Jena & Macaulay
Special to themovieboy.com by Patrick D. Jennings
In late April, Dustin and I attended a screening of a movie that we'd both been looking forward to "Saved!" At that point, I think we'd only seen the (terrific) trailer online a time or two, and knew little to nothing about the film, outside of the very impressive cast list. "Saved!" turned out to be a truly great film, as Dustin put it, "a John Hughes-inspired teen comedy with a twist." It's always a treat to see new work from some of our favorite actors Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Heather Matarazzo but it was all the more interesting to 'welcome back' Macaulay Culkin to the big screen. Culkin's incendiary 'return' in 2003's "Party Monster" remained somewhat under the radar due to it's very limited release.
The opportunity arose to attend an interview session with Jena Malone and Macaulay Culkin in Downtown DC the following week. I could not pass up the opportunity to meet two actors that I've admired for a long time. Jena has been in some of my very favorite movies of the past few years 2001's brilliant "Donnie Darko", 2002's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys", and 2003's "Cold Mountain". And Macaulay I mean, hey, it's MACAULAY CULKIN! There was a time, and not so terribly long ago, when he was probably the most recognized face on the planet. Love it or hate it, "Home Alone" made it's mark on movie history, and a lot of that success was due, in no small part, to Macaulay Culkin.
The other members of the 'roundtable' group for this interview session were mostly college newspapers, but there was one high-school paper in attendance, as well as a young lady from Religion News Service. Jena and Macaulay were both doodling on the hotel supplied notepads, but they were quick to give us their full attention as we all made our way into the conference room. After the initial introductions (and a few moments for those of us who get starstruck very easily to compose ourselves), our interview began. It seemed more like just a group of friends hanging out and chatting than a straight-forward Q&A thing, so that helped to lessen the nerves and create a really comfortable atmosphere.
Washington, DC was their very first stop on this press tour and they were heading to Chicago in less than two hours, so our discussion of their new movie had to be brief. In that short time, however, we learned some interesting things about Jena and 'Mac', and also about "Saved!"
Asked to Macaulay - Do you think the same audience that grew up with you will connect with "Saved!"?
Macaulay Culkin (MC): "I hope so. Whenever you make something, you want as many people as possible to connect with it. To... well, like it! That's all you can really hope for whenever you do anything."
In discussions of his background and growing up... it's mentioned that Macaulay went to Catholic School for his 1st-5th grades. His father had helped with the Sacraments at their church, and Macaulay was always amused at the reverence with which people regarded the Host.
MC: "They'd be like 'Oooh...oooo.... It's God!', and I'd be like 'Huh? It's crackers and wine! My dad just put it out there!' So I was kinda raised around those kinda people."
"[The school] was one of these places that had regular subjects like Math and English, but it also had Religion. It was a subject that you had to learn and take tests on! I remember the very first test I ever cheated on was a Religion test. It was absolutely absurd. We were like 7 years old and had to memorize this three-page Psalm or something."
"After five years, they just couldn't keep up with my schedule, ... I wasn't kicked out exactly, .... it was more of a 'we just can't have you anymore'. So basically, I kinda left my Catholicism at school."
Religious backgrounds are brought up. One's 'religious identity' - what one is 'raised as' vs. what one believes for themselves.
MC: "I just believe in being a good person. It's that simple. The basic foundation of any religion is just be a good person, be good to your neighbor. Any religion will tell you that." (Jena chimes in likewise.)
What about Jesus?
Jena Malone (JM): "I think he was a great teacher."
JM: "It's just hard for me because there are all these contradicting facts. Things like.... Jesus' birthday was the same as that of the Egyptian Sun-god, Ra."
MC: "And looks remarkably like Zeus! "
JM: "And Easter is the same day as the resurrection of Osiris."
MC: "It's like they just picked arbitrary dates."
JM: "In the transition to Christianity, there's a lot of things that they kept, or just erased or reused. So... for me, it's a hard thing to fully offer up my belief in. But I think what we can do, is learn a lot from it. Not only from Christianity or Catholicism there's thousands of different religions, and thousands of different stories. And for me, as a storyteller, that kinda how I see them... because stories are how I learn the most. Learn from other peoples experiences.. and hopefully, if it's a good story, you're going to walk out of it with questions in your mind. And what you do with those questions, is you relate them to your own personal experiences. You're personalizing other peoples experiences to your own.... and that's what makes you learn so much more. I guess I'm still searching, still figuring a lot of stuff out. But yeah, be a good person ... learn from your mistakes and don't be afraid to make them."
How did you both get involved in "Saved!" ?
MC: "You first."
JM: "Very simple and straightforward I read the script. Went in and met with the co-writer/director Brian Dannelly and Sandy Stern, the producer. I loved it, and I loved them, and I loved what type of story they wanted to tell. Brian completely GOT IT. He's like the only 30-something year old man who can, like, get inside a 17 year old christian girls head and be perfectly accurate and wonderful. I just knew that he was going to make a really good film. For me, as a teenager and an audience member, I'd never seen a film that dealt with young people and these issues before. Questioning spiritual belief, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, acceptance, friendship all of these really important themes for young people all in one film. Particularly the spirituality aspect, and questioning your belief system. I'd never seen that before, so it was really exciting."
MC: "I was friends with Sandy and Michael. We'd met on some unrelated project a couple years earlier and became friends, and were always trying to find things to do together. I was in London, doing Madame Melville on stage when I got to read the script.... and I really loved it. It all came together really nicely. They started talking about the cast they wanted. They said 'Jena Malone'... and I said 'Jena who?' "
** Sharp elbow to the ribs from Ms. Malone - laughter **
"But again it just came together really well. You'd be surprised who many writers don't understand there own work."
MC: "They just don't get it. This script could have been read... ten different ways. It could have been really campy... it could have been really serious. But when you talk to [Brian], he just really got it. One of the things I've been saying about this movie, that I really love, is that it's actually BETTER than the script. And that's really rare. When you read a script, you get this movie in your mind the way you picture it and usually it's not as good on the screen, because it's someone else's vision of it. This movie turned out so much better than the movie I got in my mind when I first read it. That makes me really proud to be a part of it. It's a great movie that I really love."
What kind of lessons or messages do you want people to take away from the movie?
JM: "That's a tricky question, because I never feel that I really have anything to say in that regard. The intentions of making a film... and what an audience walks away with ... are completely different things. What I want someone to get out this film is not what they're gonna get out it."
MC: "It's almost like you have to wash your hands of it when you're done."
JM: "Yeah, because each person is going to draw something different. They're relate to certain experiences and not to others. Some things they're gonna get, and some things they're not. Some will hate it and some will love it. So, I just feel like their experience watching the film for the first time is the most important thing. I just hope they have a good time."
Do you think that Christians will think that the movie is making fun of them?
JM: "No. No, I don't. I mean, for anyone, criticism is hard to take."
MC: "At the same time, it's not even that it's making fun of them. It's the caricatures ... "
JM: "Yeah, the stereotypes that are found within this particular religion, or section, or society."
Have your perspectives on religion, or anything else, changed as a result of doing this film?
JM: "Well, for me, I wasn't aware of this whole "Christian Teen Movement". Christian Rock, Teen rallies. These young men and women are so passionate in their beliefs, that they are willing to throw their entire life into it. That completely amazed me. I'd never seen that similar passion with people my age. It's commendable, and very valuable to see.... but also a little tricky. Belief is very powerful and beautiful, but it can also be very destructive and manipulative. It was an interesting learning experience to see how young people deal with spirituality and their belief systems."
MC: "To be honest.... it's makes your re-evaluate your beliefs and question your own faith. To second guess yourself, really. That's something that anyone, not only me, can take away from it. I already told you about having the fire and brimstone beaten into me when I was younger.... so I already had a natural fear... or respect. I believe in a 'higher power' kind of thing... but I generally don't go for the 'religion' aspect of it... and all the baggage that comes with it."
Someone asks about working with Mandy Moore.
JM: "To be perfectly honest, when I heard she'd signed on, I had my doubts. Which totally put me in check.... because I was judging people by their labels pop star turned actress, etc, etc. But as soon as I met her and we had that initial read-through..."
MC: "But it took a while. It didn't take long to see that she was a really cool, down to earth girl, who was willing to roll up her sleeves and do what needed to be done to make a cool movie. And she really understood it too. She was on board... she got it."
JM: "She gave such a fearless performance. Working with her from day to day... she was constantly pushing herself.... putting herself in embarrassing situations.... laughing at her mistakes and being comfortable with them. That was just so refreshing."
What's next for each of you?
Macaulay mentions that he has a forthcoming pilot for NBC, entitled "Foster Hall" a half hour sitcom, produced by Conan O'Brien.
Jena mentions a forthcoming film "Rose and the Snake" coming out in late 2004. Directed by Rebecca Miller and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener, and Jason Lee. She also will begin working on a new retelling of "Pride and Prejudice" in the Fall, as well as "Vinyl" starring Thora Birch, Shane West, and Anna Farris.
As the session came to a close, we all scrambled to get our autographs and pictures. Jena signed my "Donnie Darko" DVD insert, and Mac signed my DVD covers of "Party Monster" and "The Good Son". And yes, I just had to have my picture taken with them :)
Many thanks to Macaulay and Jena for taking the time to meet with us and answer our questions, and thanks to Chad and Allied for the opportunity. To everyone who hasn't seen it already, we HIGHLY recommend checking out "Saved!."
Patrick D. Jennings, May 2004