The Insider Outsider
An interview with Phil Morrison, director of Junebug
By Jeannette Catsoulis

Reverse Shot: Where does Junebug come from? Most directors with a background in music videos don’t make films quite like this.

Phil Morrison: Well, I wasn’t particularly good at music videos! I liked doing them, and I am proud of them, but mine were never like that the ones I find impressive. I did a TV show called Upright Citizens Brigade, which was sketch comedy but shot single camera, on location, with no audience or laughtrack, so the experience of it in a way was kind of like doing a really low-budget movie. And it was conceived by its stars and writers almost like [Buñuel’s] Phantom of Liberty—so I almost believed it was cinema we were making. And I’m really proud of that show, and the four people who conceived it [Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh] had really complex ideas in a way that’s uncommon in sketch comedy. We were true to the way people are at heart. It wasn’t one of those shows created from how inconsistent people are, but how consistent they are. I believe that that show, and the music videos too, are less unlikely precursors to Junebug than they might seem, and I might have to acknowledge that the things in Junebug that are also in the comedy, well, perhaps if those elements had not been in the videos and sketch comedy they might have worked better!

RS: How did the idea for the film develop?

Morrison: Angus MacLachlan [the screenwriter] had this idea that was initially a play. He’s a playwright, and I’ve known him my whole life; he lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I grew up. During my junior year at NYU I took part in a play he had written, and we made it into my student film, called Tater Tomater. That was in 1988. It took a while to finish it, then it was in Sundance in 92, and back then we talked about making a movie. Then Angus had this story about this family, and it just started building from there.

RS: Are you familiar with the world of outsider art?

Morrison: I’m no expert, but there was that vogue in the mid-Eighties, and when an interest in outsider art coincides with one’s freshman year in college, especially if you’re from North Carolina…well! And in 1984 R.E.M. was really significant to a senior in high school in Winston-Salem. So I did that whole thing, I went and slept on Howard Finster’s couch—twice!—and hung out with him, and now I realize that Madeleine’s [played by Embeth Davidtz] relationship with the artist in the film is in some way a critique of my own with Finster—because my interest in Finster was goodhearted, but I was also very selective about him. I did not allow his evangelism to challenge my dedication to secularism as a freshman in college, that part was quaint to me. I didn’t let that penetrate who I was. So there was simultaneously great admiration and respect for him, but also I was by legitimate definition more “sophisticated” than he was. But I didn’t think about how that might challenge my preconceptions.

RS: There’s a line in the film making fun of an outsider artist by describing his work as occurring “in the brief period between incarcerations.” Was that your line or Angus’s?

Morrison: [laughingly indicates himself, making a shhhh! gesture] Well, in a way it’s making fun of the insider art sensibility, and by the way, I don’t think the people in that world are unaware of these questions. I don’t presume to have a better perspective on outsider art than the people whose careers are tied to it. But that comment is, in a very shorthandedly humorous way, talking about how the biographies of these artists are the same as the work itself. It helps create the fascination with them and inevitably adds to that sense of separation between them and the connoisseur.

RS: There’s an off-kilter tone about the movie that keeps the audience guessing where you’re going, especially in the first 30 minutes or so. Is this a serious film about artists, or is it going to be a satiric look at their world? Then you don’t take a stand one way or the other. Audiences look for signals, how to feel at a particular point, and you don’t give anything away. Is the ambiguity a conscious strategy to make people discover their own engagement with the film, or is that just the way things turned out?

Morrison: It’s very conscious. In fact, there are scenes we shot that delivered the signals you’re talking about, and therefore we removed them. Because I believe that as part of a whole, that kind of vagueness is a virtue; it creates questioning and participation from the audience and a mood experience. That’s the mood I wanted. I think it’s what movies are good for, what they do well. As far as consistency of tone is concerned, it’s certainly a product of many great movies—Bresson, for example—but maybe it’s something I’ll leave for the geniuses, like Ozu. But that doesn’t make me not love Imamura, who couldn’t be less consistent, and that’s exhilarating to me.

RS: That’s what I love about something like A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Morrison: A.I. is in my top five of the last 10 or 20 years. It took my breath away. I had a really significant experience while we were making Junebug—we shot the movie in 20 days, so there was a lot to do, and I only saw one movie at the time—and I went to see The Terminal with about seven or eight people. Now it’s no A.I., but I liked it, and I had a moving experience watching it. And I came out and the other people—all of whom are good friends, and I really respect their opinions—all hated it. And it was a real crisis for me, because maybe I liked it more because I was in the middle of making a movie and was more on the side of anybody trying to make something, and because in a way Amistad and A.I. did create for me a certain loyalty to Spielberg—as long as he’s pursuing what I want him to pursue! Which is a bit selfish I admit. So maybe I cut The Terminal more slack than my friends did. But they hated it, and that made me think everyone’s going to hate Junebug. It sent me into a panic right in the middle of filming, because I felt like the film wasn’t about an effort to avoid big strokes; it wasn’t about naturalism with the family. The idea was to accept they’re types, and Madeleine—also known as “us”—discovers them as such. And let’s explore what that means. To us. Any effort to make them not types would actually be imposing my idea of what people ought to be like as much as if we were exploiting the fact that they were types. Instead, I thought let’s accept what they are and then try to explore what that means to us. But I knew that what that meant was that some people would just see the caricature. I had to accept the possibility of people seeing this movie and just seeing “quirk” and that was terrifying. But I had no other choice.

RS: Did it occur to you that people might view the film as a red state/blue state collision?

Morrison: Certainly as long as I’ve been involved with it I saw it to some degree as the relationship between the South and the rest of the U.S., but we shot in July, well before the election. And I accept that idea about the film, I’m not going to deny it, but that wasn’t the idea originally.

RS: What themes did you want to explore?

Morrison: A lot! But in one way, they all fall into the category of, “Man, it’s complicated to be conscious, ain’t it?” Which hopefully applies to every movie. We weren’t reinventing the wheel here. But more specifically one thing was about creating a modest vehicle for reminding us that what we assume going in to a situation is an illusion, a product of a self-protective outlook. Another thing was: What is your responsibility to people whose love you have accepted but maybe you no longer join in that love? Culturally we’ve really talked a lot about taking care of the self, and that’s not necessarily illegitimate, but I think the process of taking care of each other can get lost in the shuffle. That is a big theme for me.

RS: Your style reminds me of Terence Davies, particularly when you let the camera sit on empty rooms. How did that develop?

Morrison: I developed it in this movie, as it’s the only movie I’ve ever made! In a way it’s a result of other movies that have somehow reminded me of where I grew up maybe even more than most movies that take place in the South. Like the first movie I saw from Iran, [Ebrahim Forouzesh’s] The Jar, felt to me like The Andy Griffith Show! And certain movies have this feeling, and I wish I could say I accidentally fell into this but, no, it was a very conscious thing. This movie’s vocabulary feels like waking up in the morning in Piedmont, North Carolina, and staring out the window at the yard. So perhaps I might have had this feeling no matter where I grew up.

We talked a lot about Davies. The DP, Peter Donahue, and I talked a lot about The Long Day Closes, in fact there was a cut of Junebug that was about half an hour longer than what you’ve seen, that Mike Ryan, one of the producers, called “the Terence Davies cut”! And you know when Davies came to the South, with The Neon Bible, that may be where I was least into him. That was a weird experience. I saw it in Paris, the first time I’d ever been there, and I went to see that movie. So I guess maybe I shouldn’t be making a movie about England!

Photo by David LaSpina