A new hope: Stephen Gyllenhaal on Grassroots

Director Stephen Gyllenhaal talks about his new political comedy Grassroots, showing in the Laugh strand of the BFI London Film Festival.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Stephen Gyllenhaal’s new film Grassroots is based on the true story of Grant Cogswell, a dishevelled Seattleite with a bee in his bonnet about mass transportation who decided to run for city council in the early 2000s.

Convinced that development of the city’s cost-effective, congestion-alleviating monorail system has been curtailed by the corrupt business interests of council member Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), Cogswell (Joel David Moore) recruits his unemployed journalist friend Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs) to help mount a grassroots campaign to take on a political Goliath.

Father of actors Jake and Maggie, Stephen Gyllenhaal has had a long career in film and television and is currently working on a new project about John F. Kennedy. Grassroots deals with much smaller political fry, but its refreshingly hopeful message is that every candidate has to start somewhere. Arriving in cinemas just as America is gearing up to go the polls, this big-hearted but nuanced electioneering drama reasserts the power of an individual to shake things up.

How did you first hear about Grant Cogswell?

I had a friend who worked at The Nation. He gave me a bunch of books to read, and one of them was Zioncheck for President  a strange title but a wonderful story, and when I read it I felt this is potentially a very, very cool movie. Two white slacker dudes, utterly inappropriately deciding to carry on a campaign against the only African-American City Council member in Seattle. So everything about it was wrong. But the true story had a wonderful structure to it. It took a while to sort it out exactly, but I could see that there was something to really play with in there that was both comedic and also serious.

Is the monorail issue something you’re particularly interested in?

I wasn’t when I made the movie. I didn’t even quite understand it. When I rode the two miles of track which are the monorail in Seattle, I fell in love with it, both as a filmmaker because it’s a beautiful image, something to really work with, and I understood what a really sophisticated form of transportation it is. It allows mass transportation without the cost of a subway to get up and away from the traffic on the street.

Stephen Gyllenhaal

Stephen Gyllenhaal

Technology now is a lot more sophisticated than what they have in Seattle, that’s a 50-year-old system. It’s inexpensive, it’s pretty non-intrusive, and it can be built pretty quickly. That’s a lot of the reason why it doesn’t take place in the United States, because it doesn’t allow construction companies nearly the profits that they would have otherwise.

I mean it takes a certain amount of imagination, which I find often the elite, the intellectuals, of every nation don’t have a whole lot of. They don’t need imagination, because they have a pretty decent life. It’s really more the ‘lower levels’ of the nation that sometimes have a lot more imagination.

That’s where Grant Cogswell comes from: never had any money, but did have a real sense of mass transportation because he actually travelled on it. So I’ve become a proponent of the monorail much more as I’ve seen it’s an amazing thing, and I’ve seen that Grant was a visionary.

One of the things I really liked about Grassroots is that even though as a viewer you’re conditioned to root for the underdog, for all his idealism Cogswell is hectoring, naive and kind of irritating, whereas his apparently corrupt political opponent Richard McGiver has a reassuring gravitas and professionalism…

…and emotion and feelings. That was part of the fun, turning everything on its ear. It makes it fun for me to be a little subversive in the process, [to offer] some surprises and some humanity, to bring some humanity to politics. It’s not one good guy and one bad guy, it’s way more complicated than that.

Tell me about the casting.

Jason I knew almost right away was way more than just a comedian. I just instinctively knew he could go emotionally to places he had not really been seen much doing. He’s a real craftsperson. He’s been at this business a long time, and as an actor with real craft he could get into some deeper emotions, so he felt to me to be a great choice. And Joel, he’s just a wild, wacky, interesting guy, and gawky and fun and all of that. Cedric the Entertainer was kind of a delight. I just knew he could also play serious roles, and have a comedic light touch here and there. And he was terrific; I was really delighted with what he did and where he went to emotionally with it.

I liked that the film presents an uncynical view of politics, in contrast to something like The Ides of March.

I think I’m ultimately optimistic for the human species. It goes through terrible times. The people who make up the species make terrible mistakes, dreadful mistakes. They’re stupid as hell. But I’ve been stupid as hell in my life so I have some sympathy for that. But I think ultimately there’s reason to be optimistic. I think there’s new generations coming along all the time, growing up, with more information.

People keep talking about how cynical the younger generation is – I haven’t found that at all. I find them almost irrepressible, and interesting, and interested. Something’s happening to the young that’s different. They’re very unlike the last few generations of younger people, and I’ve watched a lot of them now that I’m so old. I have children and grandchildren, and I hope to be around to watch great-grandchildren.

When there were not pressing issues to really be dealt with, the generations were lazy, the younger people were sort of lazy. Issues are really starting to resurface again: environmental issues, economic issues. The system is no longer really working, the environment’s no longer really working, and it’s going to get worse, I don’t see any way that it’s going to get better. And that means that the young people have to throw up their sleeves as they’ve always done through history. I begin to sense that now.

This kind of film is starting to get a response. I’m finding young people have been moved by this film, more than I had anticipated. It’s interesting because it’s a wacky film in some way. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama. I really do like the mix of comedy and drama. This movie I’m doing on JFK next is a drama, but I want to find all the comedy I can, everywhere I can find it.

So I’m a real optimist, but I’m a brutal optimist.

How close is the film to the actual events?

Pretty close actually. There are some adjustments in the narrative. It’s not real life: real life sort of ambles along in some wacky way. It’s not the real dialogue, of course, but the essential story is the story.

What about the scene where the campaigners find their polling party’s been booked into a venue at the same time as a heavy metal gig?

That was all real. When I read that in the book, that was a great scene! This crazy heavy metal guy yelling, and then [campaign manager Phil Campbell] makes the deal. What I loved about that scene is the Jason Biggs character learning how to be a politician. He had to work a deal. That’s why I think everyone should run for office, everyone should jump into it and really try and win. It’s like trying to make a movie. You have this idea of what it’s like to make a movie. There’re so many times when you talk to someone and they wanted to make a movie but they never got it made. I’ve heard a lot of people say that.

The way you get a movie made is everything goes wrong and you just can’t be stopped, you just make it anyway. Everything goes wrong and suddenly you just get it done. And it’s so much about making deals with the Devil. You just make deals with the Devil, and you don’t know sometimes you’ve made the deal with the Devil, or sometimes an angel comes in and helps you out  who knows? Whatever it is.

But it’s a clusterfuck, and what I loved about that scene is that everything’s going wrong. They can’t get their thing plugged in, they can’t get this, there’s a heavy metal guy, there’s people coming in  and yet somehow the Jason Biggs character begins to rise to the occasion and solve the problem.

How much of an element of timing was there with this project to coincide with the election?

It was all by accident more or less. It took longer to cut the film than I’d originally thought. Since there was no money to make it, I had to make a living so I had to do some stuff in-between, some TV stuff. I believe a lot in being in the editing room and taking as long as it takes. Then I began to understand that the election was coming, so we sort of held off doing things with it until around now. But you know it’s somewhat luck, somewhat accident, and somewhat just… You know, I don’t think you could have made this movie six years ago, when 9/11 was still very much repressing a sense of hope, and also a sense of dissent. There was no allowing of dissent. Now it’s returned again, with Occupy Wall Street and all these kinds of things, the beginnings I think of a much larger grassroots movement.

There’s going to be more and more of a response to corporate control. It’s coming. That’s the new government. It’s not the government so much as the corporations. I think that’s gonna be where the real grassroots movements begin to take effect. When you watch CEOs making $800m a year, and workers getting paid $3 an hour and getting squeezed even more and having their healthcare and pension taken away. And then the CEOs will start getting a billion dollars a year, or a trillion dollars a year. You’re watching this happening in the United States. It’s incomprehensible that these guys have to be so greedy. And then there’s a point where it’ll be enough’s enough. It’ll all just adjust. It’s the law of nature. I think you’re going to see more and more grassroots thinking and I was just picking up on that.

Watching it now, seeing this very ungroomed candidate gathering so much political momentum at a time when the richest man ever to run for president is making ground towards the White House, it seems impossible that someone like Grant Cogswell could do so well…

I don’t think it’s impossible at all. Clinton, for instance, came from a very poor family. I think if people are honest, people are clear, and people have an issue, they can get elected. The rich people get elected too. At the time Kennedy was elected, he was from one of the richest families in the United States, richer than Romney. It’s been around for a long time, the rich running everything.

But poor people do get into power. One of the things I want to keep talking about is that the people who are smartest about how to govern are the people at the bottom because they know what’s really going on. The reason that Grant Cosgwell was so adamant about the mass transportation and the monorail is that he travelled in mass transportation. Most of the rich people, they’re driving cars, they don’t know which systems work best. But the poor, they really know what systems work best. They’ve just been convinced that they shouldn’t be running for government, but they should be. That’s the way the United States was founded. That’s why the United States ended up telling Britain to go shove it and had a revolution.

So should Obama and Romney graciously drive to the polls together as McIver and Cogswell do in the film?

Oh it would be nice if they did. That’s one of the wonderful, true moments in the movie. It would be great if they were able to do that… but I don’t think they will. I think democracy on an evolutionary scale replaced wars. It used to be the only way you could change governments was with a war. With a civil war, or assassinations. And oftentimes, even in the old days, it was always about who had more people on its side. It was a very expensive and horrific way to change government.

[Democracy] is the better way. Not a great way, but it’s a vastly better than fighting a war. It’s [still] kind of war. I think the Democrats are less willing to roll it up and get into fisticuffs, but it is a replacement for war. So it’s unlikely that they’re going to get in a car and drive together, but it would be nice if they did.

Grassroots reminded me favourably of Robert Altman’s electioneering miniseries Tanner ’88 (1988). Did you ever see that?

Oh yes I did see that. Yeah there is some of that in this. And you know, Robert Altman I’m a fan of. Yes you’re right, there is some of that in it, even style-wise when I think about it.

Which filmmakers are you inspired by?

There are so many. I can’t wait to see Argo because I was such a fan of The Town (2010). I’ve been suddenly fascinated by Ben Affleck, who was sort of in this weird high level and then collapsed and crashed and burned. There was a certain amount of that I did too: I was doing stuff and then I dropped out for a while. I read something he said about “I’m not going to make anything except from what I want to make from now on,” and then all of a sudden everything shifted. It’s funny to spotlight Ben Affleck, but he’s turned into a great director. So I would say I can’t wait to see that film. I saw The Town again recently and was blown away by it.

Argo (2012): Ben Affleck

Argo (2012): Ben Affleck

There are so many movies I don’t see. I want to see more foreign films. I’m really so hungry right now to watch them. How can you not be utterly influenced by The Godfather I and II? Then Fellini and Bergman, those people taught me so much in college. It was all those, and the new wave. That group really affected my work tremendously. P.T. Anderson’s really really interesting.

Capra, my God! There’s definitely some Capra in Grassroots, I think of Jason as Jimmy Stewart in some way: irrepressible optimism which is somewhat American, as a way of looking at things, but also very dark, grim.

I should have a list, so I can talk about them! It’s a delight to be in a community of filmmakers, it’s a real privilege to be surrounded by. I was just watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) because I’m doing a lot of stuff with memory with the JFK project. That’s a very interesting film: complicated, funny.

Oliver Stone, some of the stuff he’s done is spectacular. Michael Mann, who I’ve worked with. The Insider (1999) is a really important film. There are so many films where your jaw drops!

What angle does your new JFK project take?

It’s based on a book called The Kennedy Detail and it’s about the five secret service guys who were around him from the time he was elected till the time he was assassinated and what really happened to them, how [Kennedy] influenced them. They were the hippest, coolest dudes, so I’ve been thinking about Ocean’s Eleven (2001), the Soderbergh version: the hip dudes with the sunglasses and the sixties suits and that whole look. And they’re there with Kennedy, who was the hippest guy in the world, and articulate and rich and he knew all the movie stars. And then wham! The assassin hit. Utter failure, and what that does to somebody, and what profound effect it has.

How has Grassroots been received in the US, particularly in Seattle?

They loved it in Seattle. It was the closing night of the Seattle Film Festival and that was a total blast. We had the polar bear there, it was on three screens and it was packed. When we went from the screening, we took the monorail to where the party was and it was great! Grassroots is a love story to Seattle. I love Seattle, the bays and the ferries and Capitol Hill, and the grunge factor. I always thought these characters were like grungy mice, hidden in the corners of Seattle while this big stuff was going on around them.

And in the rest of the United States, it’s been nicely received. It’s a brutal market in the United States and there were a lot of things that had to be weighed, and now I think so many things are seen in the ancillary markets. I love seeing it in the theatre; it really plays well on the big screen.

Films have a long, long life now. They’re getting more [available] in iTunes and Netflix and all those. All the films I’ve made over the years are all available again. You never thought it would happen. I think I have to get my first film back in circulation. Terrible movie! A genre picture that Quentin Tarantino loved called Certain Fury (1985). Tatum O’Neil and Irene Cara – two Academy Award winners! – in this horrible movie. But it was fun, one of the kind of things that Tarantino loves: blood and guts and women.

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