Connie Britton Reinaldo Marcus Green and Maxwell Jenkins on the set of Joe Bell. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Finally, after months of anticipation, rumors, gossip and innuendo, it happened: Joe Bell hits theaters on July 23.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, where it received accolades for its leading performances by Mark Wahlberg, Connie Britton and, in particular, Reid Miller. Based on a true story, Joe Bell follows the titular grieving father (Wahlberg) on a walking trip across the United States to become aware of the bullying. With him is his son Jadin (Miller), alternately encouraging and ridiculing him. The flashbacks provide context for their controversial relationship: Jadin became gay in high school, which became an embarrassment for Joe and Jadin’s mother, Lola. A tragedy upsets the family and pushes Joe to cross the country to redeem himself in Jadin’s eyes. Redemption, however, is not easy.
Joe Bell marks director Renaldo Marcus Green’s second feature film. He arrived on the film scene in 2018 with his film Monsters and Men, which won Best First Feature at the Sundance Film Festival. Hailing from Staten Island, New York, he received widespread acclaim in Monsters and Men as well as Joe Bell for his exploration of male identity and for humanizing the stories exaggerated in the media blitz.
Joe Bell underwent a title change and distributor reshuffle after TIFF 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We met director Green at the festival and are excited to finally share our interview with him just ahead of the long-awaited release of the film. Joe Bell arrives in theaters July 23.
What was your festival experience with all this virtual craziness?
Unfortunately, this year many of us were unable to attend the festival. Toronto has incredible reach. They’ve done a great job giving people the best possible chance to see movies online and in drive-ins. They are getting as innovative as they could. I have heard positive things from people who have been able to see films in theaters. So it’s great from afar.
Reid Miller and Mark-Wahlberg in Joe Bell. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert.
This is your second feature. How do you go from a gritty urban drama to the story of a guy walking across the country?
It seemed gritty to me. I always wanted to do a lot of road trips, so a road trip movie? Look, I got an email that said “Script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana”. So like a kid in a candy store, as a filmmaker, you tear these packages open to open them. So I did. I read it. I had an emotional reaction. I didn’t know what the process was or where they were, but Mark Wahlberg was already attached. Part of the process was getting the room with Mark.
I was living in Italy at the time and flew from Italy to Boston. It was a crazy trip. It was a one hour meeting. I met Mark somewhere in a dark room and at the end of the conversation he told his assistant to give me his number. I was like wait, did I get the job?
I did not know. It opened up a whole new chapter in Hollywood. In this conversation with Mark, like any director, you seek the truth. He felt really invested in the role and the complexity of the character. Everything that drew him to the story was real. He was going to give her devotion. It was amazing to hear as a young director how passionate he was about history. So, to hear that from your lead actor, it’s not always that common that you have three or four months of rehearsal with someone. It’s very rare.
Mark was like, they don’t put on false beards. We cultivate it. I am losing weight. It was clearly something he took very seriously. I think Joe’s character – Mark really responded to him, and he didn’t want to shy away from some of the things he does in the movie. He wanted to embrace them and amplify them. [We both felt it was] important not to flirt. We wanted it to be real. So it was an incredible encounter for me: to look in the eyes of my lead actor and to know that I would have a collaborator and someone to give all their heart to the story. When you start from a place of love, in my mind you can only do good. So it was an excellent starting point.
Reid Miller in Joe Bell. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert
Few of the names among writers dominate in Hollywood, but Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana do. What kind of communication did you have with Larry and Diana?
To be completely honest, I haven’t had much contact with them. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to, it just didn’t happen. The scenario had existed for a few years. Cary Fukunaga, who is the producer of the film, had developed the script with Larry and Diana. I think it was three or four years of development.
They had collectively interviewed all family members and all their friends. They had done a tremendous amount of research before I got it. When I got the script Cary had kept doing [No Time to Die]. So I came to help shape it a bit. It was a good script, but it was long. We had to shave it to do it, otherwise we would never be able to turn it or budget it. So it really cut a lot of tapestry — landscapes and things that we could never have filmed. If I had had seven months to shoot In nature like Sean Penn, I could do those scenes. So it was painful to cut anything from a Larry & Diana script, but hopefully we cut the beauty pics. We didn’t want to do a travelogue, but we wanted to take the trip. And it was full steam ahead when I got on the project.
I have to ask, is it intimidating to work from a script by such respected writers?
A little bit yes. The absolute thought was do i really want to come from behind a movie like Brokeback Mountain, which one is perfect? It is a recipe for disaster.
But then, why not? My whole life has been faced with fears. So I felt like I was facing my own fear this way. Going back to my younger days, I was a semi-professional athlete, a pitcher. And that’s the most scary position, and to win the game you can’t go out and be nervous. So I kind of conditioned myself to take on tough challenges like the challenge in this movie. I also wanted to say that it is not brokeback mountain. This is my movie. This film is a masterpiece, but we are making our own film which will hopefully touch hearts in our own way.
There is a specific scene I want to ask you about, one of the most delicate in the film. Jaiden calls his best friend just before his trip to the park. It’s a cry for help. Reid Miller is excellent at conveying this desperation. How do you manage to direct an actor so young to reach that kind of emotional background?
You know, sometimes there are some magical moments that happen on a movie set. If you remember that scene, he’s standing in an alleyway. And the light was amazing. It was as if he was writing it with us. The light dictated the scene that day. Reid is an amazing actor, so he had this vulnerability. Sometimes it’s on the first take, sometimes it’s taking six. And that was take six: one of those times I knew there was more in the tank. So when I didn’t call cut he knew he had to dig deeper. And a good actor knows it.
They are real tears. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but he’s banging on something. It is to become Jadin. And it is not the tears per se; this is the exit. And Reid broke the movie. This scene was amazing to see him let go. It was beautiful to see. It is heartbreaking.
He’s wonderful, and I would add: I know a lot of queer people who have been through this moment, especially a lot of young gay boys. It’s powerful to watch.
Mark Wahlberg in Joe Bell. Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert
Joe, on the other hand, is such a frustrating character. He desperately loves his family, including his son Jadin, but doesn’t know how to communicate it. Do you see this as a flaw specific to his character, or is it part of a larger issue with his view of masculinity?
I think it’s a combination of the two. It’s definitely his character, and it’s something we’ve embraced. Joe found it hard to express his feelings. What he wanted for his son might not be what Jaiden needed. We all need someone to open our eyes someday. Hope Joe’s point of view helps other people see it for themselves. There are a lot of people in society who are accomplices and don’t know it, they don’t know that they are part of the problem. A lot of people want to do good, they just don’t know how to do it.
There’s a lot of Joe Bells in the world that can relate to that, a lot of families. I think the more we can anticipate the situation, the more we can avoid tragedies. I hope the film positions itself that way, to be part of the solution.
Well said. When you’re dealing with a character like this who is potentially so alienating and doesn’t know how to show his vulnerability, how do you open him up in such a way that he’s accessible to an audience?
I think Mark is naturally relatable. It’s part of who he is. I think Mark’s cast is a really strong choice because he relates to the Joe Bells of America, and that’s a lot of his audience. I think what’s important is that we don’t take that for granted in the movie. We don’t let him get away with it. We show the complexity. We show anger. We show love. We show the levels of a human being, which makes Mark’s performance so much more important. I think we have to understand this part of the story to move forward, and who better than Mark Wahlberg to get us there? I think he did an amazing job, and Larry and Diana set him up in such a way that they don’t let him get away with it. It gives the audience a way in, and in some ways, a way …