Life – The James Dean story: A story about friendship and cultural change

More than half a century after James Dean’s death, he continues to fascinate. His life and death are the stuff of legend. But See-Saw Films did not set out to create a generic biopic either to celebrate the myth of James Dean or to refute it. The film-makers saw another possibility behind the icon— Life, a story about friendship and cultural change.

Two artists met: one a successful establishment photographer and the other a rebellious actor on the cusp of greatness and tragedy. Their uneasy relationship developed into a camaraderie that produced iconic images of a new generation of discontented youth and a new breed of film stars.

The story See-Saw tells emerged from patient research into the lives behind the myths surrounding their subject.

“There can be an instant excitement about the idea of doing a film about a real person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a story worth telling…. We went through a very heavy research phase, sifting through the myths and trying to get to the truth of the story while also making sure that it was emotionally interesting or dramatically interesting enough for us to start developing into a feature film.”

Producer Iain Canning

Meet the cast of the film

Screenwriter Luke Davies tackled a story larger than Life

Luke Davies (born 1962) is an Australian writer of poetry, novels and screenplays. His best known works are Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction (which was adapted for the screen in 2006) and the screenplay for the film Lion, which earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Luke Davies worked with See-Saw producer Emile Sherman on a film adaptation of Luke’s book Candy, and he knew Iain and Emile well.

Luke’s own early life story and writing had brought the collaborators together and sown the idea for pursuing an artist—actor, musician, writer, photographer—as a film subject.

James Dean was discussed, and Luke took on the project.

“I immersed myself in every single piece of information about James Dean,” says Davies, “and in the end, I had the broad stretch of his short life”. But one part stood out: Dennis Stock’s photo assignment trip with James Dean. Luke shared the idea with See-Saw. “That’s our movie,” said Iain. In 2010, Luke started writing the script. It became not a full biopic with a grand sweep, but “a short arc with grand themes,” says Davies.

Luke continued his investigation into Dennis Stock and the background to the famous Times Square shot of James Dean. His research included interviews with people connected to the story, including Magnum executive John Morris (played by Joel Edgerton) and Dennis Stock’s son Rodney, who was seven at the time of the story.

As he gathered biographical detail, he made a serendipitous discovery: “Act one, Los Angeles. Act two, New York. Act three, Indiana,” says Luke. “And going back to Indiana is like a journey into Jimmy’s past. Indiana represents traditional America of that era, and there is a tension between the farm and the world of fame.” Davies sees “an incredible turning point in the American zeitgeist” captured in the mix. Here were the origins of the sixties revolutions to come.

As Luke observes, “the kids who were fourteen and fifteen years old in 1955 watching Rebel Without A Cause“ saw themselves represented seriously and saw a foreshadowing of the coming cultural changes they would initiate.

“As for finding the right film title, Davies says, “This one was instant. There was never another title.” Dennis Stock is working on a LIFE magazine assignment, and life choices are at the heart of the story. Says Davies, “In a sense, the movie is at some deeper level about how mortality should affect the way that we choose to live here and now. So it’s a celebration of life and an elegy for James Dean’s death.”

With a thoroughly researched, well-written script in place, the development process continued. Iain and Emile approached Christina Piovesan about co-financing the film and producing it in Toronto. She had worked with the See-Saw producers before.

Christina says, “Emile and Iain are among the most creative and insightful producers out there. Iain’s creative and narrative skills are so honed, and it was a great opportunity to collaborate with producers who are absolutely at the top of their game.”

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The Story

It is hard to imagine the James Dean story without the images Dennis Stock captured. Chance played a role in bringing together the two young men. Dean resisted Stock’s photo assignment until some trust was formed and then only months later Dean was killed when he crashed his Porsche Spider, just after filming Rebel without a Cause and Giant. Dennis Stock’s photographs of Dean appeared in Life magazine and he went on to have a long career living into his eighties, and James Dean became a legend. Now the personal story of that remarkable photo assignment is told.

LIFE explores the genesis of and layers behind Stock’s famous pictures, published the day before the Times Square premier of East of Eden and James Dean’s overnight stardom. It humanizes the person behind the James Dean myth and reveals a conflicted young artist who resists the attempts of the industry to turn him into a star. It also personalizes the other man—the artist and documentarian behind the lens and instrument of fame. The authenticity of their story resonates in an era of celebrity culture, manufactured recognition, and cameras everywhere.

The photography from that 1955 trip permanently fixed the image of James Dean and heralded the emerging youth culture. A generation gap was growing, but much of the tension in LIFE comes from the differing sensibilities of two young people.

Iain Canning notes that “James Dean was a catalyst in popular culture, for people feeling it was acceptable to take a slightly different route in life, but for the Dennis Stock character, because he has had a family life and because that family life didn’t go to plan, he is looking at this young person and wishing he could turn back the clock.”

However, Dennis is “not able to be in the moment” the way that Jimmy is. Stock is struggling with the expectations of fifties conformity, while Dean is comfortably rejecting convention. Stock has been following the socially prescribed script: marriage, career, parenthood. However, he is dissatisfied.

His marriage has failed, and he has fled his parental responsibility. But he is still in pursuit of conventional success and works for corporate interests. Luke Davies points out that “Dennis is the hot young photographer for LIFE Magazine, which is read by thirty million people a week, and Jimmy’s a young actor who has made a handful of half hour TV shows and is in a movie that’s about to be released and might make him famous. So at this exact point in time, Dennis is the more socially powerful character, not Jimmy, and for Jimmy it’s this kind of bargain with the devil.”

LIFE captures James Dean’s dilemma. He desires success as an actor, but he wants to maintain his integrity, and he senses “the power of Warner Brothers and publicity and so on and has very ambiguous feelings about it,” says Davies. He wants the opportunities but with independence, and he would like to elude the celebrity machine. “So Dennis is the kind of person who Jimmy’s trying to avoid,” which doesn’t make sense to Dennis—“who wouldn’t want to have their photos take for LIFE magazine?” Davies calls it “a cat and mouse game” between Dennis and Jimmy.

There is friction between them. Dennis sees a professional opportunity, and James fears a professional trap. Cultural tensions play out in the relationship, and the story of their friendship is one of reconciling differences and finding common ground.

Eventually, they move toward what Davies calls “a kind of tentative affection” and “by the end of the film, each gives the other a profound gift about how to live. It’s always tinged by the sadness that James Dean is going to die, but it makes the gift no less valuable.” Canning remarks, “We see through this story how James Dean manages to get Dennis to open up and to embrace life in some ways, and then how James Dean is able to embrace the conflict of the commerce and the art of Hollywood.”

Canning remarks, “We live in a different age now. The documentation of celebrity has radically changed from the time when Dennis Stock was taking photographs to the current situation, and I think that in some ways the film celebrates that freedom in that Dennis Stock went on this sort of friendship trip with James Dean in L.A. and New York and Indiana, but it was just them together going off and taking these photos. It wasn’t as pre-planned or as organized or as complicated perhaps as today, and that’s very much a story of then versus now.”

Canning believes that from Dennis Stock’s perspective, the trip was about “documenting this person’s spirit in some way, not capturing a stolen moment but capturing a moment through getting to know the subject, caring about that subject, and understanding them better.” It is the kind of work that has made Anton Corbijn’s work as a photographer celebrated.

Director Anton Corbijn

In part, Iain Canning’s inspiration for a project like LIFE came from working on Anton Corbijn’s Control, a biographical film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Their association continued. Anton’s renowned career began in photography with his influential work in rock music, from which he moved into music videos and then feature films. Having set up their production company See-Saw, Iain and Emile worked with Anton on projects with Depeche Mode, U2 and Coldplay. While developing their project on James Dean, they saw a natural connection for Anton.

Iain comments, “I think there’s a lot of common ground between Control and LIFE because they both bring Anton to the core of what he’s known for outside of film.”

That common ground is photography and the influence of the photographer on the subject. Anton knew well the personal and creative relationships that can emerge, and in making Control he drew on his history of photographing Ian Curtis and Joy Division. He seemed perfect to direct LIFE, “a story about a photographer who works with either actors or musicians in terms of bringing out their soul and their spirit,” says Iain.

Christina Piovesan had worked with Corbijn in Montreal on a music video for Arcade Fire’s song “Reflektor” and says, “I spent hours in the car with Anton as we were location scouting, and he would tell me these amazing stories about all the people that he’s met and photographed.”

Anton is “a world-renowned photographer who has experienced what the film is about in his own life as a photographer,” She thinks the film spoke to him profoundly. “I remember seeing him talking to Rob in the dark room where he, as Stock, is developing the iconic photo of James Dean in Times Square. Anton was guiding Rob through that scene and he was just so animated and seemed to feel so at home in that dark room. It was exciting to see how he was communicating his passion to Rob.”

Canning notes, “What struck a chord for Anton, was the story of how a photographer can go on a journey with an artist and end up defining the iconography of that artist.” In addition, Dennis Stock’s photo assignment occurred the year of Anton’s birth, 1955, and Canning suggests that Anton felt an attraction to the idea of the photographer-artist relationship forming at the beginning of his own life. The stars seemed to align.

Luke Davies was thrilled when Anton came onboard. He was a fan of Control, and he recognized that LIFE connected with “Anton’s background and passion” because “he started life as a photographer, so he really understood Dennis’ character.” With Anton’s strong vision for the film, Luke knew his script was “in safe hands.”

Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson echo admiration for Control and confidence in Anton. Says Dane, “He’s a soft-spoken person, but he’s meticulous about the shot itself, and you leave knowing that the film is going to be shot beautifully.” Dane describes Anton as creating a reassuring atmosphere of calm, and Robert comments on the “formal elegance to the way Anton shoots things.” “He knows the movie he wants to make,” says Pattinson.

Anton wasn’t initially interested in doing another biographical project, but he wanted to work on subject matter less dark than in his previous films, and Iain brought him the “very well-written script” of LIFE. As well, Anton notes “the fact that Stock was a photographer photographing an interesting person who’s well known and who was in the arts. That’s kind of what I do.”

Anton’s own career was forged from the close working relationship he established with Dutch musician Herman Brood, who became Holland’s biggest rock star ever. Anton’s photographs were instrumental in Brood’s fame and he remained friends with the musician, as Dennis Stock might have done with James Dean had he not so suddenly died; however, Anton says, “I related to the story of being a young photographer starting out with someone whose career skyrocketed and left me behind.”

Anton, of course, has achieved his own fame, but he works behind the camera, so he relates to Dennis Stock. (They even share a common inspiration in photographer W. Eugene Smith, one of “the old masters,” says Anton.) He was drawn to the project and committed to it despite a tight schedule—Anton was still working on A Most Wanted Man a month before starting LIFE.

“It’s new for me to have films that close to each other, but I think we did very well…it feels like we have something special.” From Anton’s perspective, the strength of the film isn’t merely the James Dean material: “It is really the story of Dennis Stock. We see it mostly through his eyes…and a lot of emphasis is placed on his side of the story and how he experiences this friendship.” The photographer and the actor share the stage in LIFE.

Anton observes that “Jimmy and Dennis learn from each other; Dennis gets to look a little bit differently at his relationship to his son, and for James Dean it was quite interesting to have a friend with his own opinion, not a yes man. I don’t think Stock was that kind of guy.”

As for the real people portrayed, Anton acknowledges a sense of responsibility for accuracy but also points out that his work is creative: “obviously you want to stay close to the real person and at the same time it’s a film. In a film you always search for some kind of drama, but you don’t try to make a terrible person nice and vice versa. You try to give people depth to their character and motivations.”

But it takes great actors to realize a director’s vision.

LIFE is set in Los Angeles, New York, and Indiana.  Beginning February 18, 2014, principal photography was shot in Toronto and rural Ontario.  The location later moved to Los Angeles where filming took place at the Chateau Marmont and Pantages Theater, which was transformed to look as it was at the 1954 premiere of A Star is Born. Filming wrapped on April 1, 2014.

Designing the World Of Life

Iain Canning talks about the design of LIFE: “One of the biggest challenges is to link up our film photography with the actual photography of Dennis Stock.”  They had to integrate the original photography with the “poetry of the film.” It was important not to compromise the film for the sake of documentary accuracy, but the iconic photography and the emotional associations with it had to be honoured, too.  Canning says, “And so to do that, we had to raise enough money to make sure the production design and the feel of the film and the look of the film made sense for people who would go back and reference the photography.”  After all, this “is not a film with a gun in it. There’s no murder.”  The emotional drama of the film comes from the personal stories behind the iconography.  Iain says, “hopefully we managed to balance those things so that when people watch the film they can step back into a world that they had never seen because it was such an intimate journey between these two people.“

Production Designer Anastasia Masaro talks about her preparation for the film:  “This movie was different for me because we were dealing with real people and real places loved by many all over the world.  I wanted to be respectful while also supporting Anton’s artistic vision.”  Anton told Anastasia from the start “that he didn’t want a stylized version of the fifties.  He wanted it to look real.  His framing and compositions would be the style.  So, I built a colour palette for Los Angeles, one for New York and another for Fairmount (which was an amalgamation of the first two).”  Her approach meant extensive research: “I read biographies on both James Dean and Pier Angeli, and watched countless movies.  I had amassed a large amount of reference, but my gut told me to keep going.  So my set decorator and I drove down to Fairmount, Indiana, Jimmy’s hometown.”  They met with Marcus Winslow, who showed them the “large and majestic” Dean family property and provided details about the house in 1955.  Based on the visit, she says, “In the end we chose two houses, both on the same property in Ontario.  We used one for the interior and the other for the exterior and barn.”

Marcus Winslow also had the Fairmount Museum opened for them.  They were able to see some of Jimmy’s things up close and in colour.  Anastasia comments, “That was huge—so much of the reference was black and white.  There’s a danger with black and white photos—many people think that everything is just a variation of beige, black or white.  We were taking photos of colours and turning them into black and white to see how they contrasted, how they worked with each other.”

On the Indiana trip, Anastasia also visited Dave Loehr at the James Dean Gallery: ”That proved a little goldmine as well—he had a binder of old photos of Fairmount’s main street which were indispensable in creating our own version in Millbrook, Ontario.  He also had a few of Dennis Stock’s contact sheets from his trip to Fairmount with James.”

Production took careful control of design, but there was no controlling the weather.  Chistina Piovesan of Toronto-based First Generation Films talks about the difficulty of shooting LIFE on location in Canada: “We were excited about having these great filmmakers here, but they happened to come during the coldest winter in Toronto’s history of the past decade, so we were shooting in minus thirty-five degree Celsius.”  With extensive exterior shots, especially the scenes set at the Dean family farm in Indiana, the weather became a huge factor for all concerned.  Anton Corbjin describes it as “an incredible challenge that was really tough at times.”

Christina comments on the amount of outdoor filming: “There’s a huge section that takes place exterior on a farm, and Rob and Dane are in period costumes that are so slight while the crew were covered from head to toe with only eyes showing. They were such troopers to be shooting with Anton in this brutal weather.  The environment was hostile, but you can’t tell when you watch it, and that’s a testament to how professional they are.”  Despite the conditions, the actors performed and the crew persevered.  Christina says, “There’s one scene in particular outside amongst the livestock, and James is playing the bongo as Dennis is taking photos.  It was such a sight because Dane’s fingers were freezing and he’s trying to play the bongo.  Cows and a hog are running by, and Rob’s chasing Dane, and it was just very, very funny, but at the same time the crew was shivering and it was super painful to be in that weather.”

Luckily not all the locations were outside.  But the production designer was challenged to accurately reproduce some specific sites.  One was an acting studio where Dennis photographed Jimmy.  Anastasia explains: “We built the Actors Studio set at a location.  Research showed that the Actors Studio was undergoing a renovation at that time and the photos that Dennis took of James were actually taken at the Malin Studio in Times Square.”

Another location was Dean’s New York apartment: “Jimmy’s apartment was a real treat to get to build.” However, Anastasia says, “The only photos I could initially find were some of Dennis Stock’s and some of Roy Schatt’s photos of the apartment.  But I couldn’t find any pictures of the other side.  Enter Russell Aaronson—the man who’s been living in the apartment for 40 years.  He very kindly let me in to measure the space, and that’s when I figured out there had also been a potbellied stove in the room.  Russell was extremely generous with me and gave me further reading material.”

Luke Davies, the screenwriter, also gave Anastasia many leads: “We pieced together that there had been a piano in the apartment (you can see a piano bench in the famous photos).  As for the rest of the details, I read and read and kept reading and tried to include as much as I could—I put some of Marcus’ drawings up on his walls.”

With the design elements and period realism developed, the cinematography was established.  Anton Corbijn talks about the look of the film: “The way I photograph or visualize things is darker than this film, and Charlotte Bruus, the Director of Photography, is lighter, so it’s interesting to let that come into my life a bit.”  Although they hadn’t collaborated previously, Charlotte Bruus remarks, “I love Anton’s previous films and the style of the projects.” She describes their common interest in “human stories and focusing on personalities and personal development.” On that topic, Anton observes, “Like all my other films, it is still about loners, except now it’s two instead of one.” He laughs, “I’m doubling up.”  Charlotte is drawn to similar material, but she notes their different backgrounds: “I’m coming from moving images, and Anton’s coming from the still images, so we kind of challenged each other in a very interesting way.”  Dane Dehaan noticed the collaboration: “Working with Anton was really interesting because he comes from a background of photography. He has this beautiful collaboration with the DP that I’ve never seen before. They’ll take a lot of time setting up the shots and discussing details, and it’s an amazing thing to watch.”

Charlotte discusses the style they were striving to achieve: “The general look is trying to stay true to real world 1955.” The lighting needed to match “the documentary kind of feel of the scene so that it became James Dean’s and Dennis Stock’s actual life and not look like James Dean in the movies.” Charlotte and Anton didn’t have a lot of preparation time together before the shoot, but they had “the essential talks about the colours and what colours to avoid and the tone of the colours.”  They had felt “passionate about shooting on film for this project” because of the era and the major role of 35 millimeter film photography used by Dennis Stock in the story.  As well, “Anton shoots on 35 mil, and it’s just very good for shooting real life.“  They felt that film would tie everything together to achieve the cinematic look they wanted; however, for financial reasons they ended up shooting digital on the Alexa camera.  Still they tried to get the look of film with the price of digital.  They used “some old lenses from 1955” and the compromise pushed them to find ways to get the desired effect and decide where it was more important to match the old style, and ultimately, Charlotte smiles, “Pulling out those old photographs has brought out a lot of great energy!”