Kings of the Road: Chatting With Directors Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens and the Cast of ‘Land Ho!’

When you think about ego-driven filmmakers it’s hard to put Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens in that category. Both have had impressive careers thus far, making their own brand of films (Katz with mumblecore milestones like Quiet City and Cold Weather; and Stephens with intimate tales like Passenger Pigeons and Pilgrim Song)—but when it came time to make a film in Iceland that explores the friendship of two retirees, the two decided it would be best to collaborate. It kind of sums up the serendipitous spirit that surrounds their film Land Ho!—with little knowledge of Iceland before heading out and two actors who didn’t know each other, the four would embark on a friendship building experience, that is certainly evident in what you see on screen.

In Land Ho! Earl Lynn Nelson (who has starred in Stephens’ films) and Paul Eenhoorn (This Is Martin Bonner) play former brother-in-laws who meet up after having not seen each other in decades. Nelson’s Mitch is a brash, horny, loud mouth with a heart of gold who loves everything life has to offer, while Eenhoorn’s Collin is quiet, reserved and still hurting from his divorce. But Mitch hopes to change that when he springs a surprise trip to Iceland on his buddy, expenses paid. This leads to a fish-out-of-water journey to some of the most beautiful locals in Iceland filled with hilarious scenes, lush photography and a superb score by Keegan DeWitt.

We caught up with Katz, Stephens, Nelson and Eenhoorn at a bar in Park City days after their premiere at Sundance to talk about the experience making the film and why this may not be the last time we see this gang together.

What inspired this?

Katz: Martha texted me in January of last year and said, “Do you want to make a movie together?” And I wasn’t sure, so I called her and we talked and thought we should take Earl Lynn to Iceland. I said those two things sound great, and then we saw our friend Chad Hartigan made a film that was here last year called This Is Martin Bonner that starred Paul and we saw that and said let’s get him too and do this.

Nelson: But Aaron had never met me before.

Stephens: But Aaron had seen Passenger Pigeons and Pilgrim Song.

Katz: Yeah, we all met for the first time when we shot for the first five days in Kentucky back in May. We drove up and were shooting the next day.

Stephens: We were all bunked up in Earl Lynn’s house and it was getting together and having a big party all weekend.

What were some of the challenges shooting this?

Stephens: Weather. Making a film in a foreign country. A lot of things were different, like the price of fuel, it’s like $10 a gallon, food is two to three times as expensive as it is here. Other than the weather, and we shot all over the southern coast, so it was packing up and moving around a lot. It wears on you.

Was there a certain time of year you wanted to go there, just for the look you wanted?

Stephens: We knew we needed to be there anytime before winter because there is no access to many of the places where we shot. I mean, we were a week away from a lot of those roads closing.

Katz: And I think one of the biggest challenges for Paul and Earl Lynn is in the order of the movie we start to move farther and farther into the countryside, but because of the weather concerns we shot it backwards.

Eenhoorn: Completely in reverse.

Katz: So we really would get everyone together and focus on what we had to do that day.

Paul, did you and Earl Lynn talk at all about the characters?

Eenhoorn: I don’t really do any backstory. I worked a lot with Earl Lynn in just improvising and these guys let us figure it out.

Nelson: I didn’t need any backstory. But it was interesting, the first part of the movie we’re getting personal and the characters were going in as friends of twenty years, but after chopping some onions together we ourselves found a connection with each other.

Katz: One reason we did the shoot in Kentucky was, I’d never met Earl Lynn and Martha and Paul had never met each other so we just wanted to see what it would be like all working together. So what we found out was Paul and Earl Lynn have a perfect balance for each other. The movie is about opposites in many ways and I think Martha and I are opposites in some ways, and the two characters are opposites, so shooting in Kentucky gave us an idea of what it was going to be like.

How was it sharing the directorial reigns?

Katz: We didn’t talk about any of that. You know, “Martha is going to do this, I’m going to do that.” It wasn’t like that. We just did it and because we had both made our own features we were comfortable doing anything. We exchanged glances on set and that was enough.

Martha, looking back is this what you imagined when coming with Aaron with the idea?

Stephens: Yeah. I went and scouted Iceland with my husband and chose all the locations through our experience traveling around. Looking back I don’t think there’s much I would have done differently.

Katz: I wouldn’t have done anything differently. We couldn’t have expected every single thing that happened, but part of what we wanted to do was set up circumstances where we didn’t know what was going to happen.

What elevates the film is the music, talk a bit about developing that.

Stephens: The music is really an ode to buddy comedies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Tommy Boy, so we wanted the music to capture that era of film. We went for a almost Bruce Springsteen “Tunnel of Love” meets Paul Simon “Graceland” meets cheesy ‘80s score and really wanted to embrace global music. So there’s Celtic stuff and some Australian stuff. I mean, Keegan DeWitt [who did the music] had no time and made something magical in a week of work (Read more about Keegan’s work on this and fellow Sundance entry Listen Up Philip). And the pop song we were able to get was Big Country’s “In A Big Country,” which was a childhood favorite.

Will we see a sequel?

Stephens: I’d love to do a sequel.

Nelson: We’ve talked about a sequel. We talked about Hawaii.

Katz: Of course I’d do it. There are so many unknowns in this and that was part of the challenge and for me what was exciting, but I think it was a really great experience.

Stephens: I think our sequel could be The Muppet Movie where we have cameos by famous people.

Eenhoorn: No, it’s going to be like Fast and Furious. But seriously, sometimes in this business there’s serendipity and this is that.

James Toback On Chasing Money and Immortality In ‘Seduced And Abandoned’

“I look back on my life and it’s 95% running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5% actually making them.” This insightful quote from Orson Welles is how James Toback starts his latest filmSeduced and Abandoned, airing on HBO October 28, and essentially sums up the dance that filmmakers have done since the start of motion pictures—and especially suites the career of Toback.

A man, who for most of his filmmaking life, has been searching for ways to get his personal stories onto the big screen, you wonder how someone can be let down time after time but keep at it for decades. What you learn from Seduced and Abandoned, is that for Toback, some of the fun is the chase. In the film, Toback and his cohort Alec Baldwin head off to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in search for money to make a film—Toback will write/direct and Baldwin will star. It’s to be an erotic drama that sounds part commentary on the Bush-era war and part ode to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, which they’re calling Last Tango In Tikrit. We follow the two as they gallivant along the French Riviera hobnobbing with foreign investors and billionaires who they hope will shell out money for the film. But there’s more. Toback also interweaves a hypnotic celebration of the classics that have come out of Cannes (and moviemaking in general) by interviewing great auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski. Not to mention, he also explores the mechanics of Hollywood today from the viewpoints of people like Ryan Gosling and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

It’s fitting that Toback would make Cannes the setting for one of his films—a place where your words are your only ammunition—as the 69-year-old writer-director has one of the best silver tongues in the business. He came to notoriety in 1974 with his screenplay The Gambler (directed by Karel Reisz and starring James Caan), which loosely explored his addiction to gambling and had his directorial debut four years later with Fingers, in which Harvey Keitel plays an aspiring concert pianist/loan shark and brought comparisons to Scorsese. And though he won a Best Screenplay Oscar forBugsy in 1991 and was responsible for coaxing the best work out of Robert Downey Jr. in the late ‘90s (during Downey’s rough patch with drugs), it seemed Toback’s hard drinking, gambling and womanizing always brought him more attention than his films.

But recently, the focus has come back to his work, and strangely enough it’s of the non-fiction variety. In 2008 he made the highly acclaimed documentary Tyson, exploring the demons of the legendary boxer Mike Tyson—who’s had cameos in two of Toback’s films, Black and White and When Will I Be Loved. With Seduced and Abandoned, we once more see the greatness of Toback, mixing perfectly placed music by the legendary composer Dimitri Shostakovich with a devilish exploration into the good and bad of the movie business.

While chatting with Toback over the phone, we touched on how the chase for money has changed since his heyday in the ‘70s, why you’ll never see him do a Kickstarter campaign and he reveals how a biopic he’s been trying to make his whole career may finally come to fruition—or is it just another seduction?.

 I couldn’t help but think while watching this movie that if things happened differently your companion in this would have likely been Robert Downey Jr. 
Right. The old one. The former.
What interested you about Alec to want to do something with him?
Pretty much all of the qualities that I like in anyone—which is a sense of humor, intelligence, open mindedness, free-wheeling adventuress, all of those things. He’s clearly in that category more than any actor I know and also quite reliable, which in this case was also very important.
Is there really a Last Tango In Tikrit project?
There certainly is and would be if somebody actually comes along and gives us the money. If anyone said, “Here it is,” when we were there we would have already been shooting, so it was not a gimmick. It was a good way of moving the story forward, having a driving narrative, but in fact, we were very serious about it and would still be. It’s a very fruitful idea, it’s just, as you can see in the movie, no one jumped.
And no one jumped when you premiered Seduced and Abandoned at Cannes this year?
No. I would say most people assumed we weren’t really serious about it. That was the general impression. People who loved the movie just assumed it was just done for the sake of the film rather than actually intending.
It’s an interesting McGuffin, so perhaps you played that up too well.
[Laughs] Yes. I would say with each succeeding month or year it becomes less likely. But you never know, I’m hoping now finally after 35 years it looks as if I’m going to be able to get this Victoria Woodhull movie made, which I was going to do with George Cukor in 1978. I shouldn’t say it because something always seems to happen, but let’s say it’s more realistically possible now than it’s been at any time in the preceding 35 years.
You had written the screenplay, Cukor was to direct and Faye Dunaway was going to play Woodhull—what has halted it through the years?
It’s been almost comical if it weren’t tragic. There have been a number of near misses, constant excitement, interest, curiosity, one wire transfer that turned out to be a fraud.
Yeah. It was literally from an African bank to a Swiss paymaster and somehow the Swiss paymaster never got it to us. I believe the quote from Dunaway’s autobiography is, “One of the greatest tragedies in the history of the movie business is that James Toback’s Victoria Woodhull script has not yet been made.” It really bothers me that I’ve written what I think is probably, along with Bugsy, the best dialogue I’ve ever written and yet there it is languishing.
What actress today could play the role?
I would say Jennifer Lawrence or Scarlett Johansson. It takes her from 19 to early 30s so it has to be someone in her 20s who can play younger and a little older. I’m like a punch-drunk fighter with it. But there are a number or reasons that I actually feel it might be headed to fruition this time.
I wish you all the best. Getting back to Seduced and Abandoned, how much of it was done on the fly?
Pretty much all of it. What you see on the screen was very much what it was. It was not planned other than in the most obviously necessary ways, but essentially the idea was to take something that was organic and on its own momentum and catch it rather than orchestrate it. The orchestration is in the editing and I had done this with Tyson as well. I worked with the same editor, Aaron Yanes, and essentially, when you do a movie without a script you’re basically consigning the writing process to post production. It’s a completely reverse process because you’re not worried about it in advance. All the things you normally think about when you’re writing, you just put out of your mind and it frees you to shoot whatever you want to shoot—you don’t have this burden of “Did I get this?” “Did I get that?” “Will this fit with that?” “Do we need another take of this?” All of that is out the window because you’re admitting you’re going to write it in the editing room.
The music for this film is much more engaging than Tyson or your other documentary, The Big Bang. Why the music of Dimitri Shostakovic?
I have to say he’s been one of the seminal inspirations of my life. In fact, in Black and White, that mix is Shostakovic’s 11th with Wu Tang Clan, and the 11th and the 5th are not only the great Shostakovic symphonies, they are maybe the two great 20th century symphonies. So to me when you love certain music you almost certainly find a way to find it suitable to what you’re doing cinematically as opposed to turning your movie over to a composer and saying, “Would you like to write some music for me?”
I always found that to be an odd kind of thinking about music in movies. You figure everything out, you decide that this is the way your movie is going to play and then you say now let me call someone in who will do the music, as if the music was some dissociated extra dimension to the film that you don’t have any qualification to think about since you don’t compose music. But you also don’t act. You don’t shoot with the camera, and yet you’re very much involved with it and to me music as well.
One part of the movie that may take people aback—who aren’t engrained in the movie business—is how a name actor gets a film the financing it needs, regardless how the story is. Avi Lerner says in the film, “I don’t read scripts,” how frustrating is it for you as a screenwriter to see that stories are disregarded?
I believe we’re in a post-literate age in relation to scripts. I think computers have contributed a lot to that, but you basically have a world in which the number of people who read has diminished. I think if you’re not going to give a script its due, you have to have a simpler and more financially predictable measure of whether you’re going to go ahead with a movie or not, and obviously casting is the first thing that comes to mind.
Look, I think it’s a miracle I’ve been able to make the number of movies I’ve made given the frustration and obstacles and parallel reality I’m dealing with. But frustration to me comes as part of the inevitable territory.
So does making a movie like Seduced and Abandoned give you a second wind?
Well, anytime I do anything it brings back a sense of reality, so it’s not just planning and thinking, it’s doing. But what I feel about this movie, which makes it more exciting probably than any of the others, is that it doesn’t resemble anything that’s been done; it’s a reinvention of the idea of what a movie is or what you call a movie. It’s something as a result that makes you feel that you’re part of something new, part of something that changes the medium in some way. Not that people are going to run and do the same thing, but that you haven’t done something that is just another version of. That’s more exciting than anything. Saying you made the greatest film noir ever or greatest screwball comedy ever is nothing to sneeze at, but on the other hand, to me, it still isn’t the same thrill as saying, “Name me another movie that resembles the one I did?” I can’t come up with one that resembles Seduced and Abandoned sufficiently for there to be any legitimate comparison.
One of my favorite lines from the movie is when you tell an investor, “200 years from now your name will still be remembered because it was on this film.” Is that a go-to line you use when you need an investor to commit?
Yeah. I believe it, which always helps. In addition, it gives another reason to invest. Let’s face it, only a recklessly strange investor thinks that movies would rank up there as a good ideal investment, so you’re not ever going to get people who are saying, “My life as a shrewd investor is once again come to the fore, I’m investing in movies now.” That’s never been a logical move to make with your money so you have to come up with something else.
What are you thoughts on crowdfunding to get financing?
It’s a little too impersonal for me. I like physical one-on-ones. There’s something about that that, at least for me, is a more likely mode of success.
So if you and Alec really wanted to make Last Tango In Tikrit and just need some seed money you wouldn’t do a Kickstarter campaign?
No. I would be disinclined. [Pause] If it were the only way to do it I guess I would put it above theft.
I’d like to end with the question you posed to your interviewees in the film: Are you ready for death?
Oh my God, beyond ready, I’m eager! The thing is, I have seven or eight murders that I want to commit first. I figure if I’m going to go I can’t let them hang around, there’s no way. When I say now is the time, I need to take a sort of one-day indulgence and wipe them out before I go. [Laughs]

Bob Odenkirk On How ‘Nebraska’ Was Therapeutic & Why Dramatic Actors Aren’t Good Comics

It’s turning out to be quite a 2013 for Bob Odenkirk. Earlier in the year, he closed out playing the lovingly despicable Albuquerque lawyer Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, as the show wrapped its final season, and now he’s in the latest film from director Alexander Payne, the Oscar contender Nebraska. As in Breaking Bad, the focus in Nebraska isn’t on Odenkirk’s character, but once he appears on screen, your senses are heightened and you can’t wait to see what he’ll bring to the mix.

This could be our own likeness towards Odenkirk, who for years through his work in sketch comedy like Mr. Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and countless cameos has become a comic cult figure. It’s his comedic background that gave the perfect mix of funny one-liners with wittiness and sleaze to make us enjoy Saul for all the wrong reasons. However, what makes him believable in serious roles like Ross in Nebraska—the son of bitter alcoholic elderly father Woody (Bruce Dern) who is on a road trip with his other son David (Will Forte) to claim prize money—is the vulnerability that almost all comics have inside them.

Thankfully we’ll only see more of Odenkirk. Quickly following the series finale of Breaking Bad it was announced that his Saul character will headline a spin-off show titled Better Call Saul, and when we caught up with him last week he was taking a break from shooting the TV series adaptation of Fargo, which will air on FX next year. We told you it’s been a good year for him.

This past weekend, I got the chance to talk with Odenkirk about finally getting cast in an Alexander Payne movie, why the film made him think about his own troubled relationship with his father, and the latest on Better Call Saul.

You’re playing a deputy on Fargo, right?
I play a deputy who due to circumstance gets to…I can’t tell you anything. [Laughs] I realized just as I’m talking, I can’t give away a plot point!

Is it somewhat close to the Coens film?
In tone. The goal is to, yes, to get the vibe and the humor and the darkness and the entertaining qualities of the movie. You can be the first to hear a rumor around the set that I cannot confirm, but I heard the Coen brothers, their name is on this as producers. They’re not around but I heard that they were not sure until they read the script and then said, “Yeah, we want to go head and produce it.”

That’s great.
It is great. It’s better than them saying they aren’t behind it. But you know what, when I read it I loved it too. So my part isn’t huge but it’s a great part and it’s a great cast: Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. But we shouldn’t talk about it, we’ll have to do it again in eight months.

Let’s talk about something you can give a little more detail about, which is Nebraska. Was Ross a role Alexander came to you with or did you have to audition?
I read for it, as I read for About Schmidt and Sideways. I think Alexander knew who I was and had seen me perform. He had not seen me on Breaking Bad until a month ago. He came up to me like three weeks ago, and he was like, “Bob, I’d never seen you on Breaking Bad. You’re great.” [Laughs]

You must have been like, “Where have you been?”
I know. But you know, there’s so much on TV. I haven’t seen The Wire, Friday Night Lights. There’s so many things—

Let me tell you, before you see anything, you have to see The Wire.

I mean, you were on what will become a legendary show, but that is the crown jewel.
Ok. I will.

So, because you had already read for Alexander on two other films and didn’t get the roles, did you come into reading for Nebraska with a different approach?
Oh, no. It was a great story to read and I felt I knew this guy and was excited to read for it.

But this one must have felt good because you got the role.
Yeah. I know. But when it comes to auditioning you just go in for stuff you like and you work really hard and you do a great job and whatever happens happens. It’s like a job itself. You consider it done when it’s done. You try not to walk away focused and hoping. You go, “That’s done. I did that job.” I was lucky to get the nod, and I was crazy lucky because I love this movie and it makes me tear up to think how great this movie is and how much it means to me and how much these people mean to me. I love Bruce, June [Squibb] and Will and Stacy Keach. We were a real family shooting this. And we were a good family, not just any family.

Was it a little special working across from Will Forte because you directed The Brothers Solomon and he wrote and starred in that?
We like each other. We have a personal relationship that’s very organic and wonderful and that’s true with me and Bruce Dern and me and June. Everybody has a good time with their cast. I’m having a good time with this cast [on Fargo], I love everybody on Breaking Bad, it was a special instance on Nebraska of real camaraderie and love between this group.

Why does this movie stand out?
I think it was the nature of the story. How much emotion there is in the story and how even though the character of Woody is a challenging father figure there’s a lot of love in the movie and unrequited love and hope and desire to connect in the story and it’s all stuff you build off of. I don’t know, there’s just a connection. I mean, June and Bruce and I are all from Illinois and that was an immediate connection we had and talked about it at length.

Is there a lot of similarities to where you grew up in Illinois to the settings in the film?
There’s a lot of similarities to how I grew up but not so much the environment. There’s some overlap but not much. I grew up in Naperville, which was a big town even when I moved to it. It was 20,000 when we moved to it and it rapidly grew after. But we drove through a lot of Illinois and lived in a lot of places that were like these towns and I went to college in Carbondale, Illinois, so I know this part of the country well. But I think more the family dynamic is something I related to. My father had an alcohol problem and was a crotchety, difficult guy and I didn’t really feel connected to him and I had a lot of resentment to him and I guess I can say I still do. So I really related to that.

So in some ways was playing Ross therapeutic?
Therapeutic? A little bit, yeah. [Laughs] The only thing that would be therapeutic is if I could sit down with my dad and figure him out, but I could not figure that guy out. I mean, I could give you a psychoanalysis that’s kind of amateur but I did not know where that guy was coming from. And the disconnect and the gap there, it’s hard, you want to connect somewhat, you know? It’s hard to not feel you ever really came to an empathetic understanding.

This makes me think of the film’s ending. A touching moment, but it left me wishing one of them would have just embraced the other.
I think a hug or something would have gone too far. It would have been too Disney. Alexander is careful, he wants to go just so far and not try to make his characters go so far that you potentially lose the reality. And Woody is a genuinely challenging guy, there’s no soft gooey center to this guy.

Seeing you and Will in this film it made me think that for some reason we as an audience, and this isn’t all the time, but we accept comedic actors playing dramatic roles more often than when an actor known for their dramatic work transitions to comedy. Why is that?
I do agree that people tend to make the transition from comedy to drama or at least “dramedy” easier, much easier. People are more willing to accept a comic toning it down and presenting some honest feelings without irony than they are willing to see a dramatic performer suddenly try to have the juice that you need to do comedy. I don’t know why it is. I think I’m on the side of the audience there. I’m an audience member too and I agree it’s not easy to do but I don’t know why purely dramatic people can’t often give that lightness or nimbleness that you need to do comedy. I don’t know.

Does it come down to that old saying that behind every funny person is someone inside that’s frowning?
I don’t know. A lot of dramatic actors have pain. And by the way that’s not just performers that’s every single person in the world. I think people comment on it with comedy performers because they think their comedy is so funny that they should be light hearted and funny all the times. And then you learn their personal story and often times it’s challenging and sad. This is a rough area. I think you’ve got it right, I just don’t know what the answer is. You know, dramatic performers are a little bit hard for me to analyze. I think there’s a very simple honesty that they project all the time and that’s an interesting thing and I think that’s a hard thing to have, that’s not really something that you can work on; this kind of strange opening to your soul. And I think comedy is a lot of times about a character being a little distanced from the moment, so maybe they have a hard time doing it.

Going to completely change gears. What can you tell me about Better Call Saul?
It could be a prequel. It could be a sequel. It could be both. [Laughs] I know that they thought a lot about a prequel and finding out how Saul becomes the person you see there, or who he is behind that façade. And I know there’s a lot of fans who are curious about what happens to him when he moves to Nebraska. So I haven’t heard any specifics except for a couple of characters that they have ideas for, but I can’t share them with you because I don’t even know if they’re committed to them. I talked to the guys three months ago and they were still in the very early stages. They are writing now every day. We’re going to shoot it in Albuquerque, but that’s all I really know. But he’s a fun character to play. Full of language and jokes and cleverness.

I am actually more excited that you may team with the director of Best Worst Movie, Michael Stephenson. The film is called Girlfriend’s Day and you play a well-known greeting card writer. Where is this project at?
I’m going to give it an 85% chance that it’s going to happen. But it’s not a sure thing. We have a great script and we have some backers who are excited.

Have you seen Best Worst Movie and know of the legend of Troll 2?
Oh yeah, I gave him the script. I saw Best Worst Movie and he called me because I referenced Best Worst Movie on an interview. He sent me an email thanking me for mentioning the movie and I said what are you up to now and he said he’d done American Scream so I went to the premiere and liked it and we had a lunch and I asked him if he wanted to read some scripts I’ve written so I gave him Girlfriend’s Day and he asked if he could direct it and I said sure.

What do you like about him?
Michael delivers humanity and humor in equal measure and that’s what you need. And if he can find that in a documentary where it’s not being written in, you have to find it, then I really trust his instincts.

You’re extremely busy acting, but will we see you go back to directing anytime soon?
No. I think one day I’ll direct again when I have a script I really want, but I have these full time jobs acting and I still keep myself writing so I’m kind of loaded.