Anyone who’s ever truly felt that romantic kind of love for another person knows just how monstrous the sensation can be, especially if it’s the first time. The desire to see your object of affection consumes you, and it’s a nightly ritual to keep that trusty iPhone nearby at all times, just for the purpose of immediately seeing, and responding to with corny emoticons, a mushy text or catch the latest phone call. And when love really becomes serious business, it can be emotionally disabling. Just be thankful, though, that the feeling won’t ever take the form it does in Jack and Diane, the horror-infused but tender-hearted romance from independent writer-director Bradley Rust Gray that’s about to have its worldwide premiere tonight at 9:30 pm. EST, as part of NYC’s 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

Even without its gruesome genre tinges, Jack and Diane would still be unconventional, and, in turn, refreshingly bold and elegantly told. In the film, which Gray has been trying to get made for over nine years, Juno Temple and model-turned-actress Riley Keough give excellent performances as Diane and Jack, respectively, two young girls who randomly meet in Manhattan on a nondescript, very hot summer day, quickly fall for one another, and have their affections tested by a possible long distance separation and close-minded family members. Oh, and there’s also that grotesque-looking, snarling, bloodthirsty beast that Diane turns into whenever love’s powers engulf her, though the transformations only happen in her mind.

Gray, whose previous films include the girls-becomes-a-seal drama Salt (2003) and the intimate character study The Exploding Girl (2009), Jack and Diane as it exists today is the result of endless false starts, financial stalls, and multiple recasting. In the project’s earliest incarnation, the pre-Juno pair of Ellen Page (Diane) and Olivia Thirlby (Jack) were attached to star, but post-Oscarcomplications led to the former dropping out, while the latter hung on a few years longer before she also had to bail. Thanks to the fearless and wonderfully talented Temple and Keough, however, Jack and Diane is a complex and haunting fable of urban love, one that’s definitely worth catching during Tribeca, before the film takes a seven-month hiatus en route to its official November theatrical release.

Complex recently caught up with Gray for a lengthy, candid, and entertaining chat about Jack and Diane’s checkered past, the unexpected hardships triggered by the “Hollywood machine,” how he found two diamonds in the rough through Temple and Keough, and why horror fans should approach with knowledgeable caution.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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To find out more: Jack and Diane

Jack and Diane is one of the most daring and raw love stories to come around in quite some time. Where’d the initial inspiration come from?
I had done a film in school; it was my graduate film for school, and it was about two guys who are friends, and they had this certain look: One guy had a cowboy hat, but he was kind of a hipster. Right after that, I moved to New York to spend time with girlfriend at the time [filmmaker So Yong Kim], who’s my wife now. I was walking down a sidewalk in the East Village one day and the exact identical pair as in my short film, but they were girls. The one girl had a cowboy hat and a skateboard, and the other girl looked a little lost and had blonde hair. We sometimes work with non-actors and people we find on the sidewalks, so I couldn’t help myself and I stopped them and talked to them, and their names were Jack and Diane.

I kept in touch with them for a little bit. I thought maybe I’d follow them and try to make something about them, but I had a script for a film I was going to do in Iceland, so we went to Iceland and made that film. Afterwards, I was trying to think about what to work on, and I kept thinking back to those two girls, but I couldn’t get in touch with them anymore. So, I think, the start for Jack and Diane was me imagining what their story was.

Did you initially want to make the movie with those two exact girls themselves?
When I’d met them, it was like, Oh, yeah, it’d be cool to make a movie with them in it. That’s how we approached our first films—in Iceland, we just walked around until we found people that were like our characters and then we’d adapt the films to fit the real people. My wife’s first film, In Between Days (2006), we did the same thing—we found her actress in a bakery in New Jersey.

So I think that’s what I was thinking in the beginning, but once I started working on the script, as a film, I had already lost touch with them, so it became a thing where I needed to find people who were like them in ways. And the more I worked on it, the more I realized that I needed to work with actors, because there’s certain things that happen in the film that would be extremely difficult to do with non-actors; like, you can’t get non-actors to kiss. You can have them fake sex, but it’s impossible to fake a kiss.

As far as the film’s monster/creature elements, were those in your head from the beginning, or did those ideas come about as you started working on the script more intensely?
I remember when I came up with the idea of the opening scene, and I don’t know if I had the creature in the film yet then or not. When I started writing Jack and Diane, we were traveling with this first film I’d made, this film in Iceland, called Salt. We’d finished the film, and then we were traveling a lot to hit the various festivals, so I wasn’t in a place where I could really start writing, but I could write notes. So I was writing notes for several months, and then we were moving back to New York. I told myself, “The day we arrive back in New York, I’m going to start working on the actual script.”

We stayed at a friend’s house, where we spent the night. and I remember waking up in the middle of the night and going, “OK, the opening scene is she’s in the bathroom and she turns into this creature.” That’s where I remember the creature starting from—it was going to be a manifestation of how she felt. That’s when I started working on the script. That very first part has stayed the same forever; she turns into this creature, and then you start backing up to an earlier part of that night and catch back up with that opening scene.

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