by Ron Phillips
in Motion - Directing can requre traveling: Jay Russell
grew up in central Arkansas, lives in California, and
is pictured here filming in the woods of Maryland.
Jay Russell is on the phone casting roles for his latest
project, Fever Pitch, a Nick Hornby novel (he also
penned High Fidelity and About a Boy). Gwyneth
Paltrow is slated for the female lead; now hes searching
for the male lead.
One of the main jobs of directing is the casting,
Russell (BA 82) says. Half the job is done when
you can get the right actor for the right part.
Casting seems to be one of Russells specialties. After
directing just three feature films, hes worked already
with a surplus of A-list actors: Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane,
William Hurt, Sissy Spacek and Ben Kingsley, just to name
Likewise, Russell has proved hes a director who can
work with man and mans best friend. He now resides
on the West Coast, but he wont forget that his growing-up
years in the Mid-South set the stage for his current
One: Mid-Southern Living
Russell grew up near Little Rock, Ark. It was hardly like
the life he leads in Los Angeles, but everything about
it is a part of who I am, he says.
There was always music around my house, he says.
Good food and good music. Memphis seemed a proper
collegiate destination the blues practically bleed
from Beale St., and its never a far drive to world-class
A devoted trumpet player, Russell came to then-Memphis State
University to pursue a career in music he even arrived
on campus with a music scholarship. Once he got there, however,
another passion surfaced.
I thought music was the direction I was headed,
he says, but I found I was spending a lot more time
in the theatre and communication department.
Russell was especially interested in a screenwriting class
taught by Steven Ross, a U of M professor of communication.
The class required a full-length script, and Ross says he
saw Russells potential from the start. His script, the
sword and sorcerer tale The Quest, was
a hit with the class and with Ross.
He wrote the best script in class, so for me his talent
was immediately apparent, Ross says. Jays
not a flashy person, so he wouldnt have stood out on
his own. But his talent really speaks volumes. Once you get
to know him, you can see hes really intelligent and
fun to be around.
But when the class had ended, Russell reached a crossroad.
Steven Ross, other faculty members and fellow students
got me excited about screenwriting, he says, and
then suddenly, school was over.
Two: Documentaries and Destiny
Russell was now armed with a degree, but he wanted more filming
experience. Ross convinced him to give graduate school a try.
Russell says it was sheer persistence that won
him a spot on Columbia (N.Y.) Universitys waiting list,
and when another student dropped out weeks before school started,
Russell got his first big break.
It was a completely intimidating and wild experience,
but it was also a wonderful time in my life, he says,
noting that Columbia was a great school, but the greater
school was New York City.
After graduate school, Russell took a script he wrote at
Columbia called End of the Line to the silver screen.
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Wilford Brimley and Kevin Bacon,
the movie is a railroad adventure set in rural Arkansas.
I was in the right time at the right place, Russell
says. New York City was benefiting from an independent
film boom in the late 1980s, and we were able to get a great
Getting a feature film made early in his career was a sweet
dessert, but documentaries became Russells true meal
chats with Alexis Bledel between takes of Tuck Everlasting.
Bledel plays Winnie Foster, a young girl who discovers
the Tuck family and their mysterious longevity.
I always wanted to make narrative movies, but I also
had a sideline interest in documentaries, he says. I
just wanted to continue to put film through a camera, and
documentaries provided that chance.
Such opportunities included projects with A&E, The Discovery
Channel and PBS. The PBS project Great Drives
brought Russell back to the Mid-South, where the subject matter
was Highway 61 the connector of Memphis and New Orleans.
In Jackson, Miss., he scheduled an interview with the famed
Eudora Welty, but it was another Mississippi author who truly
piqued his interest.
The author, Willie Morris, was working on a memoir about
his beloved childhood pet. Russell and Morris were bound by
the common threads of growing up in the South and living in
New York, and by a shared sense of humor.
I hit it off with him immediately, Russell says,
and I knew wed become great friends. A year
later, Russell saw copies of Morris memoir, My Dog
Skip, on the bookshelves. The time was right to tackle
his second feature-length film, and he soon transformed the
book into a movie starring Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, and Malcom
in the Middles Frankie Muniz.
Three: Life Behind the Lens
My Dog Skip was filmed in Canton, Miss., just a three-hour
drive from Memphis. Critics and audiences have garnered the
film with adjectives such as tender and affectionate,
and its ripe with Southern nostalgia. Morris himself
once referred to Mississippi as Americas Ireland,
a place where the landscape is beautiful and the writing is
But make no mistake about it, Russell says, My Dog Skip
had all the markings of a difficult film. Its set in
the 1940s (therefore requiring period wardrobes and automobiles),
and Russell had to direct adults, children, and a dog.
There was nothing easy about that movie, Russell
says. I think I paid all my dues in that one movie.
But the kids were great, the dog was great, and the adults
were great. That relieved a lot of the burden.
Steven Ross contends that My Dog Skip was Russells
true labor of love, which enjoyed a good box office
run thanks to positive word-of-mouth. Ross says you
couldnt pick a better person than Jay when it
comes to selecting a person well-deserving of his or her accomplishments.
Hes really a case of someone who didnt
have a lot of Hollywood connections starting out, but who
made it through tenacity, talent and his own hard work,
More recently, Russell completed his third feature film,
Tuck Everlasting, which will be released by Walt Disney
Pictures in October. Originally a novel for young adults from
Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting tackles a weighty
theme: the cycle of life and death.
A lot of kids have read the book, Russell says.
I think a lot of schools assign it to sixth-graders
to read, and its won just about every kind of award
it could win. So the bar was set high for the movie because
the book is so loved.
Keeping with his trend of directing a veritable covey of
talented actors, Russells cast for Tuck Everlasting
includes established actors Ben Kingsley and Sissy Spacek,
as well as up-and-comers Alexis Bledel ("The Gilmore
Girls") and Jonathan Jackson (Deep End of the Ocean).
We didnt have the most accommodating schedule,
Jackson says. It was kind of like being in a war together.
We got to the point where we learned to trust each other.
You can tell hes a good person and has a good heart.
You can see it when you watch this movie.
Russell expounds on the movie-as-war metaphor.
Its really true, he says. You have
a cast that operates like an army you have to move
as a unit. There needs to be clear objectives or therell
be chaos. You need to be flexible and ready to change the
battle plan at any given moment. People even eat lunch under
a tent like soldiers on a battlefield.
Kingsley wields a pistol while Russell clasps a viewfinder
as a scene for Tuck Everlasting is set up. Kingsley
plays the film's villain, who simply goes by "Man
in the Yelloe Suit."
The West Coast life is frenetic at best, but Russell stays
close to his family wife, Leigh, and 4-year-old son
Beau even when scheduling forces him away. When filming
for Tuck Everlasting took him to Baltimore, the family
flew cross-country to spend several months with him.
A recent trip back to Arkansas made for a nice respite for
the family as well, Russell says.
It was great to get out and see the countryside and
spend time back at home, and to soak it up again, he
says. Its good to go back and get a dose of it
Ross suggests that Russell has a connection with Arkansas
and Tennessee that will stick with him throughout his career.
He definitely has a strong feeling for the South,
Ross says. Id be surprised if he didnt make
more films about this area.
Russell calls life in Hollywood an all-consuming business
when hes not casting, directing or marketing
a film, hes on the phone.
The phone starts ringing early in the morning, and
I usually take my last call at 9 or 10 at night, he
But at the end of a hard days work, Russell says the
payoff of a job well-done is worth the effort.
When you can see something happen live, and then watch
it on film, and it approaches how you envisioned it in your
mind, then theres no greater satisfaction, he
says. Seeing it all come together is a great thrill.
With Tuck Everlasting landing in theaters this fall,
and with Fever Pitch nearing takeoff, Russell can be
sure the thrill of directing will stay aloft for years to