When I reached Phil Morrison last week, he’d just returned home to New York from an Edinburgh screening of Junebug that was part of that Scottish city’s renowned theater festival. “They just really got it,” Morrison reports happily. “‘What is a junebug?’ was the only thing I needed to explain to anybody.”
Even without a description of the green, moderately pestilent beetle, the film’s resolution makes the title poignantly clear to viewers. And to critics. After premiering to excellent notices at Sundance in January, Junebug‘s reputation has only grown. “The screenwriter Angus MacLachlan and the director Phil Morrison and an astonishingly perfect cast have quietly made a daring picture,” goes a rave by The New Republic‘s cranky Stanley Kauffmann, while Slate‘s David Edelstein compares the film to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Junebug is the first feature film for Morrison, but he’s no wide-eyed credit card filmmaker. The Winston-Salem native, born in 1968, has been laying the groundwork for his emergence on the world cinema scene for 20 years. Morrison enrolled in film school at NYU and has lived in New York ever since. Throughout the 1990s, he built his career on television commercials and music videos for bands like Sonic Youth, Superchunk, Yo La Tengo and Juliana Hatfield.
The meticulously crafted Junebug was the fruition of a project Morrison conceived over a decade ago with his old friend and collaborator, Winston-Salem playwright Angus MacLachlan. MacLachlan is an award-winning dramatist who authored Morrison’s NYU student film Tater Tomater, which played at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.
These days, Morrison is very busy, giving interviews and making appearances on behalf of Junebug before he embarks on a new project, called Perfect Partner, with Kim Gordon and Tony Oursley. (On Thursday, Sept. 8, Morrison will be at Chapel Hill’s Chelsea Theater for a preview screening. The Indy‘s Godfrey Cheshire will moderate a discussion afterward.)
In his travels with Junebug, Morrison has discovered that foreign audiences are quite savvy to the American South. “You see how aware people are of the intricacies of the United States, much more than we are,” says Morrison.
“In a way, it seems like [Europeans] have less prejudice about Southerners,” Morrison says. “Over there, class is such a defining factor, and maybe they have a perception of the characters as being from an honorable class,” Morrison says.
“Here [in the United States], people have presumptions immediately about Southerners,” Morrison continues. “When I talk to people–especially since the election–and they report to me a drive through the South, it seems that very, very quickly they’re able to find an experience that confirms their prejudices about Southerners. These are often the same people who would be really sensitive to clichéd portrayals in movies abroad.”
However, Junebug is emphatically not a P.C. revision of Southern tropes. One of the film’s greatest strengths, in fact, is its fearlessness in its milieu of provincialism, social conservatism and Styrofoam cups. Although there are some wince-inducing moments in Junebug, Morrison is unapologetic. “I think it would have been disingenuous to assume that any type of person is off limits to comedy.”
“To me, it seems like a big effort to avoid clichés will only end up feeling precious, or only an assertion of what I’ve decided is not a cliché.”
The story revolves around the tensions that arise when George, after escaping the South to make an unspecified success of himself in Chicago, returns to North Carolina with his thin, smart and sophisticated wife Madeleine, a dealer in “outsider” art. Morrison points out that his protagonists also have a very practical role in the film.
“I wanted to be honest with myself about who the likely audience for this movie is. It seemed like George and Madeleine, just in terms of basic life circumstances, represent the most likely audience for the film,” Morrison says.
Morrison says he wanted to tell a story that would confront difference without condescension or contempt. Operating as a clever symbol of the collision of Yankee sophistication with unpretentious Dixieland is Madeleine’s effort to woo an outsider artist who lives in North Carolina. Her earnest efforts to acquire the paintings of this man–modeled on such self-taught visionaries as Clyde Jones and Howard Finster–clashes comically with her relations with her new in-laws, who are not nearly as luridly gothic as the paintings she fancies.
There are some obvious similarities between Morrison and George, the prodigal son who is played by Alessandro Nivola. George, like Morrison, left North Carolina in his youth to find success up North. However, the similarities pretty much end there. While George hails from a culturally conservative, working-class family, Morrison says, “In Winston, I didn’t really go to church at all, except that my dad brought me a lot to the Unitarian church.”
Morrison’s lack of old time religion didn’t impede his ability to direct Junebug‘s singularly heart-stopping set piece, a scene in a church basement in which George is called upon to sing for the congregation. “Come home, come home, come home,” croons Nivola, an Ivy Leaguer whose reputation largely rests on his numerous British roles. It’s a remarkable moment in which the audience shares the wonderment shown on the characters’ faces. When asked about the scene, Morrison says with a chuckle, “Actually, our consultant–so to speak–was Amy Barefoot [an actress in the cast] whose father was a minister.”
After years of working with MacLachlan to bring Junebug to fruition, Morrison confesses to an inability to view the film innocently. “I have no idea what I would think of this movie if I just went and saw it,” Morrison says. “I’m sure that there is something that would annoy me.”
The single most lauded performance in Junebug is that of Amy Adams, who picked up a special jury award at Sundance and is being touted as an Oscar candidate for her tender, unself-conscious turn as the sweetly naîve Ashley. Though Adams isn’t a household name, Junebug is the sort of film that may send her up the Hollywood food chain.
Her big breakthrough came three years ago when she played Leonardo DiCaprio’s child-bride in Catch Me If You Can. In Junebug, we again find Adams playing a heartbreakingly simple country girl, so it would probably come as a surprise to viewers that she isn’t a Southerner.
“I’m from Colorado, but I’ve always been attracted to Southern characters. There’s something in me that’s very old-fashioned, and the South breathes with tradition and propriety,” Adams says by telephone from Los Angeles.
“Either that or I’ve watched Gone with the Wind a few too many times!”
Adams signed on to the film just before Junebug went into production in June of 2004, and she seems to have sailed into the part with remarkable ease. If Adams is prone to nerves and self-doubt, she doesn’t show it, nor did she feel any pressure to nail what turns out to be the key character in Junebug. “It’s more of the director’s job to have the big picture, and Phil was so amazing at that.
“My job was just to be Ashley. At the end of the day, I just love to act.”
Adams will be returning to North Carolina this week for yet another Southern role, this time in the Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy currently in production in Charlotte.