October 24, 2001|Stricken with free-floating worry beneath a glowering sky, I was about fifteen minutes early for my interview with brothers Jacob and Josh Kornbluth at the swank Hotel Monaco in suddenly hip downtown Denver. I had spent most of the morning pounding espresso and dodging screaming fire trucks and ambulances chasing one another in a climate that made every peal of every siren an unpleasant reminder and a cause for concern. Walking up 17th Avenue, I was skittish and disquieted--hardly the appropriate frame of mind for a conversation with the writing/directing team responsible for the feather-light Haiku Tunnel, their debut feature, which is based on the office inferno monologues of older brother Josh. As it turns out, Josh, such a charming nebbish as the star of his own film, appeared as nervous as I, experiencing the very human anxiety of putting his work up for public scrutiny on an exhausting festival press junket.
As we talked, more fire engines blasted by our window like chrome red hounds of the Baskervilles. I mention all of this--my unease, Josh's, plus Jacob's nervous patter--in an attempt to paint a picture of what it means sometimes to soldier on when new developments in our collective national terror take centre stage in our hearts and minds. I didn't feel in the moment even though I was interested in the Kornbluths, and I sensed a mutual lack of involvement from the brothers. It'd been a long week, a long festival (the brothers were my last interview on the penultimate day of my ten-day marathon), and though things were always cordial and eventually even approaching warm, there was always a vague sense of wary disconnection. A malaise perhaps akin to the source of the title of the Kornbluths' film: a feeling of Zen-like dissociation tied to a solemn realization of the temporary nature of all things.
I never did find out where the emergency vehicles were headed that morning. There's a message in there somewhere--I suspect it's a poetic one.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Did you get a production deal to start work on Haiku Tunnel or did it evolve in some other way?
JOSH: We didn't get a production deal, it was really a get up, go out and grab it, and pull it together situation. Jake was the instigator of it. We said, "We're going to make a film."
JACOB: We raised money from people.
JOSH: Yeah, from just people--we had little parties--we didn't know anybody with money, but we knew people who knew people with money so we had them host parties in their houses.
JACOB: This was in '99 when it was a little different environment.
JOSH: ...Back on the tail end of when there were still some people with money.
JACOB: The nutshell of it was that Josh had the monologue of Haiku Tunnel optioned by a movie studio a really long time ago, in the early '90s I think, and then it never got made that way--it never got made through that studio (Miramax -Ed.) and it went through a lot of twists and turns.
JOSH: It was the usual turnaround story.
JACOB: It sort of fell to pieces and never went anywhere, and I always wanted to make movies. That's what I wanted to do and it was time, either make a movie or stop talking about it. I had told too many people that I was going to make a movie, I'd backed myself into this corner where you better do it or else just shut up. "So, Jake, about that movie you were talking about making..." I was working in production at that time and I was sort of unhappy and really sick of talking about it so much of the time, and Josh had been trying so hard to get a movie done and I thought the impulse to get the film made would be the same impulse that fuelled Josh's monologues: to just do it and try to express your voice to the best of your abilities and let the work stand on its own or not.
Any trouble buying back the rights from Miramax?
JOSH: It wasn't so much a problem with buying the rights back but there were some turnaround costs. I think in their own way they were pretty supportive. They said, "Look, we're just not making this kind of stuff. We really like you, we like it, we like the project, so we're not going to stand in the way."
Do you hope that the popular success of Haiku Tunnel will serve as a springboard for bigger and better things, perhaps under the aegis of a larger budget and/or major studio support?
JOSH: We certainly hope so--we're working on the script of our second film already.
The Best Thief in the World?
JACOB: It's based on my life this time.
There are a couple more Kornbluth siblings--I'm envisioning an epic autobiographical series...
JOSH: Oh definitely--like a mathematical equation that's indicated by the exclamation point--where you do all the combinations of all the family's lives.
I've heard of the cult of personality that has sprung up around your monologues, entire secretarial pools going en masse...
JOSH: It's amazing; I've gotten emails from people whose offices are going to the movie--y'know they go as an office like the whole tax group goes.
Do you like being a spokesman for...
JOSH: For neurotic fuck-ups? (laughs) It feels really cool--one of the things we're really into is doing stuff about working people because we're working people ourselves. It's cool.
JACOB: It was really hard to do it the way we did it--raising money on our own and such--but in return we got to make it exactly the way we wanted to make it. We didn't have to make it about the lawyers. We could make it about the people who aren't often looked at in films.
It must have been nice not having anyone peering over your shoulder for your first production.
JOSH: It's the only way to do it--everything, the weaknesses and the strengths--whatever is in the film is a product of Jacob and myself. Our collaborators were incredible, but in terms of making the ultimate decisions: all ours, and that's a beautiful thing.
Will you have the same control with Best Thief?
JOSH: We're gonna demand it, that's how we're gonna do it.
JACOB: We're nice guys, but there are certain things you ask for and there are certain things that you don't, and this is one thing that you have to demand. You might be able to make a film for twenty million dollars if you're willing to be a hired hand and follow somebody else's rules, or you get to make a film for two million dollars that you have complete control over. Given the choice, we'll definitely go with "B," because then you get to really feel like you made the film you want to make.
JOSH: I'm not saying we're not ever going to go the 20M route... But to be a filmmaker to be able to tell your story and to make the decision without anyone to overrule you is very important to us. It's sort of hard to imagine someone investing one-hundred million dollars in a film where the only active thing that happens is an envelope moistener explodes.
Ah, but that scene was thrilling.
JOSH: (laughs) We had to use a special lens--it's really expensive we only had for one day, a Fraser lens. Our DP said "Yep, gotta use a Fraser lens for this one."
Knowing that much of the film is drawn from your experiences as a temp, did you really use your head secretary's voicemail as a therapist?
JOSH: Yeah--well I think so. At this point we've worked so much on the film and we've seen it so many times that it's hard for me even to remember what happened and what didn't. Some of it's exaggerated because I don't think I told her voicemail my sexual fantasies, but some of it's also way played down like how late I was. So I think, yeah, mainly it's experiences I've had and the state of mind I've had.
Are you really working on a novel?
JOSH: No--I'd like to though, it's something I've never done, I've never actually worked on a novel so that part's a fiction.
You developed your script at the Sundance Labs?
JOSH: Yes, this summer, I've been there twice and just this past summer Jacob and I were there together with Best Thief in the World. It's just incredibly helpful both in the specific feedback and the amazing continuing support of people who run Sundance, especially Michelle Satter, who's the director of the labs there. [Specifically, the director of the feature film program. -Ed.] She's just such a friend and she opened a lot of doors including making it possible for us to apply for the free 35mm camera package.
JACOB: Which made it possible to shoot on 35mm. You feel like when you're making an indie film that it's a war--the economics of it don't really work out.
JOSH: You feel out-manned, and outgunned--
JACOB: The pressures not to make it are so great--you're just fighting, fighting, fighting and then here's this little bastion of people who really support it and get behind it. It's really something special. It's really hard to get in, it's lucky to be there, and you're really fortunate to be there and for the lucky few you really feel supported.
JOSH: They couldn't care less if it's a blockbuster--they want it to be your thing that's the point and that's tremendous and unique. Haiku Tunnel wouldn't exist without Sundance labs and neither, probably, would Best Thief.
Has production started on Best Thief?
JACOB: That's still a way's away. We're only just finishing up a script.
JOSH: We haven't raised the money for it either.
Will you star in it again, Josh?
JOSH: No. (laughs)
JACOB: It's about me as an 11 year-old
JOSH: Even with make-up, it's just not possible.
You could do what Peter Jackson's doing with his hobbits and digitally shrink Josh.
JOSH: Is that what he's doing? I was wondering about that! We're big Peter Jackson fans, from Meet the Feebles on: Bad Taste, Heavenly Creatures...
Why do you think fraternal writing/directing teams have had so much success?
JOSH: People would joke with us about it--"Hey, brothers. Y'know, you can't not make a good film."
JACOB: Coen Brothers, Wachowski Brothers, Farrelly Brothers--brothers just make good films.
JACOB: Actually, I'm sure there are a lot of reasons and I'm sure they all add up, but one of the things that I think is really important is I heard the Farrellys say that they keep doing something until they make the other laugh. I think it's an extra level of support you benefit from, a pushing that you get from having someone there. I think the brother teams have a sensibility that they share and they can push each other farther--it's great to have that extra push to say that what you're doing is not too bold. I can't imagine not doing it with a brother.
There's also a built in trust factor in that relationship.
JOSH: Exactly. It's very helpful to us--that's the definite thing that you trust them and they've got your back in a certain way.
JACOB: From my perspective it pushed me to be bolder than what I would do myself.
What influenced your monologues, Josh--Spalding Gray is the obvious model for most monologuists.
JOSH: He was the one who literally inspired me to do one man shows. I didn't know they existed, the autobiographical one-man shows until I saw Spalding Gray.
My favourite of his is Swimming to Cambodia.
JOSH: That's his masterpiece.
I like Demme's filmed version as well.
JOSH: It's the height of both Demme and Gray.
JOSH: As to stylistic influences, though, I really don't know. I tried to learn stuff as I went along from people I admire, but I wouldn't presume anything. People like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Lily Tomlin. Richard Pryor especially--his concert movies had a big affect on me in that they combined stuff that was really moving and really funny within nanoseconds of one another. There was a confessional quality--you don't feel like he's hiding behind anything and I try to do that in my own way.
Are there any directors whom you emulate in the same way?
JACOB: The biggest influence on me cinematically, for both of us I think, is Mike Leigh. Just his idea of telling stories of characters who don't normally get stories told about them. Not just the subject, but his whole style--the way he approaches his characters.
JOSH: It's a resolutely idiosyncratic style that doesn't do a formula or resemble anyone else's. It's very raw and very straightforward at the same time.
JACOB: After Leigh, it sort of bounces from all over, a little Scorsese, a little Coens, Peter Jackson
JOSH: Raising Arizona is our favourite film.
JACOB: I think we draw a lot of inspiration from people who work to do something specific. To do something that you look at and say: "That's their film," no matter what style or shape. The Coens are amazing--no matter what it ends up as, you feel like...
JOSH: Like it's a Coen Brothers film.
JACOB: You can agree or disagree with that sensibility--but you know that it's a Coen Brothers film. So that's something to strive for, for us. That distinction of vision is something we really admire and strive for.
What was your shooting schedule and approach to rehearsal?
JACOB: There were a couple of phases--the first was a theatre development process where we cast many of the main parts of the film and worked with the actors for three weeks separately before putting up three weeks of staged readings. We had a chance to try different things with the script, get the parts in the actors' hands, and really get to know the actors and the material in a unique way. It was a really great way to work. When went away from that, though, and I think it had become a little too stagy and it hadn't yet become a film but we'd really taken great strides.
Then we really worked on the screenplay intensively. Time went by to allow us to raise money--the final shooting schedule was 18 days with 2 days to shoot what we call the "non-descript room" (where Josh narrates from) so it was originally a 20-day schedule and we added one day. It was really short, really fast, but with six weeks half a year previous, just working with the main parts. We're really rehearsal intensive--as much as we could rehearse, we did rehearse.
Did the script evolve further as you shot?
JOSH: I don't know that it even could have because it was so fast, going from set up to set up and getting the lines down. There were some lines that were worked on a bit in very specific scenes--in a couple of scenes like the ones where I'm leaving stuff for Marlina's voicemail, that I really wanted to improvise. You actually don't hear a lot of it in the film except for little remnants of it--some Jewish stuff and weird shit--but almost everything else in the film was performed word for word from the script.
How did you get Harry Shearer to jump on board your project?
JOSH: He saw me do the monologue in LA and that was during the end of the Miramax time and he said if you ever get this made, gimme a call, I wanna be a part of it.
JACOB: A great guy.
JOSH: An incredibly sweet person.
Did you make him do Mr. Burns?
JOSH: (laughs) Principal Skinner, mainly.
JACOB: We did have the opportunity to introduce him offscreen as a voice before you see him and I get sort of a special tincture of pleasure.
JOSH: You hear the cadences: genius.
Did you have any people unhappy with being fictionalized in your monologues and now your film?
JOSH: My head secretary, when I did the monologue, the head secretary said that she liked the monologue, but if possible could I do no more pieces in which she was a character. So she limited me to that one but aside from that, no. Besides, I think that people come off well. I both try to do that in the stuff that I do and I think that people tend to be nice to me, and that comes off in the film. I mean Bob Shelby doesn't turn out to be so bad. He saw a review, by the way, the real Bob Shelby and he said there was one review that mentioned that the Shelby character was "arrogant." And so he sent me a thing after he and his wife saw it at Berkeley saying that he liked the film but he and his wife were going to see it again to make sure that he didn't come off as arrogant.
I tried to assure him that the critic didn't know what he was talking about.
I enjoyed the sound production on your film, particularly the gust of cold air that preceded every appearance of the head secretary.
JOSH: That was one of the pleasures of post production--how that organically developed
At Skywalker Ranch, right?
JACOB: That was great. One of the real pleasures of making this film was that the script got to a certain point and people started to like it. There's not that many people in the film business that get a chance to work on things they like--they're generally working for money.
JOSH: Strangely enough, right? What a way to run a business!
JACOB: But here came this project where people who are really talented artists at Skywalker ranch really wanted to work, to be a part of something that they're doing that's not Pearl Harbor. They came in and brought themselves--
JOSH: And their world class abilities--
JACOB: Into it. We were on the foley stage where they did Star Wars!
JOSH: Where Chewbacca had trod!
JACOB: Chewbacca had walked through this foley stage--that's unbelievable, that's fantastic. And they have llamas out there, and a herd of deer. . .
JOSH: And peacocks, maybe an ostrich too, some kind of big bird, they made a real fantasy place. Plus we could make our own cappuccino. Coppola had given Lucas his own cappuccino-making machine and it was in the commissary there and Jake and I would go over and (makes the sound in unison of a cappuccino machine)...
JACOB: That was really cool.
JOSH: They were really great. Mike Axton was the coordinator of the postproduction sound at Skywalker and they came up with just wonderful sounds. It was a tremendous experience for us learning as we were doing. It's pretty incredible to make a film at this budget and to be so fortunate. Our cinematographer Don Matthew Smith who is fantastic told us before we shot, "I think sounds on low, low budget films--if you're gonna have one thing that you can't skimp on, it's the sound." And that was from the cinematographer!
JACOB: There are certain times when you make a film of this size that people are more or less competent--it was amazing to be in the mix room with all of the buttons where the film comes together and is being mixed. That was just phenomenal. That was just something.
JOSH: There were just more buttons than could be.
It's a very exciting time for you.
JOSH: It really is, but it's stressful, too. You go out in the world and it's your baby and it's a very exciting but a very vulnerable feeling. It's really one of the most stressful times of our life.