‘Leaves of Grass’ follows twins; ‘Sweetgrass’ joins a sheep drive

“Leaves of Grass,” written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, is one of the most unusual “two handers” to hit theaters in quite some time -- a classically themed family drama about identical twin brothers (both played by Edward Norton) that also manages to pull off some rather ribald pot jokes.

The film, which opens Friday in New York City and Dallas with additional dates to follow, features an Ivy League classics professor (Norton) who is drawn back to his native Oklahoma under false pretenses. Once there, he reluctantly reengages with his mother (Susan Sarandon) and is drawn into helping his rebellious twin brother, who has turned into something of a savant at growing marijuana. When things go wrong with a Tulsa businessman/drug dealer (played with zeal by Richard Dreyfuss), things get complicated.

Nelson wrote the dual parts with Norton in mind. The pair recently sat down for an interview in Austin, Texas, after the film’s screening at the South By Southwest film festival. Although Norton says that being offered a part written specifically for him in and of itself did not influence him to take the part, it was the dual role that helped persuade him.

“I’ve said this jokingly, but it is kind of true,” Norton said. “Actors spend a lot of time hunting around trying to find a role, so if you offer them two very good roles, you’ll put on a dog collar and be led around wherever they want you to go. It’s a very good way to get an actor to come work on your project.”

The production issues of creating the “twin effect” with a single actor presented its own set of challenges, and ultimately Nelson opted for a mix of digital effects and old-fashioned doubles.

“It was a lot more complicated than I expected,” said Nelson, “and I used a lot more twin shots than I ever expected I would. [Visual effects supervisor] Gray Marshall, who is a real go-to guy for twin effects, convinced me to go in the opposite direction and treat them casually. If twin shots proliferated in the movie, it would eventually help the audience forget it’s Edward playing both roles.

“But the real achievement is Edward’s, his ability to create two characters who are distinctive even as they become physically and spiritually closer to each other but also his ability when sharing the frame with himself to achieve a casual and conversational rhythm. If he hadn’t done that, the technical wizardry would be meaningless.”

For his part, Norton saw the scenes in which the twins interact together on-screen to be an exciting challenge. “It’s a certain kind of puzzle,” Norton said. “It’s just timing and rhythm, a technical opportunity of how do you create a feeling of extemporaneousness, the way people interrupt and talk over each other. The trick is to imagine that in advance and almost script the messiness.”

Nelson is still perhaps best known for his acting role in the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” that likewise mixed classical themes with oddball comedy. Just as the Coens’ recent “A Serious Man” was a look at growing up Jewish in 1960s Minnesota, Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass” is also tangentially interested in the unexpected presence of a vibrant Jewish community in a place like Oklahoma.

“These are worlds I love,” said Nelson, who was himself raised Jewish in Oklahoma, “and I think what was most important was never to condescend. If you pursue whatever world you’re depicting truthfully and specifically, then condescension really becomes impossible. And I say that knowing this has the Richard Dreyfuss character, who is a pillar of the Tulsa Jewish community but is also a drug dealer on the side. And that’s something I never encountered directly, but the essence of him, the pillar of the community who maybe has some unseemly business practices, is familiar to me.”

Added Norton, “You’ve never been on a set with anyone who so frequently said, ‘My mother will kill me if we get this wrong.’ Tim grew up where they say ‘Shalom, y’all.’ ”

Lead like sheep

“Sweetgrass” may seem like it should play a double bill with “Leaves of Grass,” but the films couldn’t be more different.

Having opened Friday at the Nuart in Los Angeles, “Sweetgrass” follows a herd of some 3,000 sheep as they are driven hundreds of miles through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range.

Made by the team of Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, there is something both monumental and meditative about the film.

The filmmakers, with a background in academia and visual anthropology, take an approach that is hands-off. What might be considered vital information, such as that the sheep drive depicted is in fact the last if its kind, is simply noted in title cards at the end of the film.

The movie itself becomes experiential, because it places a viewer there amid the immensely overwhelming woodlands and vibrantly alive creatures.

“We were really interested in getting at aspects of lived experience,” said Castaing-Taylor of their technique in creating the film, “but also the relationship between humans and animals, culture and nature.”

Also unconventional is Castaing-Taylor’s credit on the film. He eschews the more typical “director” in favor of “recordist.”

“The word ‘director,’ to me it’s like double Dutch or something,” he said. “We never directed anything, we never told anybody what to do, we never told anybody to do anything twice, we never interviewed anybody. The sheep, I feel in love with them, but they’re ornery. If anybody did any directing, they directed us.”