In his first feature-length film, writer and director Justin Schwarz pulls off quite a feat. His movie, The Discoverers, takes on the anything but easy themes of family and the importance of nature in this world, managing to spin them into a wholly unique and outright entertaining road trip film. He works a heart-warming — if occasionally dark and hilarious — sort of magic that ultimately tells a story perfectly in synch with the wonders of real life in a modern family. Recently, we caught up to talk a bit about the film.
Family — and American family specifically — is paramount to this film, but the notion presented is anything but stereotypical. Talk a bit about your inspiration to tell such a story.
“You can’t divorce your family, even if you don’t get along,” Griffin Dunne says in the opening of the film. It was one of the first things I wrote in my journal when I was exploring this story — this idea that family can be your source of strength and the root of all your problems. The Discoverers is a movie about a family finding themselves: it’s a story about fathers and daughters and fathers and sons. It’s a family movie, but not in a Disney way, more in a naturalistic funny/painful way and we tried to achieve a real emotional truth both tone-wise and in performance. Family’s universal, but isn’t always portrayed onscreen in a way that’s familiar to me, so I tried to make something that seemed more messy and real, full of joy and pain, simultaneously.
How does nature play into it?
The film belongs to the return to the pastoral tradition, where a family leaves the city and goes into the woods, and stripped of the emotional and physical baggage of the modern world can see themselves and each other in a new light. It’s like this Thoreau idea of getting lost in the woods to find yourself — so nature not only plays a character in the film, but is also a vital hinge to the story.
When the family embarks on this adventure with this motley band of reenactors, it’s kind of like going down the rabbit hole. It was important for the characters and the audience to get seduced by the natural world so my DP Christopher Blauvelt and I employed a more lyrical, kinetic language and lit by fire, sun, and moon once we got into the woods. The camera — which is locked off in the city — becomes a Discoverer in the woods, taking the audience along with them. We shot outside, in the woods and along the coast, so we were always stealing these gifts you get when you start shooting before nature wakes up: the morning mist rising off the water, cranes waddling along a riverbank, the epic ragged coast in between a storm.
How great is Griffin Dunne as Lewis Birch?
It was a privilege to work with a talent like Griffin. He really nailed the tone and truly embodies the sympathetic everyman who’s juggling the struggle of being a father and a son on this journey across America. As an actor, Griffin has this amazing mix of comedy and pathos so the audience is drawn into his world and can laugh and cry with him at the same time. He’s been getting a lot of well-deserved praise for his performance and I hope The Discoverers helps catapult him into a Bill Murray-type resurgence.
So you sit down next to a stranger at a bar and it comes up that you have recently written and directed a feature film. How do you describe this new found friend what The Discoverers is about?
The Discoverers is a human comedy about a dysfunctional family forced on a Lewis and Clark historical reenactment trek and discover themselves and each other along the way. The film’s a middle-aged coming-of-age road movie about discovering family and yourself. It’s about how family’s messy, how adventure finds you when you least expect it, and I hope it will make you laugh and cry at the same time. It stars Oscar and Emmy nominee Griffin Dunne and features an amazing ensemble cast, including: Madeleine Martin, Cara Buono, Stuart Margolin, Devon Graye, Dreama Walker, David Rasche, Becky Baker, John C. McGinley, Ann Dowd, and Scott Adsit.
Historical reenactment fanatics. Awesome! Please tell me you had to research this first hand.
Yes! I don’t have any re-enactor clothes in my closet, which was always the first question my actors would ask. I did do a lot of research, from combing the internet in the early stages, to visiting with historical re-enactors across the country and eventually doing an audio documentary about what drew people to this practice. I was fascinated by their stories, creativity, and spirit. And I love this idea that you can make your own clothes, walk out into the wilderness, and become another person from another time. They’re like citizen historians mixed with community theater, and I hope our film doesn’t caricature, but honors their intriguing subculture.
Why Lewis and Clark?
In case the title wasn’t a give-away, the film is about Discovery: discovering the family, yourself, history, nature, the road … discovering America. And Lewis and Clark and The Corps of Discovery were among the earliest American explorers. And their project was truly amazing: going into the wilderness with a small band of adventurers to map uncharted land and discover the North American continent.
Granted, there were already Native Americans happily living throughout the land that became displaced by this grand project of westward expansion. And then there is the tragic story of Meriwether Lewis, who is the classic existential figure. He writes in his journal — halfway across the continent — that he feels he hasn’t done anything in his life and feels unmoored and without meaning and eventually takes his own life. There so many themes to their journey and his life that still resonate today. The idea that you can still just go into the woods and “see” the world like they did seemed like a great starting point for a modern story.
The Discoverers screens on Sat., Jan. 26, 4 p.m., Mon., Jan. 28, 8 a.m., and Tue., Jan. 29, 4:20 p.m. All times at the Metro 4.