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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The movie "Walk the Line" opens tomorrow. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash as he rises to fame, and his marriage falls apart. Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter, the country singer who had her own failed marriages and slowly became attached to Cash as they toured together.

(Soundbite of "Walk the Line")

Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) I always liked that song of yours, "Time's a Wastin'." Let's do "Time's a Wastin'."

Ms. REESE WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter) John, I am not going to sing that song. It's inappropriate. I was 40, there was my ex-husband. I am not going to sing it.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) Well, there's no better way to put it behind you.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: (As June Carter) I'm not gonna do it.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Johnny Cash) June, just sing it.

INSKEEP: James Mangold directed "Walk the Line" and co-wrote the screenplay. He did that after visiting the late singer and his wife June in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Mr. JAMES MANGOLD (Director, "Walk the Line"): Well, the first time I went with my partner and wife Cathy Konrad, who's also the producer of the film, to meet John and June, we stayed at the Holiday Inn of Hendersonville and waited in the lobby because we were told that John was going to come pick us up. It's one of those completely kind of prefab lobbies with pictures of wheat on the walls and sliding kind of supermarket doors. And suddenly we hear this incredible rumble, and a diesel Mercedes pulls up, and...

INSKEEP: I thought you were going to say you suddenly heard Johnny Cash singing, which is kind of a rumble.

Mr. MANGOLD: Well, almost, but no. It was more like a chitty-chitty bang-bang kind of rumble. And suddenly through these sliding glass doors stands Johnny Cash in jeans and boots and a denim jacket. And he literally did say, because there was actually a little crowd of people eating doughnuts in the lobby, `Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.' And I remember Cathy said, `Yes, you are.' And we got in his car, and he took us back to the house for breakfast that June had made, ham and eggs. And we sat and had breakfast with them and talked about the kind of movie I hoped to make. They were clearly from the very beginning revealing so much of who they were just from the--in the way they took care of you, their graciousness, their openness, their hospitality.

INSKEEP: You were going to this married couple to talk about the extremely sensitive subject of how they got together, given that...

Mr. MANGOLD: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...one of them had a marriage that was breaking up at the time. Did it help or affect the conversation at all that you'd brought your own wife along?

Mr. MANGOLD: Well, it certainly made it clear that this was for all of us an act of love, making this film, more than anything. And it certainly made it clear that we understood the stresses and strains of working together and the stresses and strains of show business and family life. But I also think that John, he had very strong instincts about people and was also very trusting, and I think he elected to trust us. The interesting and really thrilling thing that John said was, you know, `I don't care where you go. I just don't want to hurt other people. I don't care if you hurt me.' And John's--you know, `These were my mistakes, so if you're going to make anyone look bad, make it me.'

INSKEEP: So you pushed the Cashes a little bit about how they needed to tell their story to you. Did they then give you some instructions or opinions about how you ought to make the movie?

Mr. MANGOLD: John's very first words to me of the kind you're asking about were at the end of our--at the end of that first meeting in Hendersonville. Cathy and I were getting up to leave, and John turned back and he said, `Whoever plays me, make sure they don't hold the guitar like a baby.' And he picked up his guitar by the neck with one hand and swung it into his arms, the same way a carpenter would a hammer. And I thought of all the Bonos and Springsteens and Dylans and country music superstars that had visited this house in Hendersonville and how they must have walked in, as I did, and seen these guitars sitting on stands and mandolins and autoharps lying around this house and thought about all the incredible historic albums made with these instruments. In the same way, we all walk through, like, Hard Rock Cafes and look at these, you know, Eric Clapton guitars, they almost take on this kind of holy glow. And if John was concerned with anything, he didn't want no damned holy glow around his instruments. He wanted to be a man. He wanted this to be a movie about a man, and the tools he used were the same tools any man might use.

INSKEEP: You include a scene where the great record producer Sam Phillips is coaching a young Johnny Cash.

Mr. MANGOLD: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Johnny Cash tries to sing a song. Sam Phillips stops him and says, `I don't believe you.' I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically says, `Sing something that you'd want to be the last song that you would ever sing.'

Mr. MANGOLD: As if you were dying. If you were dying in five minutes and you had one song to sing.

INSKEEP: You're a director who coaches people on how to be convincing, and it made me wonder, is that--well, is that you talking?

Mr. MANGOLD: It's not too far. I mean, I don't think I'm quite as eloquent because I got to, you know, actually write that out in advance. But the fact is that Sam Phillips was a huge figure of the time, and he was getting these kind of foundlings, these young kids coming in to play. He had this incredible instinct for asking them and encouraging them to go to places that no one else was going to at that point in recording. Johnny Cash ain't the same as Bing Crosby, and, you know, the hit songs of the day in America at the time the Sun revolution happened was "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?" 1954 was the year Muzak was invented. Everything was smooth, smooth, smooth, postwar America. And what these young boys in this room did, they brought sexuality and the beat and a kind of aggressive pursuit of passion back into music.

INSKEEP: Well, now here's a challenge for you as a filmmaker, then, because you have this story about someone who became famous by telling the truth in a very fundamental way.

Mr. MANGOLD: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You want to tell the truth about his life, but you also have this instruction from Johnny Cash, `I don't want to hurt anybody.'

Mr. MANGOLD: Well, I can't--you know what? In the end, there's no way I can't hurt anybody who was involved in the passion play of his life in that period. John himself was an artist of the shadows, and John himself wrote very boldly about darkness. And what I took from what John said was, `Please make a good film, but please don't be irresponsible.'

INSKEEP: Well, you're probably familiar with the fact that Kathy Cash, one of Johnny Cash's daughters, has tried to watch this film and walked out repeatedly, feeling that her mother, Johnny Cash's first wife, was treated unfairly.

Mr. MANGOLD: Yeah. No, I heard that, but I--you know, Kathy was one of the people we talked to in making the film, and very few people who have ever gone through a divorce or seen an angry split-up of a family could find a way to dramatize that without it being ugly.

INSKEEP: James Mangold is the director of "Walk the Line."

Thanks very much.

Mr. MANGOLD: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Early one morning while making the rounds, I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down. I went right home and I went to bed. I stuck that lovin' .44 beneath my head.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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