"I still feel uncomfortable going back to the Valley," 43-year-old filmmaker David Jacobson said. "To this day, I associate it with my childhood sense of feeling lost and lonely in a stark landscape. When I begin going over the 405, my spirits just start to drop."
Jacobson's acclaimed new film, "Down in the Valley" -- which opens the Los Angeles Film Festival June 16 -- draws on his memories of desolation without and within. His parents divorced when he was 2; his older brother died in a car accident when he was 13; and the introverted boy suffered nightmares and fear of the dark upon moving into a Van Nuys tract home next to the 101. "The freeway, which we heard day and night, was an ominous presence, a violent place where hurtling steel rushed past you like bullets," he said. "We played in empty, weedy lots."
Jacobson's isolation was exacerbated because he discerned no historical or cultural continuity with which to connect. Since his family was secular, he said, he had no Jewish education to help him feel part of a community and guide him through rites of passage. His bar mitzvah, in a sense, was moving in with his father after his brother's death.
His memories led him to create "Down in the Valley," starring Edward Norton as a delusional man who claims to be a cowboy with a mysterious past. Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Norton) drifts from the Tujunga Wash to a Chasidic neighborhood as he pursues a dangerous friendship with two latchkey kids who regard him as a hero. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a rebellious teenager, and 11-year-old Lonnie (Rory Culkin), who suffers a crippling fear of the dark, also wander aimlessly through vacant lots, strip malls, freeway overpasses and fast-food joints.
Like the director's previous films, "Criminal" (1994) and "Dahmer" (2002), "Valley," in part, is a disquieting portrait of a man unable to function within normal society. So it's jarring to meet the bespectacled director, who seems more like a nice Jewish boy than the creator of distressing, if lauded dramas. He is mild-mannered and friendly, despite spending 16-hour days trimming "Valley" after Cannes reviewers called it "breathtaking" but overlong. (Variety called him a "prodigiously talented" filmmaker.) Without a trace of bitterness, he said his work places him on the margins of American independent cinema, which veers more toward the quirky than the profoundly disturbing.
It was while braving multiple rejections for his understated serial killer film, "Dahmer," around 1999 that he started writing his latest film in France -- one of the many places he has lived to escape the Valley. He currently lives in Hollywood.
Since he had identified with the isolation of Dahmer's youth (but not with his perversities), he decided to "return to the personal in an even more direct way, by exploring my childhood," he said.
Jacobson wrote much of "Valley's" first draft in an 18th century rococo library in Paris: "Had I been in Los Angeles, I probably wouldn't have wanted to deal with it, so having all that physical and emotional distance helped," he said.
While writing, Jacobson attended a series of classic Western films, and the myths and images flowed into his story. "I wanted to depict the parallels between the bleak vistas and lifestyles portrayed in the Westerns and the modest West where I lived," he said. "Growing up in the Valley, there was this sense of solitude, the constant fear of attack and the need of a hero to save me."
To capture flat Valley spaces that retain old West emptiness, Jacobson decided to shoot the movie in anamorphic widescreen. But while scouting locations, he discovered the kind of childhood scenarios he remembered had moved to the North Valley. In Arleta, he found the tract home with cinderblock and overgrown palm trees that served as the children's house. Harlan, for a time, inhabits rural Sunland, where bucolic ranches also harbor "abandoned junky cars, power lines and trailers -- a weird netherland that's both urban and rural," he said.
While scrolling through the images in a dim Los Angeles editing room, Jacobson said the story eventually became less about the Valley than children left alone to complete rites of passage. "When they are left to their own devices, it doesn't usually have the best ending," he said.
The 263 movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival, June 16-26, of which The Jewish Journal is a promotional affiliate, include three Israeli films focusing on women's issues: Raphael Nadjari's "Avanim" depicts a young wife's resistance to a claustrophobic, male-dominated culture; Eran Riklis' "The Syrian Bride" tells of an Israeli Druze who cannot return to her village once she crosses the border to marry her Syrian fiance; and Anat Zuria's documentary, "Sentenced to Marriage," traces three Orthodox wives' battles to divorce abusive husbands. For tickets and information, call (866) 345-6337 or visit www.lafilmfest.com.