Like so many filmmakers at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, Dennis Lee is looking for distribution for his feature film. But Lee has a stack of Hollywood royalty behind him that others just don't: a student Academy Award, Michael Sheen and Toni Collette, and an executive producer named Julia Roberts.
Jesus Henry Christ is a formally stylised, absurdist comedy that centres on a 10-year-old outsider, Henry, played by Jason Spevack. A boy genius, speaking in full sentences at 9 months of age and in college at 10, Henry is raised by his loving single mother, Patricia (Toni Collette). He desperately wants a father. When he discovers that he was conceived through in vitro fertilisation, he sets out to find his biological father, Dr. Slavkin O'Hara (Michael Sheen). Dr. O'Hara is the author of the book, 'Born Gay or Made that Way,' which takes as its subject Henry's half-sibling, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein). Of Henry, Lee says: “He's 10-years-old and still has a tonne of childlike qualities but he's an outsider, because he's a 'freak'. It makes him, in one way, a uniquely special person, but in another way I think we all have the propensity to want to fit in and find our place in the world.”
The son of liberal Korean-American parents, Lee says that he simply didn't know filmmaking was an option for a career. “Growing up there was still the expectation that you are going to be a doctor or a lawyer and do better than your parents did. It wasn't until I moved to New York City that I started to get exposed. You can't walk through the streets here without seeing a production.” Instead of law school, Lee went to film school. He wrote his thesis short film, Jesus Henry Christ, at Columbia University's MFA Film Program. It later won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Award, and the feature-length script of film scored the Tribeca All-Access Award in 2005. It was soon optioned by Tribeca and developed at the Institute. The script that emerged was the one that Lee then went on to film with the support of Roberts' production company, Red Om Films.
Lee says he always had Collette and Sheen in mind for the lead roles. “The first time I saw Michael was in The Queen. Later, I saw him on 30 Rock, and he was so hilarious. He has a comic flair. He's one of the most brilliant actors I've ever seen. It's the same thing with Toni. The first film I saw her in was Muriel's Wedding and I couldn't bring my mind away from her performance. Then The Sixth Sense, amongst a slew of other things, but it was The United States of Tara when I realised she is a chameleon who is utterly believable in everything she does.” Both actors responded to the material. “I remember getting the message saying that I could go ahead and say that Toni Collette and Michael Sheen are attached to Jesus Henry Christ. That was a good call.”
Lee describes being surprised during the casting process for the children, Henry and Audrey, played by Jason Spevack and Samantha Weinstein. “When Jason came in, we knew he was Henry but with Audrey,” he says, “you couldn't find a more different girl [in Samantha]. She is bubbly and happy and energetic. Then, when I called action in the audition, her entire face went slack. She just got this deadpan sarcasm, this defence wall that she put up for the camera to see. She understood that it's not about big moments. It's just little things in her eyes. It needs to come from the inside out and Samantha got that right away.”
The film was shot on location in Ontario, Canada over 23 days. “Everything was scheduled down to the minute,” states Lee. “We had so many locations and so many little vignettes and each of those were a set up. We were averaging 35 to 40 set ups a day, when the average is 10 to 20. That credit goes to homework done before we arrived for principle photography. We knew how and what we wanted to shoot.”
This preparation, as well as the highly stylised aesthetic of Jesus Henry Christ, allowed Lee to spend more time with the actors once on set. “With young actors I don't rehearse,” Lee explains. “It's about them getting to know one another. You want them to be as natural as possible on camera. With Michael, he knew pretty precisely what he wanted and what he wanted was what I wanted. There were of course discussions about back-story and character but he knew what he wanted and when I was listening I thought it was perfect. Toni's preparation is different. She's a force of nature. She's funny, she's vulgar and I love her to death. She has an idea of what she wants to do and you work with her on different takes to tweak her performance, you give an adjustment. Toni knows when she's nailed it.”
Jesus Henry Christ is screening as part of the World Narrative Features Competition at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.