Distribs getting first look at 'Humboldt' at SXSW
Empty"Humboldt" history: Although we think of directors as working solo, directorial teams are turning up more frequently these days.
The Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan) just took home a pair of Oscars for directing "No Country for Old Men." Last year the husband-wife team of Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris were Oscar nominated for directing "Little Miss Sunshine." The Wachowski Brothers (Andy & Larry) directed three blockbuster "Matrix" episodes. The Farrelly Brothers (Peter & Bobby) directed a string of hit comedies, including "There's Something About Marry."
With such examples for inspiration, it's no wonder emerging young filmmakers no longer see directing as something that must be done alone. The director's vision, which since Hollywood's earliest days has been synonymous with an individual point of view, is now evolving into something that can be shared by the right combinations of filmmakers. Typically, this means siblings, married couples or longtime friends who mostly see eye-to-eye or, at least, can resolve their artistic differences without killing each other.
A case in point is the drama "Humboldt County," whose world premiere is set for Friday at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, with additional SXSW screenings March 11 and 13. Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, who co-directed and co-wrote the film, have been friends since they met over two decades ago as first graders in St. Louis. "Humboldt," which marks their feature directorial debut, pays homage to films from the 1970s, their favorite era of American filmmaking.
Produced by Jason Weiss and executive produced by Todd Senturia, "Humboldt" stars Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich, Frances Conroy, Madison Davenport, Brad Dourif, Chris Messina and Jeremy Strong. Set in a part of Northern California known for its redwood forests, the film's story revolves around a disillusioned medical student (Strong), who after being failed by his med school professor who's also his father (Bogdanovich), winds up taking a long drive north to Humboldt County with a seductive model called Bogart (Balk). What follows is a life-changing encounter with a remote community of counterculture marijuana farmers and Bogart's very eccentric family.
Distributors will get their first look at "Humboldt" on Friday at its 6 p.m. screening at Austin's Alamo Ritz 1. "We're looking for a distributor," Jacobs said. "We haven't shown it to any distributors yet. A lot of them have been contacting us to see the film, but we are pushing for them to see it in Austin with a big crowd on a big screen."
Asked how the film came about, Jacobs told me, "Darren and I have been best friends since we were 6 so we've sort of been building and developing our creative sensibilities over a lifetime. We were writing another script in Los Angeles and were frustrated with the distractions of the city and wanted to get out and focus. We went up to Humboldt because Darren actually has family there."
"I have family (there) that elements of the film and characters in the film are based on," Grodsky added. "I have an uncle who was a UCLA physics professor who moved from his tenure position in about 1980 with my aunt, his wife, up in the middle of the woods and settled into a lifestyle similar to the one that's depicted in the film. When I was a kid growing up as a suburban, Jewish, Midwestern, (St. Louis native), my parents thought it was a good idea to send me to visit my family in the middle of the woods in Humboldt County and so I had a number of what I would call summer camps up in the county and I've always loved the place.
"I thought it was a great place for us to escape into the middle of the woods to really focus on this other script that we were working on. What I didn't realize at the time was that I was going to introduce Danny to some of my family and some of the friends that I had made up there through the years and that we would actually find the subject matter for what would ultimately be our first film."
"We basically abandoned the other script and started writing 'Humboldt County' up there," Jacobs said. "In terms of the challenges that we faced, we spent I'd say nine to 12 months sort of roaming around the country with our producer Jason Weiss in living rooms of well to do people trying to convince them to give us a little bit of money here and there. We sort of chunk by chunk put it all together. With the normal requisite indie spunk of well-timed exaggeration we put the pieces together element by element."
"Danny and I having been friends for so long and at some point during our childhood and in our college years deciding that we wanted to come to Los Angeles and make films, we really envisioned ourselves as a writing-directing team from the start," Grodsky explained. "And also being actors, ourselves, we worked as actors and we acted in this film, as well. It seemed that each decision that we made presented a new challenge that had to be overcome. We're pretty ecstatic now to be sitting here with a finished film and developing our next one."
Is it as hard these days as it once was to get to direct your first feature? "In a way, that's true and in a way it's not," Jacobs replied. "We had to convince our producer to work with us because everybody was telling him (a) don't work with first time directors and (b) don't work with a directing team and (c) definitely don't work with first time directors who are also a directing team. So to make it happen, I think you just have to be supremely confident and be able to sell yourself and your vision for the project and that's not always an easy thing.
"In the independent world there's this conception right now that there's all this influx of money and all this private equity that's flooding into the business, but I think the reality is that on the ground you still have to convince very smart people who have made a lot of money in business that this is something they should devote some of their time and resources to. So there are still challenges that are there that I think have always been there and will always be there in the process."
"If we had taken 'Humboldt County' to a studio and tried to get them to make that film and finance it at the budget levels that they're accustomed to and to let us as first time directors make the film, that seems to be more risk than most studios are interested in taking at this time," Grodsky said. "What independent film provides is the opportunity for you to prove yourself -- to go out and just sort of do it -- and that's what we did. In the meetings that we were having with investors and producers and even the cast and crew we felt that we were extremely competent -- a hundred percent competent -- in our knowledge of the story and our vision for the film.
"But we were not absolutely a hundred percent competent in our knowledge of how to light a scene or how to withstand all the many specifics that arise in a given film and we were ready to admit that at any point. But at the same time we really believed -- and we feel that it came true -- that our passion for the film and our vision for the film combined with surrounding ourselves with technical experts and people with that experience was able to see us through the process."
We were speaking only a few days after the Coen Brothers walked off with Oscars for best directing, best adapted screenplay and best picture. Does that kind of success help the concept of directing teams? "I hope so," Jacobs answered. "I think it does. With the Coen Brothers, who Darren and I love, I know for a long time earlier in their career the DGA wouldn't let them even put down as their credit that they were co-directing. But I think (their success) will go a certain way towards, hopefully, legitimizing directing pairs. The way that Darren and I work is, I think, a similar way to the way a lot of directing teams work. They tend to be brothers a lot of times or married couples. But the key to any directing team is being able to argue without ego so that you're focused totally on what is best for the picture."
"In addition to that," Grodsky noted, "I think it's sharing the same vision for the film ultimately, which comes in whether it's the writing or the prep so that when you're on set and maybe one director is speaking with an actor and another director is speaking with crew there aren't conflicting messages that are going to those places and people on set can feel comfortable going up to (one director) and asking a question and getting an answer and knowing that that's going to be the same answer that's going to come from the other director -- which is something we knew going in. One of the strengths, I think, of our partnership is that we work so well together and have worked together for so long -- as I'm sure is the case with the Coen Brothers and as we know to be the case with the Farrelly Brothers.
"When Danny and I first came to Los Angeles we actually wanted to seek some mentorship and guidance from a directing team and so we ended up getting in touch with Pete Farrelly and talked to him a little bit about that process and gleaned some wisdom from his experience with his brother in making films. And it really is about that shared vision and not sending out conflicting messages. One thing I'd add for Danny and I is that we were so busy and overstretched as a team, I can't imagine making a film by myself. I think it's a great advantage to have someone that you can share the job with."
As for how they work while directing, Jacobs told me, "We're big fans of rehearsal. We both come from the theater world. Our original intent when we made 'Humboldt' was that we wanted to do a full two weeks of rehearsal, which is sort of unheard of for a film of our size and scope. We ended up unfortunately not being able to do a full two weeks, but we got a good chunk of it in. The way it worked out for this film is that Darren was actually already up in Homboldt doing location scouting and with the crew getting things ready and I was in L.A. with some of the actors doing a lot of rehearsal."
"The budgetary and time restrictions of this film made it such that a lot of our initial plans had to be kind of thrown out once we got down to the brass tacks of how much time we were really going to have to shoot the film," Grodsky said. "And so each night before shooting we would come up with sort of an aerial plan of all the shots we wanted to do as well as a shot list and then we would start each day walking with our key crew members from location to location and basically showing them the day in terms of what we wanted to shoot and how we wanted to shoot it. We were tight in getting done every single day. It was a constant battle to get everything we wanted shot."
How did they get Peter Bogdanovich to come on board? "'Humboldt County' is very inspired by our favorite era of filmmaking, which is the American cinema coming out of the '70s," Jacobs said. "You know, a lot of the Bob Rafelson ('Five Easy Pieces') films and Hal Ashby ('Harold and Maude') and Peter Bogdanovich ('The Last Picture Show') films from that time."
"When we were developing the screenplay," Grodsky added, "we were watching 'Harold and Maude' and we were watching 'Five Easy Pieces' and we were really watching 'Last Picture Show.' And then to be able to work with Peter is remarkable."
"So basically we really wanted some visceral connection to those films," Jacobs noted. "We were kind of looking for an actor in that role that might give the film that connection. But, also, Peter is a really strong actor. All the work that he does is really grounded and interesting and captivating. So we just basically blindly sent his agent the script and he responded. When we met him, he was living at that time in a suite in a hotel in Beverly Hills. Darren and I were very excited to meet Peter Bogdanovich. I mean, it's Peter Bogdanovich, for God's sake. So we go to the suite and he's sitting there, of course, wearing his traditional ascot and buttoned down shirt and he's eating this shrimp salad. We're sitting there talking to him and all of a sudden he finishes his salad and he has his assistant wheel the little cart away to reveal that he's in his pajamas. It was just one of those very surreal Hollywood (moments)."
"He was sitting back to the window with the sun at his back so he was pretty much silhouetted and we were kind of blinded by the sun," Grodsky pointed out. "He was regaling us with stories of Orson Welles and John Ford, and I think we both had to pinch ourselves to believe that we were actually in that room."
I had to ask them how they, as first-time directors, handled having to direct an accomplished director like Bogdanovich. "I would say that in the moment in the process of being on set and making the film when things are so hectic and so busy and there's this vision that Danny and I had been crafting at that point for three years, that thought doesn't really cross my mind," Grodsky replied. "But then after the fact, thinking about (how) I Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs are directing Peter Bogdanovich, there's an absurdity to that."
"At the time," Jacobs noted, "I remember before we started shooting we were just talking to him about the character. If we have Peter Bogdanovich on set we were like we've got to use his (expertise). I mean, this is one of the most knowledgeable men in cinema. So we felt like he was a really amazing resource that we wanted to use. So we said, 'Listen, if you have any ideas just tell them to us. Don't tell them to everybody, but tell them to us.' He was reticent to do that at first. He told us a story about being on a set one time and him mentioning something to the DP about a lens choice that he didn't like and he said that the whole production shut down for an hour because everybody was like, 'Oh, my God, Peter Bogdanovich doesn't like the lens.' He felt bad for the director so he sort of made it a rule not to do anything like that. But we said, 'Listen, as long you just tell us, we're more than happy to listen to your thoughts.' And then over the course of the film he would (do that). He would beckon one of us over and sort of whisper something and 95% of the time it was a great idea and we used it. But as an actor he's really easy to direct. He's very flexible. He takes direction really well."
"He's a professional actor," Grodsky said. "One of the things that I think he did really well that we were worried about with that character going in is we did not want that character to be a true cinematic villain. We didn't want (him) to be this one-note career driven evil father for our protagonist. And Peter really grabbed on to that from the very beginning and he fought for the humanity of that character and I think he did a really nice job."
"There's a battle going on for his character, I think, between his professional duty and his personal obligation to this son," Jacobs pointed out, "and I think he played that really well."
Looking back at the challenges they faced while in production in October 2006, Grodsky observed, "Not to beat a dead horse here, I think that probably the toughest challenge for us was the time factor. I imagine this is a challenge for all filmmakers and every film. I don't think you ever really have enough time."
"We had 18 days to shoot a feature," Jacobs reminded.
"By the time it screens at South By Southwest it will basically have been a year and a half since we shot," Grodsky said.
"18 days to shoot a whole feature is really tough," Jacobs emphasized. "There were scenes that we have that in an ideal world you'd have a day to shoot and we would have a half-day. That puts you in a position where you have to really know what you want. We never got more than maybe three or four takes per shot. We shot on 35mm. We were really intent on shooting on film."
Why was that, I asked, recalling how some top filmmakers today are really keen on shooting digitally while others insist nothing can take the place of film? "I wouldn't say that we fall into either of those camps," Grodsky answered. "I think Danny and I like to go project to project and dedicate ourselves to what each film demands. And for this film seeing as it's set in Humboldt County, which is this absolutely gorgeous piece of Northern California land (with) redwood forests overlooking the Pacific Ocean, combined with the fact that this is a '70s American cinema inspired film, which has a particular look, we decided very early on that we wanted to shoot film. We didn't want to do a digital intermediary. We wanted it to look like a film that could have been made in the '70s."
"And the other thing is it was really important for the film," Jacobs explained. "In the film, the environment of Humboldt serves to seduce the protagonist, to really sort of bring him into this place emotionally, and we really felt like it was necessary for Humboldt to do the same to the audience so they could really understand viscerally how somebody could go and then just sort of get stuck there. The real shocking beauty of the place goes a long way to do that. So putting it on film really helped us in that regard."
"And we knew going in that the combination of shooting on 35 in addition to the low budget we'd be working on and the schedule that we would have would necessitate this challenge that we were talking about before in terms of not a lot of time to shoot," Grodsky said. "And so, as such, we planned a number of scenes that we could shoot in one shot or scenes that we could shoot as easily as possible. We felt like it was motivated to shoot this film in a very sort of unobtrusive way and as unstylized as we could possibly make it to keep things simple.
"In order for us to survive this schedule and get the film shot in the given time constraints we knew from the beginning that we had to have amazing actors who are absolutely professional and able to nail these performance heavy scenes in sometimes one to two and rarely more than three or four takes. We were very fortunate in that we had a cast that top to bottom was able to do that, I'd say, 200%."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 8, 1990's column: "One of Wall Street's most basic equations is that for every seller there must be a buyer. For what certainly seemed an eternity, Kirk Kerkorian did business with that in mind. It took a while, but Giancarlo Parretti finally came along to prove Kerkorian was right.
"By crunching the right numbers to take MGM/UA off Kerkorian's hands -- and, also, of course, off the hands of MGM/UA's minority shareholders -- Parretti brought to an end one of the sorriest chapters in Hollywood history. Whatever Parretti and Pathe do at MGM/UA is unlikely to be as devastating as what happened there during roughly two decades under Kerkorian...
"As one might expect, the Hollywood buzz is already cynical and doubting about MGM/UA's future. Stripped of its film library, will the company be able to survive? Will Parretti have the funds to put product into production? Will the creative community have sufficient confidence in Parretti to offer him prime material? Will there be enough cash flow this holiday season from 'Rocky V' and 'The Russia House' to keep the studios operating? Will the new MGM/UA be able to compete with richer studios like those owned by Time Warner, Sony and, perhaps, Matsushita?
"One can only guess at answering such questions. It goes without saying that Hollywood being the kind of business it is, many people are happily betting against Parretti. Frankly, I think MGM/UA's prospects under Parretti are far brighter than they ever were under Kerkorian..."
Update: Looking back some 18 years, I think I was too harsh on Kerkorian at the time and was overly optimistic about MGM/UA's prospects under Parretti, who purchased the studio for $1.3 billion in October 1990. About $1 billion of that purchase price had been secured by the French bank Credit Lynonnais. To put it mildly, MGM/UA languished under Parretti. By 1991 he was facing securities fraud charges in the U.S. and Europe and was swiftly ousted by Credit Lynonnais, which took over ownership of the studio.
In 1996 Kerkorian repurchased MGM/UA for $1.3 billion and added to its film library over the next few years by acquiring the libraries of Orion Pictures, Goldwyn Entertainment and Motion Picture Corp. of America. A consortium of investors led by Sony Pictures Entertainment purchased MGM/UA in 2005 for $5 billion.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.