One of the most buzzed-about films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was Dennis Lee’s “Jesus Henry Christ.” The film centers around a 10-year-old prodigy, Henry James Herman (Jason Spevack), who was conceived in a petri dish. Raised by a single hippie mother (Toni Collette), Henry embarks on a quest to find his biological father. And it is on this pilgrimage that the film takes off in a wildly different and modern direction.
“Jesus Henry Christ,” distinctive for its snappy dialogue and quirky humor, features veteran actors Collette and Michael Sheen alongside newcomers like Spevack and Samantha Weinstein. Julia Roberts served as the film’s executive producer.
I recently talked to Lee about his film, working with Hollywood’s most bankable star and life inside the Hollywood fishbowl.
Rawan Jabaji: What inspired you to write “Jesus Henry Christ”?
Dennis Lee: “Jesus Henry Christ” is based off my short film with the same title that I made while I was a Columbia University studying graduate school film. And I made the short and it did exactly what a short film is supposed to do for a young director. So I took the title character and the name of the short and I just placed Henry in a difference context and wrote the feature from there.
Jabaji: Henry’s an unusual protagonist. How would you describe him?
Lee: We’re catching [Henry] in the story of his life when he first starts to ask the questions of “Who am I?,” “Why am I here?” and “How do I fit in?” And so he starts to ask the questions for himself, which leads to the question of “Who’s my father?” and that pretty much propels everything from that point on. So he’s the engine that motors the movie.
Jabaji: This is not the first time you’ve worked with Julia Roberts. How did you establish a working relationship with her? And how did she get involved in this film?
Lee: I had worked with Julia before on a movie called “Fireflies in the Garden,” which will be coming out in the fall. And so we just developed a friendship I suppose. It was one of those things where she was like, “What else can I read?” I had the script for “Jesus Henry Christ” and I gave it to her and she responded. I remember she called me up. She goes, “Dennis, this is Julia.” I said, “Hi Julia.” I’m thinking to myself, I know it’s Julia because I have a caller ID on my cell phone. [Laughs] She called up and said she really loved the script and she said, “Dennis, I think I have the muscle to help you make this script into a film.” And I said, “I think you do, too.” [Laughs] That was pretty much how she came on board.
Jabaji: As an Asian-American director, do you think you bring a different perspective to the Hollywood industrial complex?
Lee: I bring what I would consider an outsider’s view to the whole Hollywood thing and I try to stay there. And I try to look in and observe and try to learn what it is that I think is beneficial of Hollywood and I try to stay away from those things that are harmful. I grew up in the Midwest in an amazing town. It was a town that didn’t have any diversity and so the way I fit into that town was always trying to do better in everything that I did, whether it was academics or sports. Sports was my passion growing up. I think that carries over now. You just work really hard and put your nose down to the grindstone. And you don’t take anything for granted. The way I was raised by my parents was basically that you’re not entitled to anything. That’s what I keep reminding myself. I’m so fortunate to make movies and I know I’m not entitled to anything beyond the movie itself.
Jabaji: What’s your next project?
Lee: The next project I’m working on is to get “Fireflies in the Garden” released in the fall, with an amazing ensemble cast of Ryan Reynolds, Williem Dafoe, Emily Watson and Julia Roberts. And then in the spring of 2012, if everything goes well, I’m working on a project that’s about a Nobel laureate who is an inspiration for millions of people. Through this film, what we hope to do is showcase this person’s work to a larger audience and hopefully that can [serve] as a catalyst for change.
Jabaji: Which filmmakers do you admire?
Lee: I always watch Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. And a recent movie I really enjoyed was “Black Swan.” I think [Darren] Aronofsky is a bold filmmaker and makes choices that sometimes you don’t necessarily agree with but at least he has the courage to make those choices especially within the Hollywood system. And a filmmaker who I tend to admire, but I always tend to question, is Lars von Trier. Again he has the audacity to be who he is and he’s almost fearless at that. That’s what I admire.
Jabaji: In one sentence, describe what you do.
Lee: I tell the type of stories that I want my families and friends to enjoy.
For more information about “Jesus Henry Christ,” visit the website.