What could possibly be left to say about late screen icon James Dean? After countless books, documentaries, and film bios, director Matthew Mishory thinks there’s plenty. Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, his feature directorial debut currently making the rounds of film festivals around the globe, offers a breathtaking look at a little-known period in the actor’s life. Set in the early 1950s when the charismatic Indiana native was just another determined hopeful, Mishory’s Dean (portrayed by The Gates star James Preston) depends on the kindess of well-to-do gentlemen friends, while experimenting sexually with his male roomate as well as numerous females. It’s a portrayal that will likely excite many fans of the mercurial star but upset others unready for the sexual frankness on display here — all told in glorious black-and-white cinematography. Mishory tells The Advocate about the making of his film, how Hollywood was more sexually liberated during its Golden Age, and why we’re still fascinated with Dean.
The Advocate: Matthew, I hope people who see Joshua Tree 1951 don’t walk in expecting a conventional film biography. I think even the title makes it clear that it isn’t.
Matthew Mishory: The title was carefully chosen to make it clear from the outset that this film really isn’t like any prior film about James Dean. Ours is a portrait, a moment in time or outside of time, and the film deals very narrowly with the year before Dean moved to New York, joined the Actors Studio, and subsequently launched his career. So it’s a film that looks for the antecedents of a remarkable life and a remarkable career in the struggle of trying to break through. It’s a film about an awkward young man from Indiana who makes his way to Hollywood with a very big dream and tremendous ambition, and he gets eaten alive. But, ultimately, he also leaves us this incredible legacy.
Why did you decide to make a film about someone whose life has been covered in so many ways with so many other projects?
Well, I didn’t feel that any of the screen explorations that had been done to date had explored Dean in the way we do. I think we offer a completely different take on who this man was — a more intimate take and an exploration of a period of his life that had rarely been put to screen before and certainly never in this way.