Film

Interview: When Jeff Filmmaker on Making a Movie Back Home, and Being Inspired by Joe Swanberg

On a warm August afternoon in 2017, I drove myself down to Lan-Oak Lanes, an old-school bowling alley in Lansing, Illinois, just shy of the Indiana border. The establishment just happened to be the primary set for the new indie film When Jeff Tried to Save the World, from first-time feature director Kendall Goldberg (who also co-wrote with Rachel Borgo). Goldberg is a 23-year-old Chicago native, based in Los Angeles, who went to film school at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film & Media Arts in Orange, California.

The film tells the story of Jeff (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder), the manager of Winky’s World, the bowling alley. When his boss Sheila (Candi Milo) tells him that her soon-to-be-ex-husband Carl (Jim O’Heir) is looking to sell Winky’s, Jeff takes it upon himself to save the establishment by showing how much of an indispensable institution it truly is to the community. The film also stars Brendan Meyer, Steve Berg, Anna Konkle, Richard Esteras and Maya Erskine, and while at its heart it’s a sweet comedy, When Jeff also has a few dark corners, primarily dealing with Jeff’s secretly crumbling world and fragile psyche.

When Jeff

Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre

The film is set to make its Chicago debut this week at the Music Box Theatre with a pair of screenings—Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 8:15pm, and Thursday, Dec. 6 at 9:45pm—after which Goldberg, Heder and Milo will be on hand for audience Q&As (I’ll be moderating on Wednesday). For more details and to buy advance tickets, go to the Music Box’s event page.

The day I visited happened to be O’Heir’s (“Parks and Recreation”) last day of shooting. There were dozens of extras floating around, bowling, eating, drinking and generally milling about—they were recruited with the promise that they could bowl all day, and they got the bonus prize of having the very funny O’Heir entertaining them between takes. There’s an oversized Winky’s World neon sign on the wall at the far end of the bowling lanes and several additional, hidden lights positioned around the venue to brighten the place up.

But once the scene is done and O’Heir departs, the extras are cleared out as Goldberg and her team set up the next shot, which takes place near the end of the film. It’s the first time I hear uttered the name El Diablo—a legendary Winky’s bowler from the old days who was friends with the alley’s namesake. Goldberg gathers the remaining actors—mostly the ones playing characters who work at the alley along with Jeff—and she talks about the emotion behind the next sequence, toward which the entire film has been building. She even plays music that will likely be playing in the background of the moment in the film, for motivation.

Jeff has a history with video game designing, and has even created a Whizzing Winky’s arcade game that has a prominent spot in the arcade that sits just off the bar. The arcade itself was actually built for the film, although it looks like it has been there for decades.

Without giving the moment away, the scene itself is actually set in the bowling alley, so everyone is wearing bowling shoes, which was required by the Lan-Oaks owners. The moment is going to play in slow motion in the final film and it seems apparent we will be witnessing a historic final moment in the alley’s history, so site lines and movements have to be perfectly composed. Goldberg decides to play music during the takes since there’s no sound being recorded. Between takes, actor Steve Berg (who has recurring roles in “The Good Place,” “The Goldbergs,” and “Drunk History,” and has popped up in such films as Digging for Fire and Tag) is entertaining the troops and offers up a great deal of improvised jokes for scenes at various points in shooting throughout the day, which do a great job of breaking some of the tension.

The hard-working, small crew are also noticeably young and energetic, and it’s inspiring to watch them do their work with such commitment. During a series of setups and takes, I got to sit down and chat with Goldberg, as well as O’Heir and Heder, to talk about what it took to bring the film together and a little background on their characters and the unpleasant situation they all find themselves in as they contemplate the final days of Winky’s World. First up is Goldberg, who I actually had to interview three separate times during the course of the day because of how understandably busy she was.

You did a proof-of-concept short for this film first. Were you still in school then?

I was still in school. I just graduated in May.

What fascinated you about this particular setting and what was the germ of this story?

It came from the idea of making a movie in a bowling alley. I’m very location oriented for movies—kind of like the Woody Allen idea in Manhattan that the location is a character in the story—I love that. The original idea was totally different than this, but it slowly formed into this story of following Jeff, the manager of the bowling alley, on this journey in which he deals with anxiety, fear of failure and change and learning to accept that change. I didn’t realize it at time, but those were all things I was dealing with at the time when I wrote it, and still am dealing with to a degree. So it became easy for me to write that, to take the things I was feeling and put them in the vessel of a 30-year-old man. I don’t know how I did that, but it was super intriguing to me about the story and that’s what came out of it. So it became a personal journey, even though it didn’t start as one, which was cool.

I’ve been working on the film for four years, and each time we’d go back and rewrite something, it would change. Really just before we started working on the feature, I went back and took a look at old drafts and saw how I’ve changed as a person and put in what I wrote and what I’d learned. So it became a very personal story to me, even though I don’t work in a bowling alley.

I remember in the short, there’s an implication that Jeff has dropped out of school because of his lack of confidence and his anxiety. Is that still a part of this?

A little less detailed than that. In that, he dropped out of MIT, computer engineering. His parents thought he was in grad school but he’s not. The idea is similar here, but we don’t specify the school. It’s more or less that he went to school, got a degree for computer engineering, had these huge opportunities that just fell through, and it’s never really said how it didn’t work out, but it didn’t. And his parents think that it did and that he has the great, high-paying job, but instead he ended up getting a job at a bowling alley to make ends meet for the time being, but he fell in love with it. Now he’s embarrassed to tell his family and doesn’t think that they’ll accept him or the fact that he really enjoys what he does. It’s less past and more present now—that’s one of the things we learned when we made the short. It felt more meaningful to do it that way.

The fact that you made the short and a year later you’re making the feature. That’s not that common. That’s fairly quick. Was it a little terrifying that it came together so fast?

Actually, yeah. There were points where I was…well, the night before shooting, I was like “I could use another week, at least, of prep.” But leading up to it, I was dying to make it. I’ve been dying to make this movie since I wrote the original script; it had been such a long time coming and it has built up over so many years that I said to Shane [Simmons, producer], “If we don’t make this movie this summer, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.” And I know that comes across as me giving up on my passion, but that’s not what I mean. It’s just that you try and try so hard at this movie, and it represents me through all of these script drafts. I just thought “I’m going to be too different to make this exact movie in a year, or a couple months from now.” In a couple of months, I’m going to want to do something different. It just wouldn’t have worked the same way it’s working now, if I didn’t do it now.

Do you think moving forward that everything you make is going to represent that time in your life?

Oh yes. It would be weird if it didn’t. You have to find a way to connect to the stories you tell, and the only way to do that is to write about something that’s happened to you before or something that you’re feeling in the present.

Jim O’Heir said you cast him through Facebook.

That’s correct! I will say, Jim is unique because he loves social media and he’s very active and responsive on it. He has tons of Facebook friends and loves to post and rightfully so. I think the timing was perfect. I found out he was from a town or two over from where I was from, and “Parks” was just wrapping, and I happened to have the script and messaged him and said, “Hi, I’m from Munster, you’re from Dyer [both towns in Indiana, near the Illinois border], I know this is very unconventional…” I could probably pull up the messages, but I would probably cringe if I did. I still remember the moment I received a message back from him. I was in an airport, probably going on a family vacation, about to board the plane, and my phone dinged with him saying “Absolutely send me the script; I’d love to read it.” You never imagine somebody being so kind and genuine to take a chance on a little, well, me.

Someone sent me a copy of your “look book,” and you have a lot of interesting films in there whose vibe you’re trying to capture, like The Skeleton Twins and The Way, Way Back. A lot of the photos show that you have a real love of the neon quality of a bowling alley. Why do you like that so much?

Specifically to The Way, Way Back, which was a big inspiration for this film in several ways—and I had Dodgeball in there too—I really love movies about a place and the people who live or work in that place. Taking a small slice of life and seeing what those characters are like, how they act with each other and the environment around them. Adventureland is like that too. Those are the stories that really jump out at me and the stories I really want to tell.

Most people have work and a life outside of work, but in a lot of those films, their life happens at work.

Yeah. I think it’s interesting to play with the idea that, even though people come and go from a place, what is their life in that one place? We have other locations, but about 80 percent of this film is in this bowling alley. One of the first movies I ever made took place entirely in a laundromat; we never even see the outside of it, the camera is always inside, which really intrigued me. I think it’s interesting to see how people are and live in a certain environment.

You mentioned neon. I’m obsessed with neon lights and I love neon signs. It really felt like Jeff’s world is this bowling alley. It’s called Winky’s World, and it’s a microcosm of his world. The movie is told from Jeff’s perspective, and in order to share with the audience just how much it means to him, we felt like we needed to bring as much color into the place and livelihood and vibrant, glowing things. The physical neon lights are here, yes, but it’s the idea that it’s the way Jeff sees it and how he enjoys his time working here. It’s not like he comes and goes into a yucky, scummy, old, dirty bowling alley. It has this history and character to it, and the color, especially with the Winky’s World sign that we created. I made a deal with the owner—he gets to keep it for a bit and then he’s shipping it to California. I’m having it in my house.

Is the way he perceives the place a factor of Jeff’s mental health?

A little bit, yeah. My DP, Nico Aguilar, and I wanted to create a feeling of a drastic change and contrast between the bowling alley and his life outside the bowling alley, like in his apartment, which is very bright in a non-colorful way. It’s a harsh reality, with white walls contrasting with navy tones. It’s lifeless almost. In creating that contrast, he finds happiness in the color of Winky’s World. We wanted to bathe the characters in these beautiful colors and light and production design in here, so that when he does go to the outside world, the audience subconsciously is on the same page, and they have more fun in the bowling alley.

However, the  story takes a turn as Jeff learns to accept things, learns how to change. The way we’re shooting the movie is with two types of lenses, so that everything is beautiful and wide and anamorphic with lens flairs in the bowling alley, and spherical lenses outside the bowling alley. And then we make a switch three-quarters of the way through the movie, where the lines start to blur for him, and he does find love outside the bowling alley—there’s a symbolic change in his mentality, and it’s reflected in cinematic and visual changes in the way we shoot it. We’ve been planning this for a long time [laughs].

You mentioned that your original intent was not necessarily to shoot this where you were from. You looked at locations in California for this. So how did you land here?

I scouted 40-plus bowling alleys—30-something in L.A. And after several months of looking and being disappointed and not finding what I wanted, I came home for break and went to three around here, and this was the last one I went to. I just said “Why not?” We have a lot of connections around the area because it’s a small town and everybody knows each other and wants to help each other. It’s so much more welcoming than L.A. when you’re trying to film a movie because they’re not used to it; everyone is excited about it. Everyone wants to be a part of it.

So it’s that feeling of being at home and having so many people to turn to for help and getting people that I’ve known and love involved in the film. Then finding the perfect place. It was straight out of my mind—the look, the feel, the owner was incredibly welcoming, logistically it worked well. When I first walked in, Dale gave me tour and showed me behind the pin machine and showed me these engravings in the wood from people who used to be the pin setters in the 1950s. No one ever took that much time and care to show me things like that, and I walked behind pin machines in many bowling alleys. It just clicked.

There has to have been a point where you said, “Of course this is where this should take place.”

I feel like I wouldn’t have been up to the job of looking here if I didn’t go through all the time looking other places. It’s weird shooting near where I grew up. I have family and friends coming in and out, and I turn and go “Oh my god, what are you doing here?” But it’s a really nice feeling to do my first feature here; there’s a comfort to it. I wasn’t nervous at all about doing it. I was nervous about certain small aspects, but in general, I wasn’t nervous at all, and that had a lot to do with being here at home, surrounded by people who have supported me for so long and really put their faith in me.

Where do you want to go after this—telling more personal stories, trying out other genres?

It’s so hard to say. Right now, today, if I were to give you an answer to that question, I’d say I hope to be in a position to make another movie like this, whether they’re super-personal stories to me or they aren’t so personal but I find a way to make them personal, I just want to keep doing this. It’s an amazing feeling to make independent films because there is a sense of control and ownership. Like a family-owned bowling alley, it’s a family-owned film. You find this great group of people to make a movie with, and everyone cares so much about it and is passionate about it. Why would you work on an indie film if you weren’t passionate about it? Ideally, I just want to keep making movies like this and hopefully people will check them out and hopefully be in a position where I’m calling the shots with people I love and want to be working with.

Everyone here feels like they have a sense of the story and they’re adding something to it, and that’s the environment I dreamed of creating because some of my favorite directors have a similar environment, and you hear people when they walk off their sets say “They let me contribute.”

That was my next question: who are some of your filmmaking role models?

I love Joe Swanberg. I have a lot of crew that worked for him on “Easy” [his Netflix series] and Win It All, and the producers from Drinking Buddies are producing this. I have a couple of people in this who have acted for him. I only know him a little bit, but from what I’ve heard, the vibe people get from him is that you’re a part of something bigger. It’s the same feeling you want people to get when they watch the movie, that they have escaped and been part of something special. It’s hard work, yes, but it’s so fun. I can’t get over the fact that I’m making movies, hopefully for a living. It’s an insane thing to say.

One of the ways Joe adds to that ownership is letting his actors come up with a lot of their own dialogue based on a his outline of the story.

Yes, and I’ve had conversations with Steve and Jim O’Heir upfront about improv and how I like to do it. I’m more scripted than Joe’s movies, but why I love his movies is that they provide a sense of naturalism, and he really nails human behavior. I don’t have enough experience on this planet to know as much as he does or as much as someone even older does, but it teaches me to give people the opportunity to riff from he words I’ve written and take it into their own hands and use that liberty to go off what I have written, even though every line is scripted.

I want to create an atmosphere—and I think I have on this movie—where the actors can come up to me, and if they have an issue with a line or they think they think they have something better or they think their character wouldn’t say something, I’m always open to hearing that. It shows that these people care about the roles that they’re in and the overall movie; they’re trying to embody these characters. John and I had a discussion about the ending, and we changed it together, and I was totally happy about doing it. I don’t take offense to it; it’s not poor writing on my part or my co-writer’s part. It was just a big collaborative effort and people with experiences that I don’t have adding to the mix.

I’ve been doing set visits for nearly 20 years, and I’m pretty certain this is the first set visit I’ve done with a female director.

That’s sad.

I agree. And it was funny to hear you say that you wrote this very personal story from the perspective of a 30-year-old man, because older men have been writing stories about female characters for decades. It shouldn’t even cross your mind that what you did was strange.

You’re absolutely right. For me, I think the strange thing was about the way that I connected and how much I connected to the character. I’ve never experienced being a man and I’ve never experienced being 30 years old, but I think that I wrote it convincingly—at least we’ll see if I did when the critics see the movie, assuming they see it before I turn into a 30-year-old man [laughs].

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