The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 2

On The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

by Asia Argento

On the Heart is Deceitful

[In conversation with JT LeRoy]

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things debuted in the Director's Fortnight at the 2004 Cannes International Film Festival. Asia Argento directed and starred in the film, which she adapted from the story collection of the same name by JT LeRoy. The story to follow this conversation, “Disappearances,” leads the collection and forms the first act of the film.

JT: Asia, can you explain how we first got together?

ASIA: Going back, what happened between us was Billy Chainsaw gave me a copy of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and was like, You've gotta read this. I was in Prague, just hanging out or whatever for a couple of weeks. I read the collection and loved it. I could see it, you know? These places I'd never visited and didn't know anything about—trailer parks and the American South—these images, the characters, they'd started living inside me. I remember looking for you on the Internet and finding out about you. And then the day I returned to Rome I received a call from your publishing company in Italy; there was this reading and you wanted me to read. I know about violence, I know about poverty, I know about the thin line between the moral and immoral, whatever that is. I wrote you and asked if anybody had the rights to make a movie. And you never replied, which made me nervous.

JT: The thing is, Gus Van Sant had two of the stories.

ASIA: I know.

JT: And I didn't wanna shoot nothing in the foot because I was like, I really like this lady. I had seen some of your films. But beyond that, I felt something between your words, and I thought that Gus and I were meant to work on other projects, and not The Heart. So I was having these conversations with the agent like, Well, what is Gus's option?

ASIA: When you didn't reply, I gave the collection to the producers and said, Please read this right now. Immediately, they did. It was 2002, and I went to Cannes and I took the collection. The only reason I went was to meet with the producers and ask, Are you guys down? Are we going to do this? I was moving to America to make this film. And they were in. A week or so later, you and I met, and we did that trip in Italy, getting to know one another, and I never wanted to leave your side. You saw the worst of me, and the best—how I could turn from one to the other very quickly; and you told me that I could be like Sarah. We were together for a long time in Italy, and we became like a family. At least, that's how I felt.

JT: I felt that way too. I knew that this was gonna happen, and when I would tell people they'd be like, Do you know how many movies get optioned and nothing happens? All these Rogers would tell me, Oh yeah, my collection's been optioned for five million years and blah, blah, blah. And I was just kind of like, Well, I'm sorry for you but that's not gonna be the case here. And they'd just kinda look at me like, You are young, you're so young.

ASIA: Me too. It became my mission. Everything else became secondary. This movie was my life. I lived it for a long time. I still do.

JT: It's the truth. And I kept saying to you, Take it and do with it what you will.

ASIA: And then I became really scared to disappoint you. You chose me to play your mother, like this ideal in your book. I'd developed all these instincts toward you; I became that character. And when I started casting and shooting, the collection was the constant reference point. Always like, We can't do this because it's not in the collection. We can't cast this, we can't do this shot. The process was obsessive, but I think it's made the movie so much better, because this collection is loved by so many people. When the classics become movies, the director always thinks he's smarter than the writer, and tries to change the territory. But for me it wasn't about that. It was the lights and the scene, the color of a blanket in the collection. And the most freeing moment was when you saw the movie, and you loved it—that you love it still—and that you're going to support it. Because it's yours. I really did it for you. The only person I wanted to please was you.

JT: I advised you to cut me out of the process. It's like trying clothes on a doll. It's hard to have the maker of the doll there saying, That's not the right color. What are you thinking?

ASIA: And I was thinking, How am I going to do this? How am I going to direct and act? How am I going to become this person who's not, you know, the most pleasant, and then become nice for the crew? People can be schizophrenic, I suppose, and be both; and I tried really hard to be both, to be the director and to be Sarah. But within all that, I was dying. So I was like, Fuck it, I'm just going to become Sarah and the crew is going to hate me and it will be sad. I may want to go home, and I'll feel really lonely. You know, I lost a lot of friends then. But those people have forgiven me, I guess. I was really ugly inside when I played her; I didn't know any other way.

JT: How did you find the boys to play Jeremiah? Gus was originally gonna make Sarah, and the casting alone scared the pants off him.

ASIA: Dylan and Cole Sprouse. Well, they came in and the first thing Dylan said was, I heard you got a tattoo. We read an early scene together, and he played it so subtle. He said, Look, if this happened I would never just say, Mommy, Mommy. I would say, You're creepy. I'd call the cops. And so for six months we met every week, not so much to work on the script, but just to get to know each other, so they would trust me and I would see, like, which one was better at what. This was also for their mother, to trust me and to know that I would not exploit her kids. I wanted them to understand the importance of the story.

JT: Do you think your experience as a child actor made you a more sensitive director?

ASIA: Yes, I knew what worked with me. Directors would bribe me to get feelings out of me. But kids are the best actors; it's not difficult to get feelings out of them. It's just necessary to be aware of their concentration. The first takes are good, but then they'll get bored. They'll think of the books they want to read, or start playing with a flashlight. You have to keep them occupied. And then, you have them for only four and a half hours a day. In a small budget film, you don't have all these shots prepared. I was always afraid we weren't getting enough shots, and I'd cry every night, because I wanted you to like it. But now I think the movie is there—an epic story of a kid trying to win his mother's love.

JT: You're asking all the actors to play difficult roles. How many people are happy to say they played a child molester in their last film?

ASIA: A lot of these actors had never played negative roles before. But then they read the collection and the script; they spoke to you and to me. They found these roles freeing, and there is the importance of telling a story like this. Most movies that involve any violence toward kids are so hypocritical. There's always a good ending, but life is not like that. Jeremiah had foster parents for four years; he always knew there was something else, some other way to live. You took all this. You became a writer, and you helped people.

JT: These actors agreed to be in the film because they were assured by your intention. Nobody is completely demonized.

ASIA: Dostoevsky writes about killers and all these horrible people, but he never demonizes them. He finds why they became bad. And so you excuse them, in a way; or more than excuse them, you understand them. Someone told me this film is an X ray of America by a European. My intention was to make it timeless and placeless; I was looking for the non-particular, more so than the particular. But then, for a foreigner, the American South is very exotic. I didn't take the usual things for granted.

JT: That's why Milos Forman did such a great job with The People vs. Larry Flynt. A foreigner catches things we don't even see anymore because they're part of our everyday landscape and language. In that film, you were really able to look at that world.

ASIA: I'd never been to the South. I studied books and photographs, documentaries, but when I got there it was something else. And I realized there I was Sarah. The way people looked at me—like I was an alien that wanted to fit in—all those feelings that started.

JT: When people heard you were making the film, they'd say, But she's Italian. She's got an accent. But you have the voice. The thing about Sarah is she changed the way she spoke constantly. Because we travelled all over, she would take on whatever accent was local to where we were. Sometimes she would street it up, sometimes really Southernize it. In Hollywood, she would try to be rid of it altogether. And I know there are people who sit there and say, Well it's different in the collection. And it's like, No it ain't. It's the essence, and that's all that matters. But let's get back to the location.

ASIA: We first thought about shooting in North Carolina, but that was too rushed, too much like LA. And then we found Knoxville, which wasn't used much at all for movies. It was great. The people there aren't like those in LA, where they have this rhythm, where they do it all the time for a living. The people in Knoxville were really into having a film shot there. A lot of them—especially the kids—helped us a lot.

JT: What I love about the South is that it's so— Well, what I noticed about Europe is every little corner is mapped out, because it's so old. Whereas in the United States, the South, there are tons of areas there's so little known about. There are highways going through now, starting to change things. But there are still so many places for people to get lost, to be—

ASIA: Forgotten.

JT: Yeah, forgotten.

ASIA: What did you tell me once, that if somebody wants to make something disappear—a body, a car—where would he put it, in what state?

JT: West Virginia. That's what they say, yeah.

ASIA: West Virginia, by God. West Virginia!

JT: Yeah, that's where I was born, and it's the place where anything and anybody can disappear. In big cities, there's not much room for magic. People are so rational and so tired. But in the country, the pagan is still very much alive. People believe in the folk—folk medicine, folklore. It informs the way people live, outside the law. There's a belief in the old ways of doing things, and that includes raising children, and these ways are not always the best ways. But in hard times and a hard world, that's the way it is. And it was hard for you on the set. I saw the weather conditions; it was either hot or freezing. You had no food. You had to do these intensely emotional scenes, and then be there for the whole crew, bring them together. I don't know how you did it. Directing seemed so natural for you.

ASIA: Well, I learned by making movies. I was lucky to work with great directors, and I observed; that was my film school. But the shots, the lighting, the feeling of the place—that was all in the collection. When you start making a movie, and working with this crew of people, as time goes by you all start talking this different language; you share this vision. You're all inspired by the same thing—in this case, the stories in the collection. You all live in this kind of cocoon for a strict amount of time. And that's what makes the experience all worthwhile, finding these people to talk this language. The script was the stories you wrote, the stories in this collection.

JT: I always wished I could connect my memories to someone else so they could see. To be alone with stuff is the worst. People have lived through terrible things, and there's no record of it. But if you can turn it into something and leave a record, it wasn't completely in vain, you know. I've always detached myself from situations, like I'm filming them. I've always had this feeling of being a black box to record this stuff; I'm recording a plane wreck for someone else. And I can't die because I'm meant to play back the black box. I've just always felt like that. Maybe that was my survival technique—I don't know. But when you said you were going to make this film I knew it; this is what's supposed to be. Somebody hooked into my brain and hit playback.

To read other stories from the Summer 2005 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.