January 2004
By Steven M. Housman

C. Jay Cox: Man With A Mission

C. Jay Cox is a man of many talents. He is an award-winning filmmaker who had his “big break” last year when he was credited as the sole screenwriter for the box office smash Sweet Home Alabama starring Reese Witherspoon. His most recent film, Latter Days, is a gay love story, which he wrote, and is his directorial debut. It deals with two men from vastly different backgrounds, where religion and sex cause friction between their respective friends and families. He also has multiple projects on the front and back burner, so he is well on his way to becoming one of the hottest filmmakers to recently surface.

Cox is a Los Angeles-based writer-director, but is not a child of Hollywood – he grew up on a ranch in a remote town in eastern Nevada. Although he was raised in a neighboring state, he might as well have been a million miles away. His hometown was in close proximity to a nuclear test site, and the entire county housed only one movie theater. Still, the determined Cox was mesmerized by the movies, and at the tender age of eight, he made his first film. It was a two-minute 8mm opus titled Vampire Cave. He was later sent to the principal’s office for using the term “film noir” in class. His teacher said she knew it was French and figured it had to be dirty. Of course when you have a dream and are as passionate about it as C. Jay was, the ignorance of others about your art will not stand in your way. Cox continued to write and create short films throughout his adolescence, experimenting with writing, directing and acting. After high school he attended Brigham Young University where he eventually graduated with a BA in Journalism.

After graduation, C. Jay headed west to the obvious locale of Los Angeles to fulfill his dreams of “stardom in Hollywood.” Following stints as an actor, performance artist and photographer, interspersed (as he jokingly calls it) “into the exciting worlds of office temp and food service professional,” Cox began making video shorts, industrial films and documentaries. Finally, a break came shortly after his first screenplay, The Thing In Bob’s Garage, was optioned by television producer extraordinaire Norman Lear. He suddenly found himself in demand as a studio script doctor. Cox was immersed in several projects to “fix the errors,” and then ultimately rewriting most of the screenplays himself. The rewrites include, Giving Her The Business (New Line Cinema), Tornado Jam (Paramount), The Governess (Columbia) and Ladyfingers (Phoenix). He subsequently has written projects for Walt Disney Studios and Columbia Pictures. But it wasn’t until his first produced script, Sweet Home Alabama, starring Reese Witherspoon, was released to major box office success in September 2002 that he finally realized his dream and made a name for himself. Sweet Home Alabama would allow him to pursue his current projects with greater ease. He said, “Within the space of a few weeks it went from ‘there’s this guy, C. Jay Cox’ to, ‘this guy who wrote Sweet Home Alabama,’ and all of a sudden the reaction was ‘Oh! I’ll return his phone call.’” He continued, “When you have a big studio romantic comedy that becomes such a box office success, it’s an interesting process and a great education on how the studio movies get made, as opposed to the smaller independent films.”

He recently completed shooting his feature directorial debut, Latter Days, from his original screenplay. The film has played three festivals so far: Outfest, Fresno, and the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Festival. The film has already won audience awards or Director awards at each of them. When asked about the gay character in Sweet Home Alabama, I wondered if C. Jay included gay characters in all of his films. He replied, “Bobby Ray, he was a great character. It was something that I thought was required in that film. I just felt he was really organic to the project. It was a story about a woman who reinvented herself and kept the past a secret, so there’s that character who kept his life a big secret. I just liked the parallel there. I don’t feel compelled to just throw in gay characters at random unless it makes for an interesting part of the story.”

Latter Days is a tale of a gay, sexually-aggressive party animal who falls for a young Mormon missionary, prompting fireworks from their respective friends and families. It’s been described as “a charming, sexy, and moving tale that will leave you believing in the transformational power of love.” The film stars Jacqueline Bisset, Mary Kay Place, and Erik Palladino. After seeing the film, I had to wonder if this filmmaker who grew up in a small town in Nevada, went to college in Salt Lake City and spoke of this Mormon man who was gay, was drawing from his own experiences. C. Jay said, “This movie isn’t strictly autobiographical. I pulled from big parts of my life. I have been both of those characters. At one point, I was raised Mormon and I was also once a missionary. Then just after moving to Los Angeles and “coming out,” I thought it would be interesting to put those two characters in a room and see what would happen between them. That was the genesis of the idea.”

I reminded C. Jay that not everyone was knowledgeable about Mormon life and that aspect of religion, including myself. I asked him to please define the title, Latter Days. His definition, “The official name of the Mormon Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It has to do with the approach of Armageddon and the very last days when all hell is about to break loose and conservative religions, not just Mormons, tend to equate gay society as approaching Armageddon. You know, we’re all going to Hell in a hand basket. We’re allowed to hold jobs and have relationships, but if there’s ever a same sex marriage, it will just open the gates to Hell.” He then jokes, “I didn’t know we had those set of keys!”

From listening to his experience in Hollywood before Sweet Home Alabama and after the success, I knew it was also easier to attract bigger names to smaller films. Being a huge fan of the “stars” myself, I had to know what Jacqueline Bisset (by the way, it’s pronounced Bis-sit) and Mary Kay Place were like to work with. According to Cox, “Oh boy, Jacqueline was such an enormous pleasure. She is so great and fun and wonderful to work with. It was also such perfect timing because she came in during the last week of our shoot. Sometimes at the end of a shoot people get tired, but when she showed up, everybody just loved her and it really raised the bar. I have been a fan of Mary’s for a very long time. She’s so great. I loved her in The Big Chill and so many other projects. I also found it ironic continuity that I was able to write two mother roles for her.”

As I pointed out, C.Jay has also acted earlier in his career. Would he act in any of his own projects? He answers, “I could see myself doing a cameo, but I don’t really like to see myself taking over a “role” in a film. I’ve been in a number of shots in films, but have always disguised myself appropriately.” It seems he is most critical of himself, but what artist isn’t?

As if Latter Days wasn’t enough on his plate, as Cox travels the country to several film festivals for promotion, he is also finishing up two other films at this time for New Line Cinema. This guy is red hot right now, and the success has put him in overdrive.

Filmmakers, as with most other professions, always have their idols, so C. Jay isn’t any different in that respect. Some of his include James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) and he loves Sydney Pollack’s style (The Way We Were, Tootsie, Out of Africa). C. Jay continues, “I really love the directors that make these big blockbuster films with such success. But you hear these stories in Hollywood about what maniacs some of these directors can be, and it’s a bit intimidating because I’m not really much of a screamer. But as I said, Brooks and Pollack have such respect, as does one of the greatest (in my opinion) Billy Wilder,” (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment).

Asking what C.Jay saw in his future, I was curious to know if he preferred the independent films to the larger Hollywood-made features. He replied, “I want to do both. As I said, I love those big Hollywood directors, but I also have great respect for filmmakers such as John Sayles (screenwriter, including Passion Fish and Sunshine State). I think the great thing is not to get pigeonholed into any genre or any type of film. I was just speaking to an actress who is known mostly for her smaller, more independent films. Then she was also in Jurassic Park, which you know is one of the biggest blockbusters ever made, but she said the same thing. She just wants to do good work and not get pigeonholed or stereotyped. I want to make more big films and smaller types as well. Just like I don’t want to make just straight films or gay films. I want to be able to create whatever I think would be interesting.”

Latter Days
is scheduled to open in New York and Los Angeles in late January 2004 and eventually open in wider release in February. C. Jay is hoping for a simultaneous premier in Salt Lake City as well. That latter should prove to be the most interesting opening for this film.

As you have hopefully detected from this interview, C. Jay Cox was refreshingly modest about his success, and from what I gathered about this small-town ex-Mormon missionary, his feet are sure to stay firmly planted on the ground. Even if it is Hollywood soil.

© 2004 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.