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)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

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.

 
The idea of a monster representing the extreme pains and extreme joys of a new love is really fascinating, and it definitely sets Jack and Dianeapart. Once you started finalizing the script, and all of the film’s harder edges and riskier touches were in place, was it difficult to get people to jump onboard?
Yeah. [Laughs.] I mean, I’m glad that you get it—I’m still wondering if people are going to understand it. I think you just described exactly what it’s supposed to be, at least hopefully. It’s not about a creature attacking people; the creature is her, it’s how she feels emotionally about love, so it’s just a different representation of love.

But, yeah, it was really hard to get people to sort of understand that, I think. To my surprise, it was difficult to get people onboard with a lesbian love story—they found it “gay,” and that made it harder to finance then I thought it was going to be. I started it, and Brokeback Mountain had just come out not too long before then, and people were still hesitant about Jack and Diane. I’d say, “Well, look at Brokeback Mountain and tell me how that’s different.”

So it was that, and it was also the creature that was throwing people off. Because there’s a creature, the budget also had to be a certain number. I didn’t want to do it in a way that was like… I could have been creatively abstract about it, but I wanted it to look a certain way. In the very first film we made, the Icelandic film, the girl turns into a seal, but we did it in this very poetically abstract way, and I’m happy with that. But on this one, though, I really wanted to see this creature and I really wanted it to look real, like it’s really there. That’s just expensive to make, so that meant that our budget was a certain number. That’s what took so long, just getting the people to understand that.

And who were the first people who first really understood it and helped make Jack and Diane a reality?
Well, my wife is a producer on the film, so she’s always got it. [Laughs.] And then we’ve had another producer, Karen Chen, who’s been on the project for almost the entire duration of the film. We hired a new producer about a year and a half ago, named Jen Gatien, and she was the one who had the connections to financers, so it’s a large part to her credit that we were able to convince investors that this was going to work. Actually, I don’t the investors have seen it yet, so hopefully they’ll like it. [Laughs.]

When did you first start working on it, exactly?
Probably 2003, maybe. It’s been a long, long process. I first sent the first draft of the script out to producers the day we began shooting my wife’s first film, In Between Days, and she made three films before I shot Jack and Diane. [Laughs.]

It was really long. I finished the script, and then we had Ellen Page attached, so it was just me, my wife, and Ellen. And then we got Karen, the producer, onboard, and that’s how it was for some time. It was probably a year and a half before we found Olivia [Thirlby], and then the cast changed even more as the project went on and on.

After Ellen Page and Olivia Thirlby were both attached, Ellen Page dropped out and then Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) came onboard in her place. On your end, how was it dealing with the task of keeping actresses attached throughout the film’s slow, years-on-end road to production?
Ellen and Olivia were really, really supportive of the project. We got the money to do the film a few weeks before Juno premiered in Toronto. And, also, they were attached to this way before they made Juno, so it was a big coincidence that they were in both films together. They both emailed me and said, “So Juno is doing really well out here in Toronto. Can we talk about Jack and Diane during the Toronto Film Festival press meetings?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course! That’d be fine!” [Laughs.]

So they were really supportive of it, but then Juno just became this huge, huge, huge movie, and then Ellen got nominated for an Academy Award. Then, that world just became too sort of massive, in the sense that she became a commodity, and worth a lot of money. I think a lot of people wanted to steer her in a certain direction—the Hollywood machine sort of came in. We were told that we’d have to wait a year for her to sort out what she had to do.

At that point, I had spent so much time working on the film that I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing the role. So I came up with this idea to do this other film, which was my second film, The Exploding Girl. That was a project that I did within the year that I was waiting for Jack and Dianeto come back. After that year, Ellen was kind of a little bit of a different person, so we started looking for other people. And that’s just part of the project—you think it’s going to be one way, and then you find somebody else.

There’s definitely an element of, if Ellen would have never been there, it wouldn’t be the same film; like, there are specific scenes that were written for her. She was on the project for three or four years, and we’d talked so much that I definitely changed things to fit her, and a lot of those things are still in the film. I think there’s a big part of her in the film. And with Alison, too, we talked, and she wasn’t attached for that long, but I think there’s a little bit of her presence in the film, as well. And now with Juno [Temple], we changed it again; now, Diane is going to be English.

So all those things influence the film in certain ways, and when you finally finish the film, you see that the journey was with it. You wouldn’t have the same film without all of these different pieces. At the time, of course, it was very frustrating.

 
You said that Ellen Page, after Juno, got caught up in the “Hollywood machine.” Do you think Jack and Diane’s dark, edgy subject matter, from the creature to the gore to the nudity, factored into people’s decisions to steer her away from it?
Yeah, I do. I think of the film as a love story, and it’s straightforward, but there’s definitely stuff in it that’s more different than a mainstream film. I didn’t really get this until now, that I’ve seen it and experienced it through her and knowing more actors now, but you have less options, I think… Actually, I don’t think you do, but you’re told you have less options. When you’re at the point where she was before everything took off, you have more options to do whatever kinds of films that you want; like, she was a huge fan of Lynne Ramsay, so I said, “Why don’t you call Lynne Ramsay and ask her if she wants to do a film?”

 
Brokeback Mountain had just come out not too long before [I started working on the film], and people were still hesitant about Jack and Diane. I’d say, 'Well, look at Brokeback Mountain and tell me how that’s different.'
 

The films that she had done when we first started talking were stuff like Hard Candy; she was known as somebody who played really difficult, tough-edged characters. Jack and Diane was supposed to be this film where she’d play somebody who’s a surprise to that: somebody who’s really soft and sweet [the Diane character].

I think a lot of the stuff in that bigger, more mainstream world is based on fear; like, if you do this then you might lose this and this other opportunity, and people might typecast you because you’re in this film. The people who are saying that know that part of their investment is on this person’s career, and they want that person to be in a certain field. And I also think it’s more difficult for girls—there aren’t a lot of parts available for girls. If you think about it, there aren’t that many girls who transition past the age of 25; there’s always a new slew of young girls in films. But, on the other hand, if you see actress who’s doing things that she really loves, and that you respect, then that becomes part of what makes them worth something. You’re excited about seeing them again.

While researching Jack and Diane’s long history, I came across an old interview where Olivia Thirlby commented that people were “intimidated by the subject matter. So it seems like Jack and Diane has made plenty of people within the industry nervous.
Yeah. You want somebody to give a lot of themselves to the film, a lot of what’s really personal to them, and I think that requires a certain amount of commitment of what you’re going to let go of. I think that might be why I lost Alison [Pill]; I was like, “I want you to expose yourself more,” and that might of intimated her a bit too much.

So how you’d ultimately settle on Juno Temple and Riley Keough, both of whom give excellent performances in the film. And, most importantly, they totally go for it in every way possible.
Yeah, exactly. It’s that sort of blessing at the end of the story, where you find the right people for the film. Juno was recommended by a casting director; I went to L.A. and met a bunch of people, and she was the one I was most excited to meet. I think she really connected to the character, so it was then a matter of deciding whether I’d want to change the character to be an English girl or not. Yeah, we just got along right away. Then, she came to New York and met Olivia, because it was going to be her and Olivia at the time. She was super nervous, but they got along really well. It’s funny, because Olivia was nervous, too, about who we were going to get.

So we were all excited about that, but then Olivia got cast in something that she had to go for at the same time we were going to shoot, and we couldn’t change our schedule. With Riley, Jen, our producer, recommended that I look at The Runaways, because she was in that, and I thought that she was really interesting in a rather small role.

Riley looks very different than Jack—she has long blonde hair, and I think her eyes look really solid. They don’t waver, they’re really focused. Then, I met her, and I said to myself, “Oh, my god—that’s why the film had to take eight years!” She just fit the character so well, and she was totally committed to it. She had never cut her hair before in her whole life, and we cut her hair.

Did you have them spend a lot of time together prior to the film’s shoot, to help them develop a chemistry and trust amongst one another?
We didn’t have a lot of time, but they had met in Los Angeles maybe once or twice. We actually cast Riley maybe four weeks before we shot the movie. We were together for a week in New York, when we were picking out their outfits, but the main thing was that they lived together. We put them in an apartment together. So they had a week together before we shot the film, but they were together all the time—they slept in the same apartment, and I think that made a big difference.

I think they were a little hesitant about it at first. They talked about, “What if we don’t get along? That will ruin the movie.” But we decided to just go for it and hope they did get along. [Laughs.] Fortunately, that was the case, and they became really close friends really quickly. You can definitely see it.

I think we shot for a week until they had that first kiss, and they were both just so nervous about that scene. It was a big deal for them, and they were really embarrassed about it, especially because they had to continue being roommates after that kiss. But I think that’s the feeling that’s going on in the film, too. There’s a lot of kissing, they have to kiss again and again, and after the first one it was like, we’d do a million takes of the kisses and they were totally fine with it. The first one was a big deal, though.

Speaking of that “first kiss” scene, to me, that’s the moment when Jack and Diane really clicks together. Just the whole tone, with the red lights, the close-up shots, and the choice of music—it sets a hypnotic, dreamlike tone that remains for the rest of the film.
It’s based on the memory of the first kiss that I had, actually. It’s that feeling of you want to kiss somebody but you don’t know if they want to kiss you back—you don’t know what the rules are, and you’re both kind of waiting. Diane has never kissed anybody before, and then once she kisses Jack, she crawls on top of her. It’s definitely about the kiss, but Diane is more sensual and aggressive than you would think the character is going to be. And, after that, she sort of turns into this creature.

It’s this big sexual awakening for her, all in the kiss, but it’s also this feeling of “somebody likes me.” She loses control, after being the one who was initially more hesitant to kiss, I think. Jack starts off as the tougher one, but, eventually, Diane becomes the mack daddy. [Laughs.]

Juno Temple sells that perfectly, too. She’s really proving to be a fearless young actress; in addition to Jack and Diane, she also has William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, in which she has a rather graphic sex scene with Matthew McConaughey. What is that you first saw in her as an actress? Was it that sense of bravery?
She just got the character—that was the thing for me. I think that I just felt like we could trust each other, and she really understood the character. There’s a certain point where you can’t really judge or watch the acting. I hadn’t really seen her act in a movie before I had cast her; she was recommended to me by my casting director, so I had assumed that she’d acted before. [Laughs.]

For me, I was more interested in finding somebody who had a passion for the character, and she definitely did. I felt like I could trust Diane with her, because the character is really dear to me.

 
Would you say the same thing about Riley?
Riley is really different than Jack—she’s not like that at all in real life. She’s sweet, super nice, and she apologizes for everything all the time. I think it was her eyes, but she was also committed, too. I was like, “You have to cut your hair—it’s a really big thing.” And she was ready for it.

It’s funny, she was late for her meeting when we first met. So, I just made fun of her when she showed up, and she was like, “I’ll buy you a coffee!” And then she couldn’t pay for the coffee, because the place didn’t take credit cards. So then I was like, jokingly, “Oh, man, you’re just doing really bad.” It was a coffee shop that’s also a surf shop, in New York, and they had this surf wax that you put on a surf board. She bought a thing of surf board wax in order to pay for my coffee, which was sort of this… I just thought that she was really quick-witted and resourceful.

She was just the one. There are people who make you think, That’s the person. It was like when we used to find non-actors for roles, and finding Juno was like finding somebody who’s very talented and very serious about what they’re doing. Riley was much more like the experience of finding a non-actor, which made it really exciting. In the end, it was like the whole thing was worth waiting for, all of those years of false starts, just so we could find her.

Let’s go back to the creature itself now. The look of the monster is really bizarre—it sort of resembles a werewolf, but not really. It’s much more hideous, and deformed. The word “werewolf” has definitely been used a lot in the film’s press, which is quite misleading.
Alright, good. [Laughs.] Because it’s not supposed to be a werewolf.

How’d you go about designing its look? My initial reaction to seeing it for the first time was, “What the hell is that?”
[Laughs.] OK, good. That’s what I’m hoping for. It’s one of those things where you have no idea how it will come across on screen, because I know exactly what it’s supposed to look like, and you can edit it a million times and look it over and over again and it becomes impossible to let go of.

The creature was something that I worked on with this guy Gabe Bartalos, from L.A.; he does a lot of creature stuff and effects for [artist] Matthew Barney. I first saw his designs in Matthew Barney’s book, and I thought they were really original. Once we met, we just clicked immediately. Our approach was… “Werewolf” was just a word to give people a certain idea of what it looks like, because if you say “monster” and you’re trying to pitch this to get money, people could think of an octopus. [Laughs.] But by saying “werewolf,” they’re able to reply with, “OK, so it’s on two legs.”

What Gabe and I were thinking about was, if you change into a creature like this in ten or 30 seconds, it wouldn’t be this perfect transformation. As we grow now, you get zits and warts and little defects on your body all the time, so if you’re body was transforming really quickly, there would be bloating—it wouldn’t go clean. We looked at diseases like the one the Elephant Man had, syphilis, and different diseases like that. That was the idea.

The other idea was, Diane’s face—I don’t know if you can actually see it or not—is still on the side of the creature. So it’s got three eyes. He did the cast on Juno’s head, and with her teeth, even. The skull is a polar bear’s skull, so he took the mold of a human skull that he had lying around and a mold of a polar bear’s skull and fused them together. Then he put clay on it and we worked on the rest of it together. That’s how the whole thing evolved.

It sounds like it must have taken a really long time to finally settle on the finished look.
Yeah, we talked about it for years. We’d get on the phone all the time, and Gabe’s just really fun to talk to. He’d call me and be like, “Man, I just saw this Chinese war footage about a foot being ripped off,” and he’d start describing it, to which I’d say, “OK, great—go ahead and make it!” [Laughs.] It was just really fun talking with him about it.

It was fun to take a scientific approach with it, too. We looked at a lot of medical books and a lot of different archives. He works in that effects and makeup field, but he was also doing this under his normal price for us, because he believed in the project so much. I mean, he was on it for, like, four years, so he put a lot of his time into the thing. The whole head’s robotic—the eyes blink and the jaw moves, and the parts are all expensive. He was able to get all of the parts at really low costs because he’d pitch the exact idea to them and show them our ideas and he’d get some really good responses. That was great.

The creature, before most critics have even seen the movie, is already drawing in the horror movie crowd, but Jack and Diane isn’t much of a horror movie. Do you think it’s a good or bad thing that many people are going into the film with those kinds of genre expectations?
Yeah, that’s interesting. It has definitely been covered on all of those horror websites, too. It’s funny, the very first thing that somebody wanted to do… Well, you’re one of the very first interviews I’m doing, actually, but somebody had emailed questions from this site Bloody Disgusting, just asking about the creature. But his instincts were in the right place. He was just asking questions over the Internet, but he was like, “I think it’s going to be a love story with a little bit of creature, or is it going be something that has as much horror as Let the Right One In?” And it’s a love, love, love story, but when there is a creature, it’s done effectively, I hope.

Then, he was like, “Will horror fans like the movie?” And I said, “If you’re going to see a horror movie, then you’re not going to like the movie.” But there are advantages within that genre; like, it’s not a horror movie, but our creature looks really interesting because we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted—we didn’t have to follow any genre specifications. And also because it doesn’t follow a genre, the pattern can be more open.

Have you always been aware of the horror community’s interest in the project?
Yeah. I would hear something, and also because Gabe’s a big part of that community. His name is known, so if he starts working on a film, his name starts showing up on those websites. The film is definitely gory. [Laughs.] I’m hoping that it’s something that people who are really into horror can dig. I hope that it holds as much gore value as people are hoping for—our brief little bits of gore I’m hoping are gory enough to satisfy them.

What’s interesting about the film is that the first scene, which you discussed earlier, definitely sets up something that could go full-on horror, but the story quickly redirects itself into a more romantic, tender direction.
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. If you went in hoping for full-on horror, that first scene might make you say, “Oh, great,” but then as the movie goes along, you’ll be like, “This sucks!” [Laughs.] It doesn’t stay there. For me, the idea was to introduce the darker world so that you’re not thrown off by it later, but you also forget about it as the story continues.

 
[Jack and Diane] isn't a horror movie, but our creature looks really interesting because we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted—we didn’t have to follow any genre specifications.
 

It’s like you go to your friend’s house, and he lives in the woods; your car lights go out, and you have to walk a half-a-mile in the woods at night, which is terrifying. But then you walk into the house and they have dinner ready, and you go, “This is great!” You forget that you were scared, but later you have to take a pee outside, because the bathroom is broken, and as soon as you step outside, you go, “Oh, shit, I forgot—it’s terrifying out here.” [Laughs.] The movie is something like that.

When people would read the script, they’d be like, “There’s hardly any creature—can you put in more creature?” But the idea is, when you see the creature, it’s so strong that it needs to be balanced by being used in such short doses. Hopefully it works.

Earlier you mentioned how you first started working on Jack and Dianeback in 2003; it’s been such a long haul to get to the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere. Ultimately, what is it about this story, this project, that hasn’t ever allowed you to just forget about it and move one whenever setbacks arose?
I think it’s a thing where you start working on something and you’re just so determined to finish it, and when you’re finishing it as a script, you start falling in love with the characters. It’s hard to describe; it’s not like they’re “your children” or something, but they’re a part of you. You sort of have to believe that they exist at a certain point, to even just finish the idea. And at that point, once there’s this germ of this character and you find the actor who’s going to be playing them, then it’s like, you have to make the film and bring them to life. If you don’t, it’s like you’ve killed them.

This film took so long to do because the creature cost a lot of money to build, so you couldn’t make the film for super cheap because then you wouldn’t have that part of it. We discussed that option, but I knew that it wouldn’t have the same feeling without those little, tiny moments. But the thing that really kept me going was mainly Diane and Jack; I really just love those two girls, and I just had a commitment to them, I guess. That sounds kind of goofy, because they don’t even exist. [Laughs.] But it’s the truth.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Follow @ComplexPopCult

To find out more: Jack and Diane