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3 Generations, 1 Dysfunctional Family – How ‘The Discoverers’ Came to Life (Guest Blog)

Director uses can-do spirit, a John Sayles’ analogy and Kickstarter to pave the way for a movie about family

Six years ago, I had an idea for making a movie about family – how it could simultaneously be our greatest source of strength and the origin of all of our problems. This month, after 19 festivals, 9 awards, several uninspiring distribution offers, and a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise promotion and advertising, my feature debut will premiere at the Village East in New York and the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles, followed by a nationwide release.

Starring Oscar and Emmy nominee Griffin Dunne, “The Discoverers” is a bittersweet comedy about a dysfunctional family forced on a Lewis and Clark historical reenactment trek, who discover themselves and each other as they journey across America. In case the title wasn’t a giveaway, the film is about discovery: discovering family, discovering yourself, discovering history, nature, the road . . . discovering America.

The road movie’s long been a vehicle for personal exploration, and I didn’t realize when I first embarked on this idea that I would be going on my own personal journey, in parallel with my characters, through the making and releasing of “The Discoverers.”

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I’d work side-by-side with my wife and producer, who I’ve been collaborating with since starting an indie rock band in college. I’d have the privilege of working with an enormously talented group of more than 200 creative collaborators across five states who gave their blood, sweat and tears in the service of making something we all believed in. I’d become a father and bring our ten-day old son to our world premiere.

I’d get to travel the country, meet other filmmakers, and share our film with audiences on a yearlong festival tour. I’d be humbled by the generosity of countless Kickstarter supporters, most of whom I didn’t know, who wanted to see our little movie reach theaters across America. I’d get to work with Andrew Percival and team, the key art genius behind campaigns for “The Descendants,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “Away We Go,” to create the poster we’re releasing here today. And I’d learn that if you are passionate about an idea, unwavering in your ambition, and steadfast in your commitment, the world is full of makers who want to bring their talents and creativity to help create something much grander that you could have ever imagined.

I remember the moment I gave my wife, Laura, the first draft of “The Discoverers.” We were on a plane, high above the heavens, our futures uncertain. The economy was cratering, and an earlier project I’d written and was attached to direct was dissolving. I watched her laugh and cry as she turned the script pages, and then turn to me and say, “we’re going to make this.” And so it began.

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I like to feel something when I go to the movies, and I’ve always been drawn to human stories that show how life can be full of humor and pathos. Tonally, “The Discoverers” was inspired by the character-driven comedies of the seventies and their contemporary heirs like Alexander Payne, Noah Baumbach, and Tom McCarthy. For me, these films resonate because they’re steeped in naturalism, can be sincere without being sentimental, and seamlessly blend comedy and drama. My script tried to stay true to those principals.

I’d heard a story about John Sayles describe making a movie like bringing an old bus to the top of a hill, letting go of the emergency brake, and hoping it starts before you crash. So after Laura and I vowed to make the film happen, we approached “The Discoverers” as if we’d been greenlit. I revised the script, met reenactors, started collecting images, created a lookbook, storyboarded, and shotlisted. We made budgets and schedules, and location scouted on weekends. We met with private equity investors, casting directors, and anybody who’d made their first feature. Sure, I’d gone to film school, but we were figuring it out as we were going, reminding ourselves of William Goldman’s adage that nobody knows anything in the business anyway.

When Laura got offered a plum job in New York, we decided to leave Los Angeles and move back home. We drove due north to the Pacific Northwest, where the film ends. We walked along the coastal stretch where Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean and found many spots that we would return to during production. We listened to Lewis and Clark history books on tape as we drove east along their expedition route in reverse, scouting states with film tax credits.

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As we pulled into the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia, we knew we had found something. The film is a return to the pastoral story where the Birch family leaves the city and by going to back to nature, is able to see themselves and each other in a new light. I’d organized the film around four aesthetic movements that would drive the movie’s creative arc (city, suburbs, forest, coast) and Philadelphia had three out of four elements, generous production incentives, a great crew base, and the top-notch Sharon Pinkenson. We’d ultimately also shoot in Chicago and on the Oregon coast, but it seemed auspicious to begin filming where Meriwether Lewis prepared for his historic expedition.

The New York indie film community had changed since we’d last lived there, and we were inspired by the can-do ethos of Gotham filmmakers. We were fortunate to be accepted into the Hamptons Writers Lab and IFP’s No Borders and meet new collaborators. I’d made short films at Columbia University’s Film MFA program and my old casting director Patricia DiCerto had since become Woody Allen‘s casting agent. Patricia loved the script and brought on Lois Drabkin to assist.

We didn’t yet have all our financing, but we decided to just pick a date and have faith that our bus would keep moving. The agencies started pitching actors, and even though we were a little movie that one of our actors later described as a “bring your own shoes” kind of film, I was getting dream lists for consideration.

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I remember getting very excited when Griffin Dunne’s name first came up, thinking he’d be such a brilliant choice for the lead. The film is a family ensemble, but Griffin’s character is the fulcrum and it’s his middle-age coming of age story. He’s lost his rudder and is juggling life – trying to restore his fallen career, get over his divorce, and be a better father and son. We wanted a sympathetic everyman who embodies the film’s comedy and pathos, and Griffin exudes this Buster Keaton-esque comic energy and endearing charm that you can’t help but root for. He’d been focusing on producing and directing, so we’d have to lure him back to acting.

I hadn’t watched “Californication” before Maddy Martin came to read for the part of Zoe, Griffin’s overly precocious vegan daughter. I was blown away by her comic sensibility and ability to turn from caustic deadpan to heartfelt vulnerable on a dime. Then came Devon Graye, who brought naïve innocence and comic charm to the role of Griffin’s son, introverted, slacker/dreamer Jack. Rounding out the Birch family was the reenactor patriarch Stuart Margolin, whose understated audition moved me to chills.

A tremendous group of actors completed our ensemble. Leading lady Cara Buono brought warmth, innate comic intelligence, and great chemistry with Griffin. Reenactment leader David Rasche’s comic brilliance made me ruin takes, I laughed so hard on set. Becky Ann Baker brought her folksy Judd Apatow-humor to the role of David’s fictional wife, and Dreama Walker (their daughter) imbued her part with earnest deadpan. Funny man Scott Adsit played a hardcore reenactor with zeal, dry-witted Ann Dowd humorously played Griffin’s publisher, and black comedy wizard John C. McGinley brought a fresh take as Griffin’s brother.

Before moving to Philly for production, we assembled an all-star creative crew. For our first hire, Laura and I brought on Louise Lovegrove as a producer, whose deep production experience enabled us to create wonders on a limited budget. Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt brought his astonishing eye and naturalistic touch to rendering the story with a nostalgic palette and Malick-like reverence for the natural world. Production designer Kelly McGehee built Eggleston-inspired suburbs and a reenactor rendez-vous, and costume designer Kim Wilcox outfitted our actors in styles that spanned two centuries.

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We didn’t have the budget to match our ambitions, but we were honest and upfront about both our resources and our unceasing dedication to the project. We found that as long as everyone is treated fairly, creative people want to make something that they believe in. So we made up for our budget limitations with talent and team effort, without having to make aesthetic compromises.

From the very first rushes, we all knew were making something special. We shot in three states; hiked through deciduous forests, grassy valleys, and pine stands; we drove on highways, through towering cities and fading suburbs; we dressed amazing sets, built lean-to’s, wedge-tents and reenactor camps; we put on buckskin and leather and shot black powder rifles, we waded through rivers and got muddy and dirty; we stayed up all night and had ho-downs around a bonfire. We followed the Lewis and Clark trail and finished the film at the jagged Northwest cliffs overlooking the great and mighty Pacific Ocean.

Post-production came next and editor Geraud Brisson honed our careful comedy and pathos in the edit room while composer Aaron Mirman used period-specific instruments to create a soulful, hand-made score. Folk maestro Gregory Alan Isakov, who I tracked down after hearing him on Pandora, reworked musical sketches into our opening and closing credit cues. We mixed the film next door to Spike Lee’s latest film with C5 founder Ron Bochar, whose talents added texture to the aural landscape. And finally we returned to Philadelphia to finish the film with colorist Alex Bickel.

Sales agent Josh Braun from Submarine came on board after seeing the final cut. A month before our first child was due, we got an offer to premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival. We had to quickly decide if we wanted to wait and see on other A-list festivals who wouldn’t commit to us at an early stage in their process, or take the prestigious Hamptons slot despite the timing. We’d been working on the film for so many years by then we decided that it was time to get it out in the world. So in October 2012, Laura and I drove with our ten-day-old son to the Hamptons International Film Festival for The Discoverers world premiere.

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The film played well, we got nice reviews, and I’m indebted to Hamptons Artistic Director David Nugent, who introduced me to other programmers. We started traveling with our son on the regional festival circuit and were fortunate to pick up several awards. The first distribution offers trickled in, but none were what we had in mind for the film. We realized we had worked too hard for too long to settle.

April rolled around, and we’d been programmed in eight festivals in one month: the perfect opportunity to launch a Kickstarter campaign to finance promotion and advertising for a self-release, something we’d considered as a potential distribution route even before making the movie. Armed with postcards, email clipboards, and swag, I pitched our story to audiences across the country at Q&As. Our actors and crew lent their support, and thanks to our 531 Kickstarter supporters, we would now be able to manage our own theatrical release.

As independent filmmakers you have to embrace the fact that you’re going to wear many hats. Resources are always the biggest constraint, but what’s empowering is that that you can master nearly any skill. I’d literally driven our own “Sayles bus” (in this case our oil hemorrhaging Volvo picture car with 350,000+ miles, a broken speedometer, fussy engine, and no radio) in one marathon stretch to Chicago. If we could figure out how to get this far, Laura and I could learn how to be distributors.

I shared a cab with the head of a distribution company at a festival and convinced him to come see our movie. He became a Kickstarter supporter and later our unofficial mentor, advising us on strategy and introducing us to vendors. With our Kickstarter funds, we could hire a key art company to design our poster (Percival & Associates), a trailer house to cut our trailer (Stephen Garrett at Jump Cut Creative), a theatrical booker to place our film in theaters (Rob Lynch of Eammon Films), and bring back our tireless publicist from our festival run, Adam Kersh from Brigade.

Kickstarter made our resources transparent, and our vendors graciously agreed to scale their fees accordingly. We employed the same hands-on ethos that guided production. I cut drafts of our trailer between revisions because we couldn’t afford too many versions, our composer and sound mixer donated their services, one designer friend produced our beautiful Kickstarter rewards, and another transformed our poster into the dozens of required iTunes assets, and the good folks at Sixteen19 gave us a DCP deal. Laura and I have spent countless hours doing so many things we never imagined, and yet are infinitely grateful that we’ve retained creative control throughout this epic process.

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Six years ago, I was just another writer in a Los Angeles coffee shop when the idea for “The Discoverers” was born. It’s been a life-changing adventure and I am proud to launch our poster and trailer today and bring our film to theaters across America next month. I couldn’t have done it without the creative collaborators I had the good fortune of working with. Together, we formed our own band of Discoverers making this movie, journeying from city to suburb, from deep into the forest to the brink of the Pacific Ocean. Like the characters in the film, we all set out to find some emotional truth in our work together and I hope our discoveries resonate on screen in a funny, emotional, and entertaining way.

Onward Ho!

The Discoverers opens at New York’s Village East Cinemas on May 16, Los Angeles’ ArcLight Hollywood on May 30, and additional theaters thereafter. Visit discoverersmovie.com for more information. 

"The Discoverers" is Justin Schwarz’s writer/directorial feature film debut. His award-winning films have screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. Schwarz has taught film theory and directing at Columbia University, served on the Slamdance Film Festival selection committee, and was selected for the Hamptons International Film Festival Writer’s Lab. Named a Kodak “Rising Star” and Student Academy Award Regional Finalist, Schwarz graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Yale and received his MFA in Film with Honors from Columbia University. Prior to getting the film bug, he worked as a writer and policy analyst in the public and private sectors, including stints at Bill Clinton’s White House and The City of New York. Currently a partner in the multi-disciplinary media lab Quadratic Media, Schwarz resides in New York City.