Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker and Elgin James talk Little Birds
Lily and her best friend Alison know little else then the claustrophobic, decaying town along the shore of the Salton Sea where they were raised. Los Angeles is only a few hours away, but it might as well be on another continent until they run into some trouble-making guys that lead them into a dangerous world in "Little Birds."
"Little Birds" is loosely inspired by writer/director Elgin James' life of crime that led him to prison. Raised in Boston, James had a difficult, violent childhood, so the only way he could cope was by joining a gang.
"I’ve been through a lot of stuff since I was a child and movies were always my escape," James said. "I had nervous ticks when I was a kid and it was whenever I would watch movies that they would stop."
After a decade of living a criminal lifestyle and at times being homeless, James escaped and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his love, movies. It was there he met producer Jamie Patricof, which led to to involvement with the Sundance Institute.
But from early on, James resisted any opportunity to glamorize his past life.
"I didn’t know how to write it, about me and my best friend running away and starting this gang without doing the same thing, glamorizing violence," James said. "Then it came to me one day, my wife and I drove out to the Salton Sea and there’s this girl riding on the back of her boyfriend’s bicycle with a pack of cigarettes tucked in her sleeve. I was like, ‘That’s it.’ I’ll tell a story about two girls because they’re so much more interesting."
Juno Temple, who plays 15-year-old Lily, was a early backer of James and his film. They spent two years working together to develop the character who disparately wants to escape the Salton Sea.
"It’s about that time period in a long woman’s life that’s fascinating to me because it’s so different for every single woman you meet, no one has the same experiences exactly," Temple said. "With each character, there’s kind of a lightness in a very dark world, which means the darkness rubs off a little bit on them ... there’s dark clouds hovering over. It’s a challenge for me and I want to be challenged. I have played a few of them (troubled girls), but I want to make each one different ... I think it’s important to show the world different aspects of being a woman."
Temple added, "Lily so strongly believes she ready for the big bad world and she’s not ... she hasn’t figured out who she is, what she wants in life, what’s she searching for. She’s trying to do everything all at once. Every decision is leading to a worse decision. That’s what I feel when I watch the movie ... you actually want to grab her and you want to shake her by the shoulders and say, ‘Just say no to that one.’"
While Lily is all for going to Los Angeles, Alison, played by Kay Panabaker, has misgivings, but she ends up stealing her friend's car so Lily can reconnect with the guy she liked. But the teens get way over their heads once the guys start a crime spree.
Panabaker said it was a "little intimidating" when she joined the cast a week before filming had begun. James and Temple had already been living the film for two years.
"It wasn’t until we got on set, we were actually driving out to the Salton Sea, it was like a three hour drive ... they had been talking about how long they had been working on this project for two years already and I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to go well. I’m going to be like the third wheel.’ It wasn’t like that at all. They were more then welcoming."
James said he was able to channel teen girls to tell his story because he was a "pesky" brother who had two older sisters that had their friends over all the time. He was mostly raised by women also.
"That was one of the things I wanted to do, is kind of a homage to these women who like were so strong and got me through this stuff," he said. "But I feel like those voices came because I was spying on my sisters and their friends and following them around and they’d try to get rid of me. They were like, 'Mom, get him out of here.'"
James said working at the Sundance labs was most challenging thing he had done in his life. But he was mentored by "incredible people," who helped him through a prison stint before the film was finished. His past caught up with him.
"They took me under their wing and they taught me how to beak through that veneer, especially Robert Redford and Ed Harris, who were the first positive male role models I had," James said. "It's ridiculous it was them, ridiculous that I was in my 30s. That was the first time I had men ... who just said, 'You need to break down those walls and break through that shell, dig through all that bullshit.'”
But he had to also battle through that intimidation factor.
"They were smarter then me," he said. "I could either go back in my shell and retreat or ... try and be better. I don’t want to be ordinary. I want to try and be extraordinary and you have to make yourself vulnerable. Then going to prison, it's hard not to tap back into those same things. But then you come out and you have your friends and your love ones like I have ... we’re all going to die and you want to leave a footprint on the world and I want to leave one that’s much more honest."
Little Birds Film Details:
Release date: August 29 (limited)
Production company: Polsky Films, Hunting Lane Films and Sundial Pictures
Distributor: Millennium Entertainment
Official website: www.littlebirdsmovie.com
Cast and Crew of Little Birds:
Starring Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Leslie Mann, Kate Bosworth and Neal McDonough
Directed By: Elgin James
Written By: Elgin James
Produced By: Jamie Patricof, Alan Polsky and Gabe Polsky