Everything About It’s Wrong: Stephen Gyllenhaal on Grassroots

Jake and Maggie's father talks about the importance of local politics (and monorails) and his upcoming film about the Kennedy assassination.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

These days, the name Gyllenhaal conjures up images of studly cowboys or Batman’s girlfriend. Stephen Gyllenhaal is the father of Jake and Maggie, and he’s been directing movies and TV since 1980. His latest film, Grassroots, tells the true story of Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore)’s run for Seattle city council to improve the monorail public transit system. His friend Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), who ultimately wrote the book on which the film is based, helps manage his campaign. The film played at the San Diego Film Festival over the weekend after a limited theatrical release, and comes to VOD this week. We got to chat with Gyllenhaal about the political process, his career in Hollywood and his proud family.

 

CraveOnline: Had you been to the San Diego Film Festival before?

Stephen Gyllenhaal: I haven’t been there before, no, though I certainly spent a good amount of time in San Diego over the years. It’s a great city.

 

We know how long film development can take, but when you started developing a film about a political campaign, did you imagine it would come out during the campaign year?

I had thought in the back of my mind it was a possibility, but you never know, as you say, about these things. They have their own lives but it ultimately made sense, as we got nearer to completing it, to use the election energy to help frame the movie.

 

Will it be released for the public before November?

Yes, it will. It’s been in some theaters. It’s had a limited release. It’ll be released on October 2nd for all the ancillary markets, Netflix, all video on demand across the country. It’s opening in England so it’s going to be really totally available.

 

Do local politics get short shrift in this day and age where all the coverage is on the presidential election?

I think it absolutely does because it is pretty much national media. I think really where democracy really plays itself out is on a local level which is what I was trying to point out with this film, and in an entertaining way, that anyone can run for office and should run for office. It’s a fun, wild thing to do rather than sit on your sofa and complain. Why not go out, as I’ve met a lot of real candidates, their relatives, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, [and] take part in the campaign. It’s very energizing for them, whether they win or lose.

 

Is it unfortunately a smaller percentage of the democracy that pays attention to the grassroots side of things? Even I don’t always have time to read up on the local candidates, or certainly attend their meetings.

I suppose so but unfortunately a lot of government, a lot of what goes on and affects people’s lives takes place at the local level, so they’re not availing themselves of what the country was set up to do which was make it possible to have a choice in how your neighborhood is run. On a national level there’s a big effect and it’s sort of sexy, but it’s really on the local level where it affects you the most. So in a way, people should find the time. I think the media doesn’t help people understand that they actually do have a lot of control. They can really affect their roads, their schools, all of those things.

 

When did you think this process could be funny?

Pretty much from the start. I really liked the book and I felt two white slacker dudes who decide to run against a relatively progressive black candidate, everything about it’s wrong. It’s ridiculous but in the end it turns out that everyone learns a tremendous amount but I think two guys who shouldn’t be doing it jump in and do it for all the wrong reasons too. It turns out they grow up and they actually really make some very good points and important points as they go along, which I think is true of everybody. We’re not experts in anything really until we jump in and try it.

 

When you read the book and started to think about making a movie, were you aware of the classic “Simpsons” episode about bringing a monorail to Springfield?

I wasn’t but I am now. [Laughs] The funny thing is, it’s not funny really, the monorail is a great system. It’s got a very small footprint. Technically it’s very advanced. The system in Seattle was built in 1961. It’s amazing it hasn’t been used much more effectively across the country but I think it takes a certain amount of imagination, plus also it’s a lot cheaper to build than a lot of the other systems and a lot of the construction companies would rather make a larger profit. That’s unfortunately another area where if people were more involved in their neighborhoods, they might get systems that were better. But in the end, it’s really an amazing system. I didn’t make the movie because of the monorail. I made it because I really liked these two characters. I really knew nothing about the monorail but the more I got into it, the more I realized it was really a terrific mass transportation system.

 

Did you get to meet the real Phil Campbell and Grant Cogswell?

Oh yeah, oh yeah, Grant Cogswell and Phil Campbell, a lot. They were around the set. They’ve been involved on and off a lot. Yeah, I got to know them and they had a really fun time with seeing themselves. They never imagined this would happen in a million year, be turned into a movie.

 

How did you come to Jason Biggs and Joel David Moore for the parts?

Auditioning. Knowing actors and looking around and just feeling in the end that they were a great team. I just thought they had a wonderful chemistry and that’s what brought me to them.

 

As a director you’ve done all sorts of genres, never really been pigeonholed, worked in TV and film. What has been gratifying about this career for you?

Oh my God, the whole thing. Sometimes I look at it and I’m just amazed. I’m amazed that I keep getting to do it. Literally as I finished Grassroots, I was onto the next movie. It’s on a subject I really love on the Kennedys and Kennedy Secret Service agents which is kind of a wild subject actually. You have access to the world. You come in as a filmmaker and you can call anyone on the phone and ask them a question. They love to answer. You can go anywhere in the world and scout locations and they love to open the door for you. It sort of allows you to explore the world and then also be creative and learn. You make mistakes, you learn from those mistakes. It’s really an art form. I’ve frankly never worked a day in my life as far as I can tell. I make a nice living and then I raised some great kids who have gone off and done amazing things themselves so it’s all good.

 

You got to work in the glory days of the TV movie where there were frequently quality productions on the air. Do you miss those days?

I do, yeah. I actually just did a TV movie called Girl Fight, unfortunate title because it had been used before, but in the end it was okay. With Anne Heche this past year, it was very interesting and very complex. You still can get to do it and I think actually that was the golden era of TV movies because they could market them much more easily. Now it’s kind of the golden age of series. There’s amazing things going on in TV now. I find myself winding my way through this process and I do find there continue to be interesting projects, people want to experience interesting stories. But that was an amazing time in television. Paris Trout, Killing in a Small Town, Family of Spies, a lot of really complex stories got to be told.

 

And they got to handle real issues before there was a stigma about being an “issue movie.” Has that gotten harder?

It was always hard. It was never easy back then either. I made some junk too to survive. It’s always the same struggle. Money people, their biggest concern often is just making more money and not about projects. That’s been true since the Greeks. It’s never changed. I think ultimately to whatever degree one can be an artist, art is subversive. It is about opening new frontiers, exploring new perspectives. Sometimes you succeed at it, sometimes you fail at it but you are basically a gadfly and you’re trying to make people think differently. The people who are in charge want you to think pretty much the way things are right now because they’re in charge. They’re very happy with the way things are. So there’s always that tug and pull between the people in power and those of us trying to move at least somewhat outside the box.

 

Which of your movie sets did you bring your kids to?

Oh, I brought them to all the sets. They came to every set all the time. I didn’t let them see a lot of the movies. In fact, I don’t think they’ve seen all the movies from when they were little. Maybe more recently, because they were grown up movies, but any sets, they came to all the sets, they grew up on sets.

 

Was there any doubt they would go into the business?

Oh, I never thought for a second they would. It was never anything I thought of. We just didn’t think about that. They were kids. They were doing whatever they were doing. I didn’t understand that they were absorbing everything that was going on and it’s amazing to see how much they took in, but there was never any idea that they should do anything but what they wanted to do. Never for a moment. There wasn’t really even time to consider, “Well, are you going to become a doctor?” because they were so young when they started acting and then it just took off.

 

Have you seen End of Watch yet?

Oh yeah, I saw it. I’m actually in New York right now. I just saw Jake’s play as well. Yeah, I saw End of Watch. It’s terrific and he’s great in this play. I don't know how it happened but my kids are very talented.

 

As a father of grown-up children, when they’re so successful that they make so many movies, do you still see every one and take pride in it?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Oh yeah.

 

What is the Kennedy film you’re doing next?

It’s about the Secret Service agents who were around Kennedy from the time he was elected through his assassination, and their real personal relationship with him. It’s seeing the Kennedy years and then the assassination in a way that no one’s ever seen it. There’s been a lot of rumor, conspiracy theory and these are the guys that were right there, five feet away. So they were right in the middle of all of it and they’ve never really talked about it until recently. There’s a book out now, there’s a documentary and now turning it into a [narrative] movie.

 

Who are the main characters in that group of agents?

There are three agents, the three agents who were closest to the assassination and they were kind of amazing people and they were most affected by it. I mean, devastated by it.

 

Do you have any casting yet?

Not yet, no. Still just finishing up the script right now so we’ll go out to cast very soon.

 

Do you have any thoughts on how you’re going to portray the assassination which we’ve seen in historical footage and movie footage before?

Still working on that. You have to wait and see.

 

Was Paris Trout a memorable experience making the film?

Oh yeah, I’m very proud of that film, yeah.

 

Was he a classic cinema antihero?

One of them, yeah. In fact, Dennis Hopper said it was one of his two favorite roles.

 

Do you know what his other one was?

I don’t know. [Laughs]

 

Did you know when you were on the set that you were onto something?

Oh yeah, yeah, you could feel it. Dennis was great.

 

Was Losing Isaiah a big film for you?

Yeah, it was a big film, an interesting film. It’s had a long life. I think it was dealing with some interesting issues. Of course we discovered Halle Berry which was very appealing and Sam Jackson was just emerging at the time which was great.

 

You probably made the film before Pulp Fiction came out but you knew he was a great actor.

Oh yeah, totally, he was terrific.

 

Speaking of the golden age of series television, what has invigorated you about the work you’ve been able to do on TV?

I think the great thing about episodic is you come in, you come out, you work all the time, you get to hone your craft. You have to be disciplined, you get to work with lots of actors, you get to try things. You have to stay somewhat dependent to the style of the show but not too much. You get to do what you want. I think you get to make mistakes. You get to make mistakes and people don’t pay too much attention to it and you learn. I’ve shot a lot of stuff. A lot of friends of mine who’ve done features, they do five or six features in their lifetime and that’s it. And they have a tendency to be a little conservative. Although there’s some very talented people that do that, it’s been great to just play. I just play all the time.

 

Has there been any difference between network and cable?

Oh yeah, there’s a big difference. One is like building an American car, it’s like working for General Motors or Ford. The other is more like doing boutique work, but it also is pretty corporate nowadays. I think the real area is independent film still. That’s where you get to really think outside anyone’s agenda but the film’s.