Going Grassroots: Stephen Gyllenhaal talks local politics and his new movie


The closing night film at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), which wraps up its month-long run this weekend, Grassroots is at its heart an uplifting story about something that isn’t usually too uplifting these days: Politics. The story focuses around two men, Grant Cogswell (Joel David Moore) and Phil Campbell (Jason Biggs), the former a music critic who likes to dress up as a polar bear, the latter a recently unemployed journalist. When Cogswell decides to run for City Council so he can make his dream of bringing the Monorail to Seattle become reality, he enlists Campbell—who has a lot of free time and, as it turns out, some unexpected political skills—to help run his campaign. What starts out as a joke—well, at least Cogswell’s opponent, longtime incumbent Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer), sees it that way—gets serious when Cogswell’s idealism and infectious love for his city draw more and more people to his cause.

As inspiring a story as it is, what makes it even more inspiring is that it’s actually true. Grassroots‘ screenplay was adapted by Justin Rhodes and director Stephen Gyllenhaal from Campbell’s 2005 book Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics, which tells the story of Cogswell and his quest to make a difference in the city he loves so much by way of an unlikely political career.

In advance of its festival premiere this Sunday at SIFF, Gyllenhaal, whose credits as director include Paris Trout, Losing Isaiah and “Numb3rs,” took the time to chat with MovieMaker about his latest film and its own involvement in grassroots politics.

Rebecca Pahle (MM): You describe Grassroots as being less a story about the process of politics than it is a love story between unlikely politician Grant Cogswell and the city of Seattle. Was it the “character” of Grant that got you interested in making this film? Or was it the political angle that drew you in? Or something else?

Stephen Gyllenhaal (SG): I was intrigued with two people, actually: Grant and Phil. And the city of Seattle. I guess you could say it’s a triangle. And, like with most love stories that really go somewhere, it’s about people starting out with one agenda and then being blindsided into growing up, or at least growing up to some degree. I also grew increasingly interested in doing a comedy, since generally I do drama. First of all, comedy is much more fun. Everyone says it’s hard, and I think that’s true, too, but it’s so nice to laugh after a take, rather than to go into some state close to depression or angst.

MM: Were there any difficulties you and co-writer Justin Rhodes faced in adapting Phil Campbell’s original book on Cogswell’s political campaign? Are there any aspects of the story that you had to change or cut out?

SG: There’s a great piece that Phil Campbell just wrote for the Huffington Post saying that we destroyed his book and yet he’s still really happy with the movie. We really did draw from the book, and I think it’s really quite close to the real story, but of course it’s not the real story at all. First of all you have to have a strong through-line in a movie, and your heart can only be in a few places over that two-hour period, so a lot has to be cut and a lot has to be twisted and turned. Not fun, actually, because it is a lot of work. Also the book wasn’t really quite a comedy, although there was a lot of irony. The movie moves much more towards comedy (although there are emotional moments), because I guess I felt you just have to laugh a bit when you’re dealing with such a profoundly important subject as our democracy and the election process and a polar bear costume.

MM: Does your approach to directing change when you’re working with a script you wrote, as with Grassroots, compared to when you’re doing a TV show where the characters, script and story are already established?

SG: One of the bigger changes on this movie was actually that we could only afford one camera, and we didn’t even have a dolly. In TV there’s lots of money, with cranes, dollies and two (sometimes three) cameras. There’s a lot to be said for focusing the story with one camera. Keeping things simple.

I would say that in a funny way Grassroots looks better than almost all the TV I’ve done recently, but I’ll let you all be the judge of that. Also, of course, I made this film for personal reasons. So yes, I infuse what I’m doing with something vastly closer to me. I enjoy making TV because I get to be a craftsperson. I have a very complex trade, and I’m very proud of that. I love making movies, because they are about my loving something. On that level they are two vastly different jobs.

MM: You and producer Michael Huffington took the unusual step of “premiering” Grassroots with a nationwide college tour that took place late last year, prior to its festival debut. What has been the response to the film among those college audiences? What effect do you hope the film will have upon audiences as a whole?

SG: When you first take a film out into the world you have no idea what the response will be. You know what you hope for, but you don’t really have a clue. When we took Grassroots out to college campuses I was also open to recutting a bit if the film didn’t work. What we found was that, first of all, the film really worked. It worked particularly well with the college kids. We actually made no changes, except to some of the songs in the movie. But there was something else that the film seemed to pull out of these audiences. It was their longing to participate in something larger than themselves, to believe in something other than themselves.

We would do a question and answer after every film, and I would always move the subject towards grassroots politics and the option that everyone in the theater could get involved in local politics if they wanted. The response was invariably electric and moving. I grew up in the ’60s and remember waking up to the power of people gathering to march, fight and debate what they believed in. I could see that there was the same possibility as we went from campus to campus. When Occupy Wall Street emerged and then faded I could see a rise and then fall of the hopes among these young people. I’m not sure what’s going to happen now. The film is coming out June 22nd, and we’ll see if it gathers an audience as it starts to roll out across the country. And we’ll see how this election begins to shape up. It’s very exciting to be bumping up against history and the 2012 election, though, with a movie that reverberates with one of the primary issues of our time: Will people really take part in their own governance, will they engage in grassroots politics, will they believe and then decide to make a difference? Actually, I think that’s the primary issue of all times.

Grassroots opens on June 22nd in Seattle, with screenings to follow in Portland (June 29th) and New York City (July 17th). For more information on the film and how to become involved in local politics, visit www.grassrootsthefilm.com.

Top photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

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