Interview: Tim Blake Nelson on His Southern Classical Tragedy ‘Leaves of Grass’

By  · Published on October 25th, 2010

Leaves of Grass feels like a classical religious fable brought to modern day. It features the themes and tropes we’re all aware of: brotherhood, love, power, corruption, and murder. Being titled after a collection of Walt Whitman poems is more than suitable and the film wears its love for classical storytelling on its sleeve.

The tone of Leaves of Grass is really what makes or breaks the film for most, which director Tim Blake Nelson acknowledges himself. The sense of manic and mood swings are all intentional, perfectly representing its characters and making for some unexpected turns.

Here’s what director Tim Blake Nelson had to say about writing smart Southerners, the comedic sensibility of the film, and playing into classic archetypes and themes:

The idea of blending Oklahoma pot dealers, philosophers, and religion is a unique one. Where did the idea come from of bringing all these elements together?

I guess my own background. I grew up in Oklahoma, as I’m sure you know. I encountered a lot of these pot growing hedonist and hedonistic pot users who had an ineffable freedom to life that seemed at odds, in a wonderful way, with so much of what I was learning about with a more rational approach to life during my classics at Brown and studying certain Greek philosophers. It felt to me like an interesting and unlikely dichotomy to present in a narrative, so I just flew with it.

Your childhood already sounds a lot more interesting than mine.

Well, it’s not like I had pot dealers living next door to me. Oklahoma is a pretty wild state, even as conservative as it is and as red as it is, politically. There are some areas in the state that remain quite untamed, and those [areas] always interested me growing up.

Being from Oklahoma, did you feel more compelled not to portray all southerners as idiots?

Yeah, but at the same time… I think that in telling stories it’s incumbent on those of us who do it to try to defy stereotypes and to find a fresh, but truthful, take on the world around us. Certainly growing up in Oklahoma most of the people I met and ran around with were actually pretty smart, even though they aren’t depicted that way in movies and on television. Ironically, I’m most well known for having played one of the great southern idiots in O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

[Laughs] You could’ve easily have made fun of Bulger, Brady, and Colleen, though.

That very easily could’ve been the case. I think that, for the most part, if the business of a movie is to be ironic or aggressively satirical or cynical, friendly and loving portrayals of characters who are way outside of the mainstream are the most enjoyable ones, not those that are condescending or are mean to the subject matter. I think it was very much on Edward’s mind, my mind, Melanie Lynskey, and Keri Russell, those of us who play southern characters in the movie, to create outlandish but sympathetic characters.

Religion plays a big part in the film with Pug being Jewish and Bulger talking about God. Why the religious undertones?

Every character in the film is really trying to figure out how best to live his or hers life. Whether it’s Brady trying to survive the wrath of Pug or Bill in a much more abstruse or rarified way trying to articulate an overarching philosophy for himself and for his students.

You have this array of characters trying to define what a healthy life is, and I don’t think you can assay that sort of material in a modern story without including what religion has to say.

For that reason, you have not only a Rabbi in the movie played by Maggie Siff, who delivers this speech about Tikkun Olam or Repair the World, but also a preacher who offers a somewhat satirical, but nevertheless, heartfelt speech about Jesus and love. I think that is a definitively Christian response to how you live a healthy life. I think religion has to be in there given what the movie is trying to address.

The film feels a lot like a folk tale brought to modern day with classical themes of brotherhood, fighting a higher power, and a few other aspects. Did you write the script with that in mind?

I absolutely did, but I wouldn’t necessarily say folk tale, although I’d say that’s accurate. I think it’s really a classical tale with touches of Greek and Roman comedy. Going back to Pladus and then in a tradition that weaves its way through Shakespeare and now to twins movies, which are hopefully popular twists on the very enjoyable conceit of watching one actor play two characters and then getting to use that as a metaphor for how you can make different choices in a single life.

By getting to watch one actor play twins, you have this legible metaphor for the different approaches you can take in life. Of course, it’s the same actor playing both roles and there’s a nice game that happens in that sort of story: you’re enjoying the suspension of disbelief because you always know it’s the same actor playing the two characters.

But you don’t think that while watching.

Yeah, but on some level, you do. Hopefully in Leaves of Grass you forget and then retrospectively you say, “Oh my god, how did Edward Norton do that?”

Would you say that Bill and Brady aren’t all that different in terms of where they are in their lives?

No, I think that Bill moves back towards this version of Brady that Bill once was. It is Bill that has become more dissimilar to what the brothers once were growing up than Brady. I think that with Brady’s demise Bill becomes more like his twin. At the end of the movie, he has this scruff of his brother and he’s wearing the clothing of his brother. He’s also back in the home state of him and his brother.

Was the idea of them connecting through art intentional, with how Brady likes classic music and Bill being into classic philosophy?

You have watched the movie well [Laughs].

[Laughs] Being a filmmaker, though, how does the idea of people connecting over art no matter what medium resonate with you?

I think you have to remain open to anyone who comes your way. Ultimately, I think even a movie exploring violence and cruelty can be essentially good-natured, which I hope Leaves of Grass is. You have to have an open heart for your characters, and that is certainly something I try to have for anyone I encounter. If you’re going to portray people as an actor, if you don’t have an open heart, you’re really in the wrong field. I think that’s probably true for writers, as well.

Do you consider Brady to be a tragic figure?

A tragic figure…

I got that feeling when you see him go to his mother and afterward he breaks down a little bit.

Well, no. He breaks down a lot, actually, which is a wonderful moment Edward came up with. I don’t think he’s a tragic figure in the classical sense. I don’t find Brady to be hubristic, but I do think that he has a tragic life.

What was the decision behind, even with him having a tragic life, of playing Brady as happier than Bill?

Yeah, I think that maybe ‐ in a strange way ‐ that Bill is more of a tragic figure than Brady. Bill does think he has it all figured out and Bill does hubristically resist aspects of his own self. Put more simply, he won’t allow himself to enjoy life. He won’t allow himself the improvisatory moment.

Like sleeping with the coed?


I heard you had him sleep with the coed in your original script. Why did you change that?

[Laughs] It made him unlikable. You need to root for Bill and you want him to sort his life out. If he were to take advantage of a student in that way, I think he would be more easily and more justifiably judged. Whereas since he doesn’t you find him comical, but you side with him.

(Spoiler Alert)

What are you trying to say about success when it comes to Bill?

I think what Bill says at Brady’s funeral really does sum it up, “When I was growing up, those were the happiest days of my life,” and I think that the nature of Bill’s success has estranged him from that essential core. It’s only by returning home and associating again with Brady and that world that he once again encounters what was truly enjoyable about his life.

When it comes to Bulger, what does he and when he saves Bill represent?

The turn that Bulger takes really is meant to suggest a kind of classical symmetry. Brady, of course, saved his life and since he failed to save Brady’s life he ends up saving Bill’s [life] as recommence. There’s a balance there. I hope that a lot of those type of moments in the movie, and they do abound, offer a sort of reassuring dramaturgical balance that makes the movie fun to watch. There are all of these classical illusions in the dialog in the film and the movie itself imitates the balance of classical narrative. That [moment] can be kind of a wink to the audience, and that is really what that moment with Bulger is all about.

Why the violent turn?

That’s been a curious aspect of the response to the movie. People who love the movie, really love it. Those who don’t like the movie, really don’t like it. Where they split is the violent turn that the movie takes, which I think the movie has to take. Again, it’s because of its classical references. It’s setting itself up to get ugly the way classical narratives get ugly. This movie doesn’t hold a candle to Titus Andronicus or to some of the Greek tragedies in terms of the extremes in which it goes.

I think that Bulger, Brady, and Pug have to be violent, and the movie is inexorably heading there. They are in the drug trade and there is a lot of money at stake. In addition, you have a crossbow and murder mentioned within the first ten minutes of the film, so the movie is heading towards some gruesome passages. Again, hopefully anyway, that’s unpredictable in a very compelling and rewarding way.

Do you think it’s justifiable when Brady kills Pug?

No, I think Brady makes a mistake there. That is a part of Brady’s problem: he’s impetuous, violent, and resorts to primitive extremes.

Would you say his death is a reaction to that?

Yeah, I think once he kills Pug he’s probably not going to survive. At the same time, though, Pug is going to kill him. He also says to Pug it doesn’t have to be this way and Pug gets up and says we’re going to fight. He gives Pug a chance to let him off the hook and to walk away from one another.

Did you ever consider having Brady survive at the end?

(Pause) No, no…

So, you never got a note about his death or anything?

No, but I got a note asking why Ken had to die. The guy who financed this movie has been supportive of the direction I wanted these films to go in; he’s the guy who financed The Grey Zone. He certainly wasn’t going to bother me about Brady dying.

(Spoiler Over)

Earlier you talked about changing Bill sleeping with the coed, but was there anything else that changed from your original draft?

The other major change from the first draft and also the way I envisioned the film when we were shooting it is an aspect of its structure. The movie used to begin with a shot of Bill with an arrow protruding from his chest and Bulger putting him in the car to drive him to the hospital. After that, then you would cut from there to the lecture at Brown, where Bill is talking about Plato’s symposium. We found in the edit that that sort of rock and roll type of beginning wasn’t allowing the audience to really listen to what Bill was saying in the lecture, so I took that off the front. That was the only real major change, everything else is pretty much what I wrote and what we filmed.

What does Bill’s final speech represent?

I think in the beginning Bill recognized his fear of storms, which has been life long, and would opt very rationally to get up and go inside. That’s essentially what he’s done with the stormy aspects of his life, namely, his past. He’s gone for shelter, and in his case, that shelter is academia in an east coast life that is very far removed from the turmoil of his upbringing.

At the end of the movie, he’s saying no and that he’s going to sit in the storm. Even analyzing a storm and knowing why it happened and being able to identify the clouds, and even being very rational and clinical about them, doesn’t stop them from happening. He’s going to embrace that and not seek shelter.

How did you come up with the final shot of him reflecting?

I don’t know. When I was writing it I just thought that was the way to do it.

And how shot specific are you?

I’m very shot specific and very prepared. I learn what I do, as a filmmaker, learning from being on movie sets as an actor. Joel and Ethan [Coen] have been very influential over how I make movies. What I learned from them that is the more you know ahead of time, the better. Everything is pretty planned out and I don’t like ugly surprises during the shoot day. I like great surprises during the shoot day. Great surprises during a shoot day really should come from actors giving you unexpected performances. The more technical aspects that you’ve figured out ahead of the time allows you more time to let actors surprise you. The shots are pretty planned.

A filmmaker recently said to me something I found very interesting, and obviously being a filmmaker yourself I’m curious what your thoughts are on this, that he sees very little difference between his personal life and filmmaking life. Do you see it that way?

I think that’s a really interesting point. I want to try to answer you that clearly and honestly. I guess, that wouldn’t really be so possible in my life because I’m raising three children and two of whom are under ten. Two of them are actually in Leaves of Grass, along with my wife. Topically, we’re exploring subject matter in Leaves of Grass that I simply cant bring home with me. Now, in a deeper sense, the spiritual, moral, and philosophical issues that the movie is examining do live with me and stay with me in a way that coheres completely in my life.

In a sense, making a movie like Leaves of Grass, which is exploring the nature of what a healthy life is, is indeed going to impact how I parent, what sort of husband I am, and how I live my daily life off the film’s set. In a deeper sense, yes, that’s true. I think that there is a parallel between personal and professional life if your professional life allows you to do exactly what you want to be doing with your life, so that’s true. Yet, from a more concrete subject matter type of view, I have to keep it all pretty separate.

My last question: Are you currently writing anything?

I’m writing a big fantasy movie, but I’m kind of taking my time with it because I’m scheduled with acting work until the middle of next year. But yes, I am writing a new fantasy type script, which I hope to make within the next couple years.

How big do you envision it?

Huge [Laughs]. It’s the first movie of a trilogy.

Do you see any difference in writing a film like that versus Leaves of Grass?

[Pause] You know, each approach to the writing of each film…I didn’t write O, but the approach to each film has been different. Writing The Grey Zone was completely different from writing Eye of God and Leaves of Grass, which is the most complicated of the three plots, was actually the easiest script to write. I would say none has resembled an other of the scrips I’ve written, in terms of the process. Each script has been different. Quite frankly, my greatest fear with THE GYRE is that it’s so big that nobody is ever going to let me direct it. Hopefully, that won’t be the case.

Can you say what it’s about?

No, I cant. But you’re the first person I’ve told the title to.

Leaves of Grass is now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.