SXSW 2008 - interview with HUMBOLDT COUNTY writers/directors Danny Jacobs & Darren Grodsky

I was able to meet briefly with the writer / director team behind Humboldt County, Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky, and discuss their vision for the film. Humboldt managed to pack in audiences for its subsequent showings at SXSW and even took over an additional screen at the Alamo South Lamar.

Collin: I wanted to ask about your cast, specifically Brad Dourif, who a lot of people are familiar with from the legion of direct-to-video genre titles he seems to appear in every year. People forget this guy was an Oscar-nominated actor in the early part of his career. How did you look at each role as you cast it, specifically the role of Jack, (Dourif’s character) because I was just so taken with his performance?

Danny: I think Brad did a fantastic job too. The difficulty with that role in particular was that we needed to find someone who could be believable as a former physics professor and a mountain man, and those are two opposite qualities that are difficult to find in people. That was our challenge when we were going about trying to find someone.

Darren: Despite that reputation that Brad has garnered in genre work, we had been watching a lot of Deadwood during the writing of this and had really fallen in love with that show and had see him just be brilliant in that role.

Danny: Fantastic show.

Collin: Absolutely, and he’s great in it.

Darren: So that put him on our radar. And Danny, I think you were the one who met with him first.

Danny: When we finally met with him it was only a couple of weeks before we were going to start shooting and Darren was already up in Humboldt for pre-production, working with the crew. I was doing some rehearsals with the cast we already had on board in LA and meeting with people. Brad and I met, and he – the role of Jack is very much him. He’s a huge astronomer. He started going off for 20 minutes – not using words like “nebula” and “star cluster”, words we all know – these were professional astronomer terms.

Darren: He has this professional grade telescope he brought up to Humboldt with him - -

Danny: It was this $40,000 telescope we had to get a separate hotel room to house. We knew this guy had a lot of Jack in him. He admitted to us after we brought him on board that he was very nervous to take on the role because usually the roles he takes on, he’s putting on some sort of affect or some kind of physical thing, where he’s playing some kind of heightened or exaggerated character. He really felt here that, for the first time in a long time, he was playing a role that had a lot of him in it. To the point where – I don’t know if you noticed it in the film – he’s missing two or three front teeth. That’s him. In all of his roles he uses fake teeth but he really felt there was lot of him in this part.

Collin: This brings me to something else – for a first time project as writers / directors, this has such a specific sense of place and personality. It could’ve veered into caricature. Everything seems so natural though, and the actors all seemed tuned to their roles. Coming to this without experience behind the camera, how did you prepare to make this project that really feels more like a genuinely human experience and not a heightened version of reality?

Danny: One of the reasons we were able to do that was Darren came from the perspective of a lifelong experience of visiting this place (Humboldt County). He was starting at the beginning of the project with a wealth of information. We spent a lot of time up there getting to know the people, and the feel of it – we saturated ourselves in it.

Darren: Not just ourselves – also the cast and crew. Any time we brought someone on board we would tell them as much as we possibly could about the place and about the world.

Danny: Right when our main actors got up there, we took them into southern Humboldt where Darren’s aunt lives. She grows pot for a living and is actually the person Frances Conroy’s character is based on. So we sent them to her.

Darren: She made them dinner. We all spent an evening, lit by kerosene – no electricity, if they wanted to use the bathroom they used the outhouse. Literally on the eve of shooting they got to experience the world of Humboldt we were trying to bring to the screen.

Danny: In that Sidney Lumet book, “Making Movies”, he says that the most important thing is that everyone is making the same movie. I think that’s kind of what you’re referring to, and I think we were able to do that partly because of experiences like those.

Darren: I would just add that it’s very gratifying to hear you say that you felt the film provide that sort of experience because that’s something we, from the very beginning, were interested in doing – to give the impression that as you watch this film, you’re getting one glimpse of this very broad world. There are a couple of characters who appear in just one scene and are gone, but we wanted every character to be “full.” The films that we admire, those are the feelings we get – that they take place in a real world, not an overly stylized film world but a real world with real people. That’s something we were aspiring for.

Collin: Talk a little, if you could, about the music – particularly the score. It really builds the experience.

Darren: We got lucky. Our producer knew the guy who ultimately did our score – his name is iZLER. He’s absolutely brilliant. The first day we met iZLER was also the first day we met Peter Bogdanovich.

Darren: Literally. We went to meet Peter Bogdanovich in this hotel in Beverly Hills where he lives, and we were down in the lobby having a drink first and iZLER, our composer just happened to be there and our producer introduced us. He had read the script and loved it and had actually already written a song just based on inspiration he drew from the script. We weren’t thinking too much about music at that phase, but after we shot the film he was one of the guys we turned to.

Danny: Darren and I aren’t filmmakers – at least not yet – who know what the music should be when we’re writing. You know, I read about Quentin Tarantino having a really strong sense of music early on in his thought process but neither of us are that type of filmmaker. We weren’t really thinking about the score when we were developing the project because it just wasn’t something we had a clear idea about then. Through the process, it’s the balance you have to work out – music needs to support without drawing unnecessary attention.

Darren: Especially because we were doing a drama, we had moments where I think music could’ve tipped these moments to melodrama. We were very aware of that, and that’s one of the things we really connected with iZler on. That’s one of the things we really tried to steer away from – over-sentimentality.

Collin: Let’s talk a little about restraint, because from my perspective I found that notion really central to the film. There’s restraint in Peter’s character. Life is never as heightened as it’s presented in film – people tend not to just let go, sadly – and you really seemed to crystallize that real world notion here.

Danny: I think that’s absolutely true, and we came across a lot of resistance in the development of the movie because of that. People would tell us, “Your protagonist needs to be more active, he needs to be this sort of… American hero.”

Darren: We were really trying to make a movie about our generation.

Danny: About people we knew. Not everyone has the strength to be what they want all the time or to do something about it at the soonest possible moment. We were really interested in exploring that, but we faced a lot of resistance along the way.

Collin: Peter Bogdanovich – was it at all intimidating to have him there? I’m sure you wouldn’t have cast him if you thought he was going to undermine your work, but this is someone who directed some bonafide classic American films. How did his participation come about and what did he bring to set outside of his performance?

Darren: We’ve always been super-inspired by that New Hollywood cinema of the ‘70s and Peter Bogdanovich was obviously a big part of that movement. Those movies were the kinds of movies we were watching as we were thinking about this project and we were talking with people who worked in that movement like László Kovács, who worked with Peter Bogdanovich a number of times. We really wanted to have a literal and visceral connection to that era and that’s when we thought of the idea of casting Bogdanovich as the professor. We set up this meeting and he responded to the script and we all really connected. We told him about our thematic ideas and love of ‘70s filmmaking and it went from there. When we first met with him we told him we wanted to use him, you know, use his vast knowledge of cinematic ideas on set and that if on set he had anything he wanted to share to please let us know. He was very reticent to do so at first. He told us a story of a time he had been acting on a film and he had asked the DP what type of lens he was using and the DP said a 35, and Peter sort of said, “Ah, a 35, gee, I don’t know…” That sent the entire crew into a tailspin.

Danny: Production shut down for an hour.

Darren: “Peter doesn’t like the lens!” After that happened he became very resistant toward doing anything like that. We told him, “Well, maybe just tell us in private because we still want to know your ideas.” He did, and they were great. We ended up stealing from him a lot.

Danny: As an actor he’s very gracious.

Darren: He’s a trained actor.

Danny: He knows what actors can be like, so he avoids a lot of pitfalls – he’s very gracious, very easy to work with, very directable.

Darren: He really helped us, just as an actor, because that character is the one character who I think could’ve taken a turn toward “villainous.” We didn’t want that and he reminded us. He really fought for the humanity of that character. When we first met he said, “You know, he’s a good guy – he schleps all the way up there to pick up his son.” As far as being intimidated or anything like that, he was so gracious, and in the moment we didn’t even think about the absurdity of telling Peter Bogdanovich how to do something or the fact that we were directing him. Talking now, the fact that Danny and I directed Peter seems ridiculous.

Danny: Absolutely ridiculous.

Collin: How are things going with Humboldt? I know you just had the premier here at SXSW – can you talk about where it’s going from here and where you two are going from here?

Danny: It was the world premier last Friday (3/7/08), no one had seen the film before then. We’ve been getting a great response – reviews are coming out and they’ve all been very positive. Our producer’s rep has been talking with distributors and the feedback has been good.

Darren: We’ve been asked by a number of festivals to show the film there. We haven’t made any decisions.

Danny: Our producers want to see the distribution landscape once SXSW’s done and figure out where we want to go from there.

Darren: As far as us, we’ve been working on next script for the past six months. It’s called “The New York Challenge”. It’s set in New York – we lived in New York for a few months last year writing it.

Danny: We’re hoping to shoot it later this year – October, November of this year.

Darren: Very different – going from a Humboldt county drama to a New York City comedy!

Thanks to Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky!

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