Russell got his first break ... Read more »
Best known for directing warm-hearted and family-friendly fare, filmmaker Jay Russell has demonstrated a knack for telling simple, straightforward tales with earnest emotional resonance.
Russell got his first break at the age of 19, helming a series of commercials for the Arkansas Parks and Tourism division. Like his boss at the time, Governor Bill Clinton, Russell would go on to bigger and better things. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Russell won a number of regional honors for his music in 1979 and received a full scholarship to Memphis University. There he became involved in the school's Grammy Award-winning Blues Preservation Program. Russell's passion for music was supplanted, however, in his junior year by another longtime passion of his - namely, filmmaking.
After graduating from Memphis in 1983, Russell continued his post-grad studies at Columbia University where he studied under the tutelage of Academy Award winning director Milos Forman. After receiving his MFA in Film, Russell was invited to attend the famed Sundance Institute Film Workshop. It was there that Russell began development on what would eventually become his first film, "End of the Line" (1988). Financed mostly with a grant Russell received from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, "End of the Line" told the tale of two down-and-out railway workers named Leo and Will (played by Levon Helm and Wilford Brimley, respectively) who have recently been laid off by their company. In protest, the duo steals an engine and travel across America to meet with the railway company president (played by Bob Balaban), hoping to change his mind. Along the way, Leo and Will have a series of humorous misadventures. Though far from perfect, "End of the Line" was received well enough at Sundance to win a theatrical release by Orion Classics.
After "End of the Line", Russell developed a number of projects for Imagine Entertainment, as well as Tri-Star Pictures. Though none of these projects came to fruition, Russell found success elsewhere - documentaries, specifically. In the early to mid 90's, Russell produced a number of documentary series and specials for NBC, CBS, The Learning Channel, and the Discovery Channel. In 1996, PBS approached Russell to write, produce, and direct "Great Drives", a five-hour miniseries on America's most famous highways of America.
It was during the filming of Great Drives that Russell met author Willie Morris. At the time, Morris was working on a semi-autobiographical memoir about his childhood. When the book, My Dog Skip, became a national bestseller, Russell - who had stayed in regular contact with Morris - secured the movie rights to the book. In 2000, Warner Bros. released the Russell directed film adaptation of "My Dog Skip," which starred Kevin Bacon, Frankie Muniz, and Diane Lane. While not completely faithful to its source material, "My Dog Skip" was nevertheless a hit with critics and audiences alike and eventually went on to score numerous awards, including the 2001 Broadcast Film Critics Award for Best Family Drama.
After a brief respite, Russell followed up with "Tuck Everlasting" (2002) - an overly earnest, but well-intentioned romantic drama that starred William Hurt and Sissy Spacek.
In 2004, Russell tackled his most commercial and adult-oriented project yet with "Ladder 49." The film--essentially an ode to the heroism of firefighters--was an especially resonant project to Russell, as his own father was a retired firefighter, himself. The movie starred John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix as a pair of Baltimore firemen who share a father-son relationship that forges the backbone of this emotionally satisfying film. While some critics found it a bit schmaltzy in its sentimentality and Russell's storytelling style was the subject of some behind the scenes battles, "Ladder 49" performed quite respectably at the box-office, taking in almost $75 million.