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.