Indie Films: Actor John Krasinski directs <i>The Hollars</i>
Issue: September 1, 2016

Indie Films: Actor John Krasinski directs The Hollars

For many, John Krasinski is best recognized for his nine-season role as the level-headed and lovable Jim from NBC’s Emmy-winning hit comedy, The Office. And most recently, he was seen on-screen as a Navy SEAL in Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. However, Krasinski, who graduated from Brown University as an honors playwright and who later studied at the National Theater Institute, actually began experimenting in directing with several episodes of The Office, later adapted and directed the David Foster Wallace book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” into an independently-financed film that was screened at Sundance in 2009 and formed his own production company Sunday Night — all of which has established him in the industry not only as an actor, but also a writer and director.

His most recent project — The Hollars — is a true labor of love. A story about the bonds of family and friendship, from scriptwriter Jim Strouse, that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. As co-producer and star, Krasinski also takes the helm as director, leading an all-star cast that includes Anna Kendrick ( Pitch Perfect, Into The Woods), Richard Jenkins ( The Visitor, Cabin in the Woods), Charlie Day ( Horrible Bosses and TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Margo Martindale ( Million Dollar Baby, August: Osage County, Beautiful Creatures and TV’s The American where she won an Emmy) in what should be an Oscar-nominated performance. Already a hit at Sundance, Los Angeles, Nantucket and Boston Independent Film Festivals, The Hollars opened in New York and LA on August 26th.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Krasinski opens up about his strong connection to this story and how this actor-turned-director feels about the production and post processes.

What a great cast you had to work with — Margot Martindale’s performance was outstanding.

“She’s always been good but I think this is a role that really showed her off a little bit — I think she really got to show what she’s got — which is a whole lot”

You directed some episodes of The Office and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, so this is your second feature film. Why did you want to direct this movie?

“I was only attached as an actor for about six years. The reason why I connected with the script as an actor is because, to me, this is one of those movies that, I’m sure you’ve heard of similar plot lines and family movies, to me, there was something so unique with the way Jim Strouse wrote this script. He has the ability to do hairpin turns between comedy and drama in a way that I think very few people do and I really connected with that because that made it feel real to me. It didn’t feel like trying to manipulate an audience to feel something — this was just what a family was going through and it made a huge impact on me and I found myself so emotionally connected at the end.

“The second thing was, I grew up in a very tight-knit family. We all get along really well. We love each other very much, and yet, at the end of the script, I said, ‘Oh my god, that’s my family.’ And still, to this day, I have no idea why that was, but there’s something so powerful about that, that this movie, what I hope everybody feels, it’s what I felt, which is, whether you love your family, don’t love your family, your family and you have a great relationship or a complicated one, I want people to feel the need for family — the idea that family is vital in one way, shape, or form.

“So, how I ended up directing was, the financier at the time called me and said, ‘I can’t get the movie made, would you ever want to buy the script outright?’ I’d never thought about doing something like that — and we worked out a deal where I was able to do it, and the only reason I said I would do it is, I did connect to the material so much and in starting this production company [Sunday Night], I wanted to make stuff that I thought people needed to see. It’s a good story. I couldn’t live with the idea that people wouldn’t get a chance to hear this story and see these characters, and so I decided to jump on as a director — and thank God I did because I had such a great time.

“And like you said, to have a cast of that caliber sign on immediately — and I will say, most movies, everyone comes and says ‘I’ll do it, but I need to change this and this,’ and ‘what do you mean by this?’ and ‘how does this work?’ Every one of the cast members signed on and said, ‘I get it. I know what this is.’

“I think we were all trying to make a movie that was reminiscent of movies of a bygone era — whether it’s the ‘80s, even the ‘70s, just family movies — like for me, there’s a lot of Terms of Endearment in there, there’s Ordinary People. Yes, there’s comedy in there, but it’s all about the real connection of family.”

Do you want to move more towards directing?

“I want to pursue it for sure, but I’m not the type of guy who wants to move into one direction — I want to keep doing things that excite me. I’ve been gived the most unbelievably unique opportunity in the success I’ve had, certainly from The Office, and moving forward to be able to do things and have the opportunities to work with the people I’ve been able to work with and be able to play in these sandboxes has been the greatest honor of my life, so I just want to keep doing great stuff. I have that ability to try and work only on good stuff. So, the next time a story like this or a much different story comes along — obviously this was very different than Brief Interviews — I think the next time I direct will be just as different, so for me, it’s not just about one thing, it’s about just trying to work on good stuff, whatever title that brings me.” 

What was your experience like working with DP Eric Alan Edwards?

“Yes, he’s just the greatest. First of all, he’s one of the greatest DPs period, in his experience and his resume. For me, as a film nerd and someone who wanted to get comedy and drama out of this, there’s no better guy to turn to than the guy who did Kids and The Breakup. He has literally run the entire spectrum at least twice or three times over, so for me, I felt so safe with someone like Eric being next to me because — like I said, about Jim Strouse’s script, as quickly as the script would make a hairpin turn, I could tell him I want this scene, like when Margot is about to go into the operating room, I said, ‘I need this to feel so intense.‘ And he knew exactly what I meant. He was able to turn tone as fast as the script could.”

Did you encounter any real production challenges?

“Oh, absolutely. All movies are a challenge. Here, it’s not a micro-budget by any means, but it is a small budget movie and we ended up with a very small budget that we were happy to have. I think in this day and age, more than ever before, it’s hard to get a movie made. So yeah, there were tons of challenges about just starting shooting in a place like Jackson [Mississippi], which ended up being wonderful but hasn’t had the experience of lineups of crews that all these other cities that have had — 50, a 100, 200 movies made there. We were dealing with sort of run and gun changes in the schedule, and changes in locations, and actors that drop out. So, we were always dealing with an ever-changing landscape, but that’s also part of the fun. I know that sounds like I’m 90 years old looking back, but it was true. These are the fun times, working on a movie like this is when you find yourself bonding with your crew and cast more than anywhere else.”

How involved in the post process are you?  Do you like the post process?

“I always try to get as involved as people will let me…I’m an over-excitable person and I know that, but hopefully my energy always comes off as just excited to get the best product and in this one, I had nearly full control of the whole edit and even the marketing. Sony Classics has been unbelievably collaborative and what a wonderful home for this movie because tonally, it’s a movie that needs to be really taken care of and they’ve been amazing at letting me have input on the poster and the trailer. So this has been kind of soup-to-nuts amazing experience for me.”

How closely did you work with editor Heather Persons?

“Heather is our guardian angel. She really helped us carve the statue out of the big brick of marble. Because it’s daunting to look at a first cut and think, ‘Oh my God, are we ever going to find it?’ Heather was so supportive really from moment one. She said from just the little footage she had seen, ‘Oh my God, I see what this is and this could be really special.’ When you have someone like that working next to you, you’re heading in the right place, which is great. 

“I would have loved to have had an editor in Jackson with us…and ideally, that’s what I’d like the next time around. We didn’t have that luxury, so we shot the whole movie and went with an editor and said, ‘What do you we have?’ Which is again, really scary, but lucky we had what we needed to have and it gave me a boost of confidence that I didn’t screw it up that bad and we were still able to make the movie we wanted to make.”

What do you enjoy more, the production or the post process? And why?

“There’s that age-old statement that hundreds of people will claim, that you’re making a different movie at every stage. I love writing — writing a movie is figuring out what a movie can be. But then shooting a movie is like summer camp, so summer camp sort of has that romantic haze on it. Then when you get into the editing, it’s like let’s actually look through these pictures and see how good summer camp really was. It’s always a really fascinating experience for me because I love learning and I love seeing every angle I can. That came from the days of The Office — I would spend a lot of time that I had off with the writers in the writer’s room — usually just watching. I was so fascinated to see how an idea — you could almost visualize it going up in the air and everybody trying to keep it in the air and deciding whether or not it worked — and then I would sit with the editors and watch them take 45 pages of script and cut it down to 20 minutes…true yeoman’s work. I got to watch every step of the way. The best of the best go through the process and so I continue — my whole thing as directing for me is going to be a learning process and I hope I get better and better at it. Any director I respect would never say ‘I’m done,’ so I’m looking forward to trying it again and again.”

It seemed to me like music had a very large role in this film — how important is music to you as a filmmaker?

“Well, before [being] a filmmaker, music is huge for me as a person. I’m a music nerd in that I’m always trying to hear as much music as I can and I’m lucky to have an enormous lineup of people around me constantly giving me recommendations. I would never say, ‘I’m one of those people who knows all I need to know about music.’ I need to get recommendations. I love learning and listening to it, but for me, when I write, I listen nonstop to music — I could never write in silence. When I’m directing, I try to listen to different music to catch a tone. And so, these were the songs I was actually listening to and to be honest, I never thought we had a chance to get this music. Josh Ritter had been a friend of mine for a while. He was bizarrely a big fan of The Office and knew [co-star] Rainn Wilson and came to the set one day and from then, I went to a couple of shows of his and we became friendly. I had said, ‘Listen, we’re doing this movie and I love your music and weirdly it feels like a character in the movie,’ and he jumped at the chance immediately. So, Josh Ritter, which I think is like 75 percent of the music, and then the song “Man on Fire” by Edward Sharpe, and the Magnetic Zeros was what I was listening to as the title theme and sure enough, we got it to be in our title.

“Again, I learned that you should actually try to get the music that inspired you during the process. We tried very hard and we had very helpful people. I think it restored my faith in the idea that in this business, that is feeling more and more box office and money driven, the love of fellow artists is still there.”

The film was shot on-location in Mississippi on Arri Alexa cameras. Have you worked with film at all or are you a digital guy?

“I shot Brief Interviews on film…it’s hard to shoot on film. With this one, this is much more a linear movie and therefore we needed to change things. Brief Interviews was pretty well planned out in that people were in rooms being interviewed, so there wasn’t a lot that was changing, whereas in this movie, I just thought, from a producer’s standpoint, it would just be stupid for me to shoot film. Like I said, we had locations drop out, people drop out, lots of moving pieces during the process, so I thought shooting digital would save us money and not feel like we were married to something that would hinder the movie.

“My whole thing is, whatever’s best for the movie, and I think in this case, it was digital. But in the greater conversation of film and digital, I love being a participant because I always learn from both sides.”

The film has been received very warmly — how do you feel about the finished product?

“For me, it’s an emotional movie and I think it’s a movie that talks about very sentimental things — and I don’t mean sentimental in a negative way. Though I think there are people who feel that any movie that’s sentimental is somehow saccharin and my whole goal was that there are movies I grew up on, like Terms of Endearment, that are very sentimental, very emotional, that aren’t saccharin at all and deal with things in a very real way. So I was trying to achieve that. 

“The beauty of a movie like this, similar to a comedy, you know if it’s working if you feel it. So, by the time we got to the scenes that I knew we needed to feel something, I think that not only was I feeling things but in the small group of people that I was testing, they were feeling very emotional. It’s one of those magic tricks of, if I didn’t see some misty eyes in some of the big scenes, I knew we weren’t on the right path. So yeah, when we finally thought we were on the right path, ever since then, it’s gotten better and better. It really was something where we knew we had something emotional and we just tried to make sure we did justice to the script, which was as comedic and funny and quirky as it is emotional, we will have something special.

“I have to give a huge amount of credit to [director] Tom McCarthy, who was in the midst of his huge Spotlight awards press push, and he took the time to see the cut about two days before we had to lock it for Sundance. And he gave the most amazing notes that were so basic in their ideas and execution and it was so simple what they were saying. I remember he said, ‘You’ve ended every scene perfectly. Everybody gets what they want, exactly at the end of every scene.’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And he goes, ‘Don’t do that.’ He said, ‘This family’s messy. Allow your scenes to have messy endings and not necessarily always them tie up in a bow…’ And I went, ‘Oh my God, what a brilliant note.’ So we went back and just trimmed a whole bunch of scenes before the Sundance cut and truly, 48 hours before we went to Sundance, I was cutting it thanks to Tom McCarthy. I’m always about what it takes to get the movie to where it needs to be.”

What’s next? More acting, more directing or both?

“Yes, we have a bunch of stuff. I started this production company, which has been a dream come true, because we get to work on fun stuff all the time. We have a bunch of TV in production and a couple of movies in production, and things I’m producing and writing now. I always love when the idea of directing comes up organically, so my whole thing is, let’s get the movie to where it needs to be to get made and if I’m the best person for the job, I’ll step up or otherwise we’ll get somebody else. I was offered this role of Jack Ryan for this Amazon series, so hopefully that will go into production very soon as well.”