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The King is not a safe film with easily digestible morals and a righteous ending, and it has divided festival audiences and critics in Cannes and London, as co-writer and director James Marsh tells Andrew L. Urban on the eve of its Australian release. But it does star Gael Garcia Bernal in one of his first English language roles, as the confounding Elvis.

It’s 6.30pm on a cold late January evening in Brooklyn, New York, and there’s yesterday’s snow turned to slush outside the window of his bedroom. James Marsh has barricaded himself inside for our phone interview, safe from his two youngsters who are marauding in anticipation of evening food. His English accent is as clear as the day he left England for New York.

We are about to talk about his debut feature film, The King, which is dividing festival audiences and film critics with its challenging absence of moral definition; nobody can quite make out where the film is coming from. Or going to. After screenings at both Cannes and London festivals, “people were divided in their response. Some have taken issue with the film’s morality, while others like it for the same reasons,” says Marsh, completely unfazed by this polarity of opinion. (The commercial uncertainty about the film probably explains why it took a new, independently minded distributor, Jamie Bialkower of Jump Street Films in Melbourne, to take up the Australian rights.)

“It’s difficult to draw moral conclusions about the story and some people object to the portrayal of Christianity and sexuality. The response doesn’t bother me,” he says without arrogance, more out of a stoic understanding that he’s pushing sensitive buttons – especially at a time when certain Christian movements are propelling public debate and driving socio-political agendas. More on that later.

The moral compass is spinning like the head of a girl possessed. The film’s high profile and respectable cast makes things even less clear cut: there’s the Latin heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal in his first English language role; there’s the esoteric William Hurt, the sensitive and likeable Laura Harring, and the talented young actress Pell James.

"I happen to think he’s the most exciting young actor around"

“Bernal was cast early,” Marsh explains. “I happen to think he’s the most exciting young actor around. We sent him the script through the usual channels and got an immediate response from him and he’s been supportive all the way through the very difficult process of getting the film made.”

The story begins when young Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) is discharged from the Navy, and he goes back to Corpus Christi, Texas, to find the man who knew his late, Mexican mother many years before, and could be his father. He finds the guilt ridden David Sandow (William Hurt) who is now a preacher, with a wife (Laura Harring), a son (Paul Dano) and a daughter Malerie (Pell James). David is reluctant to let Elvis into his life. But he eventually does – with surprising and dramatic consequences; and Elvis falls in love with the 16 year old Malerie, triggering a tragic chain of events.

But it all began with the notion of envy as the elemental driving force for a screenplay. “I wanted to explore this primal form of killing … fratricide.” And why? “That’s a difficult question to answer,” he says slowly. “But maybe because I was brought up in a Christian household and I heard all the bible stories … and the one that stood out for me was Cain and Abel.”

He was looking around for a feature film to direct, when he “came upon a screenplay called Monster’s Ball, co-written by someone called Milo Addica. There seemed no chance of this script ever being made. Too dark, too dangerous, too many black characters. I wanted to write something as good as that and after a few cagey phone calls, Milo agreed to meet me somewhere in Texas where I had figured the story should be set. Whatever the story was. We ended up in Corpus Christi because I liked the name and had seen images of gothic looking oil refineries, nestling up against a tourist beach.

“In those cagey phone calls, we’d been talking about Bible stories and fairy tales and myths and discovered a mutual fascination for movies with the kind of structure and reversals and cruelty you find in legendary tales. We’d also talked about an anti-hero, a prodigal son and Milo suggested a guy who’s just got out of the navy who needs to find a home.”

It was also Addica who suggested the title Elvis, which Marsh resisted. For one thing, did people name their kids Elvis? And for another, Marsh had made an eccentric doco called The Burger and The King, which chronicled the life of Elvis Presley “via his cooks”. Marsh finally came round after he’d read a newspaper report of a Hispanic soldier back from Iraq, called Elvis. “There are a few Mexicans around southern Texas called Elvis … so we left it that way.”

"no wonder it’s a bit of a punch below the Bible belt"

The ideas started to form. “Our characters needed to be Christians. The father needed to be a minister. The navy guy needed to be a bastard come to get his inheritance. A king come to get his crown. His queen? He could fall in love with his sister without knowing who she was. That kind of thing always happens in legends. And at the end, our anti hero would commit the most appalling crime but he would take the Christians at their word and ask to be forgiven and saved just as it tells you in the Bible.” Bang! There it is, the subversive idea that drives The King, and no wonder it’s a bit of a punch below the Bible belt.

When they began work on it in 2001, they weren’t to know that “Christianity of a certain stripe” was going to be major political force in America. “Religion now plays a more significant role in the political culture of the nation than at any time in living memory and decisions based on faith, prayer and the notion of divine providence and forgiveness have become part of the political discourse.” The King coincides with the growth of that movement, just as films like The Conversation happened to be made at the time of the Watergate scandal.

Perhaps a bit too hot to handle, James Marsh is not yet in demand with the Hollywood studios following The King, hence he’s still living in New York. But he did get one offer: “to direct a full blown horror movie!” He declined.

Published February 9, 2006

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James Marsh - onset


Gael Garcia Bernal on set with Marsh

The King

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