People often feel the need to search for their identities and discover who they really are by connecting with their long-lost family members, particularly parents they may have never known. In writer-director Dennis Lee‘s upcoming comedy Jesus Henry Christ, the filmmaker explores the possibilities of what would happen when a young, but independent boy goes against his mother’s ideals and way of life to find his father and discover a whole other part of his history.
Jesus Henry Christ follows a 10-year-old boy genius, Henry James Herman (Jason Spevack), as he searches for his biological father, Dr. Slavkin O’Hara (Michael Sheen). Henry was conceived in a petri dish and raised by his feminist mother, Patricia Herman (Toni Collette), who is dismayed by his desire to find his father. Despite his mother’s wishes, Henry embarks on a search to discover who he really is and what his father is like.
Recently, Lee generously took the time to speak to us over the phone about adapting Jesus Henry Christ (which is based on his 2003 student Academy Award-winning short film of the same name), into his second feature film. The filmmaker discussed the casting process for Spevack, Sheen and Collette, how the family dynamic is continuously changing and what it was like working with one of the movie’s producers, Julia Roberts.
We Got This Covered: Jesus Henry Christ is based on your student Academy Award-winning short film of the same name. Why did you decide to turn the short into a feature length film?
Dennis Lee: Well, I wanted to take the central character of the first film, Henry, a 10-year-old boy who has a photographic memory, and put him in a much broader world. So I took him out of Catholic school, which he was in in the short. I put him in a world where he’s just starting to ask the questions that I think we all ask, which are: who are we? What am I doing here, and what is my purpose, or reason, for being?
He’s looking for the answers, and the one thing that’s missing from his life, which is his father, his biological father. So it sets off this journey about a young boy who’s a modern-day, immaculate conception, who goes off and searches for the truth and for his father.
So I thought the title was appropriate for the feature. So we took the title and the character of the boy, and made a full-length feature about it.
WGTC: While adapting the short into the feature film, did you feel any pressure on what to include in the movie, since you won the Oscar?
DL: No, not at all, actually. I didn’t feel any pressure. What I wanted to do was preserve the tone of the short film and the feature film. It’s a black comedy with elements of being absurd and surreal, but also being grounded. I’m hoping that the audience can relate to (it).
WGTC: You served as both the write and helmer of Jesus Henry Christ. As a director, did you find it easier to film the movie, since you also wrote the screenplay for it?
DL: It should be, shouldn’t it? (laughs) You know, I have to say that I don’t have a frame of reference, since I haven’t directed anything that I haven’t written yet. But this upcoming fall, in October or November, I’m up for a script that I didn’t write. I have to say, so far, the process has been really, really pleasurable.
It’s been really liberating to work with a writer who’s absolutely amazing. You can give script notes and story notes and development notes, and it’s not on your shoulder as the writer to incorporate those, and to develop the story even farther. It’s been nice to be just a director who can focus on telling the story visually.
WGTC: Jason Spevack plays Henry in Jesus Henry Christ. What was the casting process like for the role, and why did you decide to cast Jason?
DL: The casting process started off like most do, in terms of searching for the right child actor. So we cast our nets far and wide, and we were looking everywhere in the States and Canada. Then when we realized what our actual budget was going to be, which was significantly lower than what we were hoping for, we realized that we had to cast locally out of Toronto. Not only (did we cast locally) to save money, but also for the tax incentives and rebates.
All of the actors, apart from Michael Sheen and Toni Collette, are from Toronto. We were fortunate that Toronto has such an amazing, deep talent pool. Our casting director up there, her name’s Tina Gerussi, she auditioned all of the kids, and then brought in the kids that she thought would make the best Henry and Audrey. Among that group came Jason and Samantha (Weinstein). When they auditioned, we knew right away that they were our two leads.
WGTC: Speaking of the limited budget, besides the casting, were there any other limitations that you felt while shooting?
DL: The biggest limitation was time. We were a 23-day shoot. Would I have changed things to have had five more days? Sure. I don’t know how, but we were doing this quickly. Just time.
WGTC: Toni and Michael play Henry’s parents in the film, Patricia Hermin and Dr. Slavkin O’Hara, respectively. How did you come to cast both Toni and Michael as Henry’s parents?
DL: Those came through more traditional routes. For Toni, we went through her agency. She received the script from her agent, and had read it and really responded to it. For Michael, he received the script from his agent and his manager. He responded to it as well. Those were more traditional routes of attaching the two adult lead stars.
WGTC: Patricia is a feminist mother who’s raising Henry on her own. Do you think her struggles as a mother reflect the issues many women are facing today as they’re raising their children?
DL: To a degree, yeah. I certainly don’t believe that, especially with the (American) election year coming up, that a nuclear family is defined as a biological father, mother, son and daughter, in a way that a lot of people would like to project.
I think the definition of family, which was another big theme in Henry, is that you can be the single mother, or the divorced father, or the adopted father of a child who isn’t of your ethnicity. With all of these things, you can be a family. So I don’t think family has a singular definition or form.
That’s one of the things that I wanted to make sure people got out of watching this movie. It’s not the Leave It to Beaver version of a family anymore. Families come in all different shapes and sizes.
WGTC: Jesus Henry Christ is the second feature film you directed and wrote, after Fireflies in the Garden, which also had the family element. Did having that common element make the transition from your first film, which was a drama, to your follow-up movie, which is a comedy?
DL: It definitely made it easier to make the transition, at least from the logistical point of view. The shoot for Jesus Henry Christ was a lot harder, in terms of the number of elements, than Fireflies.
Fireflies in the Garden basically took place in one house with one family. Jesus Henry Christ had multiple locations with a bunch of characters, whether they were speaking or not speaking. Fireflies definitely prepared me for taking on a much larger film, logistically, in a much shorter amount of time.
WGTC: Julia Roberts, who starred in Fireflies in the Garden, served as a producer on Jesus Henry Christ. What was your working relationship with her like on both films?
DL: As an actor, it was an actor-director relationship. So it was talking about character and trying to get the best performance for that part as we both could possibly get on set.
Then she became my boss for Jesus Henry Christ, and you couldn’t ask for a better boss. She protects the film, and she knows that. She’s not a helicopter boss, looking over your shoulder, watching every movie that you make. She really trusts in the people that she’s working with.
WGTC: Julia’s production company, Red Om Films, produced Jesus Henry Christ. Why did you decide to work with Red Om Films to make the movie?
DL: Well, I got to know the individual members of the company, and the company as a whole, really well during my experience with Fireflies. So there’s a lot of carry-over from Fireflies to Jesus Henry Christ, in terms of the crew. Like Rob Pearson, who’s my production designer on both films. Danny Moder, who’s my DP (director of photography) on both films.
Phillip Rose, who is with Red Om Films, was my line producer on Fireflies, and is a producer on Jesus Henry Christ. Of course, Julia is a common element between both of those as well. I enjoyed working with them the first time, so why wouldn’t I have fun with them the second time?
WGTC: Besides the film you mentioned earlier that you may be shooting in the fall, do you have any other upcoming films, either writing or directing, lined up that you can discuss?
DL: I have one more film. Well, I have a lot of films that I would love to make, but I have one that I’m actively pursuing to get made. It’s an adaptation of a book. It’s just a gorgeous script. Hopefully we’ll be able to make it not this upcoming year, but maybe in October or November, 2013.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Dennis Lee for taking the time to talk to us. Be sure to check out Jesus Henry Christ when it hits select theaters this Friday, April 20.