Calvin Marshall & Gary Lundgren: The Unabridged Interview

Curator Magazine published an interview I did with Filmmaker Gary Lundgren about his most recent film “Calvin Marshall”. Publications have word limits. Blogs, on the other hand, don’t. Cutting nearly two-thousand words from the original interview was like having to hide treasures in the ground. So, below is the rest of the interview in its totality.

Writer/Director Gary Lundgren’s film is a story about blind optimism, misguided intentions, redeemed failure and human complexity. Oh and it’s about baseball. The title character, Calvin(Alex Frost), is making another go at the local junior college baseball team, coached by a defeated pro-baller, Coach Little(played by Steve Zahn in one of his best roles to date), who has a soft spot for the passionate, yet failing Calvin. Calvin, also, chases Tori Jensen, (Michelle Lombardo) the gorgeous junior college volleyball star who outshines her teammates so much that they don’t even have names.

“Calvin Marshall” seems to be a character driven dramedy disguised as a baseball movie. Calvin (Alex Frost), Tori (Michelle Lombardo), and Coach Little (Steve Zahn) each are multi-dimensional with their share of secrets, blind-spots, and strengths. Did you always have this in mind as you set out to write and direct this story?

Yeah, this really never was a 'baseball" film in my mind. It was always more of a coming of age story. Even the first draft was subtle and bitter-sweet. Character driven. We always joked that we were making an art film masquerading as a sports film. And I'm drawn to complex characters in movies. My favorite stories and films generally have more realistic characters that are more complicated and possess both good and bad qualities.

Why Baseball?

I suppose Calvin could've been pursing anything, really. But I like the connotations of a protagonist pursuing something connected to the American dream. Baseball has such a rich history in this country. And I, also, played baseball through college so I was excited to say something about the hierarchy of sports in an authentic way. But you're right -- this could've easily been about an aspiring screen actor finally facing the reality of having to walk away from Hollywood.

There is more a redemption theme than a “happy-ending” sense to “Calvin.” How did you come to this ending?

It would've been difficult to spin a believable happy ending with the theme we were pursuing. I was most excited about wrestling with the idea of having to give up that something you desire most in life. And then of course the looming possibility of growing into a bitter person because of it. Coach Little is really just a good guy who can't let go of his bitterness after seeing his dream die. And the bitterness is palpable and killing him slowly. The "happy" ending for me was just seeing Calvin get back on his feet and get moving again. Just to see Calvin begin to recover his great personality and his drive for something new is still inspiring to me. I think overcoming disappointment and bouncing back is the most underrated achievement in life.

Steve Zahn delivers quite possibly his best dramatic performance in “Calvin.” How did he get signed on to the film? How much of Steve Zahn is there in Coach Little that you did not expect when you cast him?

I've always been a huge fan of Steve and it was a dream to get to work with him. Our casting director Christine Sheaks got the script to him back in 2005 and he responded to the character and also liked a short film I directed called ”Wow and Flutter.” So, he stuck with us for a long time until we finally pulled the financing together three years later.

I, obviously, knew Steve was a rare talent going in, but to see him flesh out the character and physically carry himself like an ex-baseball player was so cool to watch. He insisted on being unshaven and having "hat head" for most of the film, which I loved. Steve just has a way of making scripted dialogue feel so organic and real -- and he also knew when to tweak it to make it his own. And yes, we hope people discover the film and see Coach Little as another one of his great performances.

The film is beautifully lit and each scene is distinct in its cinematography. How much thought went into this aspect of making the film? Did you have an image and feel you were shooting for or was it more a collaborative effort?

I love shooting 35mm because it's a richer look yet with a softer image. If you shoot on High Definition (HD), it automatically dates a movie because it's so clean and contemporary-looking. And we used Cooke S4 lenses, which are known for being even softer. We wanted this movie to look timeless with an anytown/anywhere feel -- so this idea drove all our design and photographic decisions. I spent a lot of time with Patrick Neary (DP) and Ryan Malmberg (PD) collaborating on the look/style so we could all bring our best ideas and be in sync. Basically, our goal was always to have a stylized looking film but without sacrificing organic performances and potential surprises. Also, we were moving so fast that we had to be intentional in terms of knowing exactly what we wanted in pre-production.

How have you seen your craft as a filmmaker change from the shorts ‘Wow and Flutter” and “People Die” to the full length “Calvin Marshall?” What did you concern yourself with then that you no longer even think about now?

I'm always drawn to character and tone first - that's the easy part for me. The hardest part about filmmaking in general though is telling a compelling story that an audience will want to follow and invest in emotionally. The next few films I hope to direct have more of an emphasis on plot, which I'm really looking forward to. One thing I learned on “Calvin” was that the mechanics of shooting the film, even with more money and a famous cast, are exactly the same as the smaller films I've made over the years. That was a big surprise to me. I guess I thought it would be a much different experience, so you go into it expecting it to be easier or more fun or just different...but then you find yourself in the same trenches, doing essentially the exact same job. And you still have to make the same 10,000 decisions in just a few weeks. So, knowing this now, I really can't wait to get back out there and make another feature. I feel like I'm so prepared to attack the filmmaking process because I know exactly what to expect every step of the way.

Both “Wow and Flutter” and “Calvin” have at their core male characters diligently choosing to go against the odds and opposition to do what they know is right, in their various context. Is this autobiographical or what is it that attracts you to write these characters?

Again, I like complex characters because that's how human beings really are life. To me, the world isn't black and white -- it's almost all gray. As far as Calvin and David, they aren't autobiographical, but they definitely possess aspects of myself. I love baseball and I've always been a music freak so I can understand their desires. And becoming a filmmaker over the years has been such a difficult road with so many sacrifices, that I'd like to think I've taken risks in similar ways. Also, I've always been drawn to unique people/personalities. You could see both Calvin and David as misfits I suppose, but I see them as heroic, completely unique individuals, both willing to take risks. Even if it makes them look like fools.

Music plays an important role in your films, choreographing the scenes throughout “Calvin Marshall.” How do you see music as part of the storytelling?

Music is critical to the entire process for me. While I'm writing a script, I gradually fill up a playlist with hundreds of songs. And then, while re-writing I trim the playlist back down to a few hours of music. Usually a few songs will make it into the script. Sound and music is half of the art of filmmaking. If you watch/listen to our BLURAY with a good 5.1 sound system, you'll be able to hear all the little nuances we worked so hard to get right. Background conversations, SFX, the evolving score. Layers and layers of sound (and John Askew's score) were mixed very carefully on a great sound stage with my friend David Raines, someone who will probably win an Oscar someday. It was so amazing for me to go through that mixing process because, again, I now know what's possible for the next film.

The project I'm writing now (BAD VINTAGE) will probably be 95% original score in the end, but I still have a mostly instrumental playlist building that's informing the tone/mood of the story. We're going to put a lot of effort in the sound design on the next one. Our goal is that it will be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the sound design ends and the score begins. They will be developed together even as we're preparing to shot.

How do you see filmmaking as an art form? What is it particular to the medium of film that attracts you?

For me, storytelling is the greatest art form. Seeing my daughter experience stories as a toddler has been stunning to me. It's such an innate need human beings have. We all need stories because they're a mirror for our own struggles, conflicts, hopes and dreams. I was an English major in college so I love the classics but I also love popular fiction. Comic books, graphic novels, great stories of all kinds.

And visual storytelling is my favorite. All the tools filmmakers have at their fingertips to tell their stories is very attractive. Cinematography, sound design, music, characterizations, dialogue, subtext...the best filmmakers use each tool effectively, and I love the challenge of trying to do this. It's not easy, but it's so much fun.

I think human beings are miracles and not some sort of cosmic accident. Every person out there is a miracle and their hopes/dreams/aspirations matter in the universe. The fact Calvin wants to play baseball and can't is heart wrenching to me. I hope that people will be emotionally moved by the characters and stories I'm involved with and that in some small way they will make people's lives a little bit fuller. I, also, hope that my films will have a long shelf life and are re-watchable. We all know and love those films that are more consumable and we only watch once. But I hope to make the kind of movies that are hard to turn off because the characters in them feel like old friends and we want to see once again how their conflicts and lives turn out.

Hal Holbrook recently said that the reason he continues to act in small, independent films is that they are where the real stories are told, where the characters have more humanity than the impossible blockbuster movies of the big studios (paraphrase). What are your thoughts about this, being a writer/director of the very films he is talking about?

I couldn't agree more. When there's less money being spent, there's a lot more freedom to flesh out rich characters. As that budget climbs though, you generally get more black and white, archetypal characters. And the themes can't be too complex either because the movies have to appeal to more people so they have a chance of making money. But, with all fairness, there are still many filmmakers out there (and companies) who have made important, big budget movies with characters that have humanity. Pixar films to me are high art. And don't get me started on some of the great directors who have walked that line and managed to get big budget works of art produced.

What’s next? Are there more stories to be told through the eyes of Gary Lundgren?

We're pushing hard to make a film called BAD VINTAGE. It's a supernatural horror film turned on its ear. I guess it falls somewhere between Flannery O'Connor and something kind of like Rosemary's Baby. The story has a lot of great characters I love who find themselves in a pretty grim situation one bad night at a winery in Napa Valley.

I'm attached to direct a film called Easy Way that's based on Christopher E. Long's graphic novel. It has some great characters and tackles severe drug addiction in a compassionate, entertaining way. I'm hoping that will get off the ground.

I, also, have this comedy called “Beach Freaks” that I wrote with Diedrich Bader in mind. This one has another ensemble of interesting characters I like but it's more plot driven and the comedy gets pretty ridiculous. I'm not sure quite what to make of it yet, but I know I like it. And Diedrich's such a hilarious guy that I hope it works out down the road.

You’ve been doing a long road of hard work to get the word out about “Calvin Marshall,” and now “Calvin” opened in New York at the Quad on August 20th and starts a run in Portland at THe Living Room. Is this a kind of landmark for the film? What would you like to see happen during this time in NYC and Portland?

We're very lucky for the theatrical runs we've had and it's very cool to finish in New York and Portland. Any national press we get and a NY release kind of validates the movie in people's eyes. Perception is still important. Straight to Video still seems to have bad connotations for consumers. Of course, I wish we had a much wider release with tons of P&A, but the independent film world is changing so fast, that it wouldn't make a lot of business sense. But, I still feel like movies should be experienced in communities at the local movie theater. I hope that doesn't go away for indies, but it might.

Opening in New York felt good for all of us involved because we've been down such a long winding road to get here. I hope we continue getting a nice critical response. So far the reviews have been great. Most of all, I hope NY and Portland gives us a little boost going into our DVD/VOD release in September. The ancillary markets is where “Calvin Marshall” will live on for years so hopefully it will gradually gain a fan base over time.

The movie will be everywhere: iTunes, Amazon VOD, Direct TV VOD, Netflix, Cable VOD, Kiosks. We are also selling limited edition Blu-ray bundles right from our website. This will be the only place you can get a physical copy of our soundtrack, signed posters, T-Shirts, swag, etc.

“Calvin Marshall” will be at the Living Room Theaters in Portland, Oregon on August 27th for a full week.
Kendall RComment