Jesus’ Son, an episodic saga of drug life in early-eventies America, is fresh enough to feel like Alison Maclean’s first film, but in fact she made her debut in 1992 with Crush, a sombre, perverse drama about an American intruder’s sexual manipulation of a New Zealand household.
Crush was distinctive for its mood of sexual foreboding and for the way Maclean filmed the touristic backwaters of New Zealand.
So what happened after Crush? It’s a long story, so long that Maclean looks fatigued and relieved to have made it through. Born in Ottawa, she moved to New Zealand in her teens and was already living in Sydney when she wrote Crush. That film was well received just about everywhere except New Zealand, where it was “savaged”.
She got a deal with Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures and went to New York to look into filming Joan Didion’s newsroom drama Up Close and Personal. It never happened and the tear-jerking Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle it became shows Maclean was well out of it.
Next Maclean devoted herself to projects that nearly came off. One was Bedlam, a remake of Val Lewton’s 1946 Hogarthian chiller, a project intended by Martin Scorsese as a vehicle for his then partner Illeana Douglas. Then there was an offer from Wayne Wang and Tom Luddy (Francis Coppola’s partner at Zoetrope) to contribute to a series of low-budget Asian pictures.
“I had a script for a Thai action film, not that I’ve ever seen a Thai action film,” Maclean admits. She went to Bangkok to write it, but says: “I shot myself in the foot and wrote it a little too expensive.” Was she getting restless? “That’s an understatement. It’s been nearly seven years. I’ve spent that time writing three feature scripts, going up the wall trying to get them financed.”
Ironically, it was someone else’s script that got her started again. Jesus’ Son is an unlikely adaptation, coming not from a novel but a short story collection. The connecting thread is narrator Fuckhead, a young junkie who drifts in and out of his own and other people’s lives in early-Seventies Midwest.
Maclean read the book when it was published in 1992 and contacted its author Denis Johnson. But the project really kicked off three years later, when she got a call “out of left field” from the film’s co-writers Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia.
The film is remarkably true to the book’s flavour and structure – a string of anecdotes that fade in and out, lose their drift, then abruptly find it again, moving in and out of sync with Fuckhead’s addled brain. Johnson helped compile its soundtrack of ancient soul and bubblegum pop and took a cameo as a man with a hunting knife jammed in his eye.
Johnson’s vision, trailer park realism with hallucinatory metaphysical underpinnings, comes across intact. “He actually thinks of himself as a Christian writer,” Maclean says, “but in a way that would compare to Flannery O’Connor, in that there’s nothing pious about his writing. There’s a lot of cruelty and extremes, yet it’s concerned with questions of faith.
He has his own mythology which comes out again and again, these angel and devil figures.”
Jesus’ Son catches that other-worldly drift with its imagistic slips: a drive-in cinema becoming a haunted graveyard, a tattooed, snakeskinned Jesus (or Satan?) manifesting himself in a laundromat. Maclean’s film stands out as one of the most convincing and non-sensationalist drug films, alongside Drugstore Cowboy.
Following a spell in the glossy realms of TV drama, Jesus’ Son takes Maclean back to the rough side. After a shaky start, she managed to establish herself as an American director with episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street and Sex and the City. “Homicide was a blast. You come into this well-oiled machine and there’s a tremendous looseness about how they film it. You’re for hire, you come in and do your best, then they want you out fast. You’re not welcome any more.
“It’s liberating not to be so personally invested in the content.”
Directing the first two episodes of Sex and the City, Maclean and illustrious cinematographer Maryse Alberti had a little more leeway to help invent the series’ style: “We worked out a look. They presumably hired us because they wanted something more cinematic.
“I felt that the producers got cold feet halfway through. They pretty much said, ‘Look, just shoot them in close-up, all we care about is the humour and the lines.’ But I think we were spoiled doing the first two. We had extra time and resources.”
As a writer-director, it must have been frustrating working on other people’s material for so long – although on Jesus’ Son, Maclean found it had its advantages.
“It’s a relief because it’s less intense. It’s exciting to enter into someone else’s sensibility and try to interpret things you’re personally incapable of writing. In another way, it’s a little harder. When you’re working from your own material, you just know it on such a deep level.”
There’s also the fact that on Jesus’ Son the writers also controlled the pursestrings: two of them were also the producers. “That’s why it was more of a collaboration than anything I’d experienced. We had arguments, but amicable ones.”
Now, Maclean says: “I’m dying to do my own material again. That’s my highest priority.” She hopes her next film will be Iris, a thriller about false memory that she is dusting down for another draft.
Maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath – but a year, or two, or seven from now, Maclean could surprise us again.