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magazine home > archives > summer 2002 > features

Feature film director and U of M alumnus Jay Russell proves the success of My Dog Skip was no fluke as he leads another ensemble cast in the silver screen adaptation of Tuck Everlasting.

The Right Direction
by Benjamin Potter

Jay Russell
Photos by Ron Phillips
  Man 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 he’s 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 Russell’s specialties. After directing just three feature films, he’s worked already with a surplus of A-list actors: Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek and Ben Kingsley, just to name a few.

Likewise, Russell has proved he’s a director who can work with man — and man’s best friend. He now resides on the West Coast, but he won’t forget that his “growing-up years” in the Mid-South set the stage for his current successes.

Take 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 it’s never a far drive to world-class barbeque.

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 Russell’s 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. “Jay’s not a flashy person, so he wouldn’t have stood out on his own. But his talent really speaks volumes. Once you get to know him, you can see he’s 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.”

Take 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.) University’s 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 cast.”

Getting a feature film made early in his career was a sweet dessert, but documentaries became Russell’s true meal ticket.

Russell with Bledel
Russell 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 we’d 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 Middle’s Frankie Muniz.

Take 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 it’s ripe with Southern nostalgia. Morris himself once referred to Mississippi as “America’s Ireland,” a place where the landscape is beautiful and the writing is poetic.

But make no mistake about it, Russell says, My Dog Skip had all the markings of a difficult film. It’s 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 Russell’s “true labor of love,” which enjoyed a good box office run thanks to positive word-of-mouth. Ross says “you couldn’t pick a better person than Jay” when it comes to selecting a person well-deserving of his or her accomplishments.

“He’s really a case of someone who didn’t have a lot of Hollywood connections starting out, but who made it through tenacity, talent and his own hard work,” Ross says.

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 it’s 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, Russell’s 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 didn’t 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 he’s 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.

“It’s 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 there’ll 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.”

Russell with actors
  Ben 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."

It’s a Wrap

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. “It’s good to go back and get a dose of it all.”

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. “I’d be surprised if he didn’t make more films about this area.”

Russell calls life in Hollywood an “all-consuming business” — when he’s not casting, directing or marketing a film, he’s 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 says.

But at the end of a hard day’s 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 there’s 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 come.


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