Folk Hero And Funny Guy: Filmmaker Jeff Grace And Wyatt Russell On The Road Comedy

– by Edward Douglas

Every once in a while, a really special film comes along that you may have a chance to see at a film festival, but that may not have the biggest studio push behind it when it finally gets released. Jeff Grace’s Folk Hero and Funny Guy is one of those great festival movies that really deserves more attention.

The film stars Wyatt Russell (22 Jump Street), and Alex Karpovsky (Girls) as two childhood friends whose lives went into very different directions in terms of fame and success. Russell’s Jason Black is a hugely-popular singer and songwriter i.e. the folk her of the title, while Karpovsky’s Paul is the funny guy, a struggling stand-up comic for many years. When Paul’s fiancé dumps him, Jason, feeling bad for his friend, throws out the idea of the two of them going on tour with Paul opening for him. The idea is that being out on the road will help Paul get over his fiancé, and maybe free himself up creatively.

Before the tour even starts they grab dinner in a Jersey restaurant where they watch singer/songwriter Bryn (Meredith Hagner) performing. One thing leads to another and the impetuous Jason is inviting her to go on the road with them with the idea of her and his friend Paul hopefully hooking up.  Well, it doesn’t exactly go that way, and we learn that Jason has other reasons for going on this mini-tour, creating an even more awkward trio on the road together.

Yeah, it may seem like a fairly complex plot when it comes down to it, but Grace makes it all flow so freely that it turns out to be a fairly light and breezy movie that keeps you invested in the three main characters from beginning to end. Much of that has to do with the chemistry between Russell, Karpovsky and Hagner, all of whom are quite fantastic and doing some of their best work under Grace’s direction.

While Grace may not be well-known, having mostly done acting roles in smaller indie movies and TV, Wyatt Russell has really been breaking out with roles in 22 Jump Street, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!, the Netflix show Black Mirror and lots more.

LRM sat down with Grace and Russell to talk to them about making the movie in the interview below:

LRM:  I know a little bit about how this came together. I know you were a stand-up and you had a friend who was a singer/songwriter, and there are some connections to real life, so what made you decide to sit down and do something based on that friendship?  

Jeff Grace: I had produced, and acted, in two movies, The Scenesters and It’s a Disaster. Coming out of that, I really wanted to direct and I wanted to find something I can direct myself. Something about Adam Ezra, a friend of mine, as a musician, at one point he had joked around about me being his opening act on tour as a comedian, opening for music. I was like, “That’s a terrible idea.” Anytime I’ve ever done any shows before music, it’s just terrible, because people go to a music show expecting they can chat with their friends and drink a beer. Then when a comedian comes on stage it’s like, “Wait, we’re supposed to listen and be quiet?” Then Adam has a song called “A Desperate Plea from the Heart of a Sh*thead” that in that song, he tells kind of a funny story about going to visit a girl. He kind of made up a semi-fake tour to win back the heart of a girl he dated for three months in college and hasn’t seen in ten years. I thought that was a funny element, and I had done a lot of touring and stuff like that, so I thought that would be a funny foundation for a road movie, and then I just cranked it out real quick to make a Sundance Labs deadline. From there, it just sort of started to gain steam.

LRM: I’m really impressed with how the movie connects with people who don’t have any connection to stand-up or music or anything. The movie’s been at a lot of festivals and I’m sure you’ve gotten that same vibe. 

Jeff Grace: No, I mean it’s great. People love the music. Wyatt and Meredith played a lot of the music live in the film. A lot of the music is from Adam Ezra--he wrote it for the movie. Meredith and Wyatt wrote some original songs, and then Meredith wrote some songs on her own, which she actually used as audition pieces, and I liked the songs she did for the audition so much, I asked, “Can we use these in the movie?” and she was like, “Sure!” so that was awesome. I don’t know. I think you have to have faith that if you make a story that you hope that other people like it, too. I think it’s hard to know whether or not that it’s going to relate to other people. I feel like that movie. Have you heard of that movie Don’t Think Twice, a Mike Birbiglia film?  That, to me, I was an improviser, but I imagine that movie would be just as entertaining to people that aren’t involved in improv comedy, too. It’s just the specificity of it.

Wyatt Russell: Well, it’s just like any world where you’re able to tap in to something that feels like those people do; that’s the reality of what their life is. I think that’s the basis of any good moviemaking. I didn’t fight in World War II, but Saving Private Ryan sure made me feel an ounce of what they were going through. That’s the worst analogy ever...(laughs)

LRM: What made you think of Wyatt to play the Jason Black role? 

Jeff Grace: What happened was that we came up with a few different windows to shoot this in, and I had a casting director based in New York, Suzanne Shield, who worked with Ellen Chenoweth, and she brought up Wyatt. We’d also come up against Wyatt a few other times. A friend of mine, Rachel Walker, who is a co-executive producer on this film. She had seen Wyatt in movie called Cold in July, and you had also been attached to a movie about the Allman Brothers that I thought, “He must be able to play music,” since they wanted that. I didn’t know too much about him except I had seen him in This is 40, and it was a really funny scene in that. Basically from that scene I thought obviously this guy can hang and hold his own and carry a movie, and then we met in person, and then assuming he wasn’t a total jerk...He just sort of naturally had that confidence and ease and the charisma that I wanted for this character. I was looking for a Matthew McConaughey type, and weirdly, when it comes to leading men in Hollywood, there’s not a lot of guys that have that vibe. There’s a lot of guys who are really good looking, and can be serious or they have more of a theater vibe, but there’s not a lot of guys who are laid-back, cool, and kind of comfortable.  

Wyatt Russell: He still never found that guy...(laughs)

Jeff Grace: Still never found him because McConaughey said “no.”

LRM: Had you already shot the Linklater movie when Jeff came to you? 

Wyatt Russell: Yeah, I met him before we shot that, and then we shot the actual movie after we did the Linklater movie.

LRM: What was your interest in the character, and did you already have some experience singing?

Wyatt Russell: Yeah, I had written songs for myself before as a cathartic experience, never to play for anybody else, just because I thought it was fun. I got really deeply into electric guitar for a little while, got bored with electric guitar because when you’re playing by yourself there’s only so much you can do. I didn’t have a band, and then I started playing acoustic guitar, and I started getting into songwriting because it was a nice way to express how I was feeling. I was 20 and playing hockey and got hurt, and it was another outlet for me. That was part of what I brought into the movie, which was going, “Oh, this could be really fun to be able to do on film.” I knew I could sing and play the guitar prior to that had been one of the more important things in my life that was personal to me. I can get lost in it. I can get lost in very few things, but give me a guitar and an hour and a half by myself, I can think ten minutes went by. So it was fun to be able to get that out there for whomever sees it--hopefully a lot of people. (chuckles)

Filmmaker Jeff Grace

Filmmaker Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace: I think in our interview Wyatt was like, “I actually build my own guitars, too!” So I was like, “Well, he must know something about music if he’s building his own guitars.”

Wyatt Russell: Yeah, I apprenticed with someone named Daniel Stickel in Vancouver who no longer has his shop where it used to be, which is too bad, but he’s doing other stuff now. I actually used the guitar that I helped put together with Daniel in the movie, and it’s a Stickel Guitar, a beautiful, beautiful amazing hand-made, great guitars, and then I made my own that I gave to a very close friend. That’s a very zen, tedious experience where you can sit there, see a kerf and do that for an hour and a half and still be on these little tiny blocks of kerf, and it takes a day to do that. Working with the bandsaw, understanding wood was really fun for me. It was a time killer, but it’s also something I loved doing, and it gave me a new respect for playing guitar, because good guitars are pieces of art that you can play.

LRM: I know a lot of actors that dabble in music, but I don’t know any that build their own guitars. I think you just took that to a new level.

Jeff Grace: It’s on his resumé. It says: “Will Build His Own Guitar.” 

LRM: What about finding Alex and knowing the two of them would work together, because I think Alex comes from a different place doing indie movies, including directing his own. What made you think of the two of them as friends?

Jeff Grace: Well, they’re similar height, which was helpful. They are almost the exact same height. That was never a consideration, but it just happens to make things easier when you’re shooting. It creates a sort of symmetry that’s nice. Well, Alex I met at a film festival, and we had a couple drinks and got to know each other, and really, we did the Facebook friend thing, and then a year later I finished this script, he had directed a movie called White Flag and I kind of used that as an excuse, because I thought he might be good as the lead, so I sent him the script, saying, “Hey, I’d be curious to get your advice or any production tips on making a road movie,” and he asked to look at the script then asked if it had been cast, and I said, “No, I haven’t cast it yet, why do you ask?” He then said, “If you want to cast someone as Paul, I would consider it.” I went on to say, “Well, that would be great.” I had thought of casting myself in it at some point, but I thought Alex would be pitch perfect in that.

In terms of them working well together, that’s just sort of an instinct you hope you have, almost to the extent of throwing a dinner party. I think these people will get along, but you never really know. I’m sure plenty of films have gone in thinking that, and the two leads hate each other.

Wyatt Russell: We got along really well. 

Jeff Grace: Yeah, you two are totally different people, but you got along well, and then Meredith Hagner, who was in a role I had originally cast my fiancé at the time, but then we broke off our engagement and all forms of relationships.

LRM: Wait. You wrote a movie about a guy whose engagement gets broken off... 

Jeff Grace: I had written it before I had proposed, or gotten engaged to my girlfriend, so yeah, that was life imitating art, and I guess I manifested that negatively. I feel bad for her for that reason, but we’re on good terms, so I’m joking around a little bit. I had to find an actress with about six weeks before filming, and I also wanted someone who could play the music live, could sing, and then I was also in a weird spot where I didn’t know if I could still use my fiancé’s music, so when Meredith auditioned--she actually auditioned for a few other parts...

LRM: The music in the movie is your fiancé’s music?

Jeff Grace: No, it’s Meredith’s, but originally, it was going to be Liza Oppenheimer, who was I was dating and engaged to at the time, and so it was a real scramble, and I met with every actress who had ever been on Glee, but Meredith had this unique quality, this lightness, and I hadn’t really seen her do much before that. She had been on a couple of shows and an episode of Louis I thought was awesome, but she sort of came out of nowhere, and we had some mutual friends which really pushed for me to meet with her in person and then Meredith sent me some songs. Best casting decision I made, because I think she really stands out in the film.

LRM: How did you prepare Alex to do stand-up? I think it’s a difficult thing to do and be comfortable at it.

Jeff Grace: Probably the two points of the movie I was most nervous about was the first day that Wyatt and Meredith had to do their music scenes. We were sort of like, “We hope this works!” Secondly was the days we did Alex’s stand-up scene, because I see movies where it doesn’t feel right, or it just doesn’t feel like real stand-up on stage. Also, I recorded it. I wanted the audience to laugh so that the comedian would have to respond to that, because a lot of movies will do audio clean so there’s the comedian speaking to no audience, and the reality is that the audience is a key point of resistance, so when you pause, when you stop, how long you pause, it’s hard to fake. Alex had done six months of stand-up after college, so I think it was in his DNA, that kind of sense of delivery. We improvised a lot of stuff, he came up with jokes on the fly, and we were writing jokes while we were shooting. They’re supposed to be bad jokes, so it was easy. 

LRM: What was it like making this kind of smaller, faster indie movie? 

Wyatt Russell: It was awesome. It was an ambitious movie that nobody really, in my opinion, looked at...You could look at this movie, especially as Jeff and the producing team, which was a mountain that seemed impossible to climb. Every movie is a mountain that’s seemingly impossible to climb, but if you believe it’s a mountain to climb then you’re going to act that way, and it is going to be impossible to climb. I always felt like we’re going to get it, we’re going to do it. It’s going to happen. We’ve got like a zillion moves and they made the movie for nothing, so it was really fun to be a part of that, “Go! Go! Go!” I also never felt necessarily, except with the music stuff, that it would be like, “We got 15 minutes! Get your guitar!”

Jeff Grace: Yeah, that stuff was pretty rushed.

Wyatt Russell: And you’re like, “Go!”’

Jeff Grace: Wasn’t it your first day of music and you broke a string? 

Wyatt Russell:  Yeah, I have a guitar. That guitar that I play that I homemade, I’ve had the strings on that guitar for ten years. It has a non-adjustable carbon fiber truss rod.

LRM: I’m sure one person reading this will know what that is. (Wyatt then goes into a long, very geeky description of what this is, and why strings don’t break as often when your guitar has one, but we’ll spare you the details and get back to the important part...)

Wyatt Russell: Strings don’t break often on a non-adjustable truss rod, and I had this guitar for ten years and a string had never broke. That’s part of what I love about this guitar, and I remember being asked, “Do we have a couple extra strings?” and I was like, “Don’t worry about the extra strings.” I literally get up and we have 15 minutes, 10 minutes to do the song. I get up. The first strum of the guitar, it’s like “BOING!” and the D-string on the guitar breaks, and luckily we had a sound man, Will Messiak, who was like a one-man talent show. He’s recording, doing all the mixing and recording all the music and voices, everything, one dude, which is insane. He did it so well. I didn’t even have the string I needed and he said, “Take the B-string and make it a D-string.” Anyway, we made it work.

LRM: This was in front of an audience in a club who had no idea who you were?

Jeff Grace: No, these were paid extras, but not paid that much. You have like fifty people who are paid extras there, but the pressure is more like, “We don’t have any more time in this venue. We’re getting kicked out of here in 15 minutes,” and the song he had to play was four minutes, so we were like, “I guess you can play it three times.” It always seemed to work out that you kinda got screwed...

Wyatt Russell: No...yeah, right, but it was also one of those things where it was just the song, I played it a thousand times, and we had rehearsed it and practice it, so every time we went on, we knew we had it, and they ended up being good. At the end of the day, I think the pace of the movie helped me at least feel real. It didn’t feel like a staged, like big lights and camera everywhere. It didn’t feel like that. It felt very subdued and real. I think the whole process was just organic to what the story was. 

LRM:  You made the character seem fairly laid-back. I can’t imagine there was all this craziness going on, because when you were on stage as Jason, you seem so mellow.

Wyatt Russell: Yeah, there was a little bit of craziness going on, but not too much.

LRM: Any idea what you want to do next? It’s obviously been a year since this has been done.

Jeff Grace: Yeah, I got hired to direct a film called Birdie that a couple of friends I worked with on a film called Last Treasure Hunt, Kate Murdoch and Casey Nelson, had wrote. I’m kind of working on a draft of that with them. It’s about a high school track team in the mid-90s, kind of a coming of age story that I’ll shoot later this year. Next I have two different TV ideas I’m going to go out, pitch this summer and hopefully get those things out there, and then just kind of noodling with other film ideas. I’d love to work with this guy again at some point down the road when he’s done working with J.J. Abrams and Richard LInklater.

LRM: You’ve had a very busy year with a lot of movies coming out, and I think “Everybody Wants Some” put you on the map even though you were working for many years before that. 

Wyatt Russell: Yeah, I guess so. I did Cold in July with Jim Mickle, but he was a person who was really important in my acting life, and I got to do those types of films that he likes to do that are really movies. It’s really moviemaking in a really cool way.  Everything’s making movies, but it was the first person that I got to work with that had a unique perspective on anything, in my opinion, and had a real working experience. From there, because his movies are respected, I got to do good parts, I got to do good roles, and we enjoyed each other and that snowballed into confidence and feeling like I can do this. I can be a serial killer, and I also can be a super-nice guy. Learning how to balance those different things so when I’m able to do a movie like this, which is actually, in my opinion, a much harder story to tell when you’re trying to be normal.  That can come across as boring if you’re not able to handle certain moments and go, “This might need a little punch up here.” All those things helped me be able to play more in the middle, weirdly enough. 

LRM: Do you still have to audition a lot? Some actors like auditioning, apparently.

Wyatt Russell:  Not as much anymore. You always have to audition for certain things, but it’s gotten a little easier. Hopefully, I’ve been able to...you have tape, and you can say, “Here’s what I can do,” and there’s enough tape to where you can say, “Okay, here’s what I can do, and if you think I can do it from watching my game tape, then I can do it.” If you don’t, then I can come in and give you what I can try to give and maybe it’s not what you want, but that’s alright.

LRM: I know you haven’t shot the film yet but how has it been directing other writer’s work? This movie is very personal and comes from a very personal place, but you’re doing other things as a hired director so is that very different?

Jeff Grace: Yeah, Wyatt and I were just talking about this. This is the second film that I got hired on. They have these films where they bring in a bunch of directors and you pitch, and that was the first time for me. This is also based on people seeing test screenings of the film. They hadn’t seen the final product yet, and I won a gig last year, and it’s one of those things where I think I’m learning that process because it’s different. I only have one film I’ve done that with, but everything I’ve ever done through stand-up, I have full control of the writing, and I think I’m trying to get used to working with other writers, too, that not every single sentence and word can be what you want. I think what I’m learning now is that it’s a bit of a give and take, and sort of learning to collaborate better on other people’s stuff, but I like it, and hopefully one of these things will get made soon.

Folk Hero and Funny Guy opens in select cities and On Demand (and iTunes) Friday, May 12.

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