See the update at the end of Page 2 on the Irvine run of The Discoverers being extended, with a link to the Voice Media capsule review.
ORIGINAL POST, MAY 30, 10:58 A.M.: Writer-director Justin Schwarz is finding out you really can go home again, and this weekend that will be times two as he's appearing at screenings of his bittersweet comedy plucked from the Lewis and Clark trail, The Discoverers, at two of his former stomping grounds: Los Angeles and Orange County.
The Discoverers is a witty, biting and ultimately sweet look at a washed out college professor named Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) taking his teen kids (Madeline Martin and Devon Graye) to a conference in Oregon, where he is set to introduce his massive, career-resurrecting new book on a slave who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
But a family tragedy changes the itinerary, and the Birch brood winds up on the actual Lewis and Clark trail with historical reenactors who include Lew's father (Stuart Margolin), who fell silent after the tragedy and then melted into his reenactment character. Lewis is tasked by his wealthy brother (John C. McGinley) to snap gramps out of it before continuing on to the conference.
Schwarz's feature-length debut, which played the festival circuit for a couple years and rolled at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April 2013, finally made its theatrical debut two Fridays ago in New York City, where it won critical nods from The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The Village Voice. Only two theaters host the roll out to the Left Coast today: the ArcLight in Hollywood and Edwards University Town Center 6 in Irvine.
That's drawn Schwarz, his wife and their 19-month-old son from their current home base in New York back to SoCal. He'll take questions from the audience tonight after his movie screens at the ArcLight, which is fitting because the then-maker of short films was living in LA when he wrote the screenplay for The Discoverers.
Schwarz will repeat the audience Q&A thang after Sunday's 1 p.m. showing at Edwards University, which is fitting because he found Orange County's premiere indie-leaning moviehouse a refuge while growing up in the Tustin-Santa Ana area. (In the interest of full disclosure, he's asked me to moderate Sunday.)
"I went to all public schools," Schwarz makes a point of telling me on the cell during his hectic trip out here. (Something anyone who has traveled with a toddler understands.) "I went to Foothill High School, I went to Hewes Middle School and I went to Arroyo Elementary School."
But check this out, Knights, Highlanders and Mustangs: Schwarz went on to Yale for his undergrad and Columbia for his MFA. He returned to LA from the East Coast to get an agent, and it was six years ago there where he came up with the idea for The Discoverers after another project he was set to direct fell through.
"The economy had cratered. I was just looking to make a movie on a small scale, trying to find a way to make it happen," recalls the 40-year-old, who often spent his breaks from writing watching indies at ArcLight.
The main inspiration for The Discoverers, which Schwarz also co-produced, was something he wrote in his journal early on that Dunne's character would end up saying on screen: "You can't divorce your family, even if you don't get along."
"When I came upon that, it made me interested in exploring family relationships, like father-daughter and father-son," Schwarz says. "Then I thought having a character who is an academic would also be interesting to explore. And I knew I wanted to make a road movie and something with reenactors."
He'd caught the reenactment bug attending a Hewes Middle School trip to Washington, D.C., and Colonial Williamsburg, where the Lewis and Clark expedition was among the living history presentations. Schwarz, who was editor of his school newspaper and later wrote for the Tustin Weekly, plunged into research of the journey for his film.
"Lewis and Clark and early explorers became a great metaphor," he says. "The more research I did, the more I found out this was not the story I learned in school. Meriwether Lewis had an existential crisis and killed himself. Lewis Birch is not suicidal, but the idea of the weight of history we all feel sometimes is something I wanted to present.
"The film is about discovery. The road movie genre lends itself to that, personal exploration. It's a great vehicle for history and familial history."
Meanwhile, the idea of shunning the modern world to live like they did back in the day presented multiple comedic opportunities. "It's very interesting to see people who are not Native Americans tending to be Native Americans as part of the experience," Schwarz cites as a for instance capitalized on in The Discoverers.
But it's not enough the filmmaker has Dunne, the great everyman actor of After Hours and An American Werewolf in London fame, providing commentary to the madness. The movie's funniest lines are stuffed into the mouth of Maddie Martin, who Showtime subscribers know as David Duchovny's daughter on Californication.
"I think that's not intentional," Schwarz says. "You create the characters and part of her chemistry was she almost always has the last line. It allows you to create comedy around that. And part of that was editing. In fact, I had to sort of scale back some of her scenes because they seemed so repetitive. But she definitely gets the laughs when I watch this with an audience."
He'd never seen Californication and did not know what to expect when Martin came in to read for the director.
"It's such a hard part, the verbal gymnastics and sardonic, caustic wit," Schwarz says. "She had to be in sync with Griffin's character in what she brings to the table. Also, there is a vulnerability she uses as a defense mechanism at some point; it's like she's too smart for her own good.
"When Maddie came and read for me, she had to do the period [as in menstruation] scene, and she did it just exactly like what you see on the screen. It's a heartfelt and painfully funny scene. There was a nice chemistry between her and Griffin."
Dunne was among a "dream cast" of actors who was interested in the Lewis Birch part after Schwarz's Columbia U chum and Woody Allen's casting director, Patricia Kerrigan, shopped the script she adored around.
"When Griffin's name came up, I could envision him having the right mix of humor and pathos for the role," Schwarz says. "He has this kind of vitriol the character Lewis Birch has. He can also play slightly damaged, someone going sideways as their life is at a crossroads.
"I also knew that Griffin wasn't a familiar face when it came to playing the role of a professor. I wanted a casting choice where we almost had a fresh slate. Because Griffin has been concentrating mostly on producing and directing these past few years, he's not the person people will think about in this kind of genre."
Dunne proved to bring even more to the role than what Schwarz envisioned.
"It was a real privilege to work with him," the director says. "He understood the tone that we were going for. He did a ton of homework and read historical archives, but tone is what we mostly discussed. He made the character a sympathetic, endearing everyman, which is why he is getting great notices from the film.
"He also found the story parallels the movie business, the ebbs and flows of a career. At the time we sent him the script, his daughter had just moved out of the house, and his father had died recently. He had had some ups and downs in his career."
No one knows that more than Margolin, who has been in the business forever, having won two Emmys in the 1970s as James Rockford's cell mate Angel on TV's The Rockford Files. But The Discoverers is only one of his two acting jobs from 2012, at least according to his imdb page. His performance in Schwarz's film should have his phone ringing more.
"It's a tough part; he is not talking for part of the movie," Schwarz notes. "But his presence–he just kind of fills the screen in a way. His smaller moments speak to the tone of the film. It's more emotionally truthful restrained rather than sentimental. He has some wonderful, understated moments. Even when he breaks down, it's in a quiet way, not an over-the-top way."
Dunne and Margolin have also been film and television directors, but Schwarz, who also produced, never felt intimidated on the set.
"Something I said to Griffin early on was to just focus on the performance, that it's hard enough just being an actor," Schwarz recalls. "He said, 'Thank you so much for that.' After that, he was just one of the actors.
"Stuart was more like a cheerleader to me. If I was being insistent on something with the crew, he would come over and tell me that I was right to do that."
Margolin played the mill foreman in Terrence Malick's farm-fresh potboiler Days of Heaven, and the actor found the settings in the woods in The Discoverers similar to nature-obsessed Malick's shooting locations. "I'd do something and Stuart would whisper into my ear, 'That's how Terry would have done it.'"
What he believes Dunne, Margolin, the other actors and the crew appreciated most was having a director who knew exactly what he wanted, although Schwarz is quick to add his "creative collaborators" also brought even more to the project.
"I'm hoping that we'll be able to reassemble the creative team and go on to the next movie pretty soon," he mentions near the end of our conversation, after I'd asked about future projects. "But the main thing I'm focusing on is getting this movie out. That will be my focus for the next few months."
After the SoCal opening, The Discoverers makes a trek up to Seattle and Portland, which keeping with the "it's fitting" theme at the top is fitting given where the Lewis and Clark trail ended.
Not that Schwarz wants his film's journey across America to end there also.
"We're just slowly marching across the country," he says gleefully. "I hope folks are entertained and enjoy the movie and that it also has an effect on people. It can be funny and painful in a way life kind of is for me. I hope people who see it tell their friends to see it. That's the thing for me, getting more people to experience it."
The Discoverers opens today at 1, 4, 7 and 9:50 p.m. at Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-8818. Click here for ticket info. Schwarz answers questions from the audience after Sunday's 1 p.m. screening.
UPDATE, JUNE 4, 8:52 A.M.: The small crowd of folks at Sunday afternoon's Irvine screening of The Discoverers not only got to take in a smart, bittersweet comedy but, at the Q&A afterwards, the passion director Justin Schwarz has for his project.
You want passion? As New York-by-way-of-Tustin resident Schwarz answered each and every question from me and audience members, his wife and one of his movie's producers, Laura Kleger, sat in their car parked outside Edwards University with their napping son, who was born after production on The Discoverers wrapped.
Fortunately, it was not one-week-and-done at Orange County's premiere theater for indie and foreign films, as the run for The Discoverers at Uni has been extended at least another week. So you still have a chance to see it here if you have not already.
If my original post does not get you out to the cinema, perhaps this review by Voice Media's Heather Baysa will do the trick.