Between his feature film debut Monsters and Men in 2018 and the forthcoming Richard Williams (Venus and Serena’s father) biopic starring Will Smith, Reinaldo Marcus Green had the distinction of directing Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s first produced screenplay since their Brokeback Mountain Oscar victory in 2006. That’s quite the run for the New York native and NYU Tisch graduate—one that has quickly proven to be very well deserved.
Good Joe Bell is that sophomore title and it just debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The drama tells the tragic yet hopeful story of Joe Bell and his son Jaden as the former looks to walk across the country from Oregon to New York on a crusade to speak out on bullying. And it stars Mark Wahlberg in one of the finest turns of his career.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Green about the experience, working with a stellar cast at the top of their game, and dealing with the COVID crisis in positive ways to ensure his art reaches audiences in its best possible form.
The Film Stage: What was it like to see a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana come across your desk more than a decade after they won for Brokeback Mountain?
Reinaldo Marcus Green: Like any young filmmaker, it was amazing. I immediately opened the script—it’s not like the other ones that come in the box. These are the ones you kind of rip open the package.
It was amazing. It was everything you could possibly think of in terms of emotion and the kind of storytelling that they do—the human stories and the universal stories. Obviously I was floored when I got the submission and floored after reading it. It really touched me emotionally. It’s very rare that you read a script and you actually get emotional. I remember reading it and being brought to tears and that was a moment I knew, “Okay.” I’m crying reading it, so I couldn’t imagine what it would be like when filming it. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a part of the project.
Were you familiar with the story before that?
No, not at all. When it came to me everything was brand new. So I read the New York Times article and I started going down the rabbit hole of all the things I could find on Joe and Jaden and all that stuff. There had been a fair amount of research done before I came onto the project. So they also submitted a lot of the letters from the family and a lot of research they had done. So I got to do a deep-dive from the very early stages.
What was that like coming off of your debut where you wrote and directed and developed it, and now you’re taking it from Cary Fukanaga to make it yours. What was that process like?
That was part of the challenge and I think part of the fun part for me—trying something I hadn’t done before. I’m very hands-on, but I think that’s what helped me as a writer to kind of shape the story into what it became. I think the original script was somewhere in the 140 [page range] and so we knew that it needed to come down. What parts do you keep and what parts do you shave? That was an exciting process for me to go through.
Very rarely do I start with that much research and not have] to do it all on my own. And Cary is extremely thorough. So he had gone to La Grande [Oregon] a number of times to meet with Larry and Diana for the earlier iterations of the script. So there was a lot of legwork that had been done. It was nice to get a little bit of a head start in that capacity as it was the first time in my career I wasn’t starting from ground zero.
I know Lola Bell provided a statement for the press notes, but was the family involved a lot?
Definitely. I knew she had a great relationship with the producers even before I came on as any mother would be apprehensive of any story someone was going to tell about her family.
When I met her for the first time it was just a sort of feeling out and making sure that she could trust me. That was the thing. I gave her my number and told her to call me anytime—just allowing her the opportunity to voice anything that she wanted to. And she did. She was very vocal. She texted me a few times about certain things she wanted to protect or preserve with her family and rightfully so. Also we were just being really honest about what we wanted to do. There was a complete mutual respect on our part.
She was extremely accessible and helpful, but she wanted to stay out of the way in sort of the best way. I think it was very difficult for her to relive it over and over again. I think knowing that the project had been around for a couple years before it got made—it was, “Oh, is this going to happen again?” It sort of started digging up certain things from the past.
When I came on and things really started to move it started to become real. I think that’s when emotions started to accelerate a little bit. It’s like nerves before a game, right? You know that there’s no turning back at that point. We’re actually going to go ahead with it. But she was a real stalwart from the very beginning and I have nothing but love and respect and honor for her.
I read that the film did get accepted into Sundance but you decided to hold off and tweak the final cut for the fall festivals. Was that decision made before COVID?
It was. We had a cut that I would say collectively wasn’t there and it was best to hold off. It’s very rare that you get the opportunity to continue the edit past the traditional time, but I think everyone involved—including the producers—had the resources to continue. When something’s not there, there’s no reason to rush.
I think with Monsters and Men I might have had five or six weeks to submit my edit, so I am used to that very fast schedule. I think we shot it in October and got into the festival—something insane like that. So to have literally double or triple the amount of time to edit was an absolute blessing on this film. I’m happy we waited.
Of course, I’m bummed to not play Sundance—at least this year—but everything happens for a reason and we are proud of where the film is. It’s unfortunate to not have screens then, but Sundance could still be our U.S. premiere next year. So we’ll see what happens.
What does it mean now to be included at TIFF in a year where they limited their slate to only fifty features?
It’s amazing. It’s a great festival.
I was fortunate to play Monsters and Men there … this is the second year actually where I won’t be able to go in-person so that’s a bummer having two features and not be able to physically attend. But if they’re taking fewer films and we’re still being accepted, it’s a testament to quality of the film.
Obviously it’s just an honor to be able to play a film during a global pandemic. I think the fact that they’re still pushing forward and forging a path forward for filmmakers is a huge thing for us—especially the talent in the film. You have Reid Miller and newcomers. This is a huge platform for them and an opportunity to submit their work to the world. So I’m so grateful that some of the new faces will be discovered and they can go on to have some really great careers.
Good Joe Bell is a far cry from the Peter Berg-esque dramas we’re accustomed to seeing Mark Wahlberg in, but he’s great in the film. It might be his best role yet. What got him on board and made everyone think he was right for the part?
Well, Mark was attached before I came on. He’s also a producer on the film, so one of the first steps I had to do upon joining the production was meet Mark. I remember I flew from Italy to Boston in less than twenty-four hours or something crazy like that. It was a one-hour meeting. He was still finishing up a Peter Berg movie, I think he had one day left on-set.
I met with him and by the end of the conversation Mark gave me his number. I was like, “Wait! Did Mark just give me his number? Am I just supposed to call him?” I didn’t know what was going on, but from that moment on I saw the dedication. Mark called me every day on FaceTime or by phone from wherever he was in the world. Mark travels pretty much every week—he’s somewhere else. But he was always accessible and always talking about the role.
He was completely devoted to the film. He’s someone who will read the script two or three times a day so he knew everybody’s parts and could recite everybody’s lines in the movie. He was “beyond off-book” as I like to call it by the time we started shooting. I think he does it that way so he can improvise. He knows the script so well that he can then go off into many different places. It was a new way of working for me to see that level of dedication—especially someone of his caliber.
We had a lot of really intimate conversations about our own paths, our fathers, and how that sort of affected us. It was pure dedication from Mark and I just can’t wait for the world to see what he’s accomplished. He’s already a seasoned and accomplished actor, but I think he gave his heart and soul to this one. He did describe it to me as one of the most important roles of his career. So I felt like I had to handle that with grace and integrity.
Is there any fear about his history of racially charged bullying and assault given the delicacy of this subject matter? Is there worry that that might steer some conversations around the film?
I’m sure the producers knew that coming into the story. To me the movie is about forgiveness, so that’s a big part of the through-line. Hopefully the movie will be judged on the quality of the film and everybody else in it including Mark’s performance.
Hopefully, it will be judged on the movie itself to honor the Bell family. That’s why I made the movie and I’m sure that’s why the producers made the movie. Part of living is growing and doing it with action. Any time someone is taking a step in the right direction, which I think Mark has done for over thirty years—some of the stuff in his past is a very long time ago and he’s apologized many, many times and has acted accordingly for a very long time. So I think his track record kind of speaks for itself. He continues to do the right work and put his money where his mouth is. I’m proud of the work.
Everyone in the film is great from Connie Britton to Gary Sinise, but I feel like so much of its success rests on Reid Miller’s shoulders despite being one of the “new faces.” What was getting him on board like?
I was very blessed to work with Avy Kaufman who I found out, when I met Mark for the first time, had cast him in The Basketball Diaries. And she had also cast Monsters and Men, so it was a sort of hit with Avy. We knew right away that she was going to be our casting director.
Avy is such an incredible mind. It was a very narrow list of people who can handle this role and were age-appropriate. Ideally, I was looking for someone in terms of hours, so a slightly older kid over eighteen. We were running and gunning, as it were, making a road movie. So I needed someone who could work more than an eight-hour shift.
We were looking for someone a little older who looked younger and Reid looks very young. He had been in a number of other short projects and a couple of Sundance films, so he had some experience. But it was really all about the chemistry. Reid became one of the finalists and I put him in a room with Mark to do a scene with just the three of us. I remember feeling that same feeling I did when I read the script. I got emotional watching them. They were both emotional. And there was no camera. It was as if I was watching a father and son.
Mark and I turned as soon as Reid left the room and agreed that this is the kid. We called the producers and it happened. Look, Reid is a really talented young man. I think he was also going through some things of his own during the making of the film. That rawness is what you see and feel. He’s of a certain age, going through things of his own—all of those are the intangibles that come to life when you just turn on the camera. It was a joy working with him and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Speaking of next, is production on King Richard getting back on track?
We’re in prep. It’s great. We shot three weeks and I’m so proud of the footage so far—knock on wood. Will Smith has been so fantastic and I’m not just saying that because I’m directing him. It really is sort of a perfect role for him and so far we’ve developed a great relationship so I’m super excited.
Warner Bros. has been very committed to the film. Never once during COVID did I feel like the film wasn’t going to come back. They were very communicative about it being a pride and joy of Warner Bros. So I’ve stayed in touch with the cast the entire time. We have weekly Zooms to make sure everybody is staying on top of it. It’s a very physical movie as well as a mental one—especially with the tennis and young girls who had never played professional tennis before, so making sure they were staying active while everything was closed. What can we do in our rooms? It’s challenging, but we’re the lucky ones who get to play. I never take that for granted.
Good Joe Bell screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.