If birds of any feather can flock together, then one of their most unusual pairings might seem to be between filmmaker Elgin James and actress Juno Temple. One is pushing 40; an ex-punk who did a year of hard time for his days of kicking neo-Nazi ass for his own hardcore gang called Friends Stand United. The other is a diminutive, arts-enriched young woman whose father Julian put punk and The Sex Pistols on the map with The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. Yet despite their upbringings on the mean streets of Boston and the rolling hills of England, James and Temple are very much old, kindred souls. Their joint creative process has given rise to two Little Birds as they escape a devastated, desolate nowhere of the Salton Sea to the urban ruins of Los Angeles.
Based on James' own youth, but given a whole new female perspective, Little Birds continues Temple's impressive tradition of playing teens who just have to get out of their small-minded town. Here she plays her darkest youth riot character yet in Lily, a fiery desert flower who convinces her more calm best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) to make for a land with an open ocean, only to end up in a squat with a crew of thieving skate punks. Little Birds' poetic and intense coming of age story brings to mind both Gas, Food Lodging and Where the Day Takes You, as told from a level of street cred that most filmmakers haven't begun to experience. And it's an honesty that Temple conveys with striking vivaciousness, even as her character defies the audience sympathy hooks that a bigger Hollywood production would've given Lily.
Elgin's talent may have already seen him and Temple at that studio level by now after Little Birds' successful premiere at Sundance last year, until an outstanding warrant saw him sent to prison for a year – the same day he'd signed a writing contract due to Birds' buzz. Now spiritually revitalized and ready to take on the world with Temple, James and his leading lady reflect on their creative partnership that finally gets to take flight.
Daniel Schweiger: It really strikes me how different your teenage years must have been, one spent on the streets, and the other in an artistic family.
Juno Temple: Yeah. I was living like a faerie in the fields. But isn't that the joy of meeting people? You can bring beautiful things into each other's lives. There's no denying that Elgin and his wife Liz are my family out here. He's like my big brother.
Elgin James: Juno's like a member of my lost tribe, and we've been separated for all of this time. Though we grew up in very different places, we had a similar mentality. A lot of it is just being a kid and having to use our imaginations. She was with sheep and ponies and England, and I was with sheep and pigs in America, and daydreaming about being somewhere else. It was the same sort of thing when I was homeless and living on the streets in Boston. I'd disappear into these art house movie theaters to go somewhere else. And now, here we are playing make believe together. But Juno was my top pick for Lily. And as soon as she walked in, it was like “Bam! This is my dude. We can go and rob a bank together.” It was like everyone else in the room disappeared and it was just the two of us. And it's been like that now for three years.
JT: I grew up in the middle of nowhere in this beautiful countryside in England with two younger brothers. There weren't many kids to play with, so your imagination goes wild. I was brought up on amazing films as a child. My parents wouldn't let us watch bad TV, even though Spongebob is dear to me. I grew up watching Tex Avery cartoons and Alfred Hitchcock movies on laserdisc. It was like getting a film degree at the age of eight from my father. But not only is it imagination, it's passion. It's great to meet someone who's on that same level. They're ready to jump into a bowl of tar, and then beat it with you until it dries and you can step out together.
EJ: We shared a lot of ourselves in that way, because we both make each other braver. People asked me why I wanted Juno so badly, especially since she hadn't done a lot of films at the time we shot Little Birds. And it's because she acts with every chromosome in her body. She fully encompasses Lily, and makes her brave and fearless. That has informed me as a filmmaker, because I want to direct the same way.
JT: Elgin and I had an instant connection. But after two weeks of hanging out together – forget about it! We were friends for life, and that was an awesome thing.
DS: Little Birds started out being an autobiographical film about Elgin until he changed the characters into young girls. How difficult was that creative transformation for you Juno?
JT: Elgin and I had an amazing period of time to not only develop our own personal relationship, but also to build up Lily as a person and a character. That was such a beautiful thing, because how often do you get eighteen months to discover what your character's backstory is, especially on an independent film? Lily was made up of our conversations and our secrets. And I ended up with a folder full of notes about Lily that I still have. Lily thinks she's way ahead of her game, but she's just not. She's not prepared for the big, bad world, and can't look past her own nose. That's the honest truth.
DS: Why choose the Salton Sea as the girls' home?
EJ: Even though the Salton Sea looked nothing like where Juno and I grew up, it represented it. I was on a farm that was very lush and green, but it didn't feel that way to me. It felt dead and dry, which naturally summed up how I felt as a kid. I was like Lily, and wanted to get out. Juno's dad's movie The Great Rock and Roll Swindle turned me onto punk rock when I was 12. But I was still stuck with pigs and sheep. The whole film is about the beauty of ugliness in that way.
JT: The Salton Sea looks more beautiful than Los Angeles in the movie. And I think that's genius. It's like LA, which has some parts that are beautiful, and others that are so nasty. It looks like World War 3 happened in the Salton Sea. It's like the end of the universe, and the colors and animals are so decrepit. Yet it is so beautiful, like this swing that's in the middle of these salt pits. There's something heartbreaking about it, but gorgeous and soul wrenching at the same time.
EJ: Our director of photography Reed Morano shot the Salton Sea so gorgeously because it's these girls' home. We wanted it to feel warm, as opposed to LA, which is cold and ugly. As a kid, that's what you know. Money was always an issue for me, and I grew up poor like a lot of people. But you don't know it. You just have a crazy time like Lily and Alison. I'd wear sunglasses on the set every day. One reason was because the sun was very bright. The other was because I had tears in my eyes, because Juno would do something that she'd figured out nine months before. It brought me back to having milkshakes with her at three o clock in the morning in Los Feliz. But here we were. We were really doing it, making a movie in the desert.
DS: Elgin, a lot of movies have been made about runaway kids, but not by filmmakers with your street cred. Sure you may have beat down punks, but these were Nazi punks. A lot of people would consider you a hero for doing it, especially after the Sikh Temple shootings. Do you think these people deserved to get a good stomping?
EJ: It's hard, because that's what I felt for a majority of my life. I had terrible thing happen to me when I was little, and they only stopped when I fought back, and fought back harder – when I kept kicking while the people were still down. That's how people stopped victimizing me. But at least from the love, and the morals that my mom instilled in me, I decided to fight people that I thought were bad to take my rage out on, be it neo-Nazi skinheads or drug dealers.
But it wasn't until I got to Sundance Labs, and found incredible mentors in Robert Redford and Ed Harris, that I cut through this bullshit. I realized that it came from the fact that I attacked neo-Nazi skinheads because I was called n***** for the first eleven years of my life every day. I robbed drug dealers because there was drug abuse in my family. While I still believe very much in those morals and values, I realized it was difficult to go down that dark hole and use violence to take on those people, because it kept me further down there.
And that's why I ended up in prison for a year. That was fine, because I was guilty. And I served my time. But it's still something I'm wrestling with, because I was trying to do the right thing by any means necessary, because no one was protecting me from being called nigger and getting spit on as a little kid. So you better believe that when I turned into a teenager I was going to make sure that happened to no one else around me.
DS: Little Birds has a very effective score that you composed. How did you approach the soundtrack?
EJ: Juno's a natural music person like me, which is another reason we just vibed. Even directing and shooting felt like writing a song to me. I'd written twelve songs for the film before we shot anything, and I thought, “That's so great. That's so brilliant. I'm a composer now.” And then after we shot it, I threw everything out, and crafted songs from watching the performances, because we'd edited the picture and sound in a way that felt “punk rock” to me. I didn't want anything to feel too smooth, or too clean. That's why Juno's performance is so beautiful. There's nothing clean or smooth about it. And that made the movie's play like a punk rock song all the way through, but with lots of heartbreak in it too.
DS: Do both of you think the situation of two girls running away is going to keep going on, no matter where it takes place?
JT: Yes and no. Elgin was running for a while until he met someone like Liz and stopped sharp. It depends if you're lucky enough to meet people who are going to grab you by the collar and say, “Hey, wait up buster.”
EJ: I think it's being given the means to express yourself. Obviously I'm older than Juno. And while we relate on the same level, she always had these tools to express herself. But for a long time, I didn't. And you can imagine what happened because I didn't have that outlet. Whether you're sixteen, or in your thirties, you need to have the expression to deal with all of the beautiful, and horrible stuff that's inside all of us.
DS: Juno, do you think there's a theme to your work in the number of characters you've played who just want to run away from home, or are dreaming of a better life?
JT: I have to state first and foremost that that was not my life at all. Going home to my family is one of my favorite things to do in the entire world. I'm very, very close to my family, and don't feel anything remotely like what these characters do. But I know a lot of people who feel the opposite way. And I'm fascinated by them, because I've never experienced that. These people are just ready to get running and tackle things. The appeal of these characters is that they're challenging, and I want to be challenged. Sure, people can say that I like to play these kinds of characters.
But if you read the scripts, you'll discover that each woman is so individual and incomparable to the one I've played before, even if they are feeling some of the same things. In Killer Joe, Dottie isn't being allowed to grow up by her family. She's in bubble wrap. But Lily's mother is encouraging her to be ok, and is concerned as to why she's cutting herself, as opposed to saying, “Oh, little one!” She wants Lily to figure things out. She treats her like an adult, whereas in Dirty Girl, Danielle's treated like a child by her mother. How a young girl decides to blossom into a woman is all about how people are treating her. And that's fascinating to me. I also look like I'm 16, so I'm not able to play the 25 year-olds. And do you know what? I think I'm pretty blessed to be able to keep playing these characters right now, because it's a challenge to make each one of them different. I don't want to be typecast.
DS: It's interesting to see how dark Lily gets, to the point of not really caring what happens to her.
EJ: That's part of Juno's bravery. It was her choice to make her character so frustrating, which is amazing. By the end, it didn't matter to us if Lily was likable to an audience, or if they felt they wanted her to be their best friend.
JT: For the entire movie, she has to make all of these decisions to get to that point of squatting in an abandoned motel and helping to rob people. She says, “You know what? F*** it. I deserve this. I do! And I don't care what anyone else thinks, and I'm just going to take this. I'm ready.” I think a lot of women who've gone through what Lily has would feel that way. They'd say, “I deserve this. This is my fault.” That just felt real to me. I wasn't making a movie where you're falling in love with my character, and she's this damaged sweetheart who's going to figure it all out in the end. Because she's not. She's kind of f***ed. But Lily's lucky enough to have an extraordinary friend in Alison.
EJ: Juno has ruined all other actresses for me because she's so un-vain. She's so brave and fearless, and was able to show this character. Because we all are crippled with self-loathing. No matter what great day you might have, there's all of this self-loathing bubbling underneath us. And Juno was able to have such a strong character because she was able to show that. Doing projects after Little Birds is going to be hard, because I only want to do them with Juno.
JT: We're going to make millions more.
EJ: Exactly. We're just two little kids from the sticks, and the farm, just daydreaming. And now we get to do it together and actually make those movies. It's amazing.
'Little Birds' is currently playing in limited release. For select listings, check the 'Little Birds' Official Facebook page.