Writer/director David M. Rosenthal had already connected with his estranged daughter by the time it came to shoot his deeply personal new film, “Janie Jones.”
Making a semi-autobiographical tale of a singer confronted with the daughter he didn’t know he had helped complete Rosenthal’s real-life healing process.
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“It was hugely cathartic for me. I’m so glad to have it done it,” Rosenthal tells Big Hollywood of the personal film project. “It brought us together on a whole different level …. I wanted to do it for me and for my daughter.”
“Janie Jones,” out on DVD today, follows a selfish rock star (Allesandro Nivola, “Junebug”) who learns he’s the father of a 13-year-old girl named Janie Jones (Abigail Breslin). The girl’s junkie mom (Elisabeth Shue) deposits her in his care while she heads to rehab. That forces the distracted rocker to care for his daughter while trying to hold his struggling band together.
No, Rosenthal isn’t a hard-charging musician, but the story’s themes clearly mirror his own life. He just made sure “Janie Jones” didn’t shadow reality too closely.
“I definitely had to pull back. There were so many people involved,” he says. “I had to get to the essence of my experience, and then fictionalize it.”
In the film, Breslin’s character turns out to be a whiz with the guitar, and while her father’s tour hits one speed bump after another he finds comfort in his daughter’s ability to sing and strum like papa.
Rosenthal wrote the rock star character as a bit of a jerk, but he wanted him to have some redeeming qualities to help pave the way for his potential redemption.
Casting Nivola made that task easier.
“Allesandro has a natural quality about him. Even when he’s impish or acting in a way that he is in the film, you still want to root for him,” Rosenthal says.
It certainly helps that Nivola could sing and play the guitar before arriving on set, and even young Breslin proved to be an accomplished singer.
“I wanted all the actors to be able to play music. Allesandro really plays the guitar, Frank [Whaley] really plays the drums. That renders some authenticity to the music. If they can’t do that, it throws all the proceedings into a mess,” he says.
Rosenthal used a separate songwriter for each character to fully flesh out their unique personalities and hardships. He recruited Gemma Hayes to write the uplifting songs Janie sings on screen, while folkie Eef Barzelay penned the more chaotic numbers Nivola sings with his band. That helped Rosenthal bring believable music sequences to the film, but he admits he was taken aback at how mature Breslin was on set.
“She does a scene, you call cut, and she’s a kid again. She wants to go to the mall. She’s very sweet,” he says of the Oscar-nominee for “Little Miss Sunshine.” And when Breslin asked Rosenthal where she needed to be emotionally on a scale from one to 10 in a given scene she “nailed it” every time, he says.
Breslin also bonded with Rosenthal’s real-life daughter, who served as an assistant on the film.
“It inspired a lot of the crew and actors. ‘Oh, that’s his daughter,’ they said. They got a sense of our relationship. They could feed off of that,” he says.
“Janie Jones” debuts on DVD this week without a significant theatrical launch.
“We all dream about being able to reach a massive audience, but it is a small film,” says Rosenthal, whose next film “A Single Shot” stars Sam Rockwell. “I feel grateful to having made the film and for having got it into theaters.”