It's not often that a first time director is fortunate enough to be able to cast not one but three former Oscar Nominees, two Emmy winners and an honest to God screen legend in his or her debut film but for director Jake Goldberger ... that's exactly what happened. In his new independent film, Don McKay, which opened in theaters on April 2nd, Goldberger was able to bring together a stellar cast of accomplished actors that includes one time Oscar nominees Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) and Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Emmy winners Keith David (They Live) and Pruitt Taylor Vince (Identity) and even a genuine acting legend in M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple, Fletch). In the film, Thomas Haden Church plays Don McKay, a man haunted by the demons of his past but yet journeys home to see his high school sweetheart, Sonny (Shue), who may not be exactly who he remembers. We recently had an opportunity to speak with filmmaker Jake Goldberger about directing his first film, writing the script and creating the characters, assembling such an accomplished cast of actors, collaborating with Thomas Haden Church and the great M. Emmet Walsh. Here is what he had to say:
To begin with, can you talk about the genesis of the idea for the script, it's plot twists, and the process of taking those ideas and making them into you're directorial debut?
Jake Goldberger: Well, I've always been a big movie fan growing up and I really just wanted to come out of the gate with something that was different, fun and unusual. I think a great first feature is ... there are a lot of first features that I've really loved, Body Heat, Blood Simple and Shallow Grave, these types of movies where the filmmakers are bringing there own sense of humor to this kind of old school narrative like Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard. If you watch Sunset Boulevard by the way, it is a crazy movie. It's really not down the middle; it's bizarre in its own right. So that was really what I wanted to do in terms of making the movie and obviously I have something to say about regret, loneliness and all of that. But that aside, I really wanted to do something that I felt was fun and that I would enjoy seeing myself at the theaters as a movie fan.
Also The Usual Suspects probably comes to mind because it does use that devise as does The Sixth Sense, obviously these are much bigger-budgeted movies but the devise is the same. If the movie was to end without the twist, you could still go home and say, "Yeah that was pretty good." But if you watch them again you'll see something that you didn't see the first time because you know the ending. Hopefully, if I've done my job correctly you're still going to have fun with the movie but because you know more information then you did the first time you'll see it from a different perspective.
The film has a certain amount of twists and turns, as a director is it difficult to balance the different tones of the film without foreshadowing too much and giving away the ending?
Jake Goldberger: Yes it really is difficult. It's difficult three times over. It's difficult the first time as a writer. It's difficult the second time when you're shooting the movie and it's difficult when you're editing the film. Really for me it was about keeping my eyes on the prize the whole time knowing that I was juggling a lot of balls obviously. Because you want to tell a good, interesting and intriguing story and you want to have the audience, and this is very difficult to do, which is the idea that it's almost like a roller coaster ride. Where that first third of the movie is going up, up and up, and when people are watching a movie like this the idea is for them not to be sure exactly what it is that they are watching. So you're trying to let people's guards down a little bit so when you hit them hard at the end of that first act they're just strapped into the roller coaster that they weren't even aware they were supposed to be riding and then they're just off. That was the goal and it was difficult for me. I had a great editor, I had a great DP and my producers allowed me to hire all my own guys so I made sure that everyone I hired along the way understood what I was trying to do. Because it is tough material, it's not right down the middle material. You know my editor has the same sense of humor as I do, so does my DP and so did my actors, they have to. Thomas, Elisabeth and Melissa all have incredible dark streaks, they are all very funny and I like them very much as people, which I think helps.
The character of Don McKay is so interesting, he's introverted, multi-layered and he is really struggling with the demons of his past so how did you come to create that character and cast Thomas Haden Church in that role?
Jake Goldberger: Very rarely in scripts do I write for actors, I'm not audacious enough to think that I could get good actors, you know? So I write with a blank slate. The roles that I did write for people and I was fortunate enough to get them were M. Emmet Walsh and Keith David. I wrote both those roles for them. With Thomas, I has seen Sideways and I obviously I remembered him from Wings but wow was he awesome in Sideways. I thought he was so, so good in that movie. So when we made the offer to him, I didn't think I'd ever be able to get him. Obviously, I'm a first time director and he's about to do Spider-Man 3! I didn't think in a million years that I'd be able to get him to do this film but he just connected to the material.
Once I got him attached, all I could think about was Thomas in the role. He and I had discussions for several years about how we felt about the character, how we felt about his direction with the other characters and the direction with the rest of the story. We were well aware going into it that it was an unusual thing to have a protagonist who, in mainstream American films, is not proactive and therefore something that we're not used to. When you see the film and once you know the twist, you see that he is proactive in a way that we are not aware of as an audience. So I'm very fortunate to get an actor who has "just got it." A lot of the time while we were shooting the movie, he and I were so close at that point that there was very little directing on my part when it came to Thomas because so much of directing him came from those years before hand.
Without giving too much away, it seems that Don knows the truth about Sonny from the very beginning so why does he indulge her? Is he fooling himself into believing that what she says is true because he really wants to believe it or does he know the truth in his heart and just doesn't care?
Jake Goldberger: I think for me personally, he is exactly what he says he is at the end of the movie. I think he is lonely, he is deeply hurt and filled with such regret that when he does get this letter, I often think what would I do in that position and I probably would have investigated as well. So when he gets caught up in this whole plot, I think he is hit from the side as well as the audience is. His in intentions are innocent when he initially decides to take this journey and he has no idea what's in store for him. I don't think he believes that what she says is true ... I think he wants to however. I think this is his opportunity to step away from his guilt, his regret and his loneliness so he takes it, but I don't think he is delusional, personally.
Can you talk about Elisabeth Shue and as an actress what she brings to the difficult role of Sonny in your film?
Jake Goldberger: In terms of Elisabeth and casting her in the role, it's amazing that she went as far as she did for a first time director. The fact that she trusted my vision and me is amazing because it is a very difficult role to play. It's a real risk because the audience isn't necessarily in on what's going on. Therefore not until after you see the movie do you realize how good a performance this is. When you watch the movie you think that she is really seductive and interesting but then when you see the end of the movie, and you realize what her true motivations are, you realize that she is awesome in the movie. She is just so good in it, I think. Thomas told me that I could use his name to get an actress. Her name came up and he was like, "Dude you're probably not going to get her but lets give it a shot." She read it, she really responded and her and I got on the phone. She just has this awesome, dark humorous sensibility.
I explained her the genesis of the project and made sure that she was comfortable with me as a first timer. I don't think that even fazed her, she was very attracted to the movie because she had a lot of faith and confidence in Thomas Haden Church, which is what I was hoping would happen. Because lets face it, when you're a first timer no established actors are jumping to work with you because you've never done it before, whether they like the script or not. Actors, plenty of the times are in a tough position. Nobody sets out to make a shitty movie. So they are really just putting they're best foot forward. In this case I was very up front about what I wanted from the characters, the type of movie I was trying to make and I'm very fortunate that all seven of these incredible actors had the confidence in me that I could do it and that gave me confidence that I could do it.
Can you discus the father and son type of relationship that Samuel and Don have in the film and what it was like working with M. Emmet Walsh and Thomas Haden Church on those scenes specifically?
Jake Goldberger: Well with Emmet I wrote the role for him and it wasn't just Blood Simple that inspired me but I think he is awesome in Fletch. I'm a big Fletch fan. I'm a big fan of called Straight Time the movie he made with Dustin Hoffman. I love The Mighty Quinn too. So I wrote him letters and initially his schedule was so busy that he was forced to do only a few days then take a week off, come back and do a half a day or a full day and then go off again for a while before he would return, and he's not a young guy so I don't think he was eager to do that. This was even before he read the script so I wrote him a long letter, telling him how much of a fan I was and would he please read the script and if he liked the character, if he would please do the movie. So it took a little bit of prodding from our end but I think he got the letter from me and just realized that I was a genuine fan of his and hopefully he was honored to do it. So it's crazy when you wake up in the morning and you go to set and there is M. Emmet Walsh reciting lines that you wrote for him.
He and I went to the Cracker Barrel of all places the day before we started to work with him and we just talked for a couple of hours. I think he was genuinely excited that I was so excited to be around him. I'm so curious that I'm asking him every question under the sun and it's not just about Blood Simple. I praised him about that of course but it's very funny, when people ask him for autographs and let me tell you ... M. Emmet Walsh gets asked more for autographs than any celebrity I've ever seen. We were shooting in the middle of Massachusetts and somebody walked up to him at the Cracker Barrel and said, "Oh I'm a huge fan of yours, what's your name again?" He would answer, "My Name is Yaphet Kotto." Then the guy would go, "Oh right, Yaphet Kotto. I knew I knew you from somewhere." He had a great sense of humor also and I'm really lucky that I got to work with everybody. Every single person was great, James Rebhorn, Melissa Leo, Pruitt Taylor Vince, all really funny and nice people.
Finally, the movie is very quick even for an independent film, running at around 87 minutes, so were there a lot or scenes that you had to cut or couldn't shoot for some reason, or did you always intend for it to be a short feature film?
Jake Goldberger: For me it was always about what best dictates the pace of the movie because you're asking the audience to take a ride where as a filmmaker I'm well aware that not all the information is being distributed in a "normal way." So there were scenes that we cut but the only scenes that I full blown cut were scenes with Don leaving his job at the school and confronting the principle, then when he comes back between the second and third acts he confronts the principle again, the head of the PTA also confronts him, and they are all very condescending to him. At the end of the day I loved the scene but, and you hear this all the time from filmmakers and I always thought that they were kind of full of shit until I went through the process and realized that, as much as the scenes work and I'm really proud of them and like them but, they didn't fit within the pace of the movie. If you loose people and you loose their faith in the story for even half a second with a movie like this you can just loose them completely so it dictated the pace. The film happens to be 87 minutes but I feel that it works for the movie and also I really wanted to launch the character and the audience into the scenario very quickly. I like that opening credits montage at the beginning where we see him all alone mopping the floor and by the end of the credits he's already on the bus. Like let's just get into it. It was a tough decision and the local actors that we used were great also but the scenes will be on the DVD.
Don McKay opened in theaters on April 2nd.