Sundance Preview: Producer Keith Kjarval on Rudderless

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All this week Paste is bringing you preview interviews with filmmakers who are taking their new films to Sundance. Keith Kjarval was last at Sundance with the Jennifer Hudson film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. His new film Rudderless stars William H. Macy (who also directed), Selena Gomez, Jamie Chung, and Billy Crudup, and it’s about a musician struggling with loss. We spoke with him about the film, working with Macy as a director, what he’s looking forward to from the Sundance experience, and much more.

Paste: Why don’t you start with some background on you and your company previous to this film?
Keith Kjarval: I started the company in late 2004, early 2005, and I partnered up with my current partner, who owned an animation company. We essentially bought that company to endeavor to execute a business plan that we’re realizing today. You know, with the goal of bringing the best of what the live-action world in the indie space is doing. Whether it was what Miramax was doing in the ’90s, or Focus, and combining that with the entrepreneurial yet very artistically satisfying endeavors of a company like Pixar. So, that’s really what we started the company to do, and we’ve sort of been doing that. We’re doing an animated film right now called Noah’s Ark, and we’re doing a couple of live action films per year. So, that’s really our background. We’re a great combination of live-action and animation. In terms of what we’ve done, we’ve run the gamut. We worked with David Lynch very early on, on his last film Inland Empire. We put some financing in and sold the great Herzog and Lynch collaboration, My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done.

Paste: With Michael Shannon!
Kjarval: That’s right. We did a really, really heartwarming musical drama called Janie Jones with Alessandro Nivola

Paste: With David Rosenthal as the director!
Kjarval: Yes, David Rosenthal is one of my very best friends.

Paste: I know David, he is awesome. I really love that guy.
Kjarval: He is great. He, Bill and I worked on a film that I hired David to direct called A Single Shot.

Paste: Also a very good film.
Kjarval: Thank you, thank you very much. So, our company, to put it in a nutshell—we’re going into our tenth year here, and I feel very, very proud that we are finding films that are not obvious, that are character-driven, that have a very artistic and independent spirit, yet have commercial viability. On the other hand, we’ve put together an animation production facility that is animating, hopefully, the next great animated film.

Paste: Well I have to say that you immediately won my heart; I have a soft spot for people who are not afraid to dream big. When you said that all you wanted to do was make a company that was a combination of Miramax and Pixar, that’s all, I was like “this is my kind of guy right here!”
Kjarval: You know something, I said that to somebody and the look on their face … one of the very first meetings I had was “Are you out of your mind? Are you out of your mind? How exactly? Miramax, Pixar, right okay.” We still haven’t hit our goal, but who has?

Paste: Absolutely, what is your reach for but that it should exceed your grasp? Let’s talk about this movie. Tell me about the project first coming across your desk.
Kjarval: Sure, sure. I’ve worked with Macy many, many times. First time I worked with him, as I said, was David Lynch’s last film, Inland Empire, many years ago. On up through A Single Shot, which we talked about earlier. I also produced Clark Gregg’s last film, Trust Me, which Bill was in. We’ve just become friends over the years.

When we were on the set of A Single Shot, he told me about this film. He’s a really terrific storyteller, as I know you probably know, and he made me a promise that when I returned to Los Angeles he was going to send me the script. He wanted me to read it right away, Rudderless. And he did, and I did.

And when I read the script, I just felt so well taken care of as a reader. You know when you read something, like a book or magazine, it’s not just that the information is delivered when it must, it’s delivered perfectly. Sometimes out of order, sometimes in order, you just feel well taken care of. That’s the feeling I got with Rudderless. I can’t recall ever reading a script as fast as I read Rudderless, and I instantly fell in love with it.

The script, and ultimately the film that Bill directed, allows the viewer (and when I read the script, the reader) to experience such a broad range of emotions. One moment you’re really laughing or standing up and cheering; the next you are connected to human pain and getting punched in the stomach; and the next you feel hope and inspiration. It really is one of those films where you laugh, you cry and you come away feeling good. It’s a fabulous film, and I knew when I read it that there was no way I could not be part of it.

So I came aboard, and I asked Bill, you know, when I read the script I was just perplexed, A) here’s this fabulous script and B) I know Bill has directed stage through the years—I’ve known Bill as a phenomenal storyteller. Why hasn’t he directed something? Particularly, when all of these actors are given chances like they are lately. And Bill said to me, something very flattering, “Because I haven’t had you in my corner!” I doubt it’s that, I doubt it’s that. But, I had some notes to the script, and I had some opinions on the cast, and Bill was like “I love your taste, I love your opinions, let’s do this!” He’s such a collaborative dude that it made the process so much easier than it’s ever really been.

Paste: Wow. And I’m assuming that when you say “I’m producing a film that Bill Macy is going to be directing” you get a call back pretty quick from actors’ agents when that’s your message to them. Tell me about putting together the cast.
Kjarval: It absolutely does, I don’t want to negate the strength of our fabulous casting director, Mary Vernieu, she’s no slouch in her own right—matter of fact, I think she’s the best there is in the business. But, yeah, having Bill around and having such a tremendous body of work … I mean I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t love Bill. So, yeah that makes it easy. I mean Billy Crudup, who’s in the film, is not an easy actor to inspire to come out and leave his family, to come out and play. I think Bill had a hell of a lot to do with that.

Paste: Fantastic. Well, I know you don’t want to show all of your cards before the film is even screened, but can you tell us a little of the basics of what the film is about?
Kjarval: Sure. The story is about a father who loses his son at the beginning of the film. We find him years later, having sort of disconnected from his former life. He’s living on a boat in the lake, and that guy is Billy Crudup, and he’s visited by his ex, who he was already divorced from years ago when they lost their son. She’s played by Felicity Huffman, and she brings him a box of music, demo tapes if you will, that his son created before he passed.

Initially, it’s really too painful for the father, for Billy Crudup. But he eventually becomes very, very drawn to the music and connected to the music, and it’s a way of communicating and hearing from his son. It’s painful, but through some sort of catharsis he begins to learn the music and to play it, since he’s the one who initially taught his son guitar and music to begin with.

That leads to him going to play one of the songs one night at a bar. In that bar is a very eager young man who is also a singer and musician, played by Anton Yelchin. He instantly falls in love with this guy, and the guy wants nothing to do with it anymore—he just got up to pour out what was inside of him. Through a string of events they form an unlikely friendship, and then ultimately a band is born and some redemption really comes of this as they start playing his son’s music and gaining a lot of momentum and admiration and fans, things of that nature. But this father has a lot he needs to get past, so our film is filled with a tremendous amount of triumph and pain that needs to be gotten past. I don’t want to give too much more away, but that’s really what it’s about.

Paste: That sounds amazing. Now I’m even more excited about it.
Kjarval: You’ll love the music by the way.

Paste: Oh yeah? You know, Paste is primarily a music magazine, so we definitely play close attention to the music the film.
Kjarval: These really fabulous music producers, singer/songwriters Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman wrote some songs in our film, and every single person we’ve ever screened it for, from Sundance on down, they constantly email me asking me to send them a link with all the music. They say they can’t get the music out of their head. I hope that’s a good sign.

Paste: That’s definitely a good sign. Tell me about where you were when you got the call that the film had gotten into Sundance and what your reaction was.
Kjarval: Bill and I have a great friend in Graham Taylor over at WME. Graham and I really have known each other for years, but he came aboard to be our guardian for the film and he called us. Bill and I were like 13-year-olds. We were jumping up and down; it was really a good moment. I was at Bill’s house actually. We were very, very excited because you know, when we started this process you don’t dare assume that you know where the best place to show people your movie will be, but you certainly try and Sundance was the one place we both said, for many reasons—timing, the content and its complexities and Bill’s admiration for everything he’s ever brought there—we just thought it was the right place. We’re very, very happy they agreed with us.

Paste: This is a question I’m asking everybody. Tell me about someone in your crew who you think “Wow, this movie would not have been nearly as good without this…” This cinematographer, or this editor or this production designer or this one AD or whoever it might be. Who is your big ace-in-the-hole as far as your crew?
Kjarval: You know, there are many in this film. I mentioned Mary Vernieu earlier. Obviously, this film doesn’t work without music, and our music supervisor Liz Gallagher and the guys who wrote the music were phenomenal. Our editor, our DP, all those people, I feel like I’m leaving people out, but I’ll answer your question. My co-producers are one person. Tyler Jackson and Gary Schultz. As the lead producer, I become an extension of the director. When you’re the lead producer, the first thing you are is joined at the hip with your filmmaker. I often refer to that as being the best man or the maid of honor. You’re blocking for your guy and making sure the path to the finish line is as clear as possible.

As the lead producer, you have to have a great support staff. Just like the director needs ADs and production designers and DPs, they need people to tell their story. For me, the unsung hero in this film is those two guys. When we landed in Oklahoma, our task was not only to bring this really, really large story to the big screen without $100 million in our pocket to do so. But also to ingratiate ourselves into a completely foreign area. Nobody have ever been to Oklahoma. We had to live in television stations, on massive lakes with hundreds and hundreds of boats out there, we had to have thousands of extras, we had to go to a remote town, we had Selena Gomez coming to town with a humongous fan base. So, those two guys are the merchants of this dream as much as anybody. So, I think my answer is equally those two.

Paste: That is fantastic. Thank you for your time!

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