jennifer morrison interview

Jennifer Morrison has spent half of her life in front of the camera. She has spent half of her career on TV. But with her directorial debut Sun Dogs, Morrison is stepping out of both of her comfort zones.

Which is why it’s amazing how easily she settles into her role behind the camera. Sun Dogs (streaming now on Netflix), a cheery and offbeat family drama that follows a naive do-gooder in post-9/11 America, is Morrison’s first feature film, but the former House and Once Upon a Time star has already established a distinct visual identity. It’s a whimsical, zippy aesthetic borrowed from directors like Hal Ashby and Wes Anderson — filmmakers that Morrison says are her biggest influences — which she first tested in her 2015 short film, Warning Labels.

I interviewed Morrison about her directorial debut, how she drew inspiration from Hal Ashby’s classic comedy-drama Being There, and what it’s like being part of a new wave of women poised to take over Hollywood at the height of the #MeToo movement.

How did you get drawn to the story of Sun Dogs?

I was drawn to this script. I felt like they were such great characters and I loved the idea of everyone searching for their purpose in life and I loved the overriding message that sometimes the simplest things can make the biggest difference. It’s not often you see a story told in a way where it has that message but you can go on such fun adventure. So I just felt like I related to all the characters and I loved that message and I could picture that spin-off in my mind, the way I could see it, so I decided to go for it.

You seem to have a strong stylistic eye that’s consistent in your feature film and also the short film you’ve directed, Warning Labels — a sort of cheery, upbeat and sunny style. Was this a directorial choice that just had to do with the story of each of those films, or is this a style you’ll want to maintain in the future?

I don’t know for sure. It’s definitely my taste I definitely grew up loving Hal Ashby films, I loved Being There and Harold and Maude, and then I loved Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Graduate. You can sort of see the things that influenced me in the way I visually approached both of those projects. But I also do feel like the visual element to a film should also match the storytelling. There’s definitely been projects that I’ve pitched on and I’ve considered than Sun Dogs that would be drastically different visually just because the story would require them to be drastically different visually. So I’m excited and open about the idea of branching out visually but my personality is still my personality, and my eye is still my eye. So my guess is there’s always going to be a little bit of a throughline in terms of something feeling like a film that I made. But I hope to be malleable enough as a filmmaker to be able to adapt to different genres and different storytelling and make sure that the visuals reflect the storytelling properly.

Speaking of visuals reflecting the storytelling, this movie deals with some timely, uncomfortable issues like the profiling and racism against Muslim citizens or people of color. But the movie remains upbeat and focused on Ned’s story. Was there ever an intention to probe into those issues more?

It’s one of those things that’s obviously very tricky and tonally I wanted to be very, very careful about how we approached all of it. Part of it being set in 2004, we were at a time in America where everybody was so afraid. We were only three years away from 9/11 having happened, and there were a lot of people coming from a perspective of fear but not necessarily realizing that they were hurting someone in their perspective. So I was trying to let the environment be true to that of the time and be as honest to what the characters would have done in that moment. And I wanted to make sure that they were held accountable for the mistakes that they made. So that was something that was very important to me in terms of the storytelling in how everything was pieced together.

Ned is a really interesting character in that regard. He buys into all these jingoistic ideas but because he’s mentally disabled, you really sympathize with him. Was that in the script where he was this sort of naive character who you sympathize with but you want to hold him accountable?

The way I always thought — and Michael Angarano and I spoke about this quite a bit — what was interesting was this was is an opportunity, and this is going back to Being There a little bit: the whole film was built on this idea that this character is incredibly naïve, and the way the world sort of projects meaning onto the way that he interacts with the world. So there was a little bit of Being There inspiration in the sense that, because Ned was a little limited because of this accident that happened at birth he was so innocent that there was nothing malicious in his intent at any moment. An audience would think there’s malicious intent, but he’s really just trying to do his best. Absolutely what I was aiming for was to have the audience on his side and rooting for him to learn and grow from his mistakes.

Ned’s mental illness is never really named except when Bob says he has half a brain in an angry outburst. Was there a reason for keeping it vague?

We were not making a movie that was about mental illness, we were not making a movie that was about how he fell or what the follow-up to that was. We were telling a story that happens to include someone who has an illness. It would have been a much longer movie to try to explain it all and get all the details. Really it was about a young man who happened to be in a situation where he could be as naïve as he is, because of the circumstances. If ultimately we got sidetracked trying to explain the medical side of it, then it becomes a completely different film, you completely lose the story that we’re telling.

It’s tricky and I was very aware tonally that this is a tricky line to walk. I went back over and over again to Being There because it was a film that was able to sustain that for two hours. You never find out what’s wrong with Chauncey Gardner in that film, you never know what the case is. So in order to tell the story that we wanted to tell, which was the idea that people wanted to find purpose in life, and this was a very innocent perspective, we needed to address that there was something wrong, but we didn’t want to make the central storytelling us trying to explain his childhood and what he went through and what that illness was when he was young. It was just: this is a man, and as a young man, he’s dealing with the fact that this is who he truly is and he wants to find his purpose in life.

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