Interview: Stephen Gyllenhaal on the “Grassroots” Effort Behind His San Diego Film Fest-Bound Comedy

The veteran writer/director talks about his new comedy, the need for more adults in politics and having a survivor of one of the most famous of Senate races in...
Jason Biggs and Joel David Moore in Stephen Gyllenhaal's film "Grassroots"

If there’s anything to be expected of the the just-underway San Diego Film Festival this year, it’s undoubtedly the unexpected. Once a cozy neighborhood affair in the famed Gaslamp District, that neighborhood has grown a little larger this year with not just an expansion in size, thanks to cash infusion that has led to more venues to present films at, but also of scope as the festival in its 11th year will be the first to play David O. Russell’s “The Silver Linings Playbook” and Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut “Quartet” following their celebrated bows at the Toronto Film Festival and present an retrospective of Gus Van Sant’s work with the director in town to discuss his work.

Yet the film perhaps most indicative of the reinvigorated initiative of the festival is Stephen Gyllenhaal’s “Grassroots,” a comedy as scrappy as its central characters, a firebrand public transportation activist (Joel David Moore) and the recently fired journalist (Jason Biggs) who becomes his campaign manager in a quest to land a city council seat in Seattle against a seasoned incumbent (Cedric the Entertainer). But the film isn’t the traditionally uplifting underdog tale, instead finding its strength in methodically showing Moore’s scruffy Grant Cogswell’s journey from a bearsuit-clad aggravator of council meetings to a legitimate candidate backed by hardworking loyalists and well-honed strategy. Like his last film, the marijuana-fueled crime caper “Homegrown,” Gyllenhaal gets the most out of both his potentially touchy subject and an endearing ensemble, which though it includes Lauren Ambrose and Cobie Smulders doesn’t mean the film shies away from the ugliness inherent in any political dogfight.

Shortly before the film’s debut in San Diego on September 30th to close out the festival, Gyllenhaal took the time to talk about the production parallels to grassroots political campaign, the need for more adults in politics and having a veteran of one of the most famous of Senate races in recent years to rely on as a producer.

This film is based on a real race that was documented in the book “Zioncheck for President,” written by Phil Campbell, who is played in the film by Jason Biggs. What attracted you to it in the first place?

I loved the idea that there were two slacker dudes who were utterly wrong to get involved with politics and then slowly as they got into it, discovered they were right to do it. I’m intrigued with your normal and sometimes not-so-normal citizen getting involved in the process of democracy, which is pretty wild, wacky process that shouldn’t just be controlled by the so-called elite. It was really a process designed for all people and back in the beginning, it was farmers and shopkeepers and they knew what they were doing. We live in a culture where we’ve had that taught out of us and in a way, I wanted to, in a very entertaining way, bring us back to that essential concept of what democracy is all about.

From what I’ve heard, there might’ve been a parallel between your own efforts to get this film off the ground and the story of a campaign that builds steam? Was that the case?

Yeah, we actually started the movie with no budget. I had been around enough in Hollywood to know that if there’s a script that’s pretty good and I could pretend I had money in place, knowing that if I got some actors, [we could] go into production on nothing. I slept on people’s couches. It was great fun. It was like being back in college again almost. I’ve been doing a lot of television [directing hours of “Numb3rs” and “The Mentalist”] and getting paid well, having big crews and all that kind of thing, but I really wanted to get back to my roots, which is independent filmmaking, so it was very much a grassroots production.

Your last film “Homegrown,” which I was a fan of as well, took a similar approach in addressing a social issue in a way that actually made the story you were telling more entertaining. Does the story emerge from issues you’re thinking about or is it the other way around?

I have certain things that I believe in. As I get older, I become more passionate about my beliefs, but  more convinced that there’s things I believe in, some of which I’ve thrown overboard, but some of which I’ve come to believe more and more. It’s less an issue and more about character. I like characters who are kind of on the edge who approach the issues from slightly outside the box perspectives. These characters [in “Grassroots”] did that. Actually, “Homegrown” was really about greed more than it was about marijuana and in some ways, this film is more about growing up than it is about politics. But of course, I think you need to be a grownup to responsibly participate in politics and they’re frankly not as many grownups in suits and ties than I’d like there to be.

Given that that the film follows two idealistic upstarts, I was expecting to naturally sympathize with them when they went up against the entrenched power, yet it’s surprising to see a kind of detente is reached, not necessarily between the characters, but in the values each can bring to the table. Is that where you are politically or should I say, the film is?

I think where I am politically is less important in a way than where the film is politically and grown-up politics as opposed to what we primarily experience now is about coming to terms with the other guy or the other woman — coming together with the opponent. We are not enemies of each other. We all are participants in the same country and if you’re really a patriot, you don’t attack the other American citizen. You disagree, you argue, but you stay attentive to the founding fathers’ concept of balance of power. You try and defeat them in appropriate ways, not in infantile ways, which is what a lot of what’s going on now is with all this negative advertising and hatred. These characters start out hating their opponent certainly – Grant Cogswell does and by the end, [he] comes at it from a much more adult way. He has really gone through some experiences and made some discoveries that changes the way he looks at the whole situation.

Though his campaign for a California Senate seat could hardly be compared to Grant Cogshell’s, Michael Huffington’s name is in the credits as a producer. How did he get involved and since he had the experience, how involved was he?

Yeah, he was very much a supporter of the film and he had thoughts and I listened to them often. He’s a smart guy. He, of course, is a conservative. I’m not. I’m very progressive. That’s what my various things I’ve written on and off over the years would indicate. But I got along with him terrifically. It began more about the process than about in some ways even the outcome, so he was very involved and very engaged and very engaging.

Speaking of the other things you’ve written – you’ve kept busy on an array of different forums, both online with your own Web site and the Huffington Post entries, among others, and on television – have the other outlets changed what you want to do in film?

Not really. It’s been a very interesting period of time in television. Some really interesting things have gone on, both in the United States and internationally, and you can never stop learning, so I keep refining what it is to make a film. Ultimately, all these forms are about telling stories. You keep learning how to tell a story, but the story itself, if you really stay attentive to it, guides you more than anything. You bring to it whatever tools you have, but the story dictates how it’s to be told, so I think all these forms help me learn how to better tell a story.

The film’s debut in San Diego follows a hometown premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival and then a somewhat interesting route to wider audiences. Has that been interesting for you to see?

It’s the life of an independent film. It’s opening in England in the next week-and-a-half, two weeks and I’m going there and it’s in Warsaw. We’re beginning to spread out across the country and then October 2nd, it opens – it’s getting ancillary market releases [on] Showtime, Netflix, all those kinds of things — a month before the election. So I think it’s going to have an interesting life and probably quite a long life. All my films seem to continue to live on well after the initial release, so I think this film speaks to grassroots [efforts] around the country. And it’s great that it’s going to be in San Diego. San Diego is sort of the bookend city to Seattle. It’s on the southern end of the West and it’s a beautiful city. I’m really looking forward to being there.

“Grassroots” serves as the Closing Night Film of this year’s San Diego Film Festival on September 30th at the Reading Theater in the Gaslamp Quarter at 7 p.m.

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