"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Jessica Chastain may not yet qualify as a movie star, but within seconds of meeting her you completely understand why every casting agent in Hollywood is convinced she will become one. To put it bluntly, she is dazzling — and I’m talking more about her manner and presence than her beauty, although she’s exceptionally pretty, with flaming red hair and pale, translucent skin. She’s vivacious and charming, seemingly without effort, and has the kind of spectacular smile that uplifts everyone’s spirits within a 50-foot radius.
It makes you wonder where all those casting directors and filmmakers who so desperately want Chastain in their movies now were a few years ago, when she was a little-known television actress whose biggest part had been a four-episode role on “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.” There are no answers beyond the usual clichés: Showbiz is full of pretty faces, and sometimes all it takes is one little break. Chastain’s break was pretty big, and came when Terrence Malick cast her opposite Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life,” where her shimmering, ethereal presence created a thematic and visual balance to Pitt’s intense, compulsive, authoritarian father-figure.
But “Tree of Life” was only the tip of the iceberg, and the 30-year-old Chastain has most definitely been making up for lost time. In terms of audience appeal, her biggest role has been as Celia Foote in “The Help,” the hapless, white-trash-made-good housewife who was both that film’s comic relief and, in an odd way, its most honest and unaffected white heroine. The scene when Celia insists on eating lunch in the kitchen with her African-American maid (Octavia Spencer) — who is none too sure she wants to be friends with this high-maintenance, neurotic white lady — was arguably more moving than “The Help’s” more histrionic race-relations drama.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Chastain seems to suddenly be in every upcoming film. Within the last year or two, she has played a Mossad agent (the younger version of Helen Mirren) in “The Debt,” a detective in the serial-killer drama “Texas Killing Fields” (out next month), Virgilia in Ralph Fiennes’ version of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” (to be released this winter) and Salome in Al Pacino’s meta-theatrical “Wilde Salome,” which premiered in Venice a few days before I met her at the Toronto International Film Festival. Her big-budget Hollywood breakthrough may lie just ahead, since she will reportedly star opposite Tom Cruise and Olivia Wilde in “Horizons,” an interplanetary science-fiction thriller from “TRON: Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski.
Then there’s “Take Shelter,” an intense psychological horror drama from indie director Jeff Nichols — looking for his own breakthrough after the 2008 underground sensation “Shotgun Stories” — which Chastain was promoting in Toronto. I’ll have more to say on this film very soon, but it’s an absolute knockout, one of the best American films of the year. Chastain and the remarkable Michael Shannon play Samantha and Curtis, a married couple in small-town Ohio clinging to the lower edges of the working class. It’s very much a film about this moment in America, a film about economic recession and madness and faith and family, even climate change and disastrous weather. Samantha must decide whether to cling to Curtis or flee from him as he goes through a breakdown and suffers from disturbing, apocalyptic visions — which may just have some basis in reality.
So, Jessica, you’ve had this amazing run of movies. I understand you can pull up the list in your mind pretty easily.
Yes! Let’s see, there’s “Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “The Debt,” “Take Shelter,” “Texas Killing Fields,” “Coriolanus” and then “Wilde Salome,” which just played in Venice. So six films that have already come out or are coming out, and seven if you include that one.
And you just finished shooting at least one other movie. Or two, if we count Terry Malick’s next film as well.
Yes, I just finished working on “The Wettest County in the World.” I’d be surprised if that came out this year.
That’s John Hillcoat’s film, right? Another collaboration with Nick Cave. (They made the 2006 Aussie western “The Proposition.”)
Yes! And I’m so excited about this film. I keep telling everyone that the acting, across the board is — oh, my gosh — every performance was mind-blowing. It’s got Guy Pearce, Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska. The ensemble is sick.
Can you actually keep all these movies clear in your head? I mean you come to a festival to help out some movie you shot a long time ago, and people like me ask you to remember specific episodes or specific scenes.
I mean, sometimes it’s hard. I don’t have a problem remembering the films, because they’re all like children at a certain point. But when people say, “Can you tell me a funny story, something that happened on set?” And you’re like, oh God, from “Tree of Life”? That was three years ago. So trying to think of a funny thing that happened, that’s a bit tough. Other than that, I remember them all like my beloved children.
Right. What about if I’m, like, “What was going through your mind in this scene? Why does your character do that?”
Oh, I’ll remember that forever, yeah. With the characters that I play, I absolutely know them and the psychology of where they come from. What they deal with every day, what their fears are. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that.
Well, you’ve been picking winners. It’s such a terrific list. In “Take Shelter” and “Tree of Life” and “The Help,” you play these really different women who are touchingly, doggedly loyal to very difficult husbands. That’s not much of a connection, maybe, but I do feel a kinship between Mrs. O’Brien in “Tree of Life” and Samantha in “Take Shelter.” Do you see it that way?
You know, I see more difference between these characters, because Mrs. O’Brien in “Tree of Life” is the representation of grace, whereas I feel like Samantha in “Take Shelter” is closer to nature. She has a lot of nature in her. The most dangerous animal in the wild kingdom is the mother grizzly, or, like, the female tiger. They’re the ones who do all the killing. I think Samantha is more like that. Nobody messes with her family, nobody hurts her child. In fact, she reacts with violence, she hits her husband in the face. She’s very, very strong. She’s the head of the household, really. He makes the money, but she makes the rules. For me, they are completely different women, but I can understand what people see there: They’re both women who stick with their husbands, they’re both powerful and committed mothers.
A lot of people talk about Terry Malick’s methods, and about his unwillingness to discuss the film too much. I wonder if that was a big difference between these roles, working with him versus working with Jeff Nichols. Because these are two powerful and disturbing films that have an allegorical quality.
Actually, when we did “Tree of Life” we talked about it a lot. I had the script and I knew exactly what the film was when we were making it. I was very much a part of that conversation. I think people who say they’re not sure are usually people who come in for a couple of days. I just had that experience recently on Terry’s new film. I don’t know what the film’s about, I never read a script, and I came in for less than a week! It was strange going from “Tree of Life” to this thing where I had to say, “I have no idea what I’m doing, but fine!”
“Take Shelter” was really different. We had no time to shoot this film! So we couldn’t have a lot of discussion. We really had to be quick. I met Mike [Shannon] on Saturday night, I think it was. On Sunday, we hung out with Tova Stewart, who plays our daughter, for a little bit, and then on Monday we were filming the doctor scene that comes at the end of the film. We had never met before, and for a movie that Jeff says is about marriage and faith, that’s a scary thing. You go in there and you think, OK, I have to make this relationship as real as possible. We don’t have time to be polite, we just have to be honest.
Did you have to do that classic actor thing, where you identify ways the character is like you, and work from that?
Not really. I kind of felt Sam before, I understood her journey. I’d had the script for a while, but I was mostly concerned with the relationship between Mike and me, between Curtis and Samantha. I mean, the whole film hinges on this relationship. What does this man have at stake, what does he stand to lose? If that’s not there or that’s not strong, then the film doesn’t work. Jeff even told us that there’s a look between Samantha and Curtis at the end of the film, at the very end. And if that look doesn’t work, the whole film falls apart.
I agree with that, and that’s really a devastating moment between them. Talk about the way Samantha changes, and this relationship changes. Because I think this is one of the most interesting screen depictions of marriage I’ve seen in a long time.
What I really like about the dynamics of what we play is that in the very first scene, we don’t even look at each other. It doesn’t mean we’re not in love, but I find that really honest. These are people who’ve been together a long time, they’re going about their day and saying, “Oh, don’t forget to pick up this thing. We’ve got to be here at this time.” There’s no time for, like, “Hello, darling.” Which sometimes you see in films, let’s show that they love each other: “Hello, my love.”
We’re being as realistic as we can, and then at some point there’s this change where she starts to look at him, and realizes something’s wrong. It’s like, how long have I not seen this? How long has this been going on? She’s wondering, have I been taking this relationship for granted? All of a sudden he’s somewhere else, and I don’t know how he got there.
To me, the most important shift in Samantha’s character is after the ambulance comes to the house [after Curtis suffers an apparent seizure in the middle of the night]. Then there’s a scene where Curtis lays everything out on the table. Before that, I think Samantha was heartbroken and thought their relationship was over. There was no communication left, and the closeness they had was gone. After that scene, when he shows such great faith in her, in telling her this and trusting her to be there, she in turn shows great faith in him. Even when something happens later and she feels like he hurts her daughter and she hits him, she still shows faith in this man, like she knows he’s beyond his own actions and behavior.
Often marriage is portrayed in the movies with these very even, steady arcs. Either the people are pulling apart, pulling apart, until it’s over or they have one big crisis and then get back together. This marriage has a lot of wobble, a lot of give and take. It shifts back and forth.
Yeah, absolutely. After that moment where I hit him — and I hated doing that scene, because I hate violence and I love Mike! I don’t want to hit him in the face! — after that scene, when she decides to come back, she lays everything out on the table. It’s not like [overdramatic voice], “I love you, my darling!” I loved that, and it’s not the expected idea of, you know, we just had a fight and let’s make up, in Hollywood. It’s not until the fish-fry scene, when they’re in public and she has demanded that he be there, that she truly understands the place where he has gone. [Curtis suffers a major public breakdown in that scene.] And from then on, she needs to act with the utmost compassion that she can muster.
That scene is something, as people will soon discover. Michael Shannon is a very powerful actor all the time, but that’s like watching a volcano erupt. We’ve been waiting for it and waiting for it, we know it’s going to happen, and then — oh, man.
It was amazing. He’s such a brilliant actor. After the very first take of that scene, all the people applauded. All the extras, and I was like, “No, you’re supposed to be scared of him! Don’t clap!” He’s one of those actors — it’s undeniable, his talent. He has so much intensity and power physically, because he’s a big guy, but also he’s got this great face and these amazing eyes. There’s such strength in him, and that masks this really intense vulnerability, this epic vulnerability. He’s got both, and that’s really exciting — to be in a scene with somebody who can muster such great strength and such vulnerability.
Let me ask this the right way: The end of “Take Shelter” is very ambiguous, and I’d like to hear your opinion. Without giving too much away, is Samantha entering his reality, maybe his madness? Or is what we see happening at the end of the movie really happening in the outside world?
I don’t want to answer that question.
I didn’t really think you would.
No! [Laughter.] I guess it’s because — and I found this out with “Tree of Life” — when I answer questions, it’s not as interesting as an audience member solving it for themselves. I made a mistake at Cannes, after someone saw “Tree of Life” and totally loved it, and then they asked me something. I answered the question and, like, you could see them going, “What?” They were so disappointed with my answer! I was like, whoops, I learned my lesson right now.
Well, if they were asking you the question, it probably means they already thought they knew the answer.
Exactly! They have an opinion about what it is, and they want me to validate their opinion. They want me to agree with them so they can say, “Oh! I was right!” But if you say something else, they’re wondering, maybe I didn’t get the movie, maybe I didn’t understand it. It’s more interesting when we see ourselves in films, when they move us on a personal level. For me to impose what I think it is robs the viewer of that experience.
“Take Shelter” opens Sept. 30 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)