Director gives `Junebug' personality

FILM

September 16, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When Phil Morrison, the 37-year-old director of the fizzy and adult family comedy Junebug, was a junior at New York University, he walked up to Jonathan Demme at a concert and told Demme that he was Morrison's favorite filmmaker. Demme immediately gave him an internship at his New York office.

"I don't think I was such a great intern," Morrison admits with a laugh over the phone from his Greenwich Village apartment. "I was up all night editing my student film, I'd walk in bleary-eyed, and I was intimidated by the environment." He hasn't yet invited his revered ex-boss to see his film.

That anecdote seems typical of Morrison. When you talk to him, enthusiasm and conscience entwine in disarming and engaging ways - just as they do in his original, refreshing movie. You can see elements of Demme throughout Junebug, especially in its democratic embrace of every character from the sophisticated Chicago outsider-art dealer, Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), and her enigmatically laid-back Southern spouse, George (Alessandro Nivola), to each member of George's Winston-Salem, N.C., family. But the picture's fresh, melancholy ambivalence suggests a personality all Morrison's own.

"What we hope to do in Junebug, in a really funny way," he says, "is promote the idea that the other person in any given situation may have as good a reason as you do." Of course, he knows he's quoting one of the most famous lines in movies, from Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game: "In this world there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons."

He goes on to praise The Rules of the Game, the model for all movies that take the moral temperature of a society in a single weekend. (Junebug takes place in a single weekend, too.) "It should be a template for every movie ever made. We should just keep remaking it."

That's spoken like a true film student - and movie lover. Morrison lived in Winston-Salem until he went to NYU Film School. So viewers might assume that he identifies with his urbanized antihero George. Actually, he says, he relates more to Johnny, the sibling who remained in North Carolina and packs goods into shipping boxes at Replacements Ltd.

Morrison and Angus MacLachlan, who wrote the script, do something daring with Johnny and George: They resist the temptation to explain them. "Some people have complained that there's no `Rosebud' to Johnny. Well, I guess there are people you meet in life who are a certain way because of one exact thing that happened to them. But with most of us, it's an accumulation of things. I think George and Johnny are clinically depressed - that's certainly how I was able to relate to them, what made sense to me - and we make it funny because they act in irrational ways. I can explain why Johnny is so angry. In his view of the world, George makes Johnny's existence pointless. Johnny has this sense that the world is saying to him, `George, your flesh and blood, could be you if he wanted, but you could never be George.'"

In the years after graduation, Morrison took a low-level job for just less than two years with Robert De Niro, showed his student film at Sundance, began shooting videos for small indie rock bands and cut his teeth on commercials. His breakthrough came as the director of Comedy Central's cult favorite Upright Citizens' Brigade, the improvisatory sketch comedy show. But a huge part of his interest remained beneath the Mason-Dixon Line.

Junebug provided him with a chance to portray people "not already mined in fiction or nonfiction": neither Southern mountain people nor Southern city folk, but those who live in between. "All of my relatives from my mom's side are from the mountains," he says. With Junebug's portrait of George's parents, Peg (Celia Weston) and Eugene (Scott Wilson), he depicts "the first generation that doesn't live in the mountains, who moved on to the closest city." The movie is about characters feeling out their relationship to family and regional traditions. But, more profoundly, it's about a household finding its balance between an accepting and rejecting view of life.

"The word `acceptance' enters my head in the sense of taking the world as innocent until proven guilty," says Morrison. "But what we are saying in Junebug is not that we're all alike, but that it's fine to be different. And I think that's not a cynical point of view. Not every problem and misunderstanding needs to be resolved."

`Folks' at Charles

The Thing About My Folks, a father and son dramedy starring Peter Falk and Paul Reiser, is this week's entry in Cinema Sundays at the Charles.

Doors open: 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:30 a.m. Admission: $15. For information, go to www.cine masundays.com.

Casting calls

Today between 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., there will be two open casting calls for extras to appear in Music High, a movie that's been described as "Fame meets Footloose" and takes place in the fictional Maryland School of the Arts.

Casting director Carlyn Davis hopes to fill her roster with thousands of background performers ages 18 and up, in two main groups: those who can believably play art high school students, and those who can be credible "street types."

The two sites for the sessions will be the Morgan State University Recital Hall (2201 Argonne Drive) and Bill Bateman's Restaurant (7800 York Road, Towson).

Applicants need to fill out and take the Extras Casting form available at www.carlyn davis.com. Davis also requires a recent photo, though Polaroids can be taken at each call for $2.

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