James Dean: A New Film Tells the Sexual Truth

Filmmaker Matthew Mishory discusses his provocative new movie, Joshua Tree 1951, and explains why we’re still fascinated by the late screen icon.

BY Jeremy Kinser

July 16 2012 1:08 AM ET

The cinematography is particularly remarkable. Who were some of the filmmakers who influenced the film’s style?
We looked at films ranging from Tarnished Angels, which is the best black-and-white movie Douglas Sirk made, to Poison and Tom Kalin’s Swoon, to many, many films of the era. But, really, the references were not other filmmakers so much as stills photographers and painters. For me, the first great filmmaker was Caravaggio, who was a master before the medium was even invented. He certainly perfected film lighting. And we looked at many of the photographs of Ansel Adams as well as studio photographers of the day.

James Preston gives a mesmerizing performance. How did you decide he was right to play Dean?
We put out a breakdown. Literally thousands of actors submitted for the part, including some women, and virtually every young actor in Hollywood. Along with my producer, Edward Singletary Jr., I culled through a massive list of submissions, and Edward pre-read actors. When we got to the callbacks, it was between James, who had come to us through [Joshua Tree actress] Dalilah Rain, and a few others. And when James came in we knew that we had our Jimmy. It wasn’t that he looked more or less like James Dean, although he did, and it wasn’t that he could do a mimicry or an impersonation, because we didn’t want that at all. James had a naturalism to his performance style that fit what we were trying to do. And he was a 20-year-old kid from Texas who had dropped out of art school, hopped in his truck, and drove to L.A. to be an actor. He had experienced the struggle, and he had a great quality that fit this character. I think that his performance in the film is fearless and remarkable, and I am proud to have played some small part in what is sure to ultimately be James’s large and fascinating body of work as an actor.

Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean will screen at L.A.'s DGA Theatre tonight at 9:45 p.m. For more information go to Outfest.org. Watch the trailer below.

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