ECHO LAKE: AN INTERVIEW WITH JODY MCVEIGH-SCHULTZ

 

Jody McVeigh-Schultz’s debut feature, ‘Echo Lake’, is one of the strongest dramas of the year.

Currently doing the festival rounds, it is an ‘intimate epic’, a character piece and an impressive calling card for its writer/director.

Having started his career as an editor, Schultz is part of a new generation of film makers, intent on telling relatable stories, populated by characters both flawed and fascinating.

Schultz is, like his film, funny and earnest, wearing his influences on his sleeve. As a director, he has a keen visual sense and a talent for working with actors and its the delicate balance of these two sensibilities that mark ‘Echo Lake’ as the beginning of a career worth keeping an eye on.

Q. “Echo Lake” has an epic feel, thanks to it’s landscapes, yet feels very intimate. Was this a choice you had made from the very beginning?

Yes, the story is definitely built around those landscapes in many ways. The area (Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California) is a place I spent summers with my family as a child so it has a definite emotional/spiritual resonance for me, and I started by trying to build a story around that place. I also knew that, given our tiny production budget on this film, I had to find a way to increase production value without it costing an arm and a leg. You can’t beat a newly formed (350 years ago) volcano for cheap production value. Lastly, the volcanic formations seemed to work thematically: they have a sort of bleak permanence that makes a human lifetime seem almost insignificant in relation. That fit nicely with the internal struggle Will is going through.

Q. The film feels as if it comes from a very personal place. Are there biographical elements to the screenplay?

There are some biographical elements, but other things are completely made up. The cabin as a place of childhood nostalgia is totally a real thing for me, and the cabin manual, map, and journals are total homages to their real life counterparts. We didn’t shoot in the actual cabin my dad’s extended family shares, but otherwise that was biographical. There are also elements of Will that come from laying bare and exaggerating a lot of my own flaws, which is often a good place to start writing if the aim is to come from a vulnerable, truthful place. That said (and I try to say it in every interview) my Dad is none of the things Will’s dad is in the film. That part is total imagination. The idea was to get Will up in the cabin alone, and have the cabin be imbued with some troubling meaning for him. So that’s why we did that story-wise. I repeat, my Dad is the best, non-alcoholic, non-abusive, ALIVE dad of all time, haha. (Love you, Dad).

Q. Speaking of biographical, going back, did you watch a lot of films as a child?

Hmmm. Not a ton early on. In fact, I often feel like I lived a in completely alternate universe in comparison to friends from film school who were obsessed with the popular movies of their childhood. That said, I think my interest in film really traces back to my brother who is 6 years older than me, and introduced me to classics like Cool Hand Luke, Bridge on the River Kwai, and docs like Salesman when I was still in high school. We had a video store in Philly called TLA video that my grandma used to get him gift certificates to, and he would kinda hold court in the TLA aisles and decide what VHS we should watch next. It was all very 90s, haha.

Q. Which films stood out as particularly influential? Was there one film in particular that made you want to be a film maker?

Yeah, I was definitely taken by P.T. Anderson at that high school age. More recently, the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, Kenneth Lonergan, Todd Solondz. I’m definitely into weird, quiet stuff. Rick Alverson who made The Comedy and Entertainment is someone I’ve been super excited by lately, and helped inspire the sort of unlikely protagonist that Will became for Echo Lake.

Q. At what age did you start making films?

Depends how you define “films.” The first thing I remember making with my best friend growing up was this bizarro SNL parody on a camcorder. I played guest host Andre Agassi playing OJ Simpson and we did the opening sketch as a version of the murder night where OJ actually gets ketchup on his gloves from eating McDonalds (how f-ed up is that?). At the end, I tore off a ski mask (SNL OJ was cold that night) to reveal that I was actually Agassi, with bandana, stubble, et al,  and yelled “Live from new york!” haha. I remember we shot it in sequence (this was before NLE editing obviously) and my friend’s little brother was standing right in one of the shots watching. So we inserted a quick shot of a sign that said “Pay no attention to the little man in the green suit.” So yeah… that happened. Fixing it in post since 1990.

Q. Did you attend film school?

Yes, at USC. Met a lot of the people who worked on the film there as well, or at least through USC friends (including Christine Weatherup, whom you interviewed). I definitely learned a lot about storytelling, especially editing, there, but really having an LA-based cohort of friends and colleagues is the real reason that place is powerful in Hollywood. So I’m not a big proponent of the “going film school is necessary” mindset. In general, they teach a super conventional style of storytelling. Which is probably useful to learn, but needs to be “unlearned” as well you might say.

Q. Most film students go from graduation into some sort of crew role in the industry. What were your first jobs?

I’ve been editing since I graduated and editing still pays the bills. I was lucky enough to get my first assistant editor gig at a really REALLY s****y post house (like, cockroaches in the kitchen… or whatever you called the part of the hallway that had the toaster oven) where I almost immediately moved up to staff editor when they discovered I could walk, talk and use Avid competently. I remember my first gig there was a medical instruction video in which disembodied nurse hands demonstrated how to load a syringe with Botox, HAHA. Starting there meant that I skipped a lot of the dues-paying that is common to starting out in the industry and got to edit right away, but also, that I had to work my way up through less and less s****y gigs as opposed to AEing on a great show and then eventually becoming an editor on that show. That said I’ve been really lucky to work on some amazing shows over the past few years, including Drunk History for Comedy Central and currently a doc series for Netflix called Last Chance U.

Q. As a writer, is there a particular genre that you gravitate towards?

Definitely, intimate subtle drama. I mentioned Kenneth Lonergan, and his film You Can Count on Me is a great example of the type of naturalistic, family drama world I feel most comfortable in. There is definitely a layer of absurd comedy to a lot of my material, but it’s never punch lines or gags. Watching Echo Lake with an audience is always interesting because the laughs tend to happen at different times depending on how awkward the audience is feeling right then.

Q. Have you considered writing for TV?

Not really. I wrote a spec for the British “The Office” a million years ago. I think there was a blood drive and it was revealed that Gareth couldn’t give blood because for some reason he had a rooster tattooed on my ass and Tim kept asking him about the cock on his ass. Seems pretty lame now, haha. I’d love to develop an original TV show, but the scripts I’m writing are features at the moment. I’m hoping to develop and produce a serialized dramatic narrative podcast at some point so that’s probably the closest I am to writing for TV, if you don’t consider staring at drunk people all day and then editing them into coherent narrative form for Drunk History “writing.”

Q. What budget were you working from when it came to shooting “Echo Lake”?

One time we dipped beef jerky into peanut butter during a crew meal… I’ll let you use your imagination on that one.

Q. How do you feel about crowdfunding and its place within the indie film industry?

Hmmm. Not quite sure. In general, I think crowdfunding is an amazingly powerful, worthwhile concept. For people in my situation though, it can be a little bit tacky. I was always planning to kickstarter this film for the post funds, but I had the savings to handle it and it felt like the wrong time to bust my crowdfunding cherry. I’d much rather wait for a bigger project and be able to say, “look I’ve done this before. Help me make a bigger, better project this time” and treat it as a pre-sale or something.

Q. How long did it take to write the screenplay?

The writing process was pretty quick. I had a lot of the ideas and small moments stored in my head just waiting for the right story to bring them together, and this script is intentionally sparse in terms of plot, so it was really about finding the characters and really fleshing them out. I definitely have to give credit to my amazing cast because a lot of that fleshing out happened in rehearsals, which often led to rewrites.

Q. Do you see any benefits of digital over film, other than expense?

Yeah, I know there are 70mm geeks out there but I sincerely don’t give a s**t about film. Our DP, Andy Rydzewski, is probably crying right now, haha. But really, it’s all just a series of iterations in image capturing technology that build cultural meaning over time. Certainly, you make concessions to work within your production constraints, but I was fine with shooting on a 5D mkIII if it meant being able to hike our equipment way out into the wilderness like we did.

Q. Where was the majority of the film shot?

Other than Lassen (which I mentioned), the cabin interiors were shot at a friend’s place in Mt Baldy (an hour outside of LA), the canoe scenes at Big Bear Lake (2 hours outside LA) and the rest in Los Angeles proper

Q. Were there any difficulties in shooting in such remote locations?

Lord, yes. The first 2 days of our shoot involved a 10 mile hike over 2 days with camping and film equipment. Really poor scheduling on my part to start with that section, but lesson learned, I guess. And we didn’t die. At another point in filming we were in the middle of the woods at night and literally trees were falling down in the distance. It sounded like a giant’s footsteps and was creepy as hell.

Q. Given the scope of where you shot, the film seems very deliberately composed. Did you storyboard the film?

We didn’t. I was pretty specific about shot lists and I birdseye-diagrammed some of the larger scenes, but I generally feel like it’s difficult not to hamstring yourself if you storyboard before rehearsing in the space. In a cabin like that, a lot of the composition came from being inspired in the moment by the visual details the location gave us. For instance there’s a shot where Will figures out how to turn on the fuse box and the lights pop on. Once we saw how cobwebbed and dusty the old chandelier we had was, we just had to include that in the frame. So, Andy got up on a ladder and we shot him flipping the fuse with the chandelier in the foreground. We were working with real locations out of necessity, so the whole idea was to improvise and embrace the authenticity of what we had, as opposed to trying to control and mold it to a preconceived visual idea. I could definitely see storyboarding in a different context, where dynamic camera moves were a bigger part of our plan, but this film was purposefully shot with fairly conventional coverage.

Q. It looks beautiful. How closely do you work with your cinematographer?

Honestly, I have to give all the credit to Andy, our DP. He pushed that tiny camera and those lenses as far as we possibly could. Also, a big shout out to our colorist Aaron Hayden who did a ton of work pulling noise out of the dark shots and adding subtle grain to give it a much less DSLR-ish look. Those guys deserve some Alexa footage for reals, and hopefully, the next project can afford it :).

Q. The film deals, in part, with the idea of self-destruction. Did you relate to the problems of Sam, your protagonist?

Sure. I think I have a solid grasp on the more self-destructive parts of my personality, but I was a rapscallion of sorts in college, and I can imagine a world in which I never got my s**t together. I think Will’s larger issue is that he hasn’t built a life where he can be his true self. He’s, in many ways, performing when he’s with his bro-ey friends, dealing with his brother on the phone, or even at home with his girlfriend. To me, a lot of that self-destruction (the drinking, the lying) is a way of coping with that constant performance, of code switching through his every interaction. Hopefully, the film highlights how much more “himself” he’s able to be around strangers, than the people he knows best. He even tries lying to the hikers he meets and it backfires and he has to sort of give up his pretense.

Q. The scenes between Sam and Erin feel incredibly naturalistic. Did you rehearse or allow your actors to feel it out themselves?

Lots of rehearsal, but within that the actors really drive the thing, and even rewrite dialogue when necessary. We shot a bunch more flashbacks that fleshed out the ups and downs of their relationship, but they just didn’t fit right in the flow of the full film. You’ll have to get the Blu-Ray for the deleted scenes I guess, haha.

Q. Where did you find that great cast? There isn’t a false note, they are all superb.

Thanks! Yeah, they’re wonderful actors. I met them mostly through friends. Jillian Leigh (who plays hiker, Christy) and I were in a high school play together way back in the day, so that was a random stroke of luck. She and Chris Mollica (who played her brother Luke) added a lot to those scenes with improv, and the result is really naturalistic and alive, I think. Sam was actually a non-actor, who didn’t think he’d be very good, but then turned in an incredibly subtle, nuanced performance. Don Yanan (who played Roger) is the only one who went through a traditional casting call. He read for it and we kind of just knew he was the one because he fit the role so perfectly.

Q. Do you enjoy directing actors?

Definitely. As an editor you spend a lot of time working by feel: trying stuff out and then saying this feels wrong, that feels right. I think feeling out a performance on set is a similar thing. You just have a gut feeling whether a line rings true and often it’s not the reading you expected to like. Working in an improv setting is especially exciting to me, and I’d love to do even more of that in future projects.

Q. How is the film being received? I would imagine the festival crowds love it?

We’ve played to really great, enthusiastic festival audiences in LA, Calgary, St Louis and we’ll be in New Jersey in February and Colorado in March. I think in general audiences have really connected to it, but it can be a challenging film as well. It’s certainly not “a delightful romp for the whole family,” right? That said, it’s pretty solidly in the wheelhouse of audiences interested in a very realistic, complex character drama. And I’d wager more audiences want films like that than perhaps the powers that be would like to admit.

Q. Have you found the internet to be a useful tool when promoting the picture?

Yep, it’s my one and only tool. Speaking of which go right now and like, follow, rate, review us EVERYWHERE. NOW. I’ll wait for you to finish…

Q. Are you working on a new project at the moment?

Good you’re back, did you remember to add us on LinkedIn… umm, anyway… currently I’m editing the doc series Last Chance U for Netflix, which is about a small community college in rural Mississippi where some of the best (american) football players in the country play when they can’t make the grades to get into a big time university. I’m also writing two feature scripts on the side, a mockumentary style drama and a bizarro comedy about skype-sex blackmail.

Q. Finally, most film makers/storytellers have a dream project that they want to produce. Is there any project in particular that you would love to get off the ground?

Good question. Not exactly. There’s actually a couple of documentary ideas I’ve long wanted to produce. But honestly I’d probably be most excited if I could convince my acting idols (people like John C. Reilly, Mark Duplass, Julianne Moore, f*****g CLOONEY) to do a modern radio drama for a podcast. This question wasn’t about things that might actually happen, right? I just feel like that would be bizarre and liberating to work with amazing actors in an audio only format. Speaking of which, I can’t recommend the podcast “The Truth” enough. They are doing stuff in that realm that is totally unique.

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