Alessandro Nivola and Abigail Breslin star in JANIE JONES, a film by David M. Rosenthal. Photo credit: Dean Williams. Picture courtesy Tribeca Film. All rights reserved.
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Janie Jones (2010/2011)
Opened: 10/28/2011 Limited
|Village East||10/28/2011 - 11/03/2011||7 days|
|Sunset 5/LA||11/04/2011 - 11/10/2011||7 days|
Trailer: Click for trailer
Rocker Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola) and his band are on the comeback trail when a former flame (Academy Award® nominee Elisabeth Shue) drops a bomb in his lap: their 13-year-old daughter, Janie Jones (Academy Award® nominee Abigail Breslin).
Ethan refuses to believe Janie is his kid, but when her mom suddenly leaves for rehab, the child has no place to go but into the tour bus and on the road with the band. With no feel for fatherhood, Ethan continues his hard-living ways, giving Janie a crash course of the not-so-glamorous life on the road.
As Ethan's self-destructive spiral threatens the groups future, his band members desert him one by one, until he and Janie are left alone. Desperate to finish the tour and revive his career, Ethan stays on the road as a solo act with Janie in tow, where her surprising musical talents help guide him down the rocky road to redemption.
Nivola and Breslin naturally embrace their musical characters--both actually sing and perform in the film--while developing Ethan and Janie's relationship in a refined way to delicately express the emotional needs of the characters. Writer/director David M. Rosenthal, who was inspired by his own experiences, blends the musical setting with road trip movie elements that add subtle layers to the dynamic of his two main characters.
About the Production
The inspiration for JANIE JONES, the story of a man who discovers he has a teenage daughter he's never met, came from a source very close to writer and director David M. Rosenthal--his own life. At the age of 18, Rosenthal fathered a child but didn't meet her until 11 years later.
"Her mother was 26," he says. "Our families were friends and we ended up having a fling. Then I got a call from her during my freshman year in college telling me that she was pregnant and that she intended to have the baby, but she wanted to keep what had happened a secret. She was telling everyone in her family that she had been artificially inseminated and it was really important to her that I keep up that story. I was stunned and unprepared and immature. I said fine because I didn't know what else to do."
Rosenthal kept their secret for nine years, trying to keep track of his daughter from a distance. "It ate away at me the entire time," he admits. "I finally contacted her mom and told her I'd love a picture, I'd love to know her name. It was complicated because she had married and had another child, but it actually was a timely call. Our daughter was asking a lot of questions about her biological father."
Rosenthal used his experience as a jumping-off point for a different story as the film is not entirely autobiographical. "Janie's mother is not anything like my daughter's mother," he says. "And I had years to come to terms with the fact I had a daughter. When her mother sent me a package with pictures of the first 10 years of her life, I felt such profound sadness at having missed all of that, and some shame for being so reticent to be part of her life. Those feelings of regret and self-loathing worked their way into the character of Ethan."
Alessandro Nivola, who plays rock 'n' roll burn-out Ethan Brand, says that, in many ways, Rosenthal's own story gave the film additional resonance. "He brought a great deal of passion to the project, which made it really special for everyone involved."
Elizabeth Shue agrees. "It was very moving to have David telling a story drawn from his own life," she adds. "The idea of someone finding a daughter he didn't know he had is profound. How do you develop a relationship with someone you don't know, and yet is part of you? I think David's connection to the story is the reason there is so much feeling in JANIE JONES. It's seems like it would be a small story, but there is so much emotion contained in it that it has become something much, much larger."
Casting Janie Jones
"Everyone" includes Nivola, Shue and Abigail Breslin, who make up Janie Jones' dysfunctional nuclear family. Nivola had just finished shooting the period film COCO BEFORE CHANEL and says Ethan "is more in my comfort zone. Ethan is very familiar to me. I've played in bands all of my life, so I know music--rock 'n' roll especially."
From the beginning, Rosenthal felt it was critical that the actors playing Ethan and Janie be able to play guitar and sing. "One of the things I hate about music movies is when it's obvious the actors are playing badly to recorded music," he says. "It kills the whole experience for me. I'd heard Alessandro sing in LAUREL CANYON and I knew he played the guitar well. It was obvious that he would bring another dimension to the movie."
Nivola felt like he was on familiar ground with his character, Ethan Brand. "Ethan is a narcissistic, drunk, indie rocker," says Nivola. "The character is not wildly different from me. I certainly I hope I'm a better person than Ethan is at the start of the movie, but it was not a demanding transformation. It was a role I could enjoy living in."
When Ethan is confronted with a 13-year-old girl who may be his daughter, his first instinct is to bolt. But when the kid's mother disappears, Janie, played by Abigail Breslin, hops on the tour bus. Breslin brings a potent combination of vulnerability, stoicism and optimism to the role.
"Abby is one of the best actors I've ever worked with, period," says Rosenthal. "She has a preternatural gift for it. She gets right to heart of the scene instantly. If there are notes, she adjusts in a natural way. And amazingly, she can go right back to being a teenager when the scene is done."
Breslin's co-star jokingly says that she is the living embodiment W. C. Fields' famous advice never to work with children or animals. "Janie is a remarkable kid and so is Abigail," says Nivola. "She's an extraordinary actress, both talented and smart. She can say, 'Just give me 20 seconds,' and she'll be awash in tears. She's so genuine; it makes it very easy to act with her."
The uncanny chemistry between the two actors took some time to emerge, recalls Rosenthal. "It grew organically, just as it did with the characters. At first, there was some apprehension--we had a very short shoot and some challenging production elements. As we went along, their relationship grew on set and off. I nurtured what I could and then got out of the way. We were all blown away by the way they found their way to that relationship."
Janie's mother is struggling with drug addiction and needs a safe place to leave Janie while she enters rehab. "Janie has never met her dad, who is a messed up rocker guy," says Breslin. "Her mother takes her to a club to meet her father, who doesn't know she exists, and ditches her there. She has no place else to go, so her dad has to take her on the road with him."
Breslin found a lot to admire in her character. "I like Janie and I love the story," she says. "Janie's a really brave girl and very strong throughout the movie. She finds that strength in her music. It's where she can put all her emotion and say whatever she wants."
It wasn't until after Breslin agreed to do the film that she learned there is a real Janie Jones, as well as a seminal punk rock song that celebrates her. Jones was a British pop star who got caught up in a prostitution scandal in 1970s London. "I had never heard of her, but my brother Spencer is really into music," she says. "When I told him my character was named Janie Jones, he said, 'Oh, like the Clash song.' I first heard the song after I had already read the script."
Janie's resolve comes from years of looking after her substance-abusing mother, Mary Ann, played by Academy Award® nominee Elisabeth Shue. "I had a short list of actors I wanted to play that character," says Rosenthal. "Elisabeth was right on the top of that list. She read it and wanted to do it--I feel like we really lucked out."
Shue takes a character that could easily have been a villain and renders her enormously sympathetic. "There are certain actors who can take an unsympathetic character and make you root for them," says the director. "Elisabeth plays broken souls to perfection. She completely inhabits the character in way that makes you have empathy for them."
Leaving Janie with Ethan is a last resort for Mary Anne. "I focused on her deep need to have her daughter be okay," says Shue. "What she is does is extreme, but Mary Anne knows there is no way she can take care of Janie in the shape she's in. Staying with her child would be even more detrimental than abandoning her."
Committing fully to the idea that Mary Ann was acting in Janie's best interests is what makes the character relatable, Shue believes. "A rational person can look at the situation and know it's crazy, but Mary Ann is pretty irrational at this point and she's afraid of what will become of Janie if she stays."
Shue says she fell in love with the character immediately. "I love playing people who are damaged. I find people who are trying hard to overcome their circumstances and find love the best way they can extremely touching."
It was easy for the actress to imagine what attracted Mary Ann to the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. "Music touches us in such a raw, sensual way," she says. "It is incredibly seductive. I can see how it would be easy to fall in love with someone singing to you every night and writing songs about you. Even though Marianne was really more of groupie, always on the sidelines, that's the dream."
Although Shue's role required only about four days shooting time, her scenes are among the film's most intense. "To be able to play such an interesting character for a short time was great," says Shue. "Staying in Mary Ann's skin for a long period of time would be extremely challenging."
Hers was the hardest role in many ways, says Nivola, particularly because the character is in crisis from the moment she appears. "Elisabeth had to come in and start at a very high emotional pitch. In the first scene she shot, she had to tell Ethan, who she is not sure even remembers her, that they have a daughter together. I was pretty blown away."
Shue credits her co-stars with giving her the support she needed to approach the work wholeheartedly, even though she arrived on set after shooting had already begun. "I was transfixed by how available Abigail's emotions are to her. For somebody so young to be able to access so much, seemingly so easily, is extraordinary. I can't imagine finding that with anybody less talented than she is.
"And Alessandro is so honest," she adds. "Tackling a scene that emotional right in front of him, I had to feel such a sense of trust. He was so present in those moments. I could look in his eyes and know he was right there. He gives so much and is so generous as an actor."
The Music of Janie Jones
The 14 original songs in JANIE JONES range from Ethan's raw, rock 'n' roll club performances to the sweet and soulful ballads with which Janie consoles herself. Award-winning Irish singer and songwriter Gemma Hayes created Janie's evocative music. "I didn't want the same songwriter for Janie and Ethan," says Rosenthal. "They needed to have their own voices. Gemma was my first choice to write all the songs for Janie. She has the ability to write beautiful, effortless songs that seem simple but are really complex. I knew she would to be able to find the voice of a young musician easily."
Eef Barzelay of Clem Snide scored the film and wrote all of Ethan's songs. "The movie lives and dies on the music," says Rosenthal. "Eef has enormous range. There's an evolution to Ethan's music in the film. Being on the road with his daughter brings him back to something so much more simple and soulful. Once he lets go of ego-based striving to 'make it,' it becomes about the music."
The music was a big part of what made Nivola want to be in the film, according to the actor. "It had to be good for this to work. David Rosenthal sent music demos with the script. Eef brought a distinctive sound that was perfect for the world of the movie and the character."
Although Nivola professes never to have had any professional ambition in music, he has sung in several previous films, including LAUREL CANYON, JUNEBUG and Kenneth Branagh's Cole Porter-esque update of LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST. "We were so blessed that he's not just a great actor, he's also a great musician," says Shue. "I don't how many actors who could have performed all those songs."
Breslin, on the other hand, had no professional musical experience other than her unforgettable dance number in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. By chance, she had started voice lessons a few weeks before agreeing to play Janie. "The only place I ever sang before was at my church Christmas party," she says. "I started guitar lessons after I got the film. I had never really considered playing the guitar before that. I was lucky Alessandro is such an amazing guitar player and I could pick up tips from him."
Even with all her onscreen experience, singing in public was an intimidating experience for the young actress. "Singing is much more nerve-wracking than acting," says Breslin. "I've grown up acting, so it's never been scary for me, but singing in front of people was. We rehearsed a little bit before we went into the studio in Des Moines to record, which was really cool. But that was pretty much all the time we had."
Once Breslin started taking lessons, she committed completely, says Nivola. "It was impressive. She had no prior experience, but she has a huge amount of talent. Even so, she had to work hard. It was like me learning French for Chanel--a completely new skill set."
The members of Ethan's band, the Ethan Brand Experience, are played by Joel Moore, Brittany Snow, Rodney Eastman and Frank Whaley. "Coincidentally, I used to go to a club in New York to hear a band called The Niagaras play," says Nivola. "Frank Whaley and his brother Robert were in the band. Frank played drums and his brother was the lead singer.
"The Niagaras were almost identical to our band," Nivola continues. "I based a lot of my character on Robert. Initially, it was just his performance; he was pretty unhinged on stage. He had this intense energy and presence. He would spend long periods of time talking to the audience and no one knew what he was going to do next. He and Frank had a great, and sometimes contentious, relationship, just as our characters do in the movie. The more Frank told me about him, the more I incorporated him into the character."
The film's music was almost entirely prerecorded by composer Barzelay and then Breslin and Nivola had only a small window of time to rehearse together and record their instrumentals and vocals. "We recorded in a little studio in Des Moines in two days. It all needed to be finished before filming started, so the tracks would be ready for the performance scenes. It was real indie filmmaking. We went for it and stayed up all night doing it, so it has an authentically raw sound that is great for the film."