We are sitting on one of those rooftops of old apartment buildings where tenants used
to hang their washing on a communal line, but the place has been gentrified and is now a
hip Kings Cross hotel. Dressed in dark casual clothes, Alison Maclean looks petite as she
sits in a low chair by a small wooden table under an umbrella sticking out of a hole in
its middle. It seems apt that we are above Sydney’s most famous
‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘colourful’ locale to talk about her latest film,
Jesus’ Son. Apt because the film is set in the world’s most cosmopolitan –
and colourful - city, Manhattan.
By colourful one could also mean something else: Kings Cross, like our disconcertingly
named hero, Fuckhead (FH for short), is full of drugs.
For reference, Maclean refers us to Lou Reed’s song, Heroin, and the lines,
"When I’m rushing on my run / and I feel just like Jesus’ son…"
Well, we’ve got that covered, so we talk about pulling together the episodic
material of the series of short stories from which her film sprang. The result, in
summary, is this: A young man known only as F**khead (Billy Crudup) recounts some of his
experiences while drifting across America, thieving and taking on various low-paying jobs
to support his drug habit. These include working nights in a hospital emergency ward,
tearing out the copper pipes of an abandoned house to sell the spare parts. But sooner or
later, practically everything F**khead gets involved with goes wrong including his
relationship with Michelle (Samantha Morton) who's also a junkie. Finally, editing a
newsletter in an institution for elderly and disabled people, he discovers that compassion
gives his life purpose.
"As a director," Maclean explains, "I was excited by the fact that it
wasn’t naturalistic. It’s like someone in a bus telling you episodes of their
life, each with their own particular flavour. They’re engaging … like a tall
tale you’ve told too many times and the reality is it didn’t even happen that
way, but still carries an emotional charge."
That notion, she felt, gave her licence to ‘push’ the stories. She’s had
some "nice phone calls and emails from other directors, but some people don’t
like it," she says matter of factly. "And the book’s cult followers are
"does it glamorise drug use?"
This is a little unexpected, considering what Jake Wilson, one of our critics, says in
his REVIEW of the film: "A dumb question that's often asked about films like this:
does it glamorise drug use? Well, yes, absolutely. Who could be more glamorous than this
implausibly good-looking loser and his even prettier girlfriend, as they loll around tacky
motel rooms, have lots of sex, watch daytime TV and shoot up? This idyll will especially
captivate viewers who take lots of drugs themselves…"
Perhaps the followers of the book are annoyed that there isn’t more substance
abuse: "the biggest change we made was expanding the character of Michelle,"
says Maclean. "The love story became a kind of glue for the movie."
Other than drugs, though, Jesus’ Son is full of music. And it’s not always
used as a sort of emotional version of a laugh track. Maclean is ambivalent about music in
film, altogether. "I shift my ideas between using it as a sort of laugh track and as
a useful device outside of that. In Jesus’ Son it’s like a commentary and a
counterpoint to what you’re seeing. I frequently find film music intrusive and
Canadian born, temporarily New Zealand based and a New Yorker since 1992, Alison
Maclean was one of those young filmmakers whose zeal and invention drove her to early
success, with Crush, her first feature, selected for Competition in Cannes, and screened
at both Sundance and Toronto film festivals. Her short film, Kitchen Sink, a darkly
humorous tale, also competed at Cannes and won eight international awards. Another short,
Talkback, was Best Short Film at the New Zealand Film & TV Awards. Maclean is now
developing screenplays with Francis Coppola’s company and Miramax.
Next up, though, "a reaction to what I’ve just made…so, a simpler movie
with fewer characters, and going back to the mood of Crush: a thriller/horror."
"observing human life"
She says she’s not "as zealous about filmmaking" as she used to be.
"Partly that’s because I rarely see a film that matters – in the sense of
doing something new in the language of film and also in the sense of observing human life.
But I’m always looking…"
Publication date: 31/8/00