American Masters Online interviewed JAMES DEAN: SENSE MEMORIES filmmaker Gail Levin.
American Masters: What got you interested in this project? What drew you to James Dean?
Gail Levin: Interestingly enough, there is a sort of circular story to this
There is a very famous photograph of James Dean taken in Times Square in
1955. He is walking in the rain, cigarette dangling from his lips,
the beauty of 1950's New York in varying shades of black and grey --
foggy, misty and utterly compelling -- in short a perfect picture...
perfect composition, perfect subject, perfect era, perfect mood.
I first saw this photograph at some point when I was in college and
noticed that the photographer was Dennis Stock.
Instantaneously I fell completely in love with the whole thing -- with
photography first and foremost, with the time, with James Dean, etc...
and, of course, I wanted to know Dennis Stock.
Years passed and in 2000 I had the opportunity to make the film MAKING THE MISFITS for Great Performances. That film involved the great
photographers from the prestigious photo agency Magnum, of which Dennis
is a member. At last I met him... and Dennis Stock has become my
At the beginning of 2004 Dennis phoned me to tell me of the 50th
anniversary of Dean's death, September 30, 2005 and to suggest that much
would be done to commemorate this anniversary and that we should make a
film. And of course a centerpiece to this film is Dennis and that
ever popular photograph of Dean in Times Square. T here is something
to that symmetry which thrills me -- that something/someone that so
excited me in so innocent a way, has come full circle and become a subject that I am entrusted
with in making a film.
Another aspect of the story of Dean I found quite compelling is that
unlike others he may be compared with -- Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando,
etc. -- he managed to achieve legendary status with only three films,
EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and GIANT. And within essentially an
18 month period, with primary emphasis on the year 1955. He died at
the age of 24, saw only one of those films released -- ironically the
film most identified with him, REBEL, had not yet been released at the
time of his death -- and within that very short trajectory Dean is
still a force today. Marilyn Monroe, conversely, died at the age of
37 and had many more films to her credit, so Dean's rise is
AM: Tell us about the title SENSE MEMORIES.
GL: I saw a book of essays by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders titled
EMOTION PICTURES and it struck a very responsive chord in me with regard to
James Dean and our film. This film is not a traditional biography with a
traditional chronology... in fact it inhabits its own ethos, so to speak. It
is interpretive, impressionistic, a "rashoman" of sorts, a collection of
memories and moments -- in the vein of "emotion pictures." And the title is
also meant to evoke the concept of the "method" in acting, drawing on
memory, drawing on life experience to inform a part or a role. Though Dean
was a member of the Actor's Studio and at the time the youngest person ever
invited in, he was really sort of the original method man -- everything
about him invoked his past, his own personal drama, his own angst. And so,
this title, SENSE MEMORIES, means just that... something sensual, sensitive,
even a bit sentimental and of its own sense.
AM: Did you learn anything that surprised you about Dean while making this
GL: I don't know that anything surprised me, but certain things have
Dean was on his way to becoming an extraordinary actor, this had somehow
not been explored before. He was a gorgeous creature completely
alluring to both men and women and, I felt, quite ahead of his time in his
tone and his look. Though often compared to Brando and very propelled
by Brando himself, his attraction, energy, even talent was really
something quite different. He himself is rumored to have said that on
one hand he embodied Brando saying "screw you," and on the other hand he
evoked another great actor of the time, Montgomery Clift, saying "help
There is no doubt he was a combination of both -- vulnerable and
threatening, sweet and suspicious, hot and cool.
But he took his acting chops seriously and though twitchy and probably
off-putting in certain instances, his dedication to his craft was
unquestionable. And this aspect of Dean has been, to my mind, quite overlooked.
It is also what
makes him very deserving as a subject for AMERICAN MASTERS.
AM: Are there any interesting anecdotes about the filming or, interviewees?
GL: First, I must point out that every single person in this film had a
direct link to Dean and knew him personally. And, although I don't
know that this is anecdotal, a very present subtext in this film is that
it is in fact fifty, count them, fifty years later. And while Dean is
frozen in time, the others are not. It was quite arresting, for example, to meet
Corey Allen, the robust, defiant "Buzz" of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and to
see him with Parkinson's disease... others visibly suffered other
However, they were also all quite accomplished,and all represent the
triumph and true magnificence of life. And all also represent the
extraordinary range of people who surrounded Dean, long before any of
them were yet who they would become -- including Dean. Each
consummate in their own way, everyone in this film is exceptional, and
everyone went on to achieve a certain greatness.
I would also like to make the point, that everything is first hand
memory and that rather than think of these people as interviewees, I
would rather consider them the characters of this film, of Dean's
life... they played a certain role in his life and I would like to
think of them the same way in this film. They populate this film as
real personalities not merely as interviews. If this were a feature,
for example, someone might play the part of Martin Landau... here
Martin Landau is himself.
AM: Could you describe the production process, anything about how you chose
to shoot the film?
GL: Actually this is a very deliberate film in terms of our process. I
worked extremely closely with the director of photography, Dewald
Aukema, to achieve a very specific look and feel for the film. It was
our desire to make the look for the "characters" very bold. We wanted
to essentially de-saturate the color -- almost to black & white, but not
quite -- just a tinge of hue in the shots. This is also to stay close to
the feeling of the black & white photographs and also to remain close to
the era -- 1955... because the entire film is set in that year we
wanted to make it very evocative all round.
Then the film clips, the archive footage from Warner Bros, our original
footage is in color... and again, this to separate the man, the
intimate side of the story telling, from the art, the films, the
AM: What do you think is Deans legacy? Is he as influential now as he ever
GL: Perhaps it is a certain androgyny which Dean evokes that makes him so
modern, so palpable, so timeless. Aside from his work, his image, his
sultry brooding, his hot/cool edge remains inimitable. He came at
just the right moment... informed an age with an aura at exactly the
point he was needed and then just as immediately was gone. This is
very powerful! He is forever young, beautiful, pained, brilliant,
impossible, endlessly seductive... and he delivered three exceptional
performances, so that adds to it as well. All three of his films
remain in the public consciousness, particularly REBEL and GIANT and he
has that seeming casual-ness that is forever in fashion -- that
seemingly heedless courage that is somehow eternal.
AM: What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
GL: I hope the audience will visit Dean in a new way... for those who don't
know of him, my hope is that they will be enticed to want to know
more... more than just that indelible image. And for those who think
nothing new can be derived from this subject, I hope they will feel this
film a fresh look at an old story -- a view of Dean that actually
achieves something else and reveals a real original, the rarest and most
sacred of characteristics...