David Jacobson and Edward Norton
David Jacobson directs Edward Norton in Down in the Valley. Photo: THINKFilm

For many moviemakers, the traditional characters of the protagonist and the antagonist are clear-cut. But writer-director David Jacobson has proven that he’s anything but a traditional moviemaker. First gaining attention with 2002’s Dahmer, a brilliant character study depicting the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, Jacobson secured his position as a new and important voice in independent cinema with three Independent Spirit Award nominations. Now, with Down in the Valley, Jacobson is crossing character lines once again.

With Down in the Valley’s release date just a few weeks away, Jacobson spoke with MM about working with Edward Norton, why test screenings do more harm than good and the joy that lies in writing characters that cannot be easily pinned down.

Lily Percy (MM): Dahmer, your second film, focused on the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer; Down in the Valley tells the story of Harlan, a mysterious and ultimately delusional cowboy. Both films are thoughtful character studies. What draws you to direct these kinds of films?

David Jacobson (DJ): I have to admit that part of me identifies with these lost and broken people. On a story level, I like good bad guys and bad good guys. Morally complex characters make things more unpredictable, which makes the story more absorbing. On yet another level, there is enough of the old good versus evil dichotomy in our daily politics. We used to go to the movies to escape to a simpler world. Now it is up to filmmakers to complicate things and remind people the world is not really just divided between “freedom lovers” and “freedom haters.”

MM: You also wrote the script for Down in the Valley. Where did the story come from?

DJ: This story slowly bubbled up out of the depths of my unconscious, like a dream of my nightmarish youth. I started writing a story based on my childhood growing up in the San Fernando Valley, and then, from I don’t know where, this character of Harlan Fairfax Carruthers wandered into my head. Harlan kept making the story veer off in strange and unexpected ways, and I often followed.

MM: The version of the film that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year was a longer cut than the one that is being released in theaters. This is a standard process for any film but how, as both writer and director, do you decide what to leave in and what to take out? How much do test screenings factor into your ultimate decision?

DJ: I have never really done test screenings in the true sense of the term. I show rough cuts to people I know and with whom I can discuss their thoughts and feelings. Unless you’re doing a genre film where you’re looking for a very consistent response from an audience (laughter, fear, suspense, etc.) you want to really know the people who are giving you feedback. It sounds obvious, but I have gotten savaged by people and felt terrible about it until I found out who they were.

MM: In addition to starring in the film, Edward Norton also serves as a producer. How did you come to work with him?

DJ: I have always loved Edward Norton’s work. He is one of those special actors that can be a leading man, but still sink into the role like a character actor. He reminds me of actors like Henry Fonda and James Stewart. Those guys could do anything: big parts, small parts, drama, comedy. Edward has this mercurial quality that lets him play the edge—perfect for the role of Harlan.

I was thinking of him even as I was writing the script. My producer, Holly Wiersma, got the script to Edward’s agent. Even though I had a little bit of traction from the reception of Dahmer, it was pretty much a crap shoot, even more so because Edward was wrapped up in one of his own writing projects at the time and was not too open to reading. After waiting for a month we were about to give up on the idea when, lo and behold, Edward’s agent called and said Edward liked it and would like to meet with me. It still took a fair amount of back and forth about it—I certainly needed to gain Edward’s confidence. Once I did, he was a great creative collaborator and also a great advocate for the project. He did everything he could to protect my vision.

MM: David Morse and Bruce Dern are two of the most gifted character actors of our time and Evan Rachel Wood and Rory Culkin are two of the most promising young actors of their generation. What was the casting process like? Did you have actors clearly in mind as you were writing the script?

DJ: This is a good question because casting Down in the Valley was a big challenge to me. In my other films, I was able to audition many people to find the perfect person to fill each role. Some people might see this as a disadvantage or even a big bummer, but I really like to do that. I like the hunt and the excitement of finding incredible new talent, like Jeremy Renner (who played Dahmer) or Artel Kayaru (who played Rodney in Dahmer). Since casting is so important to the process of making a film, I also enjoy that sense of control.

So when I got to Down in the Valley, and I was suddenly being asked to cast from known, bankable talent in order to finance the film; it was very different. You are not going to sit down with these actors and have them read your scenes and do two or three callbacks. You have to use your imagination, based on seeing them in other things they’ve done, and just figure they are so darned good that they can do anything. Then you have to factor in people’s schedules, rejections and the financiers’ concerns. The talent pool can turn into a little puddle.

I was never told who to cast, but I was told a couple of times who I could not cast. In the case of Down in the Valley, I was lucky; I ended up with an incredible cast that pleased both the financiers and me. It definitely helped to have Edward signed up. He is the kind of actor that other actors are interested in working with.

MM: There are elements of both fantasy and romance at the center of Down in the Valley, and the gorgeous look of the film, which is filled with soft lenses and warm tones, helps to bring that to the screen. What was the film shot on? How do you choose between digital and film?

DJ: Even though the film tells the story of a contemporary family living in the San Fernando Valley, I wanted it to have the look of an old western. In some sense, you gradually see the world more and more through the eyes of Harlan, who recedes deeper and deeper into his western fantasy world. In order to give the film that look and feel, we chose to shoot 35mm anamorphic. It really transforms this bleak, paved-over suburban world into a more dramatic, epic landscape.

Although it is a film that could have read as a very small, gritty independent film, I think it transcends that in the way it is shot. I love how it looks and hope that DP Enrique Chediak and production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone get praise for the great work they did.

MM: What can we look forward to next from you?

DJ: I am currently researching and writing a new script based on a true crime story that takes place in a Louisiana prison in the 1970s and ’80s. It is about an amazing man who transforms his life into a unique and inspiring example, while trying to survive in the utter hell of what was at the time America’s most violent prison. Even though it will be my first story about a hero, he is a hero who did something very bad at the beginning of his life, so it should still mix things up and bother some people.

Down in the Valley will be released by THINKFilm in May, 2006. For more information, visit www.thinkfilmcompany.com.