James Alexander Warren Sounds Off On Filmmaking, Dream Logic, And Southern Stereotypes
At times, talking with James Alexander Warren is to engage in a near-metaphysical experience. He’s fiercely opinionated, painfully passionate, and motivated beyond words. No topic is beyond discussion, no idea too insignificant.
Some background: We’ve been friends for 15 years, having attended the same high school in a small town in Mississippi. Though he was an incoming freshman when I was a senior, I knew that Alex was different. He was engaging, confident, and had a greater sense of self at 15 years old than some adults I knew.
We’ve always met on common ground, but occasionally he manages to transcend our conversation to the point that, before I know it, we’re talking about science and religion and death and dreams and he’s magically made sense of otherworldly topics I hadn’t been prepared to talk about over coffee or cocktails. I think it’s one of his most magnificent traits and something that, no doubt, informs his work as a filmmaker.
I spent the day with Alex in L.A., where I got to watch a cut of one of his upcoming short films, a project commissioned by Hundred Waters and shot during FORM Arcosanti. Then we dropped by The Roosevelt, where we met some interesting folks, and then off to NeueHouse in Hollywood for a tour. Along the way we talk about movies and music, misperceptions of the south, and why Alex was destined to be a filmmaker.
What jobs did you entertain before becoming a filmmaker?
I thought I might become a lawyer. Or I would have done something with people, like become a therapist or psychoanalyst.
A lawyer, really?
Litigation seemed really interesting. It really comes back to speech and debate. Without that experience, I would probably not be what I’m doing. Those tournaments presented such an amalgamation of people, but almost everyone was really smart, progressive-thinking, and into expressing themselves.
Was that one of the first times you were exposed to people unlike yourself?
No, but it was the first time that it seemed all sorts of behaviors and lifestyles were encouraged. No one was going to call out the geeks or the gay kids. There were a lot of liberal people At that time, some of them, in my mind, were plucked right out of New York City.
Your dad (who is the best) is a director and you grew up on sets with him. How did you evolve from bring a kid on set to wanting to be a director?
My dad was always trying to show me movies that he liked and I just couldn’t get into classic cinema. But I loved movies that spoke to me: Dumb and Dumber, Tommy Boy, something offbeat, and also karate movies like Only The Strong and Bruce Lee films.
I think that’s why I liked music; the entry point was so easy for me. But with movies, I loved them so much that I was readily hating the stuff that everyone else deemed “classic.”
Is that because you felt like you knew more than they did?
No, not at all. I felt like I didn’t understand what these films were doing. At 15 years old, I didn’t understand why would someone love The Godfather? Then something changed in me, right around the time I was a senior in high school. I had a lot of free time and brain space that allowed me to start getting into art and film, even though I started editing films way before I ever wanted to be a filmmaker. My dad made me learn Final Cut when I was 17.
What really did it, though--what made me think, “You can be a director for a living”--was when I was in Jonezetta, and I bought the Michel Gondry/Spike Jonze director’s label DVDs, which showed their music videos, documentaries, and short films. I just ate it up. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. These guys felt a lot like me. They were musicians basically, and they felt separate from the cinema world, so my entry into classic cinema was through their eyes.
Before you dug your heels into filmmaking, you were a drummer for different bands like Dent May and the aforementioned, now defunct Jonezetta. How do you incorporate musical sensibilities in your work?
If I ask for another take, it’s usually because I’m thinking of how it’s going to play with the other shots, and how this part of the story feels in relation to the beginning and the end. It’s all rhythm. Everything is beats for me. As a drummer, you’re the foundation of what everyone is building on, right? So you have to push and lead, and be confident. That has very much influenced how I work and direct.
How did music play a role in your becoming a filmmaker?
I love drums and I miss it, but I was unfulfilled. I’m probably better at drumming than I am anything else. But being in a band...no one cared about me. I’m a nice and humble dude, but I also need attention. I’m a baby in that way. And I wasn’t getting that in the band.
I don’t think drummers ever get the attention.
No they don’t, and that’s fine, but I was looking for a way to prove to myself than I’m better than just keeping time in a dance-pop song in the back with no lights on me.
Being a drummer and then getting into film was an easy way for me to make stuff for my friends in bands. My immediate friend group from Mississippi has made some of my favorite music. The first music video I made was with my friend Cole Furlow; things aligned themselves to help me have the audacity to start making films. It made a lot of sense for me to try and orchestrate my own things.
So you wanted to to be in control.
I wanted to be in f@cking control. And at that time I was really getting into Faulkner and into this idea that I didn’t want to be a traditional Mississippian. But I want to be a good Mississippian.
You and Mrs. Salvo [our drama teacher] and that whole crew gave me the permission to start writing. From there, when I got into literature, I just wanted to like Barry Hannah and William Faulkner.
What does that mean to you, to be a “good Mississippian?”
Man, this is a whole other conversation. I’m obsessed with Mississippi, but I’m very disillusioned and upset at the way that a lot of artists, or historians, or even Mississippians cultivate our culture. For instance, The Black Keys.
The Black Keys aren’t even from the south.
Yeah, I know, but that, to me, is an example of the culture being raped for something that is really watered down, thoughtless, and all for commerce. I feel like that with a lot of Mississippi art.
So what defines this “watered down, commerce-driven art to you?
A lack of progression. They are wading in water that was fresh at one point and now it’s been pissed on.
Because they make a profit based on something that used to be more authentic?
No, it’s not about profit. It’s about stretching what you’re giving to an audience. I mean, they are hugely popular. But personally, I am so uninspired by their work, to the point that I want to revolt against anything that is overtly southern, and here’s f@cking why: You and me, we are born and raised in the south. We don’t need to be obvious about it. Our culture is in our veins whether we know it or not. With Sequence, specifically, we made a movie about Anywhere America. But Tim Blake Nelson told me it’s the most southern movie he’s seen.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. He mentioned something like it was the most true to real-life Mississippi films he’d ever seen.
That seeps in, though, right? I focused on the characters and the shit that’s going on in their lives. No, you can’t take away the accent of some of the people I cast. You can see Capitol Street in the background. But it’s not about Mississippi or even the south.
What I liked about Sequence is that, in reality, we all find ourselves in uneventful situations; everyone understands that. Watching Sequence felt like home to me. There is something about the mediocrity of the scenes--and I don’t mean that in a bad way--that are so compelling. I associate home [in Mississippi] to the way I felt as a teenager: wishing I were somewhere else.
Yes. I think it all goes back to this dream logic that I want all my films to have, even if it’s a serious topic. I relate so much to what you said--that you’re in this place and you know that you’ve got it good because your parents are good parents and you’ve always got food to eat and you have nothing to worry about, but you just wanna be somewhere else. You want to be someone else.
And the way to accomplish that when you’re just a nobody kid in Mississippi is to dream. Not to dream in the sense of, “I want to be great.” That’s fine. But I’m talking about letting your imagination run wild and allowing yourself to be in these scenarios, like becoming fascinated with some person in the grocery store, so you follow them a few aisles, just to watch them.
It goes back to what I said about how I want to be a Mississippian that doesn’t blindly celebrate our culture, like bluegrass. I get it. I’m proud to be a Mississippian, but why are we stuck on that? Why does the conversation always end there?
Well, I think that’s partially the Napoleon complex that Mississippi has. We’ve always been the underdog, so I think we feel this need to root ourselves in our culture to prove that we have something great to offer.
Absolutely. So I want to get past that. I want to get to the thing that uncovers how amazingly weird and crazy and insane southern culture is, specifically Mississippi. New Orleans has never had a problem with exposing its true self. They go in. Why don’t we do that? That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s what I thought Barry Hannah, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty did so well.
Carson McCullers worked off of this dream logic idea. It’s surreal in the way that Fellini was surreal in Italy, and powerful in the way that Kurosawa was powerful in Japan. I want my southernness to come through naturally, and not because I put a harmonica or a slide guitar in the music.
When you are directing, what is it about that process that makes you feel like you’re right where you belong?
So much of the decision making in film is in the uninspiring details of scheduling and casting and these elements that are essential, but not necessarily electric. Once you’re on set, you can’t help but to feel the electricity, and it needs to have already been planned out so that you can focus on what’s happening in the frame. But before set, it’s never anything but euphoria and chaos. And it just feels natural and right.
Also, I love people and I love to let other people’s talents be on display in my art. There is nothing more satisfying to me than to look at a frame from one of my films and see that the acting is great, the set design is great, the cinematography is great--the fact that we could pull it off because of my producer is great. Everyone is functioning at such a high level, and it all started with one obsession I had about an idea or a story, wrote a note on my iPhone, and then I wrote a script for it. It’s like I birthed something that’s no longer mine.
You work with a lot of non actors. Why is that?
There are more interesting challenges when you do that, but I do it because both actor and non actor are having to be reactionary, instead of “acting.” Non actors don’t have bad habits, they aren’t trying to rely on an old bag of tricks, and I’m pushing them to be something new.
I imagine that non actors would emote more, and try to perform more? But that’s not the case?
No, it’s definitely the case. It can be more work on my end, but sometimes it’s one take and we’ve got it. The art of filmmaking is the art of reduction, the art of what you don’t see. I will be honest: I have to cut out a lot of bad shit, but--I knew that’s how we were going to do it.
Your latest film shot in Arcosanti is all musicians, who are also performers. What’s that like?
It’s a different process. I’ve directed actors like David Baker, who went to Juilliard and has his own way of doing things, getting into character, etc., so working with him involves a lot of conversation before we shoot. Once we’re on set, it’s just minor adjustments for the camera.
When I’m working with musicians like Moses [Sumney] or Paul [Giese, of Hundred Waters], I want to give them as much space as they need to make their own decisions, and to be reactionary, but I also have to create the environment that says, “Acting is not what we’re doing. We’re not performing.” I have to coach a bit. But both Moses and Paul were naturals.
I ask this as someone who doesn’t know much about the inside track of the film industry, but do you think that your work has the potential to eventually become hugely successful?
I want to say yes because I just refuse to believe otherwise. I’m making movies for human beings. But that’s not really for me to decide. I think that I can relate with a lot of people and I think I have a voice that can be a popular thing. Look at Birdman. Objectively, that shit is weird as f@ck and it won an Oscar.
I want to think that if you believe in something, and other people relate to it, then they will be drawn to it. All trends are cyclical, and our generation is just starting to feel the effects of a social media hangover. Because of that, I think people will slowly start to seek more intimate human interaction. I think just starting to feel starved to witness something that might make us feel something real.
Do you think it’s the kind of thing where we’ve gone so far to the right, that eventually we’ll end up back on the left?
I don’t think it will peak and end, but I think eventually people will begin to feel a greater need for authenticity, honesty, and rawness. And then I think we’ll continue evolving through media. People are always looking for a way to escape. They turn to social media because they want to escape reality, but I think someday people will want to escape their alternate reality with something more authentic in the real world.
So, right about here in our interview, things get weird. We were interrupted by a blonde gentleman in a tux who asked if we might take a photo for him. This man turned out to Prince Mario Max Schaumburg-Lippe and apparently this man is some kind of celebrity in his own right. He was accompanied by a glitzen older woman named Carmelita Pittman, a performer and philanthropist. Naturally, we chat with them both. While it seems they have the best of intentions, it was all very, very, very L.A.
Sooo...what do you love about L.A?
Man, I love that L.A. forces you to have to hustle because it’s an expensive town and everyone around here is doing what you do. That bums out a lot of people, but I love it. In fact it inspires me. I also love the weather. I love the people here; it’s such a weird f@cking place and I love that.
How would you describe your personals style? Because I think of your style as kind of Steven Spielberg meets Safari coordinator.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s like papaw meets frat boy meets Lionel Richie. No, but really, I’m very much inspired by my grandfather’s style, like tucked-in collared shirts, flannel.
If you had to pick a male style icon, who would it be? Randy Newman?
Yeah! [Laughs] Maybe Jimmy Buffett? I love J.Crew or Steven Alan.
Do you use man beauty products?
I use the Molton Brown Black Peppercorn line. I always take the shampoo and lotions from hotels, so Julia, my girlfriend started to pick up on that and started buying me Molton Brown stuff. I love Kiehl’s, too.
Since I’m bald, I don’t use hair stuff, but I really want to get back into cologne. I know that might be kind of a douchey thing, but a nice cologne is great.
What kind of music are you into right now?
I love this label from the UK called Local Action, they specialize in ambient stuff and some dance stuff. I’m really into this guy Talbot Fade, who I want to score one of my films. I love Lorenzo Senni’s label Presto, out of Milan. He makes what he calls pointillistic trance; it’s beatless trance builds and it’s amazing. To me it’s so progressive; I don’t know many people who are into it, but it really takes me to another place. I’m always looking for that experience in art, where something slow like a Tarkovsky film, gets you into this rhythm where you are changing without even knowing it, so at the end, you feel like a different person.
I’m also a huge fan of Kanye and The Life of Pablo because that shit is fire.
Watch our day via Snapchat here: