In 1992, would-be director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan, lifelong friends, decided to make a feature film together. But then something got in the way: Morrison’s success.
As a New York University junior in 1988, Morrison directed Tater Tomater, based on a MacLachlan story. The short was accepted four years later by the Sundance Film Festival, and Morrison remembers being there, “riding the shuttle in the snow, saying, ‘You know, we should make a long movie.’ And it’s taken this long for it actually to be real.”
Now 37, the director offers a lot of reasons why it took him 17 years to get from Tater Tomater to his debut feature, Junebug: It’s hard to raise money for an indie film. He lacks “go-getting career ambition.” And he wasn’t sure the world needed “another movie made by another 20-something American white guy.” But there was also the complication of Morrison’s beginning to work steadily as soon as he graduated, moving from directing music videos to TV commercials and a show for Comedy Central, Upright Citizens Brigade.
A smallish, highly enthusiastic man with shaggy dark-brown hair, Morrison speaks in run-on, often incomplete sentences, yet his voice retains the softness of his native North Carolina. “I now have lived in New York longer than I lived there,” he notes. “But I go down there a lot. My family and friends are in Winston-Salem.”
Those friends include MacLachlan, a noted regional playwright. “I’ve known him my whole life. I mean, I knew him before I knew him. I knew him when I was a baby”—when Morrison’s older brother and MacLachlan played orphan pickpockets in a production of Oliver and the future director’s mother brought her newborn son backstage.
“His writing initially created whatever sensibility I might have,” he says. “So it made really good sense for us to do these projects together.”
It also made sense for their first feature to turn on the culture clash between a small-town North Carolina family and an intruder from the urban North. Having impulsively married Carolina-bred George (Alessandro Nivola), Chicago outsider-art dealer Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) decides to combine a trip to recruit prickly “visionary” painter David (Frank Hoyt Taylor) with a visit to her new relatives. There she meets a sister-in-law (Amy Adams) who’s awed by Madeleine’s sophistication, as well as three more-skeptical in-laws.
Junebug was made for “well under a million dollars,” Morrison says, and filmed in 20 days. Such low-budget films are often shot on video, but the director chose Super 16. “People talk about film vs. video as if it’s only about what the finished product looks like,” he says. “But the process of shooting film and the process of shooting video are very different from each other. A presumption is made that video is better because you’re lighter and leaner and you can move faster. I don’t accept that this is necessarily better. A lot of movies shot on video succumb to the temptation to have tons of coverage. And tons of takes, where you’re just trying all kinds of different stuff. The final movie becomes this accumulation of all of this footage.
“But for this movie I kind of wanted to be slowed down. It wasn’t only about the look of film vs. the look of video. It was also about what it was going to feel like.”
Morrison admits that “when we were editing that, it was often problematic that we didn’t have more coverage. But I’m happy for this movie to be a product of that problem, rather than a product of being all over the place.”
Morrison credits Junebug’s “core story and emotion and relationships” to MacLachlan’s original script, but he reveals that the outsider-art subplot wasn’t in the first draft. It was added after the director and writer decided that neither George nor Madeleine would have proposed visiting his family without some other motivation for going to North Carolina. The confluence of Madeleine’s career and new family, Morrison says, “is a coincidence. People talk about how coincidences are some cheap thing in a movie. But I think that completely rejecting coincidence as an element of life is sort of…a drag. I wanted the movie to some degree to be kind of mystical.”
Also, he notes, “there’s meaning in it in the sense that Madeline has this fetish for Southern culture, and she has this relationship with the artist. She is potentially his patron, and how does that sort of rhyme with her relationship with her husband?”
The late arrival of the outsider-art element demonstrates, Morrison adds, “that the stuff that is really central isn’t always the stuff that comes first. It’s that missing piece that you finally find.”
Feeling like an outsider, the filmmaker muses, cuts both ways. “There’s that high-school sense of being outside—a kind of negative, shameful feeling. But there’s also that sense of being outside that I think is comforting. Being able to see something from a removed perspective makes you feel good. It’s ego-gratifying to some degree.
“I don’t mean to say the movie is about that, but it’s something that I thought about in the process of making it. And I think that applies to the South. This is not an objective view of the South. This is not meant to be a documentary or even social realism. For me, it’s more a reflection of growing up somewhere and no longer being there. In this particular case, the place happens to be North Carolina. And I wanted to be true to the fact that it’s North Carolina. I wanted to show Piedmont North Carolina in the way that it appears to me. But it’s not meant to sort of explain the South.”
Morrison argues that most notions of “authenticity” are simplistic, and as an example he offers a man who plays a small part in the film: actor and singer-songwriter Will Oldham, who’s recorded doomy alt-country music under such names as Palace Brothers and Bonnie Prince Billy. “One rule of the movie was: ‘No indie rock!’ Like, Will Oldham can be in the movie. But I didn’t want his music to be in the movie. I didn’t want the music to be about Southernizing the movie. And so therefore, anybody Southern was disqualified from scoring the movie. Sometimes you just make those rules, whether they’re fair or not.”
The soundtrack assignment went to Yo La Tengo, for which Morrison has “made a lot of videos”; Oldham was hired to play a scout for a New York art dealer who’s competing with Madeleine. “This isn’t really made super clear, but to me the idea is that Will is a Southerner who is acting as this conduit between so-to-speak authentic Southern folk culture and this gallery owner in the North, a sophisticated connoisseur of folk culture.
“And that’s the discussion that people have had for quite a while now about Will’s music. Especially when he first started. Like, ‘Oh, how for real is he?’ As if that was some puzzle that could be solved. You’d think that Bob Dylan would have made that a nonconsideration a long time ago. And yet people are still obsessed with this idea of authenticity. That’s just a dead end, I think. And so in a way maybe it was kind of a joke. To have Will be this Southern exploiter for the Northern connoisseurs.”
As for David, Morrison says he and MacLachlan “didn’t dig too deeply into the world of self-taught painters to create this character. Probably Howard Finster and Henry Darger are the two most known painters in this segment of the art world, and in a way this character reflects them. But I hope he’s also completely his own crazy creation.”
In a gamy contrast to what Morrison calls “New South politesse,” David delivers bigoted comments about Jews and African-Americans. “He’s more like the Old South in that way,” the director says. “But, you know, he’s crazy. Those painters are referred to as being visionary, in the literal sense that they paint from visions. A guy named Tom Patterson, who lives in Winston-Salem, kind of an expert on the outsider-art world, has talked about how—I’m not going to exactly get this right, but I guess there is a phenomenon where certain people’s brains will create the same chemical that hallucinogens create. Some people speculate that that’s what was happening with Finster.
“If you are devoted to secularization, you’ve got to come up with some solution for this, right? Finster’s was that it was God. Whatever it is, it’s some kind of crazy-ass vision. And that is what’s happening with our character.”
There could be a God, it’s suggested, and David still could be nuts.
“Exactly!” Morrison exclaims. “That’s my answer.” He chortles. “You said it for me.”—Mark Jenkins
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.