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Tribeca ’08: James Mottern on “Trucker”

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05052008_trucker1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

It’s typical to assume when you sit down with a director that they have a love of film, but in James Mottern’s case, his enthusiasm for the medium is infectious. When asked why he cast the perennially underrated Michelle Monaghan as the lead in his first film, “Trucker,” he’ll simply ask in return, “Did you see ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’?” That leads to a conversation about the little-seen 2005 drama “Winter Solstice” and the way Monaghan caught his eye in the background of a scene, and the next thing you know, you’re talking about the way her eyes crossed in a segment for “North Country.” That attention to detail is what might also be most impressive about Mottern’s nuanced directorial debut, which premiered at this year’s the Tribeca Film Festival. Though he’ll rattle off his influences and the films he loves from the 1970s with reckless abandon, Mottern’s “Trucker” is an original concoction that stars Monaghan as a mother whose hard living is interrupted by retaking custody of a young son she left long ago, with enough cursing between the two to make, well, a trucker blush. Mottern recently sat down to talk about his gritty character study, his war against sentiment and why not getting your film into a particular festival shouldn’t be the end of the world.

Was this an attempt to class up a genre previously dominated by “Over the Top” and “Black Dog”?

[laughs] Yeah, it was conscious in the sense that when I was little, one of my favorite movies was “Smokey and the Bandit.” It’s a great film because it’s exactly what it is. It’s an interesting movie in that way. But this film is more informed by certain classic ’70s movies, like “Five Easy Pieces” or “The Last Detail” — I know these are all Nicholson movies — that almost are genres unto themselves because they’re usually about one character going through this process and, a lot of times, there’s a breeziness to their character. There’s a sense of humor about it, but there’s an undercurrent of melancholy, a real human feeling to it, so that was what appealed to me about the story as I was writing, the subtext of it. Michelle’s like that. You look at her and she’s very beautiful, there’s a lightness to her but at the same time, whatever she’s got runs very deep. It’s a depth that some of the greatest actresses that we know have.

It was surprising that you could read the plot synopsis for this film and think it probably couldn’t avoid being melodramatic — there’s an estranged mother taking in her young son as his father languishes in a hospital — but there’s no sentimentality to this film whatsoever.

Because you’ve seen that story about 500 times.

Was that something you had right from the start and had to protect?

I think of sentiment, any sentiment, as a constructed emotion that’s been created by movies. I don’t know where it comes from because I don’t think it’s a real human emotion. I don’t think people have “sentiment.” I think they have love, fear, anger, compassion, but “sentiment” is not an emotion, it’s a reflex to emotion. So from the very beginning, I wrote it with restraint against that. It was a challenge. The beauty of the story was that it was familiar, but you have a mother and a son — if you want to be sentimental, it’s all there for the picking, but I really wanted to let the story tell itself and have an openness to it.

05052008_trucker2.jpgPeople want you to do it. When they read the script, they’re like, “I don’t really like it. I don’t like her… you could get more tears out of this.’ It would never appeal to me. In a movie like “The Last Detail” where there’s no sentiment at all, there’s a shot where Randy Quaid does the semaphore and then [gets] the crap beaten out of him. There’s a tragedy to that, but there’s no music, just the sound of the leaves and the flailing far away. You feel it because you’ve been allowed to feel it. It was a ’70s movie, and there’s no sentiment in those films because they’re trying to tell a true story. Those films informed me that it’s important to tell the story, not the sentiment of the story.

The other thing that was interesting in the film was how gender roles was defined — having Monaghan play a role that usually would be reserved for man and you have dialogue referring to what makes a good man — was that a thread you wanted to follow through?

A lot of this film is about identity, that you live your life and you think you have free will. But as you walk around in the day, whether it’s the way you look, your gender, the way you behave, the sound of your voice, you’re immediately identified and categorized by people. They’re trying to tell you who you are at all these points and you begin to believe it, it chips away at your freedom until you have no free will. You’re beholden to these people who are identifying you. [Monaghan’s character] Diane says “That’s not who I am. That’s not who I am.” To me, that’s why she’s a hero — she does resist that categorization by other people. It wasn’t so much role reversal, because I never thought of this movie as being a woman’s movie. It was always [about] a human being first.

Knowing your background with Slamdance, where you were once a festival producer, what’s the experience been like to switch sides from producing a festival to participating in one as a filmmaker?

The thing I like about those films [at Slamdance] is that not all of them are great, but there’s always some little nugget that’s good in each one of them. It’s always like filmmakers first, and to me, Tribeca is very similar in that sense that it was started not by a city to promote the city, but in a response to 9/11. I’m religious about movies anyway, that some of the great films would suggest somebody is finding redemption or salvation or freedom. It’s a very American phenomenon to have that feeling.

The other thing about Tribeca is that they have a very high regard for the history of film in terms of American history and influence and what films have meant to people beyond the box office. It depresses the shit out of me when I’m listening to Indie 103 in L.A. and they have the Sundance Report. You tune in and you’re like alright, tell me what the movies are, and the first thing they do during the Sundance Report is tell what the sales were of these films and it’s pathetic.

“Trucker” was bandied about as one of the titles that might’ve been selected for Sundance. Were you actually aiming for that before Tribeca?

Yeah, but I think that when you’re making a film you’d hope that everyone’s working together for what they believe in — that’s why you’d do it. An independent film, no one’s paying you any money to do it. You do want your film to sell because you want people to see it — you don’t make it to put it in your bureau. But when there are these big festivals, you find yourself almost making a film for the people who run the festival — will it get in? Who’s there? Who will like it? Who knows someone who’s at the festival? It’s almost like the festival becomes a distributor who you haven’t even sold the film to.

For Sundance and this film, it was being bandied about because I always thought it was great and people will tell you, “This is a Sundance film,” but I always thought this is any festival film because it’s going to be great. For me…and Sundance, God love ’em… I wanted to finish my film. I didn’t have a score in, so we were all like let’s just finish it, you know, because it’s going to be a good film.

05052008_trucker3.jpgI was curious about it because I knew it did have that history.

And that’s the other thing — so it’s bandied about that it’s going to get into Sundance, right? And so people then say “What is wrong with it that it didn’t get in?’

It comes off as damaged goods when you don’t get in.

But it’s…. not done. [laughs] I learned a valuable lesson — the movie that you are going to make you should make, come hell or high water. I’m [actually] very positive about that experience, but it discourages me when I see filmmakers have that feeling that their film didn’t get into a particular festival. I have friends that didn’t get into this festival and it’s divisive. It makes it so that these filmmakers that have worked together or have tried to nurture each other are suddenly divided by a festival because the festival is suddenly qualifying the value of your film.

What’s next?

I would like to be in the Michelle Monaghan business for the rest of my life, because I really think she’s one of the greats. When she agreed to do the film, we went through the script and talked about this character and by doing that with her, I found things in the script that I hadn’t seen before and it informed me about things that I wanted to do that I hadn’t thought of. So for me to be able to work with Michelle, it’s what I would consider as almost joint filmmakers. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I’m working on a few things for her and then I just finished a Hal Ashby-ish kind of comedy and we’ll see what happens with that. But I’m always working on a bunch of different things.

[Photos: “Trucker,” Plum Pictures, 2008]

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