JAKE GOLDBERGER (DON McKAY Director) Exclusive Interview
I recently got a chance to talk to director/writer JAKE GOLDBERGER about his directorial debut, Don McKay, which comes out to theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston this Friday April 2, 2010.
Don McKay is a comedic thriller that tells the story of Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church), a man who gets a letter from his ex-girlfriend Sonny (Elisabeth Shue) saying that she is dying and wants him to come see her, twenty-five years after abandoning his hometown. However, when Don returns home, Sonny doesn’t seem quite like he remembers her and everything seems a little bit off. The movie also stars Melissa Leo, James Rebhorn, M. Emmet Walsh, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Keith David.
Jake Goldberger talked about his inspiration for the story, the process of getting the movie made, his future projects and more. So enjoy the interview and don’t forget to catch Don McKay in theaters this Friday, April 2, 2010.
How did you come up with the story for “Don McKay”?
Jake Goldberger: I was at a friend’s house in San Francisco. Well, let me start again. That’s actually not entirely true. I went and saw the re-release of the Coen Brother’s first movie, ‘Blood Simple’. It was a theatrical re-release of their movie that was probably seven years ago at this point. I was just blown away by it. I didn’t want to do something that was just like that but I did want or it made it very clear to me that I would be interested in doing kind of an off-shoot of what I believed film noir to be. I was interested in mixing comedy and thriller elements. I don’t see that done too often or not done too often in a great way. For me it was really about wanting to mix it up with the genres a little bit. I’d say that ‘Blood Simple’ was a big inspiration even though I’d say that it’s more of a thriller and ‘Don McKay’ is more of a dark comedy but that was the impetus.
You mention that it’s a comedy though the trailer doesn’t really show that aspect of it.
Jake Goldberger: Exactly.
That’s too bad because I think that would’ve been fun. It looks from the trailer to be really dark.
Jake Goldberger: Don’t get me wrong, it is very dark. Here’s the thing; for the marketers and I actually agree with this decision too, but the movie is definitely not a comedy. It’s a thriller, or I’d say the best way to categorize it would be to say quirky thriller. So they made a conscious effort to not advertise the comedic aspects of it. The movie definitely has its fair share of violence and twists and turns. If people go into the theater expecting a comedy then they could be turned off. I would say that it’s a quirky thriller/dark comedy. But I’m really trying to mix genres.
Can you talk about how you went from having the script to getting your film produced? What was that process like?
Jake Goldberger: This was a very, very long six year process about. I wrote the script and I workshopped it in Los Angeles and then I hired a casting director for a very little amount of money and the casting director and I decided to start making un-financed offers to actors which means basically you’re calling their agents and offering the work and they know right from the get go that the movie is not financed yet. So when you’re doing that it’s very, very difficult to get any actor to take the work seriously and very difficult to get them to even read it, especially working actors who can actually get movies made. It’s an uphill battle and you have to get very lucky. You just have to have the agent choose to pass the actual script on and then you have to have the actor choose to actually read it and pay attention to it. So a lot of stars need to align. So we made an offer to Thomas Haden Church. I didn’t think that I would get him in a million years, to be quite honest with you, because he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe for ‘Sideways’. He was just about to get nominated for an Oscar for ‘Sideways’ and I’d heard rumors that they were going to offer him the lead villain in ‘Spider-Man 3’. So we basically offered it to him because he was my dream choice but we didn’t think that there was any chance in hell that he would ever read it. About a week later, the day that he was nominated for an Oscar, my phone rings and it was him. He told me that he had read it and that he loved it and we just hit it off. We had a four hour phone conversation and by the end of that conversation he told me that he was going to believe in me as the director of the movie and that he would stick with me. He did. He stuck with me for years as I looked under every rock possible to try and find financing for a quirky movie like this.
You also have Melissa Leo in the film.
Jake Goldberger: Well, let me tell you, what happens in these situations is that when you have someone like Thomas who’s got your back, then that’s what gets other actors’ attention. Believe me, they’re not doing it to work with me. Hopefully in the future they will be but when you’re a first timer they’re interested in who else believes in it and if they see that another actor that they respect believes in it then they’ll give it a shot. So, when Elisabeth Shue’s name came up I thought she would be, and I mean this, one hundred percent, honestly, absolutely perfect. Her name came up and Thomas also thought that she would be perfect. Once again the movie was still un-financed and so we thought the odds of getting her would be very small but she read it and she really got the character and she got the humor. She has a really great sense of humor and so she really got it. She and I got on the phone and she said that she would do the movie. So that’s two Academy Award nominees who were willing to give me my first shot. Then we went up to Boston once we found the money, which is a whole other ball of wax, but we started shooting the movie without the role of Marie cast. That’s the role that Melissa Leo plays. At that point actors fall in and out and it’s a little bit of a chaotic situation. So I had seen during the second night of shooting, we were looking for an actress and I believe that Thomas Haden Church is who told me that I should check out ‘Frozen River’ for its amazing performances. He said, ‘There’s this woman, Melissa Leo, she’s about to get nominated for an Oscar. You’ll never get her in a million years but you should really check this movie out and tell me what you think.’ So I went home after the first or second day of shooting and I watched it on the DVD player in the house that we were staying in and obviously it completely blew me away. I knew that there was no chance that we’d get her because I knew she’d be nominated for an Oscar. But we were shooting the movie at that point and we sent her agent the script and told them that we needed an answer immediately and the agent read it and really liked it. He sent it to Melissa. Melissa read it that night. She really liked it. Her and I got on the phone and she on a plane the next day. She started shooting the day after that. Her and I spent four or five hours in her hotel room going over the script and going over the character and she is an amazingly talented actress and she just got it. Once again I was very fortunate to have actors who were all in on it. They all really understood the characters and understood the kind of tone that I was going for, the awkward tone that I was going for.
Had you always known that you wanted to direct this or did you ever consider having someone else direct?
Jake Goldberger: I never considered having someone else direct. I wrote this specifically for my own taste and what I thought my own strengths were. So when I wrote it, I initially wrote this script thinking that I’d have to shoot it on a camcorder with some friends, basically, and this was before digital had become as popular. So I figured we’d get a digital camera, we’d borrow it from a cinematographer friend of mine and then we would go shoot the movie. But I always wrote it for myself to direct. Once I attached Thomas, it’s very unusual for an actor to have a first time director’s back, someone without any experience. Thomas completely had my back and that gave me the confidence to know that I was capable of really pulling this off.
How did you work with the actors since this was your first shot at directing? What was the work relationship like on set?
Jake Goldberger: It’s interesting because obviously every actor in the movie, and that includes M. Emmet Walsh, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Keith David, James Rebhorn – I wrote the roles for Keith David and for M. Emmit Walsh and so getting those guys was another unbelievably insane experience in a good way for me – but what I found interesting, and you can’t know this until you’ve really been through it which is trying to incorporate different actors’ different processes into the organics of the shooting. So my relationship, Thomas and I had had a relationship for many years and so he and I had a shorthand. Elisabeth and I, though we had talked on the phone, we had never met face to face until the day before we started shooting. But her process and his process are very different and Melissa Leo’s process is very different also. So it was a real challenge for me to work with all of these amazing and experienced actors at the same time and in the same scenes, sometimes with four or five of these amazing actors in the same frame. You have to start shooting for a few days before you start to really get an instinct for what you feel their better takes are going to be and the patterns that they run into, both in a positive and negative light. So once we started getting on the same page we were just off and running. I like them all very much personally too, and that helped.
Do you feel like you could now go right in with new actors and feel like you know what you’re doing?
Jake Goldberger: I think that I have learned a lot from this experience and I think that making every movie will probably be more and more of a learning experience and hopefully I get the opportunity to do so again soon. I have a certain confidence in my ability to work with actors that I didn’t have beforehand only because I had never done it before. But that being said a lot of directing actors as good as the ones that I had was just staying out of their way, to be honest and just keeping an eye on the performances and knowing in your head, whether you say it out loud or not, ‘I know where the boundaries are. I know how far we can take this.’ I really think, and I have to tell you that I won’t take credit for this at all, but I think the performances in the movie, every single one of them all across the board, are amazing. They’re great. The actors and actresses are great but I will credit them with that. Not me.
It was your script so somehow –
Jake Goldberger: Exactly. It all comes around to me, as they say. I’m working with people in this cast, two of whom I actually wrote the roles for and then on top of that there’s three Oscar nominees and then there’s also James Rebhorn. He came into to do the role and is someone that I’ve been a fan of long enough to even be a fan of anything.
What was the most challenging thing you had to overcome while making ‘Don McKay’?
Jake Goldberger: I’d say the most challenging aspect was the shooting schedule because we could only afford to shoot for I believe nineteen or twenty days. And we didn’t have enough money to do any real pickups or second unit and no re-shoots. So it was a challenge. I had been fantasizing about making this movie for so many years that I just had to be on autopilot when we started shooting. If we didn’t get it then I had to rewrite the script right then and there and there were a couple of times that I had to do that. But I knew the story so well, in and out, that a lot of it was just relying on my instincts about it. It was definitely a challenge. Even small, independent films, union movies, you’re talking about twenty eight, twenty nine, thirty days. We’re talking for us nineteen days with a first time director.
It’s like, ‘Good luck.’
Jake Goldberger: Exactly. A lot of it is just trying to rely on your instincts and for me knowing that I did know the story very, very well and that nobody was going to know it as well I was. So I had to take the reins and run with it.
How much were you involved with the editing?
Jake Goldberger: I was very, very involved. My editor is a guy named Andrew Dickler who I was a fan of because I’d seen a movie he edited that I thought was very, very challenging called ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’. It was Miranda July’s first movie. He also recently edited a film that I think is the best thing ever called ‘Anvil! The Story of Anvil’ which is a documentary. It’s great. When I was shooting Andrew was in L.A. putting together a rough cut of the movie and then by the time that I was done shooting I came back to L.A. I was not living in L.A. before we started shooting but I came back out here to edit the movie. I was living on my producer’s couch. We took about all together six or seven months, twelve hours a day, just my editor and I going through the movie and combing and combing and combing until we felt that we got it right.
Do you enjoy writing or directing better? Is what you write a way for you to direct something?
Jake Goldberger: For me, I have written things that I will not direct but I think that as a director, if I could in a perfect world and I don’t know how this is going to pan out, but in a perfect world I would direct what I’m writing when I’m writing it specifically to direct if that makes any sense. I have done rewrites on movies that have gotten made and I have done rewrites and original scripts for other producers. But the movie that I wrote that got made is not one that my name is on. So I do see it as two different jobs. One is writing for other people but the stuff that I’m writing that I really intend to direct, I really do intend to direct.
Since this is your first feature, is that kind of genre you’d like to continue in?
Jake Goldberger: I consider myself an obsessive movie nerd. So for me I’d never want to stick to one genre. I do love the quirky thriller genre that the Coen Brothers have been so good with. The next movie that I’m trying to make now is much more, believe it or not, in line with Cameron Crowe as opposed to the Coen Brothers. I’d say that it’s much more similar to ‘Say Anything’ than it is to ‘Fargo’ or ‘Blood Simple’ or ‘Double Indemnity’. In terms of the movies that inspired ‘Don McKay’, it’s a whole hodgepodge. The [David] Mamet movies. ‘Double Indemnity’. ‘Body Heat’. ‘Shallow Grave’. Those are all films that I really love the tone of but that’s not what I’d be committed to in my career.
I was reading that you have another script called ‘Back to Baltimore’. Is that your next project?
Jake Goldberger: That’s what I’d like to be my next project. It’s more down the middle in terms of the tone. I also wrote a script for my producer, my ‘Don McKay’ producer called ‘Life of a King’. That is something that we’re really trying to get off the ground. I think it’s great. I would like to direct it but I don’t know if it’s going to pan out that way.
It’s always more difficult to sell a script if there’s a director attached to it.
Jake Goldberger: Exactly. The type of writing that I do, I’m not the guy who’s going to quote unquote sell scripts. The type of career that I’d personally like to have would be doing what Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson did. Maybe not so much Darren Aronofsky because he has writers that he’ll use and work with but I really – what’s the word – aspire to be a writer/director who comes to the game with a little something different every time. But in terms of selling scripts, I’d be happy to give it a go but it’s not my goal.
Then as far as your next project, what’s the current status of that?
Jake Goldberger: We have not started going out with it yet because we’re waiting to see the response that ‘Don McKay’ gets. I hope that things will be positive. So basically it’s written and ready to go and the next step will be getting the casting process and financing process together.