Director Jay Russell grew up with the idea that he would one day be a musician and even went so far as to accept a full music scholarship to Memphis University. But by grad school the young artist changed direction and began his film studies at Columbia University under the lengendary Milos Forman and the late Frank Daniel.
His first movie, End of the Line, starring Kevin Bacon, was accepted to the Sundance Institute Film Workshops but failed to gain notice, leaving the moviemaker to take a break until 2000’s My Dog Skip. From that point on, Russell has been the go-to man for bringing the heartwarming tales of children’s novels to life on the big screen. Subsequent efforts have included Tuck Everlasting, starring William Hurt and Sissy Spacek, and this month’s release, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. Starring the young Alex Etel (Millions) as a young boy who discovers a mysterious and magical egg, the movie used the resources of Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop to bring the mythical hatchling to life and portray the bond between boy and pet.
Recently, Russell took the time to satiate MM’s curiosity about his latest film and the journey to becoming a moviemaker.
Mallory Potosky (MM): You originally went to school for music so what made you change direction and become a director?
Jay Russell (JR): One of the main reasons was practicality. I was a trumpet player and by the time I hit college I was running into some amazingly hot horn players and it occurred to me: You’re never going to make a living at this. So I figured I would pick a more secure and easy field like filmmaking. (Only half joking about that.) But more seriously, I’ve always felt that music is a form of storytelling and I have always seen images in my head when both listening to and playing music, so when I decided to try writing and making short films, it was a medium I became very excited about, even more so than music.
MM: Three out of your last four films were children’s tales. What’s so attractive to you about directing these types of films?
JR: In a way, children’s tales allow you to explore deeper themes than those for adults—especially these days in Hollywood filmmaking. Children’s stories are always full of metaphor and allegory. That is the stuff of filmmaking. So much contemporary drama I see now is so literal and “on the nose.” It doesn’t have a lot of resonance for me. But kids understand this idea of double meaning and representation from the fairytales they’ve heard, practically from birth. I find it a very exciting form of storytelling.
MM: My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting and The Water Horse are all based on novels. Did that make it easier or more difficult to bring the fictional worlds to life on screen?
JR: In some ways it’s easier, because a lot of the conceptual heavy lifting has been done for you already by the author. But on the other hand, it can be more difficult because you find yourself competing with the reader’s imagination. Everyone who reads a book makes their own little movie in their head, and it can be difficult to shake the reader from their own images and draw them in with yours—rightfully so. But that’s the challenge and that is why you’ll hear people so often say, “Oh the book was sooo much better.”
MM: Why did you take a break from children’s movies to film Ladder 49?
JR: Two reasons: One, the subject matter interested me. My uncle had been a career firefighter and I used to go see him at the firehouse all the time when I was a kid. It was a job and a lifestyle for which I felt I might have an informed point of view. Second reason: I wanted to work with Joaquin Phoenix. I had always admired his work and believe he is one the best young actors out there. And third (I lied, there were three reasons): I thought it might be cool to blow some shit up on film.
MM: The Water Horse uses a lot of special effects to bring the movie’s fantastical sea creature to life, which probably required some unique moviemaking methods. Had you ever worked on a project of this scope before? Had you dreamed of it?
JR: I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a big visual effects movie, but before studying the process, it was, on the surface, an intimidating challenge. But when Joe Letteri (Weta Digital VFX guru supreme) and I sat down for the first time, Joe gave me the best piece of advice ever. He said, “We make these things one shot at a time.” And when you look at it that way, it really helps you from getting overwhelmed. You just deal with what’s in front of you. You put the jigsaw puzzle together later, but first you just lay out the individual pieces.
At the end of the day, it’s the same process no matter the size, scope or budget. The same problems occur. The same prep has to happen, you just adjust it to a larger or smaller scale. Actors still need your attention. You still have to improvise when everything goes wrong (and it always happens). I don’t mean to sound flip about it, but that’s simply the way I approach it. Just like Joe Letteri said, we make these things one shot at a time.
MM: Did those special effects make it difficult to work on a film where the main character would be inserted later?
JR: I knew the difficulty was going to be for the actors. They were the ones who would have to perform with a tennis ball on a stick. I had to somehow convince them that they were looking at and reacting to and caring for a real, live 30-foot long, two-ton sea creature.
I felt the best way for me to convince them was to know myself exactly how the creature would look, breath, behave—to the most minute degree. I had to believe he was real.
When we first began designing the creature (named Crusoe after the kid’s favorite book, Robinson Crusoe), creature designer Matt Codd and I sat down at the computer and began cutting and pasting different body and facial parts of many different animals together. We wanted to create something which seemed familiar, but was unique at the same time. As a result, Crusoe’s face is a combination of a horse, a dog, an eagle and a giraffe. Then we sketched out four different life stages for this animal from birth to fully grown.
I took that design down to Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand and sat with Gino Avecedo and Richard Taylor to realize these 2D sketches into 3D models, which could be scanned into the computers for animation.
All of this process was needed so that once the “digital Crusoe” was alive in the computer with a true skeletal and muscular structure, we could then give it a personality based on its true animal structure and not some contrived “humanistic” cartoon creature traits. Everything Crusoe does in the movie is based on true animal behavior, which myself and Weta studied through nature footage of seals, whales, dogs, etc.
My theory behind this was, if we made Crusoe a “real animal” and if I had Alex Etel acting and behaving as though he were dealing with an animal instead of a cartoon character, the emotions would be real—just like how we get emotional with our dogs or cats or whatever. I know it sounds like I smoked a ton of weed to come up with that theory, but I’m sticking with it because even now when I watch the film, I sometimes forget that the Water Horse was not with us on the set.