On the surface, Little Birds seems like your typical, forgettable independent film. It's a quiet coming-of-age tale of two friends with emotionally absent parents wading through their vacuous wasteland of a hometown, the Salton Sea, who decide to follow a group of punks back to Los Angeles. But it doesn't end the way you just pictured in your head, nor does it leave you unaffected.
Little Birds, which premiered at Sundance in 2011 and is out in limited theaters now, makes you actually care about something other than what you'll pick up for dinner afterward. Maybe that's because it came from a very real place: the life of its director, Elgin James.
James, who was a moviebuff since he was a kid, is a newcomer in Hollywood, but his name has certainly been whispered in the grittiest parts of the US. Before being recruited to develop his film at the Sundance labs, James, now 42, was the leader of the dangerous gang F.S.U. (Fuck Shit Up), whose mission was to destroy drug dealers and neo-Nazis, that started in Boston but has since developed chapters all over the nation. After stints in jail, James has completely renounced his gang-life and is now sober and happily married.
But, of course, James couldn't realize his dream, which would ultimately give him redemption, without a cast to bring it to fruition. Leading a roster of talent that includes Leslie Mann, Kate Bosworth, Neal McDonough and Kyle Gallner, Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker are two of the most promising young actresses in the industry right now. Temple, 23, is known for her fearlessness and willingness to embody the most risqué characters (just watch Killer Joe). Panabaker, 22, is a sweet staple in family-friendly films who's now showing audiences a more contemplative side to her.
Together, James, Panabaker and Temple toiled for days on the film that would ultimately become a shared passion project between the three of them. Complex got a chance to speak to the trio about their experience on set, how James' criminal past affected the film, and what Little Birds ultimately means to them.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Elgin, since this was inspired by your own life, why did you decide to focus the film on the friendship between two girls?
Elgin James: Me and my best friend had been through all this bad stuff. We were bad, angry, lost, violent kids. We kind of came together, ended up in Boston homeless and started this whole gang and what we thought was an empire, but it was an empire built on garbage and filth. We had nothing else at the time.
When I sat down to write it, I just left a project that was about my life. It had an A-list actor, an A-list director, and I just walked away from it because I was afraid that it started to glamorize violence and everything I stepped away from. I wasn’t going to write or direct it or anything, they were just going to take my life’s story. Then, when I sat down to write it myself—I’d never written a script—I was like, “Oh yeah, I don’t know how to do this either without making it sound like I was trying to lead people to what I just left.”
And then I thought about all the strong women in my life—that’s one of the reasons I’m alive and going—my mom, my wife now, and Juno Temple. I have older sisters, so I was the pest because I would follow them around. They’re so fascinating and their friends were so fascinating.
When I sat down and tried to write through their eyes, it just came easier and I felt like I could be more open emotionally. I could make myself more vulnerable than if I was trying to tell my own story for real or just make it about guys. I could go to a place where I normally wouldn’t go and be more honest about it.
And girls are just so much more interesting than guys. When I say something, I mean one simple thing. But when my wife says something, she means one thousand things. [Laughs.] I can only figure out the first three things she’s talking about. So with these female characters, I think it’s more fascinating, especially when you’re a young teenager and you just can’t say what you want.
What was your technique for making sure you captured the authenticity of the story?
James: It’s not your actor’s job to perform, it’s your director’s job to make them feel like they're in a very safe environment where they can jump and fall and know they’re going to be caught and it’s going to be OK. I had this amazing mentor named Joan Darling who was one of the first television directors. She was nominated for an Emmy for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. She took me under her wing because when she started, she was the only woman in her industry and no one took her seriously. So, she took that pity upon me. Her thing was, “You have to give everything of yourself to the actors. For them to give you 100%, you need to give them 120%."
Personally, I feel like I have this wreckage of beauty and joy and horror that I tried to get out, and I did that on paper, but then that’s just it. It’s just words. But then Kay and Juno, and all the other actors, came in and made the film their own with the beauty and wreckage and horror inside themselves. [Laughs.] They made it into this really organic thing. It was hard because I wanted to be right with them while they did it. I promised them that they would be safe and that I’d never make them look foolish.
Also, I think as a filmmaker I got really informed by my collaboration with Juno because she acts so much with every ounce of herself. I lost my friend when we were filming her. We couldn’t talk about it until a couple months later but I was like, “I didn’t know where you were and where you stopped and the character started." And she was like, “Yeah, I didn’t know either.” [Laughs.] But that’s how I learned to direct the same way, just give everything of yourself.
This film was a longtime coming. What happened within the two years it took before this film could be made?
Juno Temple: It didn’t get green-lit for that amount of time, so Elgin and I were like, “Fuck it, let’s hang out and create this character.” We always met at this one cafe called Fred 62 in Los Feliz. We’d go and we’d kick it and talk about Lily until the character jumped over the moon and we felt like we really knew her. Then, we’d talk about ourselves until we really got to know each other, too. It was a very special way to develop a friendship because we met in this room and he offered me the movie, and instead of just walking away and being like, “See you when we’re shooting!” we really wanted to hang out.
James: We went through every crack and blemish of each inner world. Especially when you’re trying to get it made, there were a lot of instances of people, especially towards Juno and I, saying, “Well, this is how the film industry works.” They were trying to get us to break apart at certain times, especially during my arrest. I think her people were like, “Yo, you don’t want to be associated with this guy.” We both said, “Well, these are the kind of human beings that we are and we’re going to bring that to our art and we gotta do what we gotta do together.”
Kay, how did you fit in given Elgin and Juno already had been working together?
Kay Panabaker: It was very intimidating at first. I thought it was going to be like, “Oh this is our film and you’re just an outsider joining us,” but they were more than welcoming and they let me do my own thing with my character. Fortunately, the first week of filming was all of the stuff at the Salton Sea, so Juno and I really got to work on our friendship more on camera and I think it worked out really well for us.
Juno and I would stay up late eating junk food, watching bad movies and talking about our lives and the hardships and the heartbreak that we’ve all gone through. She was really great support for me. There were a couple scenes where I had to be sobbing and she’d come, even though her character wasn’t there, to be there to support me and help me through it.
We’re not trying to be award-winning. We’re not trying to get people to love it. We just want people to see the film and feel something.—Panabaker
And Elgin, I can’t say enough good things about him. When most director’s give direction, they say, “OK, remember, this is where your character is and I need to get this kind of reaction from you, he’d come and he’d tell me a story about something that’s happened in his past. He’d be like, “This is the part of my story that I’m trying to convey” and I’d say, “This is the part of my story that I’m bringing to the scene,” and he’d try to find a marriage between the two. That was an incredible amount of trust that we placed in each other.
Temple: I’m pretty open and Kay and I clicked pretty quickly, honestly. Elgin picked me and her up in his truck with his beautiful wife Liz and we drove down to the Salton Sea together. When we got there, we were both a little freaked out by the hotel and me and Kay ended up staying in the same room. And yeah, we ended up having slumber parties every night, having marshmallows on toast and stuff. It was fun to have another girl, and we were both very open to each other.
James: Kay was so brave and jumped right into it. Her and I had to get to know each other so quick. In between takes, Kay and I would literally just be together whispering and I’d tell her where this came from for me, and stuff about my mom and growing up.