Janie Jones writer/director David M. Rosenthal

In David M. Rosenthal’s latest feature, Janie Jones, we meet Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola), a petulant beer-guzzling indie rocker on the verge of being washed-up who is suddenly confronted with a reality beyond sound checks and publishing issues: he is abruptly introduced to the daughter he birthed 13 years prior, Janie Jones (Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin). The introduction is accompanied by abandonment by Janie’s mother (fellow Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue), a once groupie who is still hooked on that lifestyle’s accessories: mainly drugs and a bad choice in men. What follows is more than a look into the budding relationship between a father and daughter, we see Ethan recognizing his place in the world a little more clearly and a young girl discovering her talent has great value to many people.

Mr. Rosenthal wrote and directed this film which came out of his real life experiences: at age 30 he met his 11 year old daughter who he had conceived with a woman a few years older. He had stayed out of the picture at her request but was met with a welcome heart when he decided it was time to reconnect. David says Janie Jones was “a huge catharsis for me. I kept this secret for such a long time. To be able to share a version of the story and have people react to it and have people come up to me in a screening [with similar stories], just that, if nothing else happens, would be fulfilling for me.”

The film not only tells about the relationship between father Ethan and daughter Janie, it focuses a great deal on each character’s personal relationship with music, which becomes a catalyst for their connection that grows organically from shared creativity. Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland) displays a lovely voice and learned to play the guitar for this role. She holds her own when dueting with longtime musician Alessandro Nivola, who has performed music in films prior to this one including Spirit Award nominated Junebug. “The most important thing to me,” said David, “was to have the music be as believable as the relationship, and have where they’re playing be believable. Which fit in with the level of budget film that it was, because we didn’t have the money to shoot in arenas, but we didn’t need to.”

Alessandro Nivola and Abigail Breslin star in Janie Jones

This was definitely an independent film shoot, a factor that worked toward the actors advantage, they say. “There’s less apparatus in a small movie to get in between you and your experience of the reality,” says Alessandro Nivola, a frequent indie film actor. “You’re often shooting in a real hotel room with the real pillows that are normally on there and the real bars of soap that are just there because they can’t afford to make it. Something about the fact that you don’t have the resources to recreate something on some grand scale I find makes it easier to have a feeling of the reality of a lot of the scenes that are shot in those movies as opposed to bigger ones.”

Mr. Rosenthal sat down with us to discuss his latest film more in-depth and give us some insight into how he made the leap into filmmaking.

I read in your bio that you went to AFI after undergrad studies; what sparked your interest in film?

I had gotten a masters in poetry from Sarah Lawrence and was writing and working in a literary magazine in New York still shooting a lot of photography and selling pieces and I’ve always been a big film buff, [so] I started to play around with a 16 mm camera and I just got more and more interested in the art form. I went and did a course up in Rockport, Maine – there’s a photographic institute up there and they had a film course. Then I applied to AFI as a cinematographer. For me, I sort of knew that I wanted to write and I thought I wanted to direct and maybe the best way for me to learn the real nuts and bolts of filmmaking was to study cinematography. The films that I was drawn to the most were sort of maybe the most photographically inspiring movies. That’s what drew me to go to AFI as a cinematographer. I learned so much there, it’s a very intensive conservatory style brand of education and they sort of throw you in and just want you to start shooting and shooting and shooting. It’s less academic and more practical. In that way it was perfect. I met a lot of great people, a lot of whom I stay in touch with. It made a lot of sense for me.

Is that where you started writing your own script?

Yeah, while I was at AFI I started writing some stuff, very secretively. I came out of film school and started doing some commercial work and started writing immediately. I wrote a film that I still haven’t gotten made, but I’m still trying to get made, very heavily dramatic, metaphysical kind of art house movie that is the kind of movie that is so difficult to get made. I came close a couple times and then I came up with an idea for something comedic that was this mockumentary that could be done for very little money. I went to some friends of mine in New York that were directing and producing and they were really into the idea and wanted to produce it so we went off and made that for next to nothing. That was a great way to make your first movie, to shoot a movie in 13 days it’s very specific.

That’s great; a lot of times people ask for advice for budding filmmakers and most of the times the answer is “just do it”.

Just do it.

What was your mockumentary about?

A father and his estranged daughter strive to find a connection in Janie Jones

It was about a couple guys who graduated from three-day film school, which there weren’t that many of at that time, but now they’re sort of everywhere. These guys blag their way into a film festival with a film that doesn’t exist. It was fun, it was a great experience. I felt like I was still in film school. And then I made a more conventional narrative romantic comedy that I was hired to write and direct. It wasn’t a story that had been burning inside of me but it was such terrific experience for me. In some ways I feel like Janie Jones is my first film. It’s a movie that sort of came from me completely and that I was very passionate about, one where I had my wits about me as a filmmaker more than I had before.

You can tell that it’s a very personal film, how did your experiences and the people in your life shape Janie Jones?

The other characters in the movie are pure creative constructs probably more of other people’s family and parents than my parents or my daughter’s mother, but what is firmly there is that relationship between the two of them [Ethan and Janie]. The elements that drive Ethan and the elements that make him a flawed character were all elements that I could completely identify with and share, so that’s what is most strongly biographical about it.

You can also see that not only is the film about the relationship between the father and daughter but their own relationship with music. What made you want to place it in the music world?

I find that the film world is very, as you know, very egocentric, lots of big egos in the film world. But the music world is even worse. It’s an even more hyperbolic example of egos gone crazy, and it can happen in the most dramatic ways. You watch Anton [in Ondi Timoner’s music documentary D!G] fall apart, and when musicians fall apart it can be in a very public way and in a very dramatic and almost theatrical way. That lends itself to the storytelling. I very much wanted there to be this other way that the father and daughter connect and communicate and for them to be able to do that through music was an opportunity that I wanted to grab.

While this film was so personal for you, your next wasn’t written by you, you’re directing it. How did that compare?

It’s very liberating. I think it’s smart for any filmmaker who’s also writing their stuff to work on material that they don’t write. It allows you, (it allows me), to be purely directorial and to bring in whatever I can bring in to it. Especially for something genre-esque, like a neo-noire atmospheric thriller like this one is, allows me to maybe step back a little bit, think about it in a more macro way. It’s a great script and the novelist wrote the screenplay. That doesn’t always work out but in this case it really did.

With the cinematography background do you ever find yourself easing into that role at times?

No, because I’ve been lucky to work with cinematographers who are far more talented than I ever was but what it allows me to do is to communicate in their language specifically and to have a short hand so that we’re on the same page. It also allows me to trust in certain areas where I can just let go and I know exactly what they’re doing and going for.

In a low-budget film like this, pre-production is so important. What were some of the most important elements of your pre-production process to get the results that you wanted?

They say if you don’t have a big budget that it’s very important to have more time. We didn’t exactly have a huge amount of time to prep this movie but we had a very healthy amount of time and actually we had to push [production back] a couple times for some financial reasons, so my production designer Stephen Altman and I and my DP (Anastas N. Michos) were able to spend enough time in Iowa looking for these places and spending a lot of times going to these locations. For a very location intensive low-budget movie, that’s half the battle.


Janie Jones opens in select theaters and VOD beginning October 28; opens at the Los Angeles Laemmle Sunset 5 on November 4. For more information on the film and showtimes visit janiejonesmovie.com


-by Jasmine Terán for Film Independent

October 27th, 2011 • No Comments

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