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 kind of 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…yeah. 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?.
You could’ve easily have made fun of Bulger, Brady, and Colleen, though.
Well, yeah. 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, and 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.
Would you say you’re more sympathetic towards them versus Bill’s colleagues or the “upper class”?
I think the characters that are really lampooned in the film are the Harvard professors.
What about Ken Feinman?
Ken Feinman, I think he’s driven to his actions by some piercing needs in his life. He’s essentially bankrupt, he has a wife and kids he needs to support, and everyone is always nagging him. Given all that, I think the portrayal of him by Josh Pais in the movie is still sympathetic.
Religion plays a big part in the film with Pug being Jewish and Bulger talking about God, could you talk a bit about the significance of the religious undertones of the film?
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.