Interview: “The Discoverers” Director Justin Schwarz on Charting a New Path for an Old-Fashioned Dysfunctional Family

Once thinking of becoming a union organizer, the first-time writer/director has used those skills to bring together a talented cast and crew for a compelling dramedy about a family...
Dreama Walker, Griffin Dunne, Madeline Martin and Becky Ann Baker in Justin Schwarz's film "The Discoverers"

It was only after Justin Schwarz made a film about family that he really had to begin thinking about starting one of his own. With “The Discoverers,” a lighthearted look at a disjointed clan brought together in the wake of their matriarch’s death to join a group of historical reenactors as they follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark’s Discovery expedition across the American northwest, Schwarz embarks on a treacherous path where living off the land is of secondary concern to whether or not they can stand to stay in the same tent together for the uneasy mix of two teenagers, a crotchety grandfather and a down-on-his-luck dad. But it was after production wrapped that his wife Laura Kleger, a producer on the film, announced a new project was in the works with a start date nine months hence, a development that made such anxiety personal since if nothing else, the debut of “The Discoverers” at the Hamptons International Film Fest and the birth of their son were less than two weeks apart.

While one of those newborns obviously has a long way to go towards maturity, it’s nice to report in spite Schwarz’s first-time status as a filmmaker, “The Discoverers” does not. Elegantly laying out the family dynamics of the Birches in a way that’s truly dynamic, the film shares the sense of adventure of its primary character Lewis (Griffin Dunne), a professor whose endless and intense exploration of the slave Meriwether Lewis and William Clark held for a 6000-page tome has left him largely neglectful of his own life. With his mother’s death forcing him to confront the family he’s long been able to parse to the side, Lewis endures the dusty trail at the insistence of his father (Stuart Margolin), who clearly didn’t bestow him with much except an interest in American history, while nursing the the uncertainty that his 20-years-in-the-works book might not be published and tending to his teenage daughter Zoe (Madeleine Martin), who has inherited his sardonic wit but perhaps not yet his entrenched pessimism. Schwarz also doesn’t share that last trait in common with Lewis, giving the film a buoyancy that’s reflected from the top down in Aaron Mirman’s score, the naturalistic beauty of Christian Blauvelt’s cinematography and the bounciness between a top-notch cast that includes “In the Loop”‘s David Rasche as the leader of the reenactors, “Don’t Trust the B” star Dreama Walker as a frisky pilgrim and Cara Buono as the crew’s one true pioneer who isn’t bound by history as much as impulse.

Long enough after the film’s Hamptons premiere to have recovered from multiple deliveries and gracious enough to take my call in between diaper changes, Schwarz spoke about his unconventional route into filmmaking, the ways in which familial history and American history became one, and mapping out his feature debut in four movements.

How did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?

I was going to be a union organizer. I was working in politics and I had to choose between going to film school at Columbia University or to go into this union organizing training program and Columbia wouldn’t give me a deferral to do the union organizing program, so I ended up going to film school. After the first semester, I was like this is definitely what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.

When I first went to film school, I naively thought that films were going to be a way to change the world in some way through my politics. I was [writing] these really didactic screenplays that no one really responded to. My aesthetic has evolved since then and the things that I’m interested in, but the thing that remains the same is this idea of film being this very powerful medium to create an emotional experience and to seduce the audience visually. That hopefully is what we achieved with “The Discoverers” as well.

You actually once worked in the White House during the Clinton administration and of course, Lewis’ preoccupation is with American history, so was it important to you to make a connection between this family and the uniquely American ground they travel?

When I was writing it, it always started with the idea of family and this maxim that your family can be the source of all your problems and your greatest source of strength at the same time and how it can be both tragic and comic as well, which is the tone that we tried to straddle. There was this one thing that I wrote which Griffin ends up saying in the film, which is “You can’t divorce your family, even if you don’t get along.” That became the sort of linchpin of building this story. I was also interested in making a movie that ultimately became about discovery, both in terms of self-discovery, but also rediscovering America in some way.

I had encountered historical reenactors very early in life and always felt they were this very interesting subculture because they’re kind of like leader mixed with comedy in a way, but they’re also like these citizen-historians. Once I decided to sort of delve further into this world, I ended up meeting a bunch of these folks and did like an audio documentary about them and became really moved by a lot of their stories. It was interesting that some of these people in their personal lives had a much different way of relating to people, but when they became these mythic figures, they were able to act out in a different way.

I started to read a lot about Lewis and Clark as well and became really interested in the story [of the Corps of Discoveries Project] as well as some of the things that are left out of the story. There was something really interesting about that moment in time that I wanted to revisit when there’s this great swath of land where people had no idea what’s there – western European colonists – and what it means to just go and discover for the first time. They were naturalists, scientists, explorers, and survivalists and how in present day, these reenactors that I met can go outside and shoot a deer, skin it and tan the hide, make their own clothes and feel connected to this same primitive way of living and reexperience the natural world in a new way, which was fascinating to me.

Also when I realized Lewis Meriwether had committed suicide when he was very young and there’s this famous journal entry where he talks about how he’s lived this life and he’s basically gone halfway across the country and feels like he really hasn’t done anything in his life. He feels this existential pain and how he needs to redouble his efforts and live for mankind. This idea, which I also think is very universal like anyone post-30 years old, that you start to feel like what’s your place in the world and have you achieved the things or become the person you had set out to be when you were young and idealistic — this also resonates with Griffin particularly.

You wouldn’t personally fit the description of any of your characters in age or temperament, I would suspect, so was it interesting to get into their heads when there are no obvious connections?

One of the things in film school that I remember my professor said really early on was “write what you know” and for a lot of people, it became like writing autobiographical stories. I didn’t think my autobiography was that interesting. That was not the well that I tried to draw from. But I am really interested in the stories of fathers and sons and fathers and daughters, even though I wrote this before I was a parent. That was something that was just really interesting for me, to make it believable that you could see the seeds for Zoe, who is this really sharp-witted, caustically funny character, in Griffin’s character [Lewis], an overly intellectual academic, but that for her, it became like a protective guise for a sensitive, vulnerable young woman who is still figuring out herself and making sense of the world.

At one point, I mapped out these relationships of how people see the world and for [Lewis], it was like he’s living for this impossible future of these grand, ambitious ideas of what his book [will accomplish] – how it’s going to change history, but also to have a subtext of how it relates to his father, the world that he was brought up in and then rewrites that history the father clings to. And [for his father] Stanley, it’s about retreating into this past as an escape and for Cara Buono’s character [Nell], she’s someone who’s embracing the present and living in the moment, which is something that it takes Lewis the whole movie to realize. That was the inspiration, but it was also about creating within this world that’s very idiosyncratic of reenactors a naturalism and a realism of a family that is real.

In your director’s statement, you mention a quote from Henry David Thoreau about going into the woods to find your center, one that’s repeated in the film by Nell. As a first time filmmaker who literally did just that, was that it guide for putting this movie together as much as it is in the story?

That idea of the return to the pastoral kind of story was the organizing principle [of the film]. We wanted to create these four aesthetic movements. It starts in the cacophony of the urban world and then they move into a more [photographer william] Eggleston kind of universe in the suburbs, then we get into the woods, then the fourth movement is the Pacific, the most epic, sweeping part, so we had this chart in my production office that was light, color, form [and] how we can articulate how all of these could evolve over the course of these four movements — creating a sort of cold palette in the city that warms up in the suburbs and then we’re using fluorescents in the city to practical lights in the suburbs. When we get into the woods, we were literally lighting with fire. Our production designer Kelly McGeehee, and my wonderful cinematographer Chris Blauvelt together created these firebars that were buried in the camps where we could turn on the lights basically. And our gaffer David would hold like a stack of 15 candles in a leather glove and have wax dripping all over his arms just off-camera to light things. Then when we get to the Pacific, we use a steadicam for the first time.

When we decided we were going to make this film, we were going to move to New York and we drove from L.A. where we were living at the time to the Pacific Northwest and went to sort of all these historic places where Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery had been and then drove their path back. We were scouting through the rest of the country to figure out where we were going to shoot this film. After we settled in New York, every weekend was like going into the woods to find a place where we could potentially shoot. We were all constantly hiking around and when we were actually filming, we got very lucky with the weather because most of the film takes place outdoors. We were able to shoot at this great time where fall was just upon us and the leaves started to change and fall off and we had these great golds and oranges and reds that almost mirror the twilight of what’s going on in Stanley’s life. Once we get to the Pacific Northwest, it’s this sort of lush green of the renewal that happens.

But it was definitely a challenge that we would hike deep into the woods to bring our entire production. We benefitted from all the surprises that you get when you’re outdoors and you’re outdoors at like before dawn and you’re able to sneak in before nature flees. We were always searching for that — those birds or the mist coming off the water or the fog lifting off of a field because nature became such an important character in the film. I wanted the audience to also feel like they were a discoverer.

There was this one reenactor that I remember I interviewed [who] was part of a group that had reenacted the Lewis and Clark journey for the 200-year anniversary. They were in boats and they arrived in this one place and visitors would come up and this one old man says to this guy, “Well… what’s it’s like?” And [the reenactor is] like, “Well, you know, you were there.” And the guy who’s the reenactor [said to me], “For a moment there, both of us thought, of course, I’m one of these people. I’m on this trip.” This sort of blend of fact and fiction was an interesting element that I wanted to weave in as well.

If I’m not prying, putting together the timeline of when you premiered and you’re now tending to a three-week-old son, it seems like this premiere must’ve been insane.

It definitely was insane, but we brought our son to the premiere and it like this experience of birthing two babies at the same time. He was 10 days old. I had actually been at the writer’s lab at the Hamptons Film Festival and they had been supportive throughout the process, so it was wonderful to go back. The audience there is such a film friendly audience and warm and receptive and you know we got great laughs and also they were emotionally engaged As with life, everything sort of happens all at once and this’ll be a great story to tell our son. I’ll look forward to just the opportunity to show our son this movie since it’s been such an important part of my wife and my life for the past two or three years, so there will be lots of stories to tell in the future.

“The Discoverers” does not yet have U.S. distribution, but you can follow its progress on Facebook and Twitter.

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