Director of New James Dean Movie Speaks Out Over Backlash to Star's "Casting"

"We don't really understand it. We never intended for this to be a marketing gimmick," director Anton Ernst tells The Hollywood Reporter in response to negative criticism on Dean's posthumous casting.

How does one pursue casting an actor posthumously — specifically James Dean, who died nearly seven decades ago in a car crash at the age of 24?

Director Anton Ernst, who along with co-director Tati Golykh announced Wednesday that their Vietnam War-era drama Finding Jack will feature the late actor as a prominent character, believes the key to the whole process is "respect."

Finding Jack, the first project from the filmmaker's recently launched Magic City Films company, tells the story of an American soldier, Fletcher, who, after losing his wife, travels to Vietnam and befriends a war dog that saves his life. Dean, who died before the start of the Vietnam War, will play a secondary lead in the film named Rogan. 

Social media backlash has followed the announcement. Actor Chris Evans criticized the decision as "shameful" and Zelda Williams, whose late father Robin Williams restricted exploitation of his image for 25 years following his death, expressed her disdain over the choice. "It sets such an awful precedent for the future of performance," she wrote on Twitter. 

Ernst spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the criticisms on social media, saying he was "saddened" and "confused" over the overwhelmingly negative comments. "We don't really understand it. We never intended for this to be a marketing gimmick," he said.

When searching for an actor to play Rogan, Ernst said he and his co-director did audition live actors. They ultimately decided Dean was the perfect fit for the role, as Rogan is a "very brilliant, complex character" which is "pretty much how James Dean was perceived."

"We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean," Ernst told THR following the announcement. 

Magic City Films obtained the rights to use Dean's image from his living relatives, represented by CMG Worldwide. Dean's name and likeness have been used in several advertising and merchandise campaigns over the years, including those of Dolce & Gabbana, Allure Eyewear, H&M and Jose Cuervo. Ernst said that Dean's estate, which is run by two cousins on the late actor's father's side, has been "supportive" of the film and believes they would not have expected such a backlash to occur.

"I think they would have wanted their family member's legacy to live on. That's what we've done here as well. We've brought a whole new generation of filmgoers to be aware of James Dean," said Ernst.  

The movie, adapted by Mari Sova from Gareth Crocker’s novel, is set against the backdrop of the end of the Vietnam War, with the script highlighting how more than 10,000 military dogs were abandoned when the conflict ended.

"At the end of the day, what we really want people to know is the movie is about love and friendship, the veterans that served in the Vietnam War and especially the dogs that were with them," Ernst told THR. "We never want to lose that emphasis and this [social media reaction] becomes a distraction of what the story is about."

Without providing specific names, Ernst shared that he has received "positive feedback" on both his script and Dean's casting from those in the industry. As for the actor's family, the director previously told THR how honored he feels for them to be on board with the project: "We will take every precaution to ensure that his legacy as one of the most epic film stars to date is kept firmly intact. The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make. We do not intend to let his fans down."

Canadian VFX banner Imagine Engine will be working alongside South African VFX company MOI Worldwide to re-create Dean. The actor will be constructed via "full body" CGI using archival footage and photos, while another actor will voice him. 

"Visual effects is a tool," Ernst said, pointing to movies that use digital effects to de-age actors, such as The Irishman, or help finish a production in the case of an untimely death of a star, such as Carrie Fisher.

When discussing whether resurrecting Dean digitally crosses a line with regards to posthumous casting, Ernst explained, "Anyone that is brought back to life — you have to respect them." He noted Fisher's posthumous appearances in the Star Wars franchise, saying that if the actress had expressed never wanting to be in a film after her death, or if her legacy or that of the franchise could be "tarnished" because of her casting, "then that should be a line."

"I think the line should be ... you must always honor the deceased's wishes and try to act in a way that is honorable and full of dignity," Ernst said. 

And when asked how Dean and his living on-set counterpart will be credited, Ernst said they have not come to a decision just yet. 

Preproduction on Finding Jack is set to begin Nov. 17, with a goal for a worldwide release on Nov. 11, 2020, Veterans' Day.