JAY RUSSELL (director) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. From an early age, he developed a strong interest in both music and film.
At nineteen, Russell directed a series of commercials for the Arkansas Parks and Tourism division, where his boss was Governor Bill Clinton. At the same time, he was winning Regional Honors as a musician.
He accepted a full music scholarship to attend Memphis University where he received a Bachelor of Arts. While there, he studied in the Grammy Award winning Blues Preservation department. However, it was during this time that his attention to film took over.
Russell was accepted into the Film School of Columbia University where he received a Master of Fine Arts Degree. While at Columbia, under the direction of co-chairmen Milos Forman and the late Frank Daniel, Russell won filmmaking grants from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science as well as the Louis B. Mayer Foundation.
He was invited to attend the Sundance Institute Film Workshop, headed by Robert Redford, to develop his project End of the Line. The well-reviewed independent film starring Wilford Brimley, Mary Steenburgen and Kevin Bacon was directed by Russell and was released theatrically by Orion Classics in 1998.
After the release of End of the Line, Russell developed projects for Imagine Entertainment and TriStar Pictures. Subsequently, Russell pursued another passion -documentaries. He worked as a producer and director for the critically lauded Discovery Channel series, Amazing America, as well as documentary series and specials for NBC, CBS, Learning Channel, USA Network and others.
In 1996, Russell was asked to write, produce and direct the five-hour miniseries “Great Drives” for PBS on famous highways of America. His installments as a director, Highway 61, Revisited with Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer Levon Helm, and Highway 93, The Killer Road, hosted by Oscar® nominated actor Graham Greene, premiered nationally in 1997.
It was while filming Great Drives that Jay first met the late award winning author Willie Morris who told him he was working on a book about his childhood and dog titled “My Dog Skip.”
Russell stayed in regular contact with Morris and got the film rights to the book. In 2000, he directed and executive produced the critically acclaimed hit family film My Dog Skip, based on Morris’ best-selling memoir about his recollections of his first and favorite dog. The Warner Bros. film starred Kevin Bacon, Frankie Muniz, Luke Wilson and Diane Lane and was produced by John Lee Hancock and Academy Award®-winner Mark Johnson. My Dog Skip has received numerous awards, including the 2001 Broadcast Film Critics Award as Best Family Film.
It was my pleasure to speak with director Jay Russell. I have been a fan of his since the film My Dog Skip. There was a scene in that film that captured my attention. A mother brings a pet dog to her only son. She carries the dog cage where a pregnant woman carries a child as she passes by a picture of Jesus in the hall way (symbolic of Virgin Mary). Later Skip the dog gets stuck in a grave for three days (symbolic of Jesus Christ). I love such symbolism. And, Tuck Everlasting is filled with such symbolism as well.
I asked Jay Russell why he chose Tuck Everlasting, following My Dog Skip?
His answer was simple: The book. It is a unique piece of young adult literature.
Hollywood Jesus: And so, what makes the book so unique?
Russell: The underlining ideas, the idea of immortality. Unique perception
Hollywood Jesus: Immortality. That is something films don't often explore.
Russell: Yes exactly. The book offered a unique perspective.
Hollywood Jesus: Speaking of time. How long did it take to get the film produced?
Russell: It came together quickly. I came on in February 2001 and it just rolled along. Filming began in April 2001.
Hollywood Jesus: How has the film been received?
Russell: It as been well received, by both critics and audience. We are very pleased with it. However, it was released on Columbus Day weekend along with 12 to 13 other films. It was a historic first. No one foresaw this. It was like a train wreck. But, we came out of it very well, considering.
Hollywood Jesus: What are you working on now?
Russell: Ladder 49. It's about firefighters.
Hollywood Jesus: Good choice. Firefighters have been very popular since the 9-11.
(We talked a little about the symbolism in Tuck Everlasting)
Hollywood Jesus: There is a lot of symbolism going on in Tuck Everlasting.
Russell: Yes there is. It takes place in the middle of the forest. I am sure the author thought of this as an Eden. The story is very multicultural.
Hollywood Jesus: And especially so with the legendary Tree of Life.
Russell: Yes, that's right. And there is the eating of the forbidden element. Additionally, water is presented as an active element. The scene where the teenagers are swimming can be seen as a type of baptism.
Hollywood Jesus: Do you talk about these symbols on the set?
Russell: Yes. In fact, Ben Kingsley puts it this way, "We all have to be in on the Joke."
Hollywood Jesus: Yes that would be true. The symbols can have several interpretations. This story can be viewed as an exploration as to why God did not let humans partake of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Or, it could be viewed as a statement about why Eternal Life is not such a great thing.
Russell: Yes, and that is why I like to leave the interpretation up to the viewer.
Here is Russell's take on each of the characters:
Jessee = Has a Peter Pan view of eternal life, until he falls in love.
The Older Brother = Eternal life as a living Hell.
The Father = Views eternal life as rocks stuck in the stream.
The Mother = Has a variation of husbands POV, but she is more accepting, passive. Still trying to figure it out. Views it as Eden.
Hollywood Jesus: How is the film different than the book?
Russell: We enhanced the love story between the two teenagers. This was Jessee's first moment to experience pain -like his brother had. In the book the whole family returns to the tree at the end of the story. In the film only the boy returns. It works better because it underscores the lessons he has learned.
Hollywood Jesus: Thanks for taking some time out. We appreciate it.
Russell: You are welcome.