The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 17, No. 2

On “Old Joy”

by Will Oldham

Kelly Reichardt contacted me some years ago because she had heard that I might be able to point her in the direction of wild and natural hot springs. She was scouting locations for a film she wanted to make, Old Joy. She hoped to shoot in North Carolina but was having trouble finding suitable locations. We got to talking about hot springs around the USA, and also KR sent me a copy of a published version of Jon Raymond's story. The book was, in effect, a collaboration between Raymond and Justine Kurland, whose photographs were a significant part of the impact of the book, and the juxtaposition of the words and images may have been crucial to my understanding the potential for an adaptation. The photographs were not illustrations of the story, and allowed the reader's brain to balloon out into a more open, collective, abstract experience than the story might on its own suggest.
     We kept communicating, KR and I. I feel like the bulk of our correspondence was always via the telephone. These days I wish that long-distance communication were once again confined to telephones (attached to walls) and letters. The masters of new technology take the ignorance of their elders to mean that the older humans themselves are defunct. They will learn that aging is the only thing to be learned that is worth anything.
     After some days or weeks of back-and-forth, KR spoke to me also about the casting for the film. And then at some point she asked what I thought about playing the character of Mark. Mark is the "found" to Kurt's "lost." He owns things, has a relationship, has responsibilities; he is engaged with reality. I am one of those complete idiots who sees a question like Kelly's (about me possibly playing Mark) as a challenge, and feels that any uneasiness on my part about such a challenge is fear and weakness that ought to be overcome, else I might live in the shadow of failure forever.
     Do I love acting? Yes, I do. When I was a wee thing I viewed portrayed characters (in movies and plays) as my peers in life, and most wanted to work alongside the portrayers. Maybe the way that a racecar driver loves cars or a jockey horses, I love characters, how they move and develop over the course of a narrative. However, I am also the aforementioned idiot who perceives nonmalleable challenges in questions, where I ought instead to see challenges that can be modified into something truly exciting.
     The two characters in Old Joy are each there-but-for-fortune men to me—victims of inertia in a moment of our culture that is most often not best served by inertia. Whom did I fear more? I think Mark, stupidly. So I said yes, I could see taking on the role of Mark, although I began immediately to panic at the idea of bringing his traits to the fore of my own psyche, frightened that by the time the film was done I might not recognize them anymore as not mine.
     KR and I kept in regular communication while she set about hunting a Kurt. She spoke to Ian Svenonius and to Kyle Field, I think. All the while we talked a lot about Kurt and who he could be. When she eventually met Daniel London, if I remember right, she quickly identified him as being more suitable to the character of Mark . . . and what did I think about playing Kurt instead? I was much happier with this idea, because I saw Kurt as a Beast who lived outside my field of vision but inside my heart. When I saw Kurt in my life, it was fleeting, like a rattlesnake or a kangaroo—beautiful, pathetic, and dangerous. And so we were off to the races.
     The shoot was fun, overall. There were hard days and nights, to be sure, but also there was a sense of being consumed and ruled by something that was, itself, free and unrestrained. I roomed for much of the shoot with the director of photography, Pete Sillen, at Lance Bangs's house. I had a bike. At one point during the shoot, Mark Nevers asked me to write a song for Candi Staton, and my musical mind was so unused and unencumbered during that time that it was a very fulfilling task to write "His Hands." There was a long, difficult night of shooting in which a crucial heavy scene was finally successfully captured—only to find later that the scene didn't work, after all. We reshot it quickly, without much fuss, and it was incredibly unsatisfying . . . and the end result was absolutely effective. This taught me another lesson in the relationship between discipline and artifice: that the performer-creator will often work past the feeling of connection to the material to find what is more important, which is the facilitation of the audience's connection to the material. Fucking run-on sentences. Read it again, it ought to make sense eventually.
     I recently read Roger Ebert's review of Old Joy, and it is a favorite, especially because it is simple to connect his words about the movie to his powerful explorations of language toward the end of his life. When I first saw the film, in New York City at the Walter Reade, the best and strongest sense that I had of its value was its Spinozan placement of us (human beans) within a natural context, and this power was magnified by the recognition that the horrible comedy of Manhattan lay just outside the theater doors. In his review, Ebert wrote of Ozu (ka-ching!), and it was liberating to see my labors diminished and contextualized in the way that I had envied the labors of Ozu's players being so delivered. I was an ingredient, a cog, a part of something, and I was still human and crucial.
     People like other people who are acquiescent and agreeable. More than any other force, this need to please and be pleased in all human interactions fuels the antidepressant industry; we cannot tolerate one another when anger or sadness is readily and consistently expressed. Neither Kelly Reichardt nor I are easy people. The last time we spoke, it ended poorly. I think we both hate what makes us difficult, and are aware of some of our more oppressive flaws. But I can't really say that for certain even about myself. I hope that the story unfolds in such a way that love and intentions are illuminated, that we live that long, all of us.

To read "Old Joy" and other stories from the Summer 2013 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.