Late one night into shooting “The Long Dumb Road,” Hannah Fidell and the film’s producers Kelly Williams and Jonathan Duffy had become a little punch drunk, sitting inside a van where they could monitor a scene from the road movie in which a young aspiring photographer named Nathan (Tony Revolori) has recently picked up Richard (Jason Mantzoukas), a drifter, en route to art school in California. Naturally, the ride doesn’t go smoothly at all, to the point where they’re eventually without wheels at all, and Fidell, Williams and Duffy were throwing out ideas of what they could add to a joke where the odd couple can’t hitch a ride to save their life.
“We were all crazed from a long day of shooting, [and someone was] like ‘What if it’s the teacher and student from ‘A Teacher’ [driving]? And I just loved that idea,” says Fidell, who got Lindsay Burdge and Will Brittain, the stars of her breakthrough feature, to the New Mexico set almost as soon as she called them for an Easter egg that that could plant the seeds for an entire Hannah Fidell extended universe on par with Marvel’s. She adds coyly, “Maybe you’ll see Richard somewhere [in a future film].”
The scene may be a throwaway gag that only longtime fans of the writer/director will appreciate, but it’s an inadvertently beautiful way of honoring what Fidell has built since her harrowing character study “A Teacher” premiered at Sundance in 2013. This fact was confirmed once more two weeks ago at the Austin Film Festival where “The Long Dumb Road” made its debut at the grand Paramount Theater in Fidell’s onetime hometown of Austin, Texas, after steadily increasing the seat count with each successive film. A comedy with laughs as big as “The Long Dumb Road” needs the room and after kicking off her career with two devastating dramas – her second was the Taissa Farmiga/Ben Rosenfield romance “6 Years” – Fidell shows her versatility with this collaboration with “Another Evil” writer/director Carson Mell, based on an anecdote she heard from “Moonlight” editor Nat Sanders.
While Richard, a wild card, and Nathan, a straight-laced innocent, cover well worn territory as they drive through the Southwest, often at odds with each other, Fidell makes the gut busting moments linger a little deeper as she catches both at a moment of great uncertainty where the young photographer doesn’t have enough of an understanding of the world to lend his pictures much weight and Richard, presenting himself as a force of nature, has perhaps lived a little too much, now reeling from a heartbreak that only gradually reveals itself over the course of the film and has left him off the grid even he gingerly steps back onto it with the help of Nathan. The director brings in one great actor after another to reroute the pair, from Farmiga and Grace Gummer as potential traveling mates, Ron Livingston as a sketchy friend of Richard’s and Casey Wilson as an old flame of his, and all contribute to an enjoyable journey. With Fidell coming to the end of the road herself with the film, which premiered at Sundance and hits theaters this week, she spoke of changing things up with her latest and putting together a great comic duo in Mantzoukas and Revolori.
So Nat Sanders is responsible for all this – how did he inspire a movie?
There’s just something so cinematic in the story that he told me about being so focused on getting more life experience. He was obsessed with Jack Kerouac and the book “On The Road,” so he befriended this drifter and actually a friend of the drifter [too] and drifter #1 and drifter #2 came with him for a little ways and very quickly Nat realized he had made a mistake by bringing these guys with him. And when I heard the story, I wanted to try something very different than I had done before, but at the same time I feel like it has a bit of my wheelhouse as far as being a relationship movie, just not a romantic relationship, so it was fun to do.
Am I right to think this is the first feature you’ve written with someone else?
It was something new and I want to do more of it because it’s hard to write by yourself in a room. It’s really nice to have people to bounce ideas off of and Carson and I met at a film festival in Tuscon, Arizona and immediately became good friends. We were also neighbors and separately friends with Nat Sanders, so it just seemed like a no brainer to work together on this.
I was actually preparing to make “6 Years” with the [cinematographer] Andrew Droz Palermo and I just wanted to get a handle on how do you shoot improv, do you shoot with two cameras and how do you edit that all together? I had never done that before, so Carson and I made a short called “The Road” where he played Mantzoukas’ character and an actor/director named Peter Vack played Tony’s character and that was all improv and it was a really great warmup before shooting “6 Years.” But then Carson and I fell in love with these characters and we decided we would write a script, so we wrote quite a tight script that we then sent out to producers and to cast for the feature version.
What was it like casting Jason and Tony and getting the chemistry right between them? I understand you set them up for a date at an escape room.
Normally how I work, I don’t like having actors put themselves on tape or do auditions. I just don’t think you get true performances from that. What I respond to is if I meet with an actor and they seem like a real person and have to have some depth to them, something I can then pull on for when the camera is rolling. So I met with both of these guys separately and thought they would be great, but because it’s this pairing of two very separate people, luckily they have great chemistry, but even if they didn’t, i think it still could’ve worked because of the nature of the roles. They were able to build up a relationship very quickly, just because of how lovely they are in real life, and because we shot in line with the arc of their relationship – not 100% sequentially, but the first scenes of our shoot were of them getting to know each other, it worked out that they didn’t quite have a handle on each other yet or have this prior relationship that months of rehearsal might’ve allowed for. It was really smart for our AD to suggest that [shooting schedule].
And there was a windstorm at the gas station the day they meet?
Yeah, that was terrible. [laughs] It was an ice storm and again since it was day one of shooting, we’re like, “Oh, this is not a good omen.” It’s high desert, so it gets really windy there and if you look closely Tony is so cold, even though we bundled him up and he’s sitting in the car, that his lips are turning blue a little bit, so in the color correction, I think we actually bumped up some color into his lips.
As with all your work, it’s quite alive visually, but how do you find interesting angles inside a car?
It was very difficult shooting in a car. Our DP Andrew Palermo, who shot all my other films, fought very hard for us to do that practically as opposed to doing it with a green screen, and I’m so glad he did because it just added to the texture of the film. But rigging a car is very time-consuming and we spend a lot of time in the car and it was a very short shoot, so it was quite a steep learning curve for me.
Is there anything that happened during the shoot that you may not have anticipated, but now you really like about it?
Everything that I didn’t anticipate was a happy accident. The “Fast and Furious” scene was just Jason doing his thing and it was so good. [laughs] But anything that Jason says [is great]. He takes something and he’ll spin it in the magic that is his brain and it’ll come out a hundred times better. So he’s just a wizard.
After watching it a second time, I realized after Richard becomes aware there are other “Fast and Furious” films besides the first and then later says he hasn’t listened to the Rolling Stones for the past 15 years, did he completely drop out of society around the turn of the century?
We never really discussed it, but I like to think that he did. [laughs] Like maybe he took a sabbatical in jail for a little bit, perhaps.
Was it interesting learning how to direct comedy as far as knowing when to be hands off or hiding that energy when one of your actors goes on a riff like that?
No, it felt very familiar since it’s situational as opposed to slapstick, and the finished film was probably 75% scripted and the rest was improv. And I say this as a comedy novice, but a lot of comedy is rooted in drama, so it was very easy for me to root that out.
You also draw great energy from the score by Keegan DeWitt and the Cookhouse Boys. What was it like working on the music?
Great – some buddies of mine who play in a Grateful Dead cover band got together and did a temp score for me. Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” was like the song that we kept thinking of as Richard’s theme, and actually a lot of that ended up in the final film, but then Keegan came and massaged it into something that flowed better.
What’s it been like taking this out on the road? The screening at the Paramount during the Austin Film Festival seemed really special for you, and it must be different with a comedy than one of these devastating dramas you’ve made.
That screening was so special – truly the best audience ever. And selfishly, it is nice to make a movie where I get to be happy and laugh, especially in the edit because as the director, you end up taking on a lot of the emotion that the actors feel. The actors can move on, but you can’t. You’re living with it for years, so it was nice to do something that didn’t leave me incredibly depressed afterwards. [laughs]