Jay Russell didn't set out to be the poster boy for family-friendly movies. But if that's what he's becoming only three films into his directing career, it's OK by him.
Russell's first effort, 1988's End of the Line, followed a group of railroad workers who commandeer a locomotive and head for corporate headquarters in an effort to keep the company from closing. A dozen years later, he returned with My Dog Skip, with Frankie Muniz as an outcast young boy whose best friend is his terrier. He followed that with Tuck Everlasting, adapting Natalie Babbit's novel of young love among the immortals.
"There's obviously something in me that is attracted to that type of material," the 43-year-old Arkansas native says over dinner at Fleming's, an upscale steakhouse at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. "When I take a step back, I can see a commonality of theme."
His films treat subjects that resonate with all ages, handling with respect both the material and the audience's intelligence. They're sentimental, but not treacly; warm, but not cuddly.
The director has been in Baltimore since March filming his fourth movie, Ladder 49, the story of a firefighter (Joaquin Phoenix) reflecting on his life and career while trapped in a burning building. It has been a fun shoot, one that marks Russell's second foray into Maryland; Tuck also was shot here, in Harford County and in Berlin, on the Eastern Shore (the same town where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere filmed Runaway Bride).
"Baltimore's got its own character," says Russell as he enjoys his last evening of rest before tackling Ladder 49's trickiest scenes - those that involve shooting on a set engulfed in flame. "It's very unique in its architecture, its feeling, its look ... I scouted Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia. Maybe it was just the comfort level I had here, because I had worked here before. Maybe it was the Baltimore Fire Department just saying, `We'll do anything to help you.' Maybe it was [Maryland Film Office head] Jack Gerbes and his persistence. The combination of all that, I felt like this was the place. And I've had nothing but a good experience here."
While perhaps more dramatic than his previous films, in which crises were more emotional than physical, Ladder 49, Russell thinks, should appeal to the audience he's cultivated with his earlier work. For him, the unifying thread is an awareness of the small moments that define one's life - a kind of extended rumination on Thornton Wilder's Our Town, with Russell casting himself as the stage manager. "All my movies have to do with the strength of family, the appreciation of that, the appreciation of life while we're experiencing it, and reflecting back on it."
He stumbles a bit, however, when asked if all this is by design. "Is it conscious? It's not that I'm looking for that, but it just happens to be what I respond to. So yes, there will probably be some form of that in everything that I do."
And Russell has learned to trust his own judgment. For a while he didn't, which explains why 12 years elapsed between his first and second film, he says. "I went through a number of years where I didn't trust my instincts and they were disastrous years for me, both personally and professionally."
After his first taste of success, Russell tried too hard to fit into molds chosen by others. "I was writing scripts that I knew would never be made, even as I was writing them. And I didn't have a feel for what I was writing, anyway, because it was all contrived baloney that was fitting a development agenda: `We need a supernatural comedy,' `We need a romantic comedy,' or whatever. I was just writing to the wind," he continues, growing increasingly animated at the thought of those wasted years. "I didn't know what I was doing. I got very depressed and almost chucked the whole thing."
What saved him - kept his passion for cinema from being extinguished - were what he calls his "little personal documentary projects." Done for various television channels, they included an HBO film on a childhood friend now serving life in prison for serial rape ("It was basically a documentary piece about the building blocks of a criminal," he says) and a series for PBS on famous U.S. roads.
"I loved it," Russell says, recalling how the documentaries revived his interest in his own career. "I wasn't getting paid hardly anything, but I was having a blast."
While working on a segment for the roads series about U.S. Highway 61, the conduit to so many of the South's great blues singers, he had his first meeting with author Willie Morris - a meeting that would serve as Russell's own conduit back into the business of making movies.
"At one point, I asked him, `Are you working on anything, Willie?' And he said, `Well, I'm writing this short little memoir about my childhood days with my dog.' I just made a little note of that."