True Characters: An Interview with Filmmaker James Alexander Warren

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James Alexander Warren is a writer and filmmaker from Jackson, Mississippi. Alex, as he’s known to his friends, has made two short films, Young Bros and RAUT, as well as directing and producing work for Complex Magazine, Red Bull, McDonald’s, and several others. You might also know him from his music video work for Bass Drum of Death, Dead Gaze, Dent May, FLIGHT, and Pell. Alex’s new film is called Sequence, which he’s currently screening across the country. We recently had a conversation about it.

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JC: For those of us who are unaware, tell us a little about your film.

AW: The film is called Sequence. It’s a series of four short films, made between January 2013 and March 2014. None of the stories cross-pollinate any of the characters, none of the stories are necessarily connected, but I’m playing them all together and calling them Sequence because that was the intention from the beginning. All four films were written before we shot the first one and I re-wrote them continuously along the way. It’s supposed to work—in my head, at least—like Brian Eno’s Ambient series, or Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Or even the story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. The idea of a body of work that comes from a theory, a certain style and a certain ethos. That’s what Sequence is, I think. It also works as individual short films.

JC: You say the films are held together more by an ethos than by any overarching story. Can you explain a little bit what that ethos is?

AW: First and foremost, the production of everything was really cheap. We worked on a very low budget. That was the beginning foundational principle. Let’s do it whether we have a lot of money or whether we don’t. Let’s pull some ideas together and make it happen, if people are willing to throw their ideas in, their craft, within the scope of this bigger project. I’m talking about guys like Chase Everett, who is mixing the film. He was excited to get to work on a longer project, to sort of hone his craft. Let’s make four films for not much money. Luckily, my producer Robbie Fisher came in early and helped me finance most of the shooting. She’s been a really outstanding partner throughout the entire process.

Thematically, I wanted Sequence to be about wandering. All of the stories relate to one another in that they have characters that are searching for some kind of meaning, usually within the context of a woman, in one way or another. The films are centered around guys in different age ranges and backgrounds, but what holds them all together is their common curiosity and lack of understanding of the opposite sex.

JC: So all of these are definitely coming from a male perspective?

AW: These came from personal writing experiences. But I wouldn’t say they come from a strictly male perspective. They don’t feel like male-dominated rom-coms. They don’t have this overwhelming whiff of masculinity. Just a rhythm and a motion that this is these characters’ lives.

JC: Where did you guys film everything?

AW: Mostly around central Mississippi. We shot “Sequence I” in Magee and Yazoo City. We shot “Sequence II” in Ridgeland and in midtown Jackson, behind Millsaps College. “Sequence III” we shot at mine and Sam Lane’s house in Jackson, and at St. Andrews Lower School, Fondren Sellers in Fondren. “Sequence IV” is also predominately Jackson. I think we shot one scene in a neighborhood in Madison.

That was fun for me, because Jackson isn’t what most people in the world necessarily consider a “cool” place. You know, it’s cool to me in its uncoolness. It was really fun to shoot there because I’ve lived in Jackson my whole life and it’s been fun to put places in the film that I was seeing daily during the pre-production process. Making films in a familiar environment frees you up to make more dynamic decisions for your project, I think. I guess it could work in the opposite way, too. We made the films with what we had and Mississippi was a perfect place to film.

JC: How do you think the location—Mississippi specifically, and the South in general—shaped the thematic elements of the film?

AW: I intentionally didn’t want any of the films to feel overtly “southern.” In the first film, “Sequence I,” some guys fix a lawn mower and take it to a woman’s mansion, and when she comes out and greets them, she has a glass of wine and is obviously partying because you can hear music coming from the house. She has a very southern accent, and she’s supposed to be a sort of rich Delta woman. That was the only really overtly “southern” thing in the films. The actors come from all over: California, New York, and some from Mississippi. Akua Carson, who plays the character Ray in “Sequence IV,” is from Canada. She’d never been to the South before. I mean, she went to Miami one weekend a long time ago, but she’d never been to Mississippi. She had no context for playing a “southern” person. That was very important to me.

The film never feels like you’re in a Delta field, or a barbecue restaurant, or something you would only find in Mississippi. I intentionally tried to make it a bit more ambiguous as to where the story was taking place, because the geography was never that important to the stories, or the way the stories were told.

JC: I wonder if that has anything to do with growing up in the South and in Mississippi. How the second anything set in Mississippi comes on screen, the first thing you hear is some god awful corny slide guitar riff.

AW: Definitely. That’s something I’ve experienced my whole life. The common “southern” aesthetic to a huge audience nationally is the slide guitar, twangy blues, the Morgan Freeman voice. Or you know, Paula Deen. Now it’s the fucking Black Keys, on every sporting event, on everything remotely “southern.” Even though they’re not from the South. They’re from fucking Ohio, but they represent southern culture. Trying to pick music and actors and locations that didn’t feel so colored by stereotypical southern culture was important to me. I want to be known as a filmmaker from Mississippi, not as a Mississippi filmmaker. Maybe that sounds pretentious or stupid to say, but I don’t want my films to feel limited by location.

JC: You did cast a lot of your friends in the film as well, right?

AW: Yes. I think if you’re really good friends with someone, then the candidness is there in your relationship, and hopefully you can express things on a deeper level than you could to just some hired gun. But I like to think that all the actors, whether I’d known them for a long time and written the role specifically for them or whether they came to the production a few weeks before we shot, I consider all of them friends because of the line of communication that we had while we were making the films.

Specifically Thom Shelton and Jamie Granato come to mind when I think of friends that I intentionally wrote parts for. I wrote the role in “Sequence IV” of Jeffrey specifically for Thom, based on a lot of conversations and frustrations that we have shared. You know, working on other projects, wanting a better future for yourself and your art, hoping that somebody one day gives a fuck about what you’re doing. The character Jeffrey was born out of that.

I wasn’t as good of friends with Jamie going into the production as much as I was just enamored with him. He’s so funny to me, the way that he communicates and talks and speaks his slang is comical to me. I knew that if he and I worked on a character and a story together, it would be a lot of fun. I was at a party at some mutual friends’ house in New York, and he told me he had been doing improv at Upright Citizens Brigade. I had been writing these short stories while on tour with Dent May (playing drums) that I was slowly adapting into screenplays. And at the party I just said, “You want to be in a movie?” And he said, “Hell yeah!” That was sort of it. I woke up the next day excited, and from then on I knew I was going to make this film with Jamie.

David Baker, who plays Father James Martin in “Sequence III,” which is called “The Temperature of Father James Martin,” was someone I’m just a big fan of his. I met him through a friend in New York, and I began to babysit his kids sometimes when he and his wife were busy. I wrote my second short film and I gave him a copy and asked him to play the role of the father in it. He grilled me about the intentions of the character, going deep into it, asking me questions that I’d never even really considered. Honestly it kind of stumped me. I remember leaving that coffee meeting and being like, damn, I need to shape up. I have to develop my ideas more, I need to speak them more clearly. So he declined working on that film.

So then I met with him last August, when I was working on this project. I had written this script for film about a priest, and I called David up. He met me for coffee again, and I told him about the role, and we had a long, interesting talk about a lot of stuff. I told him I’d send him the script in two weeks. Well, three weeks went by, and I still hadn’t sent him anything, because I was so nervous.

One morning David emailed me and said, “Don’t you owe me a script? It’s a week a late.” And I was like, Oh shit, he’s keeping up with me. I sent it to him and he called me the next day. All the questions he asked me about the character this time I was ready for, and I nailed them, because I had learned to think through the character inside and out this time. Working with him on that film was one of the most fulfilling experiences so far in my life. He’s really an incredible actor.

JC: Can you talk about some major influences on the film, cinematic or otherwise?

AW: Raymond Carver’s short stories have been hugely influential to me. They feel comfortable to me when I read them, even though a lot of them are pretty dark. I wanted to capture time and space the way he does. You don’t need a lot of context to know this father is on a train, waiting to meet his son that he hasn’t seen in fifteen years. You don’t have to know much more than that to be interested in what’s going on. If the character is good—which they are in Raymond Carver stories—then you’re going to be interested in what happens to them. You don’t even need the big moment, the big landing. You already care. I wanted to make stories like that, and tell them visually.

So obviously, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is a big influence on Sequence. Those stories did cross-pollinate—he made a three-hour film where he combined a ton of characters from the stories in a kind of never-ending combination of bumping into each other and either knowing or not knowing. I wanted my film to be a bit more isolated, the way that Raymond Carver’s stories were before Short Cuts. But Robert Altman is a huge influence.

But as a filmmaker, in my ideas about directing actors and writing, my biggest influence is John Cassavetes. He was after true experiences, whether those are funny or really intense life-and-death experiences. Cassavetes’s tenacity at attacking whatever subject matter he was dealing with was amazing, and I want to write in such a way that actors are able to sink their teeth in. It becomes something that we’re experiencing together, in a director and actor relationship. It becomes a common experience that we’re both drawing from. I know Cassavetes created that with his wife, Gena Rowlands. I know he created that with Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk when they were making Husbands. I wanted to cast actors that I could create that with so that we were working the characters out together, and they’re drawing from their own personal ideas on the character, and the hope is that they can play the character as comfortably as possible. The actors and I are coming from some feeling that we both want to explore and create together, and that to me is the most fulfilling part of being a director.

There’s so many more. I love P.T. Anderson. To me, he’s my favorite living American filmmaker. I love Michael Haneke, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodóvar. He was maybe the biggest influence on the rhythm of “Sequence IV” where I wanted the film to feel faster and expansive in a quick way. Whereas in “Sequence III,” I was really influenced more by quieter films that took their time a bit more.

I could talk about influences all day, but I think the common theme between all of them is their mindfulness to craft real characters, true characters, that they lead the audience to become immersed in the world they are creating.

JC: It’s wonderful how collaborative the process was for this film. Many directors have a sort of tyrannical reputation, being cruel, barking out orders. It seems like your approach is much different.

AW: Absolutely. Growing up going to sets that my dad was working on, I had some negative experiences sometimes, because I was treated with no respect from anyone working on the set except my dad. I just didn’t like that vibe. So I’ve always tried to foster this environment on a film set that, if you’re there, you matter. If you’re a P.A, please chip in ideas and be involved. I mean, I don’t want everyone screaming ideas at me all the time, because there’s no order in that, and it’s not what I’m suggesting. I can be stern when I have to be. But only in a way that shows respect to the people around me. Most of all I’m concerned with everyone there having something that they’re working on during the production, making sure that the project feels like their own as well.

I can speak about Ross Cabell, a great friend who came on as a P.A. for “Sequence III” and “Sequence IV,” and he did a number of different things. To call him just a P.A. is unfair. That’s what his title was, but he did so much more on set, and I grew to rely on his opinions, even down to looking at some of the dailies with him. I’m asking Ross which is his favorite take and why. Just having that sort of collaborative energy with a crew makes everything a lot more fulfilling. Honestly, it makes everyone work a little better too, because they have something of their own at stake, too.

I come in with a singular vision, and prepare the crew that this is what we’re doing, but there are so many different decisions that have to be made in a film that everyone gets to pitch in. I love having people with great ideas around me, because they make my ideas even better, and their craft becomes essential to my craft as well.

JC: Is there anything you want audiences to keep in mind as they step into a theater to watch your film?

AW: If you watch Sequence at one of the showings we have coming up in December, then you’re seeing it the way it was intended to be seen. If you watch just “Sequence I” and that’s it, at a film festival or something, then I hope it resonates somehow with you. Not in some corny way. I just hope that “Sequence I” works on its own two legs, that it entertains folks and is exciting, same with all four short films. But they were made to be seen together.

JC: What’s your goal for Sequence, as far as presenting it to a wider audience?

AW: I just really hope people come and see it. We’re having screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and in Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi. I want people to come and watch them. I’m so excited to show our films. I hope for more screenings all over. I didn’t want my only opportunity to build an audience to be getting accepted or declined from film festivals only. I want Sequence to play at festivals, for sure, but I don’t want one screener for a film festival to be the only person that sees my film. I don’t care how, I just want people to see it.

Sequence is screening at the following locations: 

Dec. 3    Oxford MS                  Oxford Commons      7 PM

Dec. 4   Jackson MS                  Malco Grandviev     8 PM

Dec. 11  Los Angeles, CA           Cinefamily          7 PM

Dec. 18  New York City, NY     Anthology           8 PM

Purchase tickets here: http://www.sequencethefilm.com/screenings/

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