Loyalty, especially in Hollywood, is easy to profess, but sometimes hard to actually live out. In the process of bringing his first film Little Birds to light, Elgin James had more of a chance than most to see the loyalty of one of his collaborators tested. Juno Temple, fresh off huge films like Notes on a Scandal and Atonement committed to his film and gave a searing, raw performance as lead character Lily. Along the way the two grew very close.
But when James’ past came back to haunt him (he’d been part of a group that fought against racism and drug gangs in Chicago, sometimes violently) and he was sent to prison, it would have been very easy—advisable, even—for Temple to take a step back. Instead, she doubled down on the young writer/director.
“I’ve had two years to work with Juno,” James says, “and that just made so much difference because we have so much trust in each other. Besides my wife, I think she knows me better than anyone else. We went through hell to get this thing made. Especially with me being young in the film business, people always want to tell you, ‘Well, this is how this town works. These are the things you have to do to get a film made.’ And there were a lot of ways we could have sacrificed each other—especially after my arrest. People were telling Juno ‘You don’t want to be tied to this dude who’s about to go to prison.’ And she was just so incredibly, fiercely loyal to me.”
When asked about the choice, Temple matter-of-factly discusses how the two grew close over the two years it took to get the film made: “When I met him, there was just this instant connection and a feeling of wanting this person in my life,” she recalls. “And I guess he felt the same way. And then the film didn’t get greenlit for almost two years. And we met twice or three times a week to sit down and talk about Lily, and create this whole backstory about what’s gone on in her life. And we also just got to know each other really well. He very quickly became one of my best friends.”
It was important for James to have that kind of trusted partner, because the script he wrote was very personal. The wild, reckless main character of Lily has more than a little bit of the young Elgin James in her. “It started when I really wanted to tell the story of me and my best friend Bruce,” he remembers. “We were from different areas, but we ran away and both got in over our heads in this world of gangs and living on the streets. We came from nothing, and we built this thing—I don’t know, kingdom or empire sounds really grandiose, but something—out of garbage and filth. And as it went on, it really became two separate parts of myself.”
James and Temple shared a pastoral upbringing, but there were crucial differences in their backgrounds as well. “We both grew up in very rural settings,” says James. “I grew up in rural New England and she grew up in rural Southwest England. She had sheep and horses, and I had sheep and pigs as friends. You just have your imagination and your daydreams. But I just wanted to get out of there, and that’s where we differ. Juno is nothing like Lily. She’s like this sweet, angelic little English lass. But I was a punk rocker when I was 10 or 11.”
James’ rebellion had a familiar origin—extreme family drama. “I just had so much abuse at home,” he says, “and it was such a horrible situation. And I was like Lily because I thought, ‘I’m too smart, I’ve got too much fire, I’ve got to get out of here.’ And then finally once I did, I wanted the city. Concrete, asphalt, adventure. Even before I found punk rock, listening to Bruce Springsteen, who I still love, I’d hear songs like ‘Born to Run’ and think, ‘That should be my life.’ But then the city kind of chewed me up and spat me out. But now I feel like Alison; I’d give anything in the world to be able to go back to that small town and hear my mom’s voice again.”
Temple, meanwhile, had a happy upbringing in her rural environment. She did make some waves, though, when she told her filmmaker parents what her career plans were. “My parents are completely on the other side of it,” she explains. “They’re all behind the camera. And being told by your 15-year-old daughter that she wants to be an actress is not the most exciting news in the world, that’s for sure. They actually kind of thought ‘Oh shit.’ But they sent me to an open audition, and I waited in line for two-and-a-half hours and got the part. And that was for Notes on a Scandal. And my parents told me, ‘You know, things go downhill from here, Juno. They really do.’ And then my second movie was Atonement. And then both of them said, ‘Okay, maybe—well, good luck then.’ But they’ve been incredibly supportive.”
The character of Alison, the responsible influence on Lily’s life, fell to Kay Panabaker, who faced the unenviable task of walking into the middle of a longstanding and very close relationship between director and lead actress. But she was up for the challenge because she loved the character so much. “After reading the script,” Panabaker remembers, “the number one thing that I came away with for Alison was that her whole goal throughout the film, and their friendship before we see them in the film, is she is Lily’s confidante, her supporter, even a bigger supporter than her own mother. She’ll definitely say what she feels, but ultimately, Lily’s going to do her own thing, and she just wants to be there for her whether it goes good or bad. When I signed on for this, everyone was wanted Lily because its great and Juno’s so lucky. And, I think that character’s great, but I love Alison. She is sort of the rock to Lily’s craziness.”
James went to great lengths to bring Panabaker into the fold. “Kay had to come in after Juno and I had spent two years together as best friends,” he remembers. “Our families are so close, and we’re just so entrenched in each other’s lives. And then Kay comes in like a week before, and she just gives such an incredible quiet performance. They have this amazing push and pull, almost like jujitsu, where Kay totally has these strong waters flowing underneath her, and then totally waits it out until the end where we find out what each girl really is inside. We had to get to know each other really quickly. So she and I would literally be whispering secrets to each other between takes. I’d say why I wrote a scene or what it meant to me, share something about my mother or about growing up to make a connection, and she’d do the same thing.”
Panabaker’s quietness and stillness played well against the manic recklessness of Lily, Temple’s character. “She just went so far with the performance,” James says, “and was so brave and fearless, that the only thing I can compare it to is if you’re on top of a building and you’re holding your friend’s hand as they try to jump off. She just went for it. She was so brave in not caring about being liked in that role. Most actors are really scared of that. She just felt like she knew who Lily was, and no one could dictate that to her.”
Temple agrees; she doesn’t care what you think of Lily. “I wanted to create a character, and I didn’t care if she was unlikeable, if the audience was thinking ‘What a little bitch.’ I think a girl like that actually doesn’t like herself either. She hasn’t figured out how to like herself, and she’s just making one bad decision after another. And when it comes to that final scene that’s very life-changing for her, I think she really feels that she deserves it. That’s a hard head-space to be in. There was a lot of the time where at the end of the day I really needed a big hug.”
And of course, James was there to provide that hug. The closeness of the production probably had much to do with his personality and much to do with how personal the story is, and with how much he opened that story up to his collaborators. “I think the greatest thing about film is the collaboration,” he says. “At first I thought, man why can’t I do all this myself? I need so many other people to make this happen. But then that’s what makes it so magical; that’s what elevates it. I just wrote these words in Final Draft on a computer, but then these girls came in and gave it all their DNA. We all have this terrible wreckage and damage inside that we try to get out—along with the beauty and joy too! I try to get it out on paper, but then Kay and Juno come in, and they have their own horrible stuff and beautiful stuff inside them, and they brought it all to those performances. They brought so much of their own story to it. That’s what’s special about it.”
The admiration is mutual, Panabaker says: “He is probably my favorite director that I’ve ever worked with. Simply because so many other directors are focused on getting the right shot, and they’re more on the technical side. Then, when they do work with you as an actor, they tell you what they expect to see from you on camera. And him, he came from such an emotional part. He was so emotionally invested in this. It would become this organic thing between the two of us, with a little bit of him and little bit of me. That’s what I was so impressed with, that he was so giving of himself while working with us actors. That goes for the crew as well. I think all of us would have laid down everything for him to give him what he wanted as part of this project. That’s why I think it’s as honest and as raw as it is, because we all just wanted to give him the best of our best.”
The acclaim that Little Birds has received (it was a favorite at Sundance and other festivals this year) has led to a bright future for James. “Brian Grazer and the guys from Imagine have been incredible,” he says. “I have a couple of projects going with them. They were really loyal to me the whole time, throughout my being in prison and all that. And I’m developing something with Jamie [Patricof] and Lynette [Howell], who produced Blue Valentine. That’s a thriller that we’re doing. And Juno and I have two projects that we’re writing together.”
But for a long time, because of delays and drama, it looked this project would never happen. Leave it to the old showbiz hand of the bunch, 23-year old Temple, to provide the wise takeaway: “A production is going to get made when it’s the right time to get made. The waiting game is a nightmare, but sometimes it’s really worth the wait.”