Stephen Gyllenhaal is one of those people that doesn’t really ever seem to get tired. Since his television debut in 1980, Gyllenhaal has directing credits on shows from Numb3rs to The Shield to Felicity to ABC children’s stuff.
The guy who opened the Hollywood door for his children, Maggie and Jake, which he says thankfully now opens tables in Hollywood restaurants, is now traveling the country publicizing his new movie. So I, of course, had to sit down with Mr. Gyllenhaal.
Grassroots —an adaptation of Phil Campbell’s non-fiction Zioncheck for President— is a hilarious Occupy-vibed up-lifter about a polar bear suit-wearing Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore, Avatar), Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs, American Pie) and their huge splash in Seattle’s political scene. Their goal? Take down incumbent city councilman Rich McIver and transform Seattle with a proposed massive monorail.
While reflecting on his new movie, Stephen also opens up about his approach to filmmaking, superheroes, politics, his celebrity children, and Occupy Wall Street. He even teaches me a life lesson about sitting on the couch.
Q: There are many political movies that are really plot driven, about grand things. This follows the characters a bit more. What attracted you to the humanity of this specific story rather than just the actual plot?
A: A story is about characters going through something. I think, ultimately, it’s not the other way around. It’s very hard to find a good story, and this is a true story that seemed to have something very fascinating at its core.
I think underneath the surface there’s bubbling an issue of racism. Is this racism? And how’s that gonna play out? You’re always looking for the subtext and if you can feed it properly. And it’s hard. I think as the movie goes on, you’re laughing and you’re joking and it’s funny and all that, but then slowly you begin to worry that this story may not turn out all that well. We partway get there where the audience is going “Are these people in this movie out of control? Is this gonna end really badly?” Because if you feel like you know where the movie’s gonna go, some of the tension’s gonna go.
The real-life people made a choice at the end which was a true choice. There’s a unique story in this piece that comes out of these characters, something really ethical and emotional. The three main characters all bring to the table very interesting agendas.
The two people playing these main characters are generally known for their comedic roles (David Moore and Biggs). And you said yourself, you’re a dramatist. Was there any leap of faith you had to make to trust them?
I feel I have relative confidence in how I’m gonna go about a scene. I’m not sure that confidence is always correct, but it’s fun. I kind of relish “am I gonna pull this off?” And usually you have different exit strategies and you try different things and you do lots of takes, but I also had auditioned them.
I keep a set that’s pretty loose and open and I have my tools and strategies. That’s the nice thing about doing television— I work a lot. The engine is running pretty often and that helps.
Did you have to give them any leeway with improvisation?
I don’t usually give too much leeway about language, although some. I think the words have to be their own, but I’m pretty strict. We did a read-through and we go through the scenes, and at that stage we rewrite— and often times actors have great improvements.
There’s some room for improvisation word-wise on the set, but we’re moving pretty fast, so it’s usually not better. With Joel, for instance, there was a lot of long stuff.
It’s impossible to be word for word.
Yeah, exactly. But I felt that by the time we got to that stage that we had gotten to what I wanted.
Where I do feel like there’s room to maneuver is emotionally. What the motivations are, there’s room to play. That’s why I kind of like to lock the language in. That way you’re not sitting there thinking about the words so much, you’re thinking about the emotions. If the emotions are correct and the words change a little bit, that’s fine. All I’m really looking for is real feelings.
I remember you said before that you were most proud of the scene where McIver (Cedric the Entertainer) said Grant Cogswell was a one-goal politician who only wanted the monorail. Do you think something as small as that can have that much of an effect on a community?
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s true with any city, although I don’t know what the issues are in all the cities, haha, I think something like the monorail can change a city completely.
If you think about New York without the subways, or Paris without the Eiffel Tower— although that one might not have been the best example, haha, they’re game-changers.
Venice without boats.
Ha yeah! Venice without boats.
You can go through this and see people have had vision and executed it. But some people have made terrible mistakes and spent billions of dollars doing the wrong thing, so I think one thing, without any question, can have profound, profound effects.
I think Grant was absolutely right although it sounded a bit wacky at times. If you think about New York and the subway, it’s a game-changer. Everyone rides them.
Is it possible today for somebody to have as much of an impact on a society or community as Grant did?
Absolutely. I think as much or much more. We’re spotlighting Grassroots candidates across the country, and I think this year may be the year where it starts to turn. Think about the Tea Party. The Tea Party has had a profound effect on the Republican Party. I don’t think entirely positive, but it is the voice of the people.
I think Occupy Wall Street had a profound effect, but it was attacked. The Tea Party was never attacked. Occupy Wall Street was definitely attacked. I don’t think it’s gonna go away for good, democracy is not going away in this country. There’s gonna be problems, there always have been, but there are gonna be people who rise up.
Generally the politicians come from the “one percent”, that’s who’s running the country primarily. The Occupy movement really showed that, but you’ve got a much larger bank of people to choose from when you go for the “99 percent”. There are more poor people in this country than anything else. One of the problems is they’re not being fully educated and that’s a big problem because you’re not using the full resources. But the smartest people are of course going to be in the largest segment of the population, and that’s the poorer part.
Are there any parallels between Occupy and your story?
I think that Occupy Wall Street is saying that Wall Street’s corrupt; that Wall Street are thieves, and it’s all wrong.
I think I felt in basically a mainstream movie —which is what I was trying to make here— I kept a spin of humor on Grant, but Grant is basically articulating the Occupy Wall Street position. I wrote this before Occupy, but the sentiments of Occupy and my views are very similar, you know? These views have been around a while, ha. I think also the idea of power and perspective coming from the lower “99 percent” is something I’d subscribe to.
Moving toward the story again. The dynamic between Grant and Phil, do you think there’s any way Grant could have done what he did without Phil?
I think they really needed each other. I think they equally needed each other. Phil needed Grant’s vision and energy and hopefulness, and Grant really need Phil’s smarts and savvy and discipline and down-to-earthness haha.
It really speaks to the fact that none of us can do this alone, that there are no superheroes. There are people working together, and that’s the way you get things done. I mean, that’s the way you do it. I do enjoy some of these superhero movies, but more and more I think they don’t move us in the right direction about how you solve problems.
Kind of odd because [your daughter] Maggie was in Batman.
Haha, yeah. But she didn’t play a superhero! Wait, and she died!
Ha, Good point! By the way, you were talking about how you don’t think you’d ever work with your children Maggie or Jake, but do you want to?
They’re spectacular actors, I’d love to work with them. But I’d rather be their dad, that’s more important or delightful to me. There is no second-place in life next to being a parent. That’s it, and then everything else is way back there somewhere. And then being a grandparent.
It makes you just fall in love with human beings that you can’t imagine ever happening. Yeah, I’d love to work with them, but not at the expense of being a dad.
Finally, there was one comment on IMDB saying they were expecting a serious political statement. Which it does do by saying something like a monorail can make a big difference. But I also feel, like you wrote in your director’s note, “laugh, cry, vote for the little guy,” is your statement to promote people to speak their voice?
The whole idea is just jump in. Fail. Jump in, just get off the sofa.
I talk to these candidates we’ve been spotlighting and they go “I’m terrified the first time I went out to knock on doors! But I did it and it was cool, just connecting with people”. And it’s hard to connect with people. It seems like it’s easier to do nothing and just be cool, but it’s actually the hardest thing to do at all, because then you become lonely and isolated.
But really, for all the wrong reasons, it doesn’t matter, jump into it and connect with people. And go for something you believe in, even if you half-believe in it, go for it and you’ll learn something.
Everyone I’ve talked to who runs for office says the same thing— “It’s profoundly invigorating.”
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