At the height of summer blockbuster season, that cool breeze you might feel this week comes by way of Iceland as “Land Ho!” finally makes its way to theaters. A lighthearted romp that doubles as the vacation you wish you could take to enjoy all the clubs and black sand beaches Reykjavik has to offer, the comedy is most refreshing for its unlikely casting coup of Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhorn, who play a perfectly mismatched pair of former brothers-in-law entering their golden years, but not without a fight.
Yet their adventures together were born out of a desire of the film’s co-directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz to break out of their own routine. Separately earning a reputation for carefully crafted character studies – he, responsible for the lively mystery “Cold Weather” and she, the equally compelling Appalachian-set “Pilgrim Song” — the two North Carolina School of the Arts grads coordinated an 18-day shoot in a country they knew little about after Stephens pitched Katz on the idea early in 2014, completing the entire film from script to screen in less than a year. The frenzied pace of production, relying on a team of producers in five different parts of the world and the chemistry of the nonprofessional Nelson, a gloriously garrulous surgeon from Kentucky, and Eenhorn, the soft-spoken star of Chad Hartigan’s “This is Martin Bonner,” created an energy that ripples off the screen.
Showing that Nelson and Eenhorn aren’t the only ones with an engaging rapport and a wicked sense of humor, Stephens and Katz spoke about their first feature collaboration, why it’s best to be bold as a filmmaker, and how popular their lead actors have become with the ladies in real life.
Since you two go back, having attended North Carolina School of the Arts together, was this actually the first time you collaborated on something?
Martha Stephens: Yeah, Aaron and I co-wrote my script for my senior thesis film in 2005. That was our only real big collaboration.
Aaron Katz: That was a much less intense deal.
MS: It was a 15-page script.
AK: I wasn’t living in Winston-Salem. I don’t know if that was much of a basis for [collaborating on] this. We kept in touch over the years, seeing each other’s movies. This just made so much sense. Martha was the one who came up with the idea and proposed we do it together and so many of the people that worked on the film also went to school with us — Andy Reed, our director of photography, Alex Bickel, who did our color, Nate [Whiteside], our DIT. Having that kind of common language helped us all to collaborate easily and people who didn’t go to school with us – Christina [Jennings], Sara [Murphy] and Mynette [Louie], our three producers — I felt like really came into the fold easily.
There’s a real feeling of freedom throughout the film, which I imagine came from having just two main actors, some cameras and some really nice scenery. Was that part of the appeal for you both?
MS: It was. I keep saying this, and I hope it doesn’t make the movie sound bad — I wouldn’t call it an experiment, but we wanted to try new things. Originally, we thought we were going to try to make the movie for basically no money, but we realized that wouldn’t be possible in Iceland. Still, it was fun to try that out together, and to have two cameras on set and make a movie in a foreign country.
AK: It really let us feel okay with just being open to weird ideas. There’s the sequence where Earl Lynn wakes Paul up, and we shot it like a cheap ‘80s horror movie. We used the “In a Big Country” song twice in the movie. A lot of times, one of us or our producers would say, “Can we really do that?” And So many times we were like, “Why the hell not? Let’s just try it.” We had this really intense snap zoom as they’re crossing the river and it was because of the circumstances in which we were making the movie.
MS: We were making it so fast that we didn’t have time to contemplate too much. I think both Aaron and I could overthink things, if given the time.
AK: Yeah, and talk yourselves out of something that actually is a lot of fun.
Were you able to scope out Iceland much before going?
MS: I went for a week in March, but that’s not a whole lot of time to scout an entire feature film. We based a lot of decisions off of photos. This French guy had this travel journal online, and he had spent a whole month in Iceland, traveling the country. We were vicariously living through his experiences.
AK: That’s how we found the campsite that they go to. In general, I have an aversion to some things about technology. But having the ability to eavesdrop on people’s vacations and see all these different things that people did, in addition to [Martha’s] real-life vacation/location scout, was really good. It opened up some stuff that we wouldn’t have thought of, stuff that’s not going to be in the tourist stuff.
Certainly, the actors brought a lot of their own personality to their characters, but when you’re collaborating as writers on a two-hander like this, did you take ownership more over one of the characters than the other?
AK: [pointing at Martha] She’s Earl Lynn.
MS: Yeah, just being around Earl Lynn, I’ve become a more gregarious person. I’m not like Earl Lynn. No one’s like Earl Lynn. I’m pretty shy, actually, but if I have a few cocktails, I can be Earl Lynn, for sure. Aaron’s way more bookish than I am.
AK: Bookish? [laughs]
MS: Yeah. It’s not that I’m necessarily a party girl, but I do have a very restless spirit, and I always need to be …
AK: You’re always looking for the next thing.
MS: I like to travel, I like to explore new places. I’m always searching for something that just makes me feel anything. I’m constantly on a search to feel. Earl Lynn’s character in the movie is a lot like that. He’s always trying to get the party started, always trying to do the next thing. He wants people to have a good time.
AK: If he stops moving, he’ll die, is almost what he feels like. He wants to be a magnet to bring everyone else into his good time.
MS: Personally, I always feel a sense of guilt if I’m lazy and I stay in bed and watch “Mad Men” or something. I feel like a jerk when there’s so many beautiful things out there to experience.
The film itself is quite vibrant, particularly in its color palette and its score. Was it obvious from the start that would be the vibe, even with older characters at the center of it?
AK: In the fun and free-wheeling spirit that we approached the movie, we really wanted to explore some stuff that we hadn’t before with the look of the movie.
MS: It was a little bolder than anything we had done in our other movies. I guess “Cold Weather” is kind of boldly colored.
AK: There are bold colors in there, but the idea of shooting something in a cold place and have it be really vibrant is an aesthetic that really appeals to me. We were working a lot of late nights with our colorist just finding the right look. We took it in a pretty crazy direction, to start with.
MS: It was so Kodachrome-like crazy. Ultimately, that’s how the score was, too. We started out feeding ideas to our composer Keegan DeWitt and we took it into a pretty intense direction with the music in an 80s synth way. Once you do that, you can start stripping it down. You can find what you really want.
AK: It’s really good to go as far as you can ever imagine possibly going, and then taking the good stuff and dialing back the stuff that’s too crazy. When we were doing the score, and we were listening to “The People’s Court” theme on YouTube, that was when I was like, “Guys, I think we really need to dial this back.”
MS: We were listening to the “SNL” band…
AK: G.E. Smith! We were having such a blast doing it. I think that energy comes through, and is then focused into something that actually makes sense with the material.
Ben Kasulke, best known as the cinematographer for Guy Maddin and Lynn Shelton, puts in a performance as one-half of a honeymooning couple Paul and Earl Lynn meet at a hotel. How did that happen?
MS: We basically asked him to act …
AK: We railroaded him.
MS: But he also was our second camera operator. He and our DP Andrew Reed shoot the Sundance directors’ labs, so they’re buddies.
If you look at the credits, there’s a lot of people pulling double duty.
MS: So many. I’m pretty sure Christina [Jennings, the producer] has 5 credits in the film.
AK: She gets a stunt driver credit, and she’s in that scene with Ben, and obviously she’s our producer. Everyone had to do a little bit of everything. Martha and I only have a couple credits.
MS: I even had a costume design the whole damn thing.
What’s it been like to see Paul and Earl Lynn get to have this moment in the spotlight?
MS: There was some time, at Sundance, where it was just irritating; having their photos taken with women, women asking for kisses … But it’s really fun to see Earl Lynn, who’s my cousin and I’ve known him my whole life, being dropped into such a strange situation where he’s starring in a movie that’s playing at Sundance, and he’s not an actor. He’s just so like, “Yeah, this is cool.”
AK: He’s not a professional actor.
MS: But he’s just so at ease doing it all. It’s really a trip. He’s not self-conscious at all about anything.
AK: Yeah, which is what makes him such a good actor.
MS: For Paul, it’s great that he was in “This is Martin Bonner” and that it went to Sundance [last year], and he is continuing to get praise. I’m happy for both of them, that people are enjoying their performances, and they’re touching people.
AK: Touching people?
MS: You know what I mean. But they were kissing women at Sundance, so yes.
“Land Ho!” opens on July 11th in Los Angeles and New York.