By Don Simpson | May 29, 2014
Lewis (Griffin Dunne) is a history professor at a community college who has been existing at unfathomable depths below his potential for many years. Well, Lewis is about to finally get his big break. With a promising publishing deal — albeit with a podunk academic press — in the works, Lewis has been invited to present his research on York at a conference in Portland, Oregon. So, Lewis commences his cross-country drive to Portland with his two teenage kids — Zoe (Madeleine Martin) and Jack (Devon Graye) — slouched, unwillingly in his backseat. Divorced, Lewis sees this road trip as an opportunity to bond with his estranged children; at the very least, he figures they will appreciate seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Their trip is unexpectedly detoured to Lewis’ childhood home in Idaho home, where Lewis discovers his mother dead and his father, Stanley (Stuart Margolin), in a catatonic state of shock. Without warning, Stanley disappears only to be found reprising his role as Captain Clark; the familiarity and comfort associated with the annual Discovery Trek snaps Stanley out of his catatonic state, thus revealing the tyrannical personality that Lewis wholeheartedly detests. And, as if stuck in a childhood nightmare, Lewis finds himself donning historically accurate garb once again, this time with Zoe and Jack reluctantly at his side.
Writer-director Justin Schwarz’s The Discoverers features an incredibly intelligent script that forces its characters to confront their own theories of history, both personal and national. Schwarz smartly utilizes the story of York as an analogy for Lewis’ role during the Discovery Trek, both as a child and now as an adult; Schwarz also uses Merriweather Lewis’ inability to have his writings about the Corps of Discovery expedition published during his lifetime as a parallel for Lewis’ current academic stagnation. It is the smartness of the writing that escalates The Discoverers above the recent barrage of familial reconciliation stories that have appeared in the wake of Little Miss Sunshine.
After The Discoverers — quite inexplicably — did not premiere at a top tier film festival, I was certain that it would be buried in the relentless onslaught of straight-to-VOD indie film releases. But after a very long and fruitful regional film festival lifespan, Schwarz was determined to get this elegantly visual film into theaters with the help of a Kickstarter campaign for distribution funding. I sat down to chat with Schwarz shortly after The Discoverers’ very successful opening weekend at the Cinema Village (NYC). The Discoverers opens at the ArcLight Cinemas (LA) on May 30th and will expand to other cities in the not-so-distant future.
Don Simpson: The Discoverers seems like it must have been a massive undertaking, especially for a first time filmmaker. What prompted you to tell this particular story and how did you go about achieving your goals?
Justin Schwartz: I was thinking in terms of the type of movie that I would want to see. My personal bent is 1970s comedies, human comedies that mix comedy with pathos. I wanted to tell a story about a professor and I wanted to tell a family story, specifically the relationships between fathers and their children. One of the first things that I wrote down was the idea that you can’t divorce your family even if you don’t get along, and that ended up becoming the crux of the story. For me, it made sense to combine that idea with a family going on a historical reenactment trek. In film school they taught us to write what we knew. I had always thought that my life wasn’t that interesting and no one would want to hear about whatever struggles I had gone through; but when I started to translate that into writing from my emotional memories, then I realized that would be a very universal language. We’ve all experienced love, shame, pain, existential angst.
While I was writing, I was also storyboarding, collecting images, I made a whole lookbook which became really helpful when working with the creative team. I had mapped out the cinematic language, the aesthetic movements of the film. My wife and I ended up moving back to New York from Los Angeles and during that process we had traveled up to the Oregon coast to start scouting. We had even done some scouting in LA, because we thought we might shoot there. We began chasing tax incentives and basically drove the Lewis and Clark trek in reverse. I spent a lot of time in different wooded areas, and quickly realized that not all woods are the same. I didn’t want to be stuck with a certain type of framing. I wanted to be able to be able to move the camera around and let the actors roam freely. So, I realized that I needed a very specific type of woods.
In the early days of this project I had just decided that I was going to go ahead and write it, then make it, but I wasn’t sure how. I was just going to act as if the project had already been green lit. There is always a hurdle of financing, but fortunately we had met some folks pretty early on who liked the script and put a little but of money in. I was very fortunate to be able to work with such an amazing group of creative collaborators, and not just in principle photography but on the post-production side of things as well. Everyone understood that we were a little movie with not a lot of resources. What I realized is that there are people in the film industry who make their money working on big budget projects, but they still have bandwidth to work on passion projects.
The next challenge was to get the film out there to be seen. We had a really great festival run. We started working with a sales agent, but we weren’t getting the types of offers that we were hoping for. They may have guaranteed a theatrical release but their focus always seemed to be more on home video. That’s how things are moving these days. We were thinking about how the distribution landscape is changing and thought we could try some sort of hybrid distribution. So, we decided to try raising $100,000 for distribution by crowd-funding and do it ourselves.
DS: Can you talk about the way the film discusses the role that history plays in our lives?
JS: I studied history in college and I thought that I might actually go on and teach. And I remember realizing just how fluid history is. You can read multiple texts that try to create a narrative about a specific moment in time, but they can be so different in how they tell the story based on the author’s personal biases or experiences. You can have radically different interpretations of the same historical event. If you look at the footnotes, the authors may all reference the same primary sources but come up with completely different versions. We use history to explain or reinforce whatever our agenda is in the present. You can take that understanding and apply it to our own family history and how we understand ourselves, that is something that Lewis talks about early on in the film. You may come from the same family, but you may have much different memories of your experiences; you can talk about the same family event, but hear drastically different stories. Even the idea of reenacting… For Lewis’ father, it is a romantic idea of these heroic people; but Lewis seems to be attempting to undo his father’s version. Lewis in interested in looking at the margins, to understand another way of thinking about the events. I chose the Lewis and Clark expedition to function as a metaphor for the family’s discovery as well as self-discovery. It is also a road movie, which has the inherent expectation that there will be a journey and/or exploration. During that moment of history, there was a great unknown for the European people who were living in this country. The Corps of Discovery were venturing into these uncharted terrains and mapping new places. They were botanists, naturalists and astronomers; they were discovering new species of plants and animals and meeting new people. All the while, they were setting the stage for the Manifest Destiny. When I started to research a little more, I realized that Meriwether Lewis was such an existential figure, and that he had actually killed himself. I also didn’t know that there was a slave who they took on the journey. Again, it is all about choosing the moments of history that you want to highlight. What is the perspective that you want to put forward?
DS: How do you think your personal politics inform this narrative?
JS: I am not trying to write about myself. I wanted to show that there is a diversity of perspectives for how we understand things. For example, Zoe is someone who questions some of the politics and more complicated issues associated with the reenactment, while Cyrus is more of a naive innocent who uses the reenactments as a way to step into a life and experience that is much larger than himself. I didn’t want to have an agenda. My own experience in politics taught me the importance of knowing the other side’s perspective and understanding that there are many sides to everything. But, yes, if you look at the pins on Zoe’s bag, some of those were mine — that maybe shows a bit of my past politics.
But I have grown a little cynical about politics and that was why I went into film. I worked in politics and thought it was a great way to achieve social change. I was really inspired by LBJ and the “Great Society,” but then once I got more involved I realized how fickle it all is. The political winds change very quickly and things are not necessarily based on social science or figuring out how the government can actually help people. I worked on welfare reform [for the Clinton Administration], looking at the hurdles that people face when trying to become independent, like childcare and healthcare, in order to empower people to become more self-sufficient. The politics changed very quickly around that time and it turned into punitive rhetoric about marginizimg people and the government being wasteful and people living off of the hard work of other people. But if you go to welfare centers and look at the people who are actually struggling, they are just like everyone else, they are just trying to get by and do what’s best for their families.
DS: What prompted you to work with the family roadtrip/reconciliation narrative and how does The Discoverers fit into that cinematic history?
JS: I did look at a lot of road movies, but I see this film as part of the narrative tradition of the return to the pastural. There is a long literary tradition of urban individuals or families who leave the city and venture into the woods. After being stripped of their urban life, they are able to see themselves or each other in a new light. That was the guiding principle that drove all of my aesthetic choices.
I wanted to create an aesthetic arc that mimics the trajectory that the family takes in order to experience the ultimate catharsis in the end. This was about using different lighting, colors, camera movements — everything was tuned to the four movements that I had divided the film into: city, suburb, forest and coast. In the city we used harsh top down fluorescent lighting, static framing and a cold color palate. I avoided the color green which drove my locations department nuts, because I didn’t want to see any nature. We were also setting the film up as a deadpan comedy. Then, when we move into the suburbs, we shifted to practical lights and a warmer color palate. It is a more nostalgic, Eggleston kind of world. The camera starts to breathe a little bit and the family starts to become unhinged. Our cinematographer (Christopher Blauvelt) had trained with Harris Savides who had a trick of placing a rice bag on top of the tripod to make the frame a little more active. Once we move into the woods, the camera because more kinetic and lyrical. Chris [Blauvelt] had the camera on him at all times with the idea that the camera could be like a discoverer. It is very important that the audience becomes seduced by the natural world, just like the characters are. Everything was lit with elemental sources, like the sun and fire. The final movement is the Pacific coast, which becomes the most lyrical. We use a steady cam and we knew we wanted a really deep aqua-blue marine of the Pacific Northwest. There was even a big debate over the color of the car that would arrive in.