Even with just a few weeks left in the year, we’re seeing a host of films coming out which manage to surprise. Writer-director Kendell Goldberg, making her feature debut with When Jeff Tried to Save the World (an extension of the short she made in college). Despite it’s big title, Goldberg has created an intimate and sweet story about Jeff (played by Jon Heder in one of his best performances) who takes great pleasure in his work as a bowling alley manager. But when baddie owner Carl (Parks and Recreations Jim O’Heir) threatens to close it, he must attempt to save his special place – all while his sister visits with her best friend, a woman Jeff finds a definite connection with. Despite being a new talent on the scene, Goldberg proves to be a refreshing and honest new voice in film.
Lesley Coffin: When did you decide to return to the short?
Kendell Goldberg: It was conceived originally to be a feature, I always thought I’d make it into a feature right away. I started worked on it as a sophomore in college, before I knew how the industry works. I thought you just had to find the right people and you’d find the money to get your film made. And that of course didn’t happen and because I was in school, summers were the only times I had to make films. So, I realized we needed to make something to be productive and progress as a filmmaker. So, I decided the only way to move forward would be to condense the film into a short. And I wasn’t super excited to do that because I thought I was sort of throwing away my feature film script, but it ended up being a step back in the moment but three steps forwards in the long run. It was the proof of concept short I needed to find the people and financing to ultimately get this film made. We got the cast I wanted for the feature to come to Chicago and film the short.
Lesley Coffin: Did you make any big changes when it came to make the feature because you’d had made the short and could see how things translated?
Kendell Goldberg: We had a chance to really treat it as a practice run. It made a huge difference that we had the same cast because we established a camaraderie on the short that translated to the feature. I didn’t have nerves as a first-time director with them. But the biggest advantage was my co-writer Rachel and I had a chance to sit down and watch the film and see how things translated from page to screen and we made a lot of changes. Seeing that proof of concept really helped us improve the script.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about the cast because I feel like you made some really smart casting choices. John’s been a hard actor to cast because he was memorable in Napoleon Dynamite, which is such an unusual character. But I think he’s perfect for this role. This is one of his best performances.
Kendell Goldberg: He never popped into my head. I never had an actor in mind for the role of Jeff. And he’s usually asked to play kind of big roles and has done that in some classic comedies. But at the time I hadn’t seen Napoleon Dynamite, I have now of course, but he came in and we did an early audition when I was a sophomore in college. And I didn’t know he was coming in, I think it made it to his agent. I never would have thought of asking him to come in to read. But he gave a great audition. He loves to tell people that he’s the only actor who had to audition, but that just because it was the most important role. But then I had to tell him that we weren’t going to be making the movie right away and I asked if we could keep in touch. He said he really liked the script and when it came time to making the short, he was true to his word. I kept in touch over a year and when we were finally ready to make the short, I asked all the other actors to sign on before I went back to him and asked him over lunch. And it was great, he also appeared in my senior thesis film, and the following summer we made the film. I was so lucky to have the cast we had because they trusted me and the script, but they also brought all these new ideas to the film that just made it better. When a cast brings their own ideas to a film you feel like they’re really invested in the project as much as I am.
Lesley Coffin: A couple of your actors come from Second City. Do you find you share the same comedy philosophy that comes out of that school of improv?
Kendell Goldberg: I’ve studied a little bit at Second City and IO, so I have a general knowledge of improv and comedy sketch writing. As a person, I’m really drawn to comedy. This film isn’t a straight up comedy, but I’m often drawn to stories about the funny guy or the funny gal. I like to surround myself with funny people that would make me laugh. And I like to cast against type. I gave Jim the role of Carl which is a complete different role from the role of Jerry on Parks and Recreation. He’s a real product of Second City, he’s so talented and versatile, and he told me stories of working on Parks and Recreation. He said that as soon as the director got what he or she needed, the cast would do a fun run where they could improvise. I reached out to Jim on Facebook early on, because we were from neighboring towns, and he told me that the first time we got coffee. And having that mood on set really appealed to me. Steve Berg was the same way, most of his lines in the film are not in the script. John’s very funny even though he’s kind of the guy holding everything together, he’s so funny and a fun person to have on set. John could have the crew cracking up at one moment and go to this subtle, nuanced place the next.
Lesley Coffin: I had mentioned to someone right before seeing the film that this hasn’t been a great year for comedy, and there’s a real absence of comedies now, especially those that are sweet and gentle. We seem to expect them to be mean-spirited or satirical. Was this film a difficult one to pitch to producers?
Kendell Goldberg: I was so green going into this film. I only know now what a target audience and distribution markets. People would ask me that stuff, and I didn’t know. But I think that might have been a good thing because I don’t want to write films which are catering to demographics. And when I wrote it, I was writing it for myself and Rachel. We were interested in putting out something we would like to see and hoped other people would find it. We were going through something at the time, trying to figure out my life and the stress of not being in control. We were focusing on that fear of failure and lack of control, and I thought that made the film very universal. And life is full of humor and sadness, you can be laughing and crying at the same time. So, I wanted a film that reflected that. I was inspired by some small indies that explore human behavior that were inspiring. And I wanted a film that could incorporate magical realism as a way of seeing the world through the character’s eyes. Jeff sees the bowling alley as this magical place, so we made it extra beautiful and bright and colorful. Honestly, I think I would have marketed this as a drama, but at test screenings we had so many laughs. And that made me happy. To be a comedy you don’t need to be Stepbrothers, you can have a comedy that is gentler.
Lesley Coffin: And I think some of that response to humor comes from the visual choices you made. The way the camera moves and the editing choices you made are really enhancing that quality and clues the audience into the tone, rather than just relying on dialogue.
Kendell Goldberg: Yeah, I’m really inspired by the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson. They always introduce characters visually and audibly. And the composer and DP were on board this project for three years, and we all agreed that we needed to create this world for Jeff so audiences would sympathize with him right away. You never want the audience to think of his reaction to losing this bowling alley is silly. We need to see and hear the bowling alley the way he does. I was lucky enough to have DP who was very story oriented, he made choices based on the story and character’s needs.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to also ask about the choices you made regarding the score. That ’80s, synth sound has been used a lot in horror and action movies, but less in comedies. What conversations did you have with your composer about the sound you wanted for the film?
Kendell Goldberg: We’ve worked together for years now because she composed the short and then worked on four more shorts for me. We work together so well. The short’s score is a little different, but we brought the original melody back for the feature. She sent me a demo after reading the script four years ago, and that’s the same melody we had in the short and the feature. We wanted to find ways to incorporate it into the video game and create a nostalgic sense of those movies from the ’80s. That sound can make people nostalgic for something they might not have experienced. I’ve had a lot of kids coming up to me and saying how much this movie makes them miss bowling, even though they’ve never been bowling. Shows like Stranger Things have had the same effect, this general sense of missing something they might not have experiences themselves. Hannah is just incredible in her ability to create this feeling with her music, people have become really attached to this score.