Exclusive Interview: ‘Jesus Henry Christ’ Director Dennis Lee
Director Dennis Lee’s second feature film Jesus Henry Christ (based on his short film) about a young gifted boy (he can remember everything he ever saw), Henry James Herman, who goes on a search for his biological father, a sperm donor, thankfully did not suffer the long wait to reach US audiences his first film Fireflies in the Garden did.
Starring Toni Collette, Michael Sheen and Jason Spevack as Henry, the film takes you on an unusual journey following Henry on his quest and getting introduced to characters and their life issues along the way.
Writer / Director Dennis Lee brought an amazing and original sensibility to the film coupled with a beautiful visual style. Lee recently took some time to talk to Film Equals about the film and its interesting title, the evolution of his writing style, and more.
What is the difference between the original ‘Jesus Henry Christ’ short film and the feature film?
Dennis Lee: The main difference is that in the future version he’s a ten year old boy who’s a scientific miracle, a modern day immaculate conception, who goes searching for his biological father to try to find out the answers to the questions that I think we all start asking ourselves, like who we are and why are we here and what’s our purpose and reason for being. So, that was it.
I think the name of the film is really interesting. How did you come up with that title?
Dennis Lee: Well, in the short film the title came up because the setting is in a Catholic school. What we had in the short film was Henry being more Christian than anyone who wore a collar or a habit just through his actions alone. So, that’s why it was called ‘Jesus Henry Christ,’ because he sacrifices himself for the good of everyone else by standing up to a priest, essentially. In the feature film, it’s for the reasons that I think I told you about. It’s a title that you can’t forget.
Your first film, ‘Fireflies in the Garden’ took about four years to get released in the U.S. This film didn’t take that long. Can you talk about the differences in the process of getting the films in front of audiences?
Dennis Lee: Well, ‘Fireflies in the Garden’ was a film that was a casualty of a couple of different things. The first thing was the big economic downturn in 2008, and so because of that the original distribution company that had ‘Fireflies in the Garden’ went bankrupt. It was one of those things that was mired in all of the whatever, the legal technicalities of what happens when it becomes an asset of a bankrupt company. So, we didn’t have any of that with ‘Jesus Henry Christ,’ thank God. This was a much more straight path in terms of making the film, finding a distributor and getting it out to people who will hopefully go see the movie.
And what was different about directing and writing this film compared to ‘Fireflies in the Garden’?
Dennis Lee: In terms of the writing, I also started writing this feature script right after school. I probably wrote the first draft of it in 2004, 2005 and it was always something that I was constantly revisiting, rewriting, adding on to, changing entire plots, the whole thing. So, through those two scripts, ‘Jesus Henry Christ’ and ‘Fireflies in the Garden,’ is really where I learned how to write screenplays in terms of structure. In terms of directing, now that I knew what it was like to be behind a camera with a big set and big machines it was much more comfortable, actually, directing ‘Jesus Henry Christ.’ I knew we had twenty three days to shoot this. So, we were so well prepared in terms of what we wanted the camera to do, what my production designer was going to make the film look like, and Danny [Moder] as the DP, how he was going to shoot it. So, a lot of our work went into preproduction and we hit the ground running. If we got it on the first take we’d take that take and just keep moving on because that’s what we needed to do. So, I guess my confidence was a lot higher in ‘Jesus Henry Christ’ than it was on ‘Fireflies in the Garden.’ That was just based off of experience and necessity.
The film has an original visual style to it. Did you know that while you were writing the script or did that come later on?
Dennis Lee: ‘Henry’ was the easiest written script that I’ve ever written and it’s because from the first frame to the last frame I could see the shots. It was weird. It’s just one of those things where I saw exactly what I wanted to do and I was able to write it down on a piece of paper. That communicated not only the tone, but also the shots.
I read an interview where you said you write “from the inside out”. Can you expand on that idea?
Dennis Lee: I think I’ve gotten a little more balanced now, and I’m trying to because it saves a lot of time just outlining a story and getting your basic turning points and your plot, the mechanics of the plot down. Then from that I still try to write scenes from the inside out. I try to make a scene emotionally grounded and from that foundation work up and build the rest of the scene around that conflict or around that emotion, if that makes any sense, but now that I have the outline I know how it fits in mechanically to the plot of the story. So, hopefully I’m becoming a little bit more balanced than I was before.
There’s a scene in the film where Henry and his grandfather talk in Spanish. Can you talk about the motivation behind that scene?
Dennis Lee: Well, it was to show that the connection between Henry and Stan is really strong because in a lot of ways Stan, despite being a child himself, more of a boy than a man, is Henry’s closest confidant. I mean, they could’ve been speaking in Klingon if that makes any sense. It’s like the language that they both share that Patricia isn’t privy to. That’s the language that they talk in, and Stan, because he’s in love with Nurse Bruna and all of that stuff, that’s the language that they talk. It’s their own private language, and of course if you listen to the Spanish carefully, Stan is just slaughtering it. He’s massacring the language, kind of like here in Los Angeles and how we name our streets. It’s their own private moment. I wanted to make sure that it had the feel of a Telenovela. So, the hard cut to Patricia and the music type thing. So, it was just a lot of fun.
And the music in the film, it’s beautiful. Can you talk about what inspired the music and who wrote it and if there’s a soundtrack release for it?
Dennis Lee: God, I hope the soundtrack gets released. The two composers were David Torn and Simon Taufique. Simon is actually a very good friend of mine that I met while I was in film school. He’s just a gifted composer, and his mentor is David Torn. David’s music I’ve known for a while now. He’s an absolutely brilliant not only guitar player, but a composer. So, when it came time to pick someone to write the score we were just really fortunate that David and Simon were, one, not only available, but two, willing to write the soundtrack on this low budget film. So, they’re both based out of New York. They basically play all the instruments themselves. They have studios and so they record it themselves, orchestrate it themselves, engineer and mix, the whole thing. They’re just kind of brilliant at what they do.
Jesus Henry Christ is currently available on Video On Demand (VOD) and will be released in Los Angeles (Chinese 6, Laemmle Monica, Laemmle Encino Town Center) this Friday April 20th and in New York (Cinema Village) on May 4th.