While most of the independent narrative features I saw at CineVegas were heavy on bumming me out, I actually got quite a lot of laughs out of Goliath, even though midway through it has the most depressing thing I've seen in a film all year (if you don't want this film spoiled for you, I'd suggest not reading this interview). I sat down with David and Nathan Zellner to discuss the film and to make sure I knew the song that opened it up (I didn't).
Collider: Before I forget to ask, what was the Cat Power song you play at the beginning?
David Zellner: Actually, it's not Cat Power.
Collider: It's not Cat Power?! It sounds so much like her!
David Zellner: No, it's this band called The Finches. They're out of San Francisco. The song is called "The Road". We were really happy to get a hold of that song.
Collider: I was also thinking about it because the rest of the film doesn't really feature music and I was wondering the process of coming to that bold decision.
David Zellner: It was definitely intentional. I don't know, when we heard the song several years ago, we wanted to get a hold of it for that. And then we wanted to end with a song. But for the most part, there are a lot of little songs, but for the most part we wanted, for lack of a better word, a soundscape. And a lot of contemporary films—they either have a canned score that makes them all sound the same or they use pop songs. We wanted to try and do something different.
Collider: So what was the genesis of this film, going from a lost cat to a mid-life crisis?
David Zellner: Well the initial idea—well, we're just big animal people. Maybe because of our limitations, animals creep into a lot of our films. Like we had done some short films and animals were a part of that. Initially it was from driving back and forth from a cubicle job like the one in the movie and seeing a cat on the side of the road and wondering who's it was and seeing how awfully it would be in rush hour traffic to go and find it; and just going from there and start thinking about the burden of that.
Collider: Finding the cat dead on the side of the road was a real shock for me. Was that always the plan to have the cat be dead?
David Zellner: That one scene is the crux of everything. We tried to juggle the tone and some things are more absurd than others but we tried to make it as a real as possible so as not to trivialize other stuff in the movie. So that was the first thing we shot. We felt that if we don't nail that, then things won't work as well.
Collider: How did you craft this character both as an actor and as a writer?
David Zellner: Since we started making home movies as kids and we always cast ourselves in our films, we've been doing it from the start and it's sort of second-nature. If our performances aren't good then we deserve all the flack; otherwise it's just obnoxious. But we also know our limitations. These are just characters we can just relate to. We can take elements of our lives and amplify them for dramatic purposes.
Collider: The film is segmented almost into vignettes but each with its own story arc and all under the life of the main character. What the process of writing or editing the film into this form?
David Zellner: Well we just kind of sat down and talked about the kind of tone we were going for. Partly based on films that are very inspiring to us and the aesthetic we were going for and the challenge for this particular project. We were part of it from the script stage and the long takes and that was in from the start like any of the dialogue and we structured it that way from the beginning.
Nathan Zellner: We had an outline and we didn't really deviate from that, both because of economy and how efficient we needed to be to pull it off.
David Zellner: We knew we wanted to focus on elements of his divorce and his life but another part of the challenge is that we wanted to convey as much information with as little exposition as possible. Some of the things we've done in the past have been very talky and very dialogue-driven but we wanted to see if we could pull off and engage in the viewer—I mean, we never even say the word "divorce" even though it's about a divorce happening. You hopefully get it from the images.
Nathan Zellner: And also the timing. Like everything wasn't really spelled out at the beginning; like there was slow-burn throughout and not knowing everything in advance and the payoff was down the line.
Collider: And you never even get his name.
David Zellner: Well any where we considered putting it seemed forced. Whereas [Nathan's] character, Chad P. Franklin, we really wanted to nail it so he becomes this kind of demonized character. So we had to give him a middle-name…like all demons.
Collider: You mentioned the dialogue and I was wondering if any of the scenes were ad-libbed, especially the ones in the break room.
David Zellner: Oh yeah, everything else was tightly structured except for the work-room scenes because we knew we couldn't really fabricate what they could do. Rather than finding some local actors, we wanted to get a more natural tone for the performances so we just found people that fit the parts and just kind of nuanced the role if we needed to. In the case with the workers, we found people we knew and had heard various stories so we put them in a room and just kind of turned them loose. And anything they said was just a thousand times better than anything we could have put down so we just tried to catch it documentary-style and not interrupt them as much as we could. That was the most fun because we could just a fly-on-the-wall.
Collider: When taking this film on the festival circuit, does it provide an opportunity to tweak the film based on the responses you get from audiences?
Nathan Zellner: When we were working on the editing of the film, we actually did do a small test screening and we were surprised at how some things played and some of the reactions were more than we thought we would get. We had some scenes in there that were very polarizing for audiences, which is a good thing. Like the divorce-paper thing, people either really love it or they're really frustrated by it, but they're really engaged in it either way.
David Zellner: Yeah, as long as they're not wishy-washy about it, we're fine with it. Like on a small-scale we did test screenings and we also have filmmaker pals who are at about the same stage in their career as we are and we got feedback from them as well. That said, it's amazing watching it with different audiences and the different reactions we get from different cities and crowds. We almost always sit and watch the screening with them, partly because we're like an expectant father and we're nervous about something going wrong with it but also because we like to watch the crowd so there are different parts of the movie where we get different responses.
Nathan Zellner: And every region has been different in their response. Like some crowds have more laughs at the beginning and the second-half is more on edge but yesterday was the exact opposite where they were sort of easing into it in the first-half and then really responding to the second-half. It's been interesting to see how different areas of the country respond to it differently.
David Zellner: Yesterday at the Q&A after the film, we were talking about trying to juggle the comedy and the tragedy and that fine line which is hard but we really cringe at the extremes of being condescending to the character and being maudlin and making it cutesy so we really wanted to find a balance and hopefully we pulled it off.
Collider: I think it worked really well. I mean you talk about that divorce papers-scene which was really strong but then you swing to the joke about the two fingers and that destroyed me.
David Zellner: Oh, that's good! To get people invested in that scene is to totally cut to the chase in the next scene and just hammer it. We wanted it to be like that voice in head where he wanted to blurt it out and at the last possible moment where he may never see her again, in the parking lot of the lawyer's office, and then just blurted it all out in the most tactless way possible. We felt we needed to go with that after that divorce papers-scene.
Collider: So what are you guys working on next?
David Zellner: We have a feature project that requires a much larger budget than Goliath and that we're hopefully getting off the ground later this year but I'll believe it when I see it. But it's something we've been working on for years and the whole reason we jumped onto Goliath is that we've done a bunch of short films and been on the circuit for that and we've gotten all the mileage we can out of that, both personally and professionally, and we didn't want to make any more of those and we weren't able to get larger projects off the ground so we had Goliath there ready so we were able to take some of the same crew and even some of the same cast and just parlay it into that very easily. And that seems to have helped get interest going in the next project.
And here's the trailer for Goliath