Behind the scenes of new movie GRASSROOTS with father of Jake & Maggie… Stephen Gyllenhaal

Making movies since 1979, Stephen Gyllenhaal finally found fame 25 years later – through his kids. “It hasn’t stopped me making small films I care about,” he tells Paul Byrne.

The line from LA isn’t great.
“Hello? Hello…?” And then the crackle takes over again.
The voice belongs to Stephen Gyllenhaal, who’s busy promoting his latest film, Grassroots, his 16th feature as a director. Gyllenhaal is near the end of conducting a campus tour with is co-producing wife, Kathleen Man Gyllenhaal, hoping to spread the word on this true-life political comedy.
“I can barely hear you. Can you hear me…?”
It doesn’t help that I’m sitting in my Beetle, having pulled into a roadside café just outside of Cork, and the call is bouncing warily through the London office of Grassroot’s UK distributor.
Finally, we have contact.
“Sorry, you’ll have to wait for a second,” says Gyllenhaal, as the fog clears. “I’m just talking about my son with someone here…”
Oh.
“I’m just kidding,” he adds quickly. “Thankfully, we weren’t just talking about my son. My interviews tend to be dominated by my kids, and sometimes, that’s okay, and sometimes, that’s a pain in the ass.”
Ah, yes, the kids. Jake and Maggie, to be precise, the siblings who, perhaps inevitably, were drawn to the big screen. Their mum, Naomi Foner, is a noted screenwriter (Running On Empty, Losing Isaiah, Bee Season) who has just made her directorial debut with Very Good Girls. The proud parents may have divorced in December 2009, but they’ll no doubt forever carry the weight of those pesky kids who went off and became pretty darn famous (Jake, in particular, thanks to the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko and Zodiac). Forever the parent living in the shadow of their offspring…
“Oh, yeah,” says Pa Gyllenhaal. “It’s what’s supposed to happen. Your kids should surpass you in life. You are who you are, and then you’re the father of someone who is. Having famous kids hasn’t stopped me making small films I care about though…”
Given that Gyllenhaal is in a reflective mood, I ask him if turning 63 on October 4th was a big deal. Is he still loving Hollywood and all its claptrap (as he calls it in his 2006 collection of poems, Notes From Hollywood)? More fun, because he understands it better, or less enchanting, because he understands it better?
“It becomes more fun, because you understand it better. Utterly. It becomes less enchanting too, but, ultimately, more fun because of that. It becomes not about the glamour or any of those things; it’s about the astonishing, magical process of making movies. Which can be very gritty and down-to-earth, and it can be a blast.”
Gyllenhaal’s latest attempt at a blast, Grassroots, tells the true and mildly bizarre story of a Seattle slacker who ran for local office in 2001 on the ticket of finally upgrading the city’s bare-boned monorail. Joel David Moore (Dodgeball, Avatar) plays the would-be city counselor Grant Cogswell whilst Jason Biggs plays the fellow failed journalist who sets out to run his buddy’s campaign. Along the way, the duo learn a little about spin, democracy and growing up.

PAUL BYRNE: This is based on Campbell’s account of their surprisingly successful political awakening, Zioncheck For President. Had you heard of Cogswell before? Or was it Campbell’s book that first grabbed you here?
STEPHEN GYLLENHAAL: I knew nothing about all this, but a friend of mine ran Nation Books in New York, and he gave me a couple of books to read. One of which ultimately became Grassroots. Zioncheck For President was a weird book, and I loved the fact that it was about these two slacker dudes who decide to run a campaign against the only African-American sitting council member in Seattle. Everything was wrong about it. Which was great, because it played into comedy, and yet goes deeply into what democracy is about, and what the grassroots political process is about.

You’ve been hitting the college campus circuit, hoping to, you’ve said, “reverberate across the ages and have an effect on the 2012 election”. Do you truly believe a film can do that?
I think issues change people. Circumstances change people much more than any individual film. Being fired, being unemployed, watching the rich get vastly richer while you struggle to pay the rent, not even the mortgage. Those are the sort of things that change people. What movies do though is they put what someone has gone though into context. It helps organize what you’re going through, and I think on that level it can be very helpful. What’s wonderful about movies now – and it’s been true with pretty much all my movies – is that their lives go way beyond the theatre. There’s the movie theatre, and that’s a really important part of all this – I shoot for the big screen – but really, now, the movies play more in people’s homes, and they have long, long lives. So too, I think, with this movie. A lot of my movies, much to my surprise, play year after year, after year.

Your film has been pegged as mostly true, but fiction gets a look-in too – such as Cogswell’s rousing post 9/11 morning-after speech. Not always easy, knowing when art should override truth…
I think what tends to happen with biopics that are true to exactly what happened is that they utterly miss the spirit of the event. First of all, you want to go to sleep, and maybe even shoot yourself, because they’re just so dreadful… It’s funny, I’m working on a movie now where there are lots of transcripts of people’s memories of John F. Kennedy’s death, and the dialogue is just nonsense. No one speaks like that. It’s a terrible writer remembering things badly.

A really good job of telling a true story is getting to the spirit of it, and being responsible to that spirit. So, for instance, it was clear to me that there was a relationship between Phil and Grant that was very synergetic and very productive, and that they were two kids basically who gained a lot of maturity in this process. And that was fascinating to me, and I used everything I could in the book, and everything I could learn from them personally. And then casting Joel David Moore and Jason Biggs – very funny people – to pull the audience into the story and enjoy it – that gives the audience a chance to catch the spirit of what happened, rather than just charting the day-by-day truth, which can actually miss the truth.

It’s said that no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in. How do you feel about the current American Presidential election? Are you disappointed with Obama, as so many in Hollywood seem to be?
My film, ultimately, champions grassroots politics, and champions being open enough to let someone out there who’s pretty wacky to run and win. And govern. Honestly, I think a lot of these elite, highly educated, uppercrust people – both in the US and the UK – who are running the government are doing a horrible job. They’re doing a criminal job. They’re basically taking care of themselves; they take care of the upper classes, and they take care of the corporations. And they frankly don’t really care about the people down below. Sometimes not because they’re terrible people, but just because they don’t understand. They don’t know what it’s like to be poor, they don’t understand what it’s like to be middle-class. That’s why I think people who are everyday people should run for office.

But, yeah, I think the election is troubling. You’ve got a very rich guy running who has no idea what most of the country is going through. And he doesn’t seem to care either. And I’m disappointed with Obama, but I’m very much pro-Obama. Although I’m disappointed, he still did get a health care bill through, and if the Republicans come in, they’ll get rid of it. They’ll get rid of affirmative action, they’ll get rid of any social program that they can get rid of. They’ve actually said that they’re going to dismantle any social programs, and basically let corporations govern the country, more or less.

We live in a time when politicians are more like celebrities, where the personality is far more important than the politics. Justin Bieber has a good shot at the White House in 2016…
I think that’s going to change. I think history shows that when things start to really go wrong, people finally pull it together and find a voice. I’m actually very optimistic about the future. That’s why I’m such a supporter of democracy. Democracy works. It’s messy, it’s ugly, it’s tasteless, it’s brutal, but it’s better than any other form of government – to quote Winston Churchill. It’s the best that we’ve come up with, and I think it’s going to be a very interesting next 25 years ahead…

With fame, the freaks come out of the woodwork. And it can bring the freak out in your friends too. You got a taste of this recently when publisher Cantara Christopher set out on something of a rampage against you and your family with a 2009 online essay, A Poet From Hollywood: The Secret History Of The Gyllenhaals, making all sorts of salacious claims [such as Gyllenhaal doing a public reading of a poem that described how he would like to stab to death his then-wife Foner with a bread knife, with his then wife’s father in the audience]. Was that a shock to the system?
Yeah, it was horrible, but I just find that if you decide to be in the spotlight, and you’ve got children in the spotlight, troubled people will try and take advantage of it for their own reasons. I feel sad about it, but what can you do? It’s part of the process, and you move forward with your life. In a funny way, I’ve learnt awful publicity is still publicity, and if you just forget it and move on, and speak your mind, you’ll get over it. And I’m in a very lucky position where people will hear me. Having said that, there are times when people will pretend to be you and say crazy things, but what can I do? I’m a big boy, and I have done this long enough, so, you have to just roll with the punches.

It’s the job of the artist to inject their soul into their work, but there’s a price to be paid. I have a friend who let her partner know it was over when she began including a brutal poem about their relationship in her public readings. You seem to come from that school of thought, so, you’re obviously prepared to live with the consequences of opening your heart in that manner…
I think the consequences of not opening your heart, of not speaking your mind, are far more damaging than doing it and living with whatever little barbs take place. It’s much more fun to just open up and be very, very honest about what you’re going through. It threatens some people, and it angers some people, but it’s vastly more fun to do it. And then you’ll find the people who really care about you.

Grassroots hits Irish screens on November 9th