‘Casting’ James Dean in a new movie is a gimmicky publicity stunt

"This is not a new James Dean performance, it’s an extended deep fake that co-opts his legacy," says Paul Jones

James Dean

James Dean only starred in three films. A tragic car crash – which was nevertheless in keeping with his live-fast image – cut short his life, and a career that could have been epic; another body of work like De Niro’s or Pacino’s.

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But what if you could bring Dean back, and cast him in another movie? Well, apparently you can, and somebody has.

Filmmakers Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh have secured the rights to Dean’s image and have ‘cast’ him in Finding Jack, a Vietnam War-set film – via their recently launched production house Magic City Films – in what The Hollywood Reporter is calling ‘a secondary lead role’.

“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,” says Ernst.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that James Dean wasn’t a character, he was a man – and the sheer arrogance of the words “we decided on James Dean”, as if he is an ingredient to be picked off a supermarket shelf – you have to wonder how anyone would think a computer-generated James Dean combined with a voice artist is going to give a better performance than a real actor, who would have provided face, movements and tailored emoting all for the price of one (or am I just being a cheapskate?)

But James Dean’s family have apparently sanctioned the idea and, according to Ernst, see the planned film as a valid addition to Dean’s legacy.

“We feel very honoured that his family supports us and will take every precaution to ensure that his legacy as one of the most epic film stars to date is kept firmly intact,” adds Ernst. “The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make. We do not intend to let his fans down.”

Well, you already have let his fans down – anyone who thinks constructing an entirely new character and ‘performance’ using computers, photos and some archive footage is a good idea can hardly be a huge fan – and you’ve also let James Dean down.

Imagine if an actor really could be brought back to life. And imagine if you showed him his performance in a film he had no memory of making; put words into his mouth that he never said; tried to imagine the nuanced acting decisions he might have made for a new character – I think that person might feel a little violated.

Let’s consider some more recent examples of talented actors taken from us before their time. What if we brought Heath Ledger back, slapped his face on a motion-capture suit and made an entire film around him? Maybe they should cast River Phoenix in the next Indiana Jones movie?

It’s also worth making a distinction between this latest bizarre development and some of the recent uses of these techniques we’ve seen in high profile examples like the new Star Wars movies. Carrie Fisher will appear for eight minutes in final film The Rise of Skywalker, three years after she died – but she was personally committed to the role, and footage she had already filmed for it will finish her character’s arc.

Peter Cushing’s likeness was used to recreate his Imperial villain Grand Moff Tarkin in prequel Rogue One. But it’s a role he had played before and they were scenes that lasted minutes. There is a big leap between those examples and the idea of building an entire performance, of an entirely new character, from start to finish, using photos and footage of someone who died over 60 years ago.

If you really are a lover of James Dean and his acting talent – if you watch his films and marvel at the subtlety and passion he brought to those iconic roles – what could you hope to get from seeing his computer-animated face with someone else’s voice speaking the lines?

That’s not a James Dean performance, it’s an extended deep fake that co-opts his legacy without doing him justice.

The slogan on Magic City Films’ website is “If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed”. That doesn’t mean it should be.

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The company also quotes Frank Capra: “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins…” For many people, this will be one of them.