resist the temptation to have a beautiful Southern dinner at this church supper. And she said, "Well, yeah. It'd be much more likely they'd serve spaghetti." And I just said, thank you, Amy. And that's what it was. But other questions might not be answered as easily as "spaghetti." So you just do the best you can, decision by decision.
It seems that beyond the Southern issues, it's really more a film about family and class tensions in a broader sense. With those themes and the slow pace and periods of stillness and silence, it almost feels like a Southern take on [the Japanese classic] Tokyo Story. Was that intentional?
Yes. It's simply that, when I started to see [Tokyo Story director Yazujiro] Ozu's movies, the way he depicts the environments and the way in which people, especially family members, behave with each other, it reminded me of where I grew up. I just really related to it -- the way in which people, even within their own families, are very polite to each other. And how arguments are a big deal and not a part of regular life. When I moved to New York, I met a lot of people for whom arguments were just part of everyday family life. But not in the families that I knew. And so these Japanese movies were to me a sensible template for what I was doing. For making a movie about family as I understood it.
And that [filmmaking style] really feels like when I'm home in Winston-Salem, though it's certainly nothing new to equate the South with slowness, right? But this movie really was not intended to walk in the path of difficult art movies. It just kind of made sense in this story. I've said this before, and I know it sounds dangerously cute, but the rhythms and the shooting style is actually similar to The Andy Griffith Show. Ozu and The Andy Griffith Show have a similar vibe. A low-angle shot of Andy and Barney sitting on the porch, talking about going to the Snappy Lunch? It's actually not that different.