L.A. Film Fest ’13 Interview: Karl Jacob on Returning Home and Growing Up As a Filmmaker With “Pollywogs”

Though some families may have considered it an imposition to open up their home to a movie crew, that wasn’t the case when Karl Jacob wanted to bring his filmmaking friends out to his clan’s cabin by the lake in Northern Minnesota.

“My dad continually talks about it,” Jacob said shortly before the premiere of his first feature “Pollywogs” at the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend. “That was so much fun when they were here. When are you bringing your friends back again? I’m like, ‘Everybody’s kind of busy, Dad.'”

Although a sequel might not be in the works just yet, there definitely is an intimacy in his directorial debut with co-director T. Arthur Cottam that emerged from the integration of Jacob’s two tight knit families, the one he was born into in Hibbing, Minnesota and the one he’s cultivated as a filmmaker, whether as an actor in such productions as Joe Swanberg’s “Young American Bodies” or Ti West’s “The Roost” or as a producer on K. Lorel Manning’s 2011 coming home drama “Happy New Year.” The latter includes a veritable group of all-stars of the festival circuit such as “Sun Don’t Shine”‘s Kate Lyn Sheil, cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, “Red Flag” producer and star Jennifer Prediger and “Bad Fever” editor/director Dustin Guy Defa that helped cut through the haze of a real-life relationship gone bad for Jacob, who in turn channeled his experience into a film about two childhood friends who reconnect at a family get-together years later, each trying to reconcile their remembrance of one another in their purest state while discovering how their time apart has changed them.

While capturing the raw emotions that won’t be unfamiliar to anyone recovering from a broken heart, “Pollywogs” also benefits from a cast and crew that took its time, setting up six months of rehearsals and workshops to get the characters and relationships just right. The result might have more than just Jacob’s father asking for a followup and while in town, the filmmaker spoke about initiating the union of his two families, the motorcycle ride that led to the film and why Minnesotans treasure their summers.

How did this come about?

I was going through a breakup that was really hard and I had a bought a motorcycle when I was at SXSW as a way to clear my head. It turns out it was cheaper to buy a motorcycle than it was to rent a car at South By that year. [laughs] I had all this stuff running through my head and as with most breakups, you hang out with friends and talk about it and at the same time, I’d been for many years wanting to make a story about about childhood in Minnesota, the water culture there and this big family that I grew up in that was kind of unique, especially since we’re all so close. So I’m riding this motorcycle back to New York from Texas and every night, I’d get to the hotel and scenes would come to mind and it just all came out like the muse was just ready to help me out on this one.

I also had a lot of help. Once I got back to New York, I called up Kate [Lyn Sheil] and [cinematographer] Ben Kasulke and they were excited to get involved. They liked the story idea and I knew they were both really good at working in this kind of environment, where we rehearsed for six months and then I dropped everybody into the middle of my actual family reunion. We shot it with two cameras and not everyone can work that way, but I know Ben loves working that way and Kate is really good at improvising. Jenny Prediger came onboard shortly thereafter – I ran into her at a screening at Sundance in 2011 and she looks a lot like my family members. She actually looks like my aunt who plays her mother. It all fell into place that way. Then Larry Mitchell, who was the last actor to come onboard, I worked with him very briefly on this movie “Happy New Year” that I was a producer on, and he’s done a lot of stage work in New York, but hasn’t really gotten a chance to get a real meaty role in any features, so he fit the bill. I really needed someone who could do Minnesota guy and that’s kind of a unique character that first was physically right for.

JenniferPredigerPollywogsDid you actually plan a family reunion for the shoot or did you actually see a family reunion on the calendar and decide you were going to incorporate a shoot?

It was actually really awesome for two reasons. First of all, the family reunion was called together by me for the movie. I wasn’t blowing the trumpets and calling it a family reunion, but my whole family lives really close to one another in Minnesota, so it’s a pretty regular occurrence to have that number of people together for a weekend. Because it’s really freezing cold most of the year in Minnesota, once the sun comes out, people pretty much try to spend as much time as possible just hanging out together out at the cabins and everyone has a cabin up there.

In terms of the worlds colliding, it was awesome for the cast and crew because they got to get a little slice of this life in Northern Minnesota during a beautiful time of year. I know Jenny Prediger, in particular, was talking a lot about how much fun she had hanging out with my family and that she took a lot of things away from that experience, things that you kind of forget about when you’re living in a fast-paced artist lifestyle, then when you take a minute to slow down and hang out by a campfire and talk with people, it’s really illuminating. For my family, it was an opportunity for them to put a face to this nebulous thing that I do. They were really excited to be like, “Oh wow, he doesn’t just disappear and drink beer all day in New York.” That’s not to say they weren’t supportive, but they were actually able to get their hands on it and realize wow, this is how [filmmaking] works.

One of the things that really got to me was this idea that you’re coming back to someone that you’ve idealized from when you both were younger, but you’ve both changed. Was it a challenge to get that relationship with Kate right – where there was both a familiarity and a distance?

Working with Kate made that not necessarily easy, but made the whole process very fluid because I was acting and directing and producing…and existing among my family members [laughs], so there was a lot on my mind. I really have to give credit to all of the actors for knowing where to draw the line in terms of when we were on set and when we were working. We had a lot of fun in the down time, but in terms of kind of keeping the resonance that needed to be there in order to get into character every day, I think they knew that was going to be the case and because we were so rehearsed, everybody really had their stuff ready to go at the drop of a hat. Sometimes we would think we were done shooting, then something amazing would happen and we would just grab the cameras and capture it. We had a lot of time to rehearse and we did a lot of work on backstories for everybody because I really wanted everyone to have everything at the surface, so they could answer in character. It wasn’t really that challenging because we had done the work before we got to set. What was challenging was getting to that point in the rehearsal process.

As collegial an atmosphere as it sounds like on set, I actually read the film grew darker than what you anticipated when you first wrote it. What was the evolution like?

Originally, it had been a very dark story, then it lightened up into a comedy and then by the end of it, it fell somewhere in between because there were a lot of things that were revealed while we were shooting that weren’t really considered in terms of the actors bringing things to the table. That’s the beauty of a movie that’s largely improvised. We had a really rigid story structure. We knew there were certain things that needed to happen, but there were a couple spots that were left a little open on purpose just because we wanted to see what happened when we further worked on the scenes. We had improvised pretty much every scene at least two times before we got to Minnesota and done variations and it served the story too. We’d go back and take a look at the structure and come back to the improvisation and it was really a true workshop scenario, which is a luxury.

When we got to set, that just continued and there were times where certain decisions were being made by characters that ended up being actually really exciting, so we continued to explore those ideas later in the movie. We shot pretty much in sequence so we were able to do that. In terms of the tone, I like what ended up happening. It’s like life and that’s what I like about it. You really don’t know which direction it’s going to go until it’s gone there and that’s the thing I loved about this collaborative process is that the surprises were the things that ended up being some of the best parts in the movie. For that, I’m happy and grateful.

“Pollywogs” plays once more at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 17th at 7:20 p.m. at Regal Cinemas 12. A list of upcoming screenings, including in Duluth, Minnesota on July 2nd can be found here.

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