SXSW Interview: Austin High School Alum Marshall Allman Discusses his New Film ‘Blue Like Jazz’ and the Meaning of Life
April 24th, 2012 by Donna White
Marshall Allman is probably best known as Sam Merlotte’s resentful shape-shifting brother on the HBO series True Blood, but as star and executive producer of Blue Like Jazz (based on the comedic and inspirational best-seller by Donald Miller), he’s no longer in anyone’s shadow. While Blue Like Jazz screened at SXSW, I had the opportunity to sit down with Allman and talk about the pressures of bringing a beloved book to the big screen. The following is a transcript of our conversation:
DW: Let’s start at the beginning. How did Blue Like Jazz come to you?
MA: I got an email out of the blue from a friend who knew some folks who wanted to contact me about this movie. It just slipped through the cracks and I honestly just forgot about it. A couple of weeks later he emailed again and said, “Hey, I really wanna give these people your contact info.” You know? Like, come back to Earth! So I said, yeah, and later that night I got an email from writer/director Steve Taylor that said, “You’re on the short list of actors we’re considering for the lead in this film, will you read the script and let us know if you’re interested?”
DW: That’s pretty flattering.
MA: Oh yeah, but you know when you get a script that doesn’t come from your agent …
DW: … you have no idea if it’s quality?
MA: I’ll tell you right now, 95% of the time it’s junk and you can tell within the first 5 pages. So I got a few pages in with this one and I was like, wow. So I emailed him back just a couple hours later right after I read it and said, “Hey man, I know you have your short list of actors but your search is done! I’m the guy, and thank you for the offer.” (laughs) He wrote back and said, “That wasn’t necessarily an offer…” (laughing)
DW: But there’s one forthcoming?
MA: Yeah, he said, “I won’t offer it to anyone else until we meet.” So about a week later we met and I was really nervous. We sat down at a little place to eat lunch and he came in and handed me a mixed CD, kind of like a soundtrack that he envisioned would go with the film and he said, “You got the part, man.” So I was really grateful. It made it easier for me to eat my meal.
DW: (laughs) You’re listed as executive producer on the film. How did that come about?
MA: When I got involved the financing was so difficult. They had been working on it for two years. So when I came on we worked for another two years. It was kind of like ‘all hands on deck’ to get it done. So I just started going out to raise money. I helped with some of the script. I did whatever I could do because I knew it was such an important book…
DW: So you just rolled up your sleeves?
MA: Yeah, and the team, it speaks very highly of them because they honored me with that title. I wasn’t necessarily going for that but because I was helping them campaign for financing, and taking time out of my career to help produce the film, and offering my contacts for post-production and pulling favors with various people I knew…
DW: (laughs) That’s a producer right there.
MA: Exactly! But, you know, it was very touching that they did that and gave me the title.
DW: Would you be interested in producing more?
MA: Oh, absolutely. I grew up playing soccer but my other passion was art. So to envision a project and express something within yourself, then by any means necessary getting that out and done has been a large part of my life. Immediately when I started acting I realized that there was something missing from my career which is birthing something and seeing it come to fruition and following through. That’s the stuff that I live on. I wanna find material that means something to me and I wanna make it. And I would honestly say that breaking into acting is easier than getting into producing unless you have millions of dollars. I mean, who’s gonna cut you in when you don’t have the money? So all I have is vision.
DW: This is your foray now into a new career.
MA: I hope so. Me and my wife (Jamie Ann Allman of AMC’s The Killing) are writing scripts now and developing content. If this does well at the box office who knows what will open up.
DW: This is a book that a lot of people have taken to heart and it was a best-seller so there’s a bit of burden there to really deliver.
MA: Harry Potter syndrome.
DW: So how daunting was that to take on something that so many people already have expectations for?
MA: When Steve (Taylor, the director) talked to Don (Miller, the author) about getting a script ready, it had to be said that what makes a great book can make a really boring movie.
DW: You have to hit those highs and lows for the audience.
MA: Exactly, and Don knew that was the case. It was an instant marriage and they just made the story more active. For example, we changed it so that he actually attends Reed College instead of someone who just observes classes.
DW: Are there pot brownies in the book like there are in the movie?
MA: Oh, man, I’ve read the book so many times and at this point I can’t even tell you! But we definitely included elements like the cartoon visions – the sexy carrot that leads the rabbit – and things like that fans of the book will recognize in the movie. I wear penguin boxers in the movie because there’s a chapter in the book about penguin sex. Little things like that fans will pick up on.
DW: In-jokes for people who read the book?
MA: Yes, definitely. And there is an actual “Pope” at Reed College.
DW: Really? I wondered about that!
MA: Yeah, they elect a pope every year so if they want to hear what God has to say on a certain issue in the school paper or whatever they get a quote from the pope.
DW: (laughs) That’s hilarious.
MA: Yeah, it’s wild.
DW: So Donald has culture shock basically, going from conservative Houston to an extremely liberal college in Portland which is famously liberal itself. Did you experience culture shock moving from Austin to L.A.? Could you relate to that aspect of what he’s going through?
MA: Yes and no. I experienced responsibility shock. (laughs) Austin’s such an amazing town. It’s like an amalgamation of the best in big cities and rural Texas at the same time. You get a certain level of culture here and exposure to things that maybe some in big cities miss out on.
DW: I’ve always thought Austin is like a big city with a small town vibe.
MA: Yes, that’s it. So for example, I knew about Modest Mouse when I was in high school because the music scene here permeates everything. And when I got to L.A. I felt like in a lot of ways I’d had more exposure to that type of thing than most of the people I met. I mean, I went to high school with Gary Clark Jr., so I was exposed to local artists and local businesses and sustainability and Whole Foods and Barton Springs and the whole nine yards… all that culture and pride in that, but I also went hunting on the weekends, you know what I mean? I know how to field dress a deer. These are invaluable life skills for when California falls into the ocean because of that big earthquake. (laughs)
DW: (laughing) You’ll be the one guy who knows!
MA: I can forage for food and shoot a coyote and eat it later that night. (laughs)
DW: There’s a sense that movies that tackle spiritual issues are only going to play to a narrow audience, and actually I thought this movie was pretty universal. I didn’t think it was just about him finding one path, I thought it was about that moment in your life when the world breaks open wide and you have no idea how you fit.
MA: When I read the script I thought, “This is genius,” because this is such an American story. So many people outside the U.S. and here also consider this a Christian nation, or if not necessarily that, they see us as puritanical. We edit out penises in movies and swear words on TV. All of that stuff. And everybody has their friends that if you ask them they were raised Christian but when they got to college they were conflicted because it felt in direct opposition to the lifestyle, and they were ashamed to admit it. What happens is that a lot of people consider themselves Christian deep-down but wouldn’t call themselves that and they aren’t necessarily alive and active in it anymore. So it’s such a common story. A lot of parents and even churches have a kind of fear of the college environment. They want to shield you from that world…
DW: … and the point is to learn how to live in the world.
MA: Right. I think it’s more powerful to show people what it’s really like and go, “How do you want to handle your freedom?” You’ve got all these choices. And they’ve been making films about Rumspringa and Judaism and coming of age in other faiths, but not so much Christianity. So it was really refreshing. And I really hope… I mean, there’s not an altar call at the end of this movie or anything. It comes down to embracing who you are, being true to yourself, and not allowing peer pressure to influence the integrity of your character.
DW: Was Donald actually chosen “pope?”
MA: No, there was a bit of license there in order to kind of work in the ‘confession booth’ scene from the book, which was so beloved. And really that scene is why they wanted to make the movie.
DW: I sensed that in watching the film. I was going to ask you where that scene fell in terms of the shooting schedule because you and Justin Welborn created such a moving scene. Had you guys created a rapport at that point or was this early in the shoot?
MA: Me and Justin hit it off. He’s such an amazing actor, so funny and charming… I can’t speak highly enough of him. But I knew that was such an important scene that I had to prepare. I really focused a lot of my energy on making sure it had depth but wasn’t heavy-handed at the same time. Just trying to create the right tone.
DW: I could see how that would be tricky, if it tipped too far in one way…
MA: It’s a make or break scene. They’ll either hate you for ruining it or love you for nailing it.
DW: Everything rests on that moment.
MA: That’s the ultimate impression the audience will be left with.
DW: One of the things I admired about that scene is that it turned the confession idea on its head a little bit, having the new pope confess to others instead of them confessing to him. It was all about humility, I thought, because he’d been showing out for so much of the movie and finally he took that moment to apologize. That was very unexpected.
MA: Yes, any time someone tries to represent their idea of God it’s paramount to remember that you’re an imperfect person leading a flawed life.
DW: There’s the question about meaning in the film, if you’re only chasing things that serve you in the moment then you’ll live your whole life without any meaning, which is what the character comes to understand. Meaning kind of requires a bit of humility because you have to look out and see how you fit with everything else.
MA: Thank you. Perfect. Yes. We hope this film becomes a catalyst for conversation. And, you know, to address some of the prejudices and hate-slinging that goes on.
DW: There’s stereotyping on both sides, don’t you think?
DW: That brings me to another thing that was surprising about this movie. The kids who aren’t necessarily Christian aren’t depicted as bad kids. They’re cool, complex characters you like and care about. They’re thoughtful people. That seems rare to me in films that take on these issues because they tend to opt for an easy black-and-white type characterization of people. This story didn’t pigeon-hole the characters. It isn’t about setting up villains to be knocked down.
MA: One of the things that comes to mind for me is that if you claim to believe in God and go so far as to believe that he created reality and the world we live in, then you should be one of the most real and authentic people. So with Don, it’s not like he rejects his Christian upbringing, but he does run away from it, but I think his arc is about finding his truth. A critic said something like, “He’s a Christian in the beginning and a Christian at the end, so how did he really change?”
DW: (laughs) They didn’t pay attention.
MA: Yeah, that happens sometimes. (laughs) So, for me, it’s more about a journey of authenticity.
DW: In the beginning he’s just doing what he was told without question. Later, he comes to it on his own with his own understanding. That’s not ending up in the same place.
MA: To become a mature person, you have to come to your philosophy of life on your own or else it doesn’t mean anything.
DW: And I think sometimes that’s how Christians get a bad rap is because people see them just going through the motions without a lot of thought behind it, which is the difference between being spiritual and religious. I thought this movie depicted that difference.
MA: Thank you. I’m glad to hear you say that.
DW: When Don is first disenchanted with church it’s because of hypocrisy. His mom and the youth minister are having an affair…
MA: At a certain point let’s just say that hypocrisy isn’t a Christian trait, it’s a human trait. You’re not gonna get very far without finding it everywhere. It just so happens that when you care and you’re trying to help, it’s easy for people to point out your flaws, like, “Who the heck are you?”
DW: Have you gotten feedback from fans of the book?
MA: Yes, people who love the book say things like, “This is who I am. Not only did I enjoy the book, but please read it because I want you to understand more about me.” You know, a lot of people think all Christians are hypocritical and some go a step further and think Christians aren’t aware that hypocrisy even exists in the community. So they go out of their way to point out flaws in leaders or people in their midst. And, I mean, most Christians are aware. (laughs) We’re aware of our mistakes over the last two thousand years. So one of the nice things about this story is letting people know that. We’re saying, “By the way, we get it.” So a lot of the feedback we’re getting is that people tell their friends, “Go look at this movie and you’ll understand what it’s like for me.”
DW: It speaks for them in a way, you mean?
MA: Yes, a lot of people are saying that, and that’s all we could hope for.
(We’re signaled that time is up.)
DW: Well, it looks like they need you in the next room. Congratulations on the movie and good luck at the festival.
MA: Thank you. This was awesome. Thanks.
Blue Like Jazz is currently showing at the Regal Gateway 16.