Talking road trips and buddy movies with the stars and directors of ‘Land Ho!’

It's a good weekend for catching up on Sundance highlights, big and small. Richard Linklater's “Boyhood” is, of course, the film on everybody's lips at the moment – and deservedly so – but that's no reason to ignore a more modest independent tale of growing up and growing out, albeit at a slightly different age. Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens' droll, laid-back comedy “Land Ho!” is the first collaboration between the two writer-directors, each one with a handful of delicately formed micro-indies behind them, and it is itself a story of an unexpected partnership: the plot centers on two drifting retirees, formerly in-laws, whose friendship is tested and deepened over the course of a spontaneous road trip through Iceland.

It's the kind of premise that, on paper, could signify treacly hijinks in the vein of “The Bucket List” or “Grumpy Old Men,” but Katz and Stephens' film is far subtler and more surprising than that – a story of personal rediscovery that isn't necessarily dependent on overt romance, drastic reinvention or wacky pratfalls. As HitFix's Dan Feinberg described it in his Sundance review, the film plays simply “as a series of episodes and travelogue moments that advance two main characters toward only understated confrontations and small personal revelations.”

That this low-key approach proves so engaging is in large part due to the beautifully modulated performances of by Paul Eenhoorn (who made an impact last year in Chad Hartigan's Indie Spirit winner “This is Martin Bonner”) and Earl Lynn Nelson, a largely inexperienced actor whose eccentric screen charisma was discovered by Stephens, who also happens to be his first cousin. The team is clearly a close-knit one, with Eenhoorn and Nelson playing off each other's contrasting styles as productively as the two directors do. I got on the phone with them – two by two – to discuss collaboration, avoiding the obvious, and the improbable link between between Nelson and Mo'Nique.

HitFix: Okay, just straight off the bat: What's your favorite buddy movie?

Paul Eenhoorn: Oh, “Midnight Run.” Easily.

Earl Lynn Nelson: I like the cowboy ones. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Paul Newman and Robert Redford – can't beat them.

I ask because “Land Ho!” feels in a lot of ways like a vintage buddy movie dynamic in a fresh context. Is that what you set out to make?

Nelson: We didn't even know what it was! They just put us together for a few days and wrote it after.

Eenhorn: We shot about 10 to 12 pages in Kentucky in May (2013), and used that as a tool to get some production funds and backers.

So at that point, you had no idea where the project was going?

Nelson: Nope.

Eenhorn: Well, we knew we were going to Iceland!

Nelson: (laughs) If we made it.

Earl Lynn, you've only ever worked on Martha's films. Does she just call you up, and you go with whatever she's doing?

Nelson: Yeah, she asked me once if I'd be in her movie, and I said sure. And now, if I'd go to Iceland, and I said, “Yeah I will!” And she was trying to get some funds and sent the first couple of movies that we did over to David Gordon Green. That's when he asked me to be on “Eastbound and Down,” because he loved my voice.

And Paul, was it your work in Chad Hartigan's “This is Martin Bonner” that brought you to this project?

Eenhorn: It was, yes. Both Aaron and Martha saw “Martin Bonner,” and the character sort of clicked with them. At that point, they obviously knew they wanted to use Earl and it fell down to me to take the other part.

The development of your relationship on screen seems very organic. How well did you guys know each other before shooting?

Nelson: Not at all. You see, when the group came to Kentucky, they stayed at my house. So we got to know each other just in time.

Eenhorn: And got to know about tequila and moonshine! Yeah, the opening scene over at Earl Lynn's place – or at Mitch's place, rather – that's where we met. We spoke a bit, and I knew from experience that it was a good match. We had some chemistry, but didn't talk about it much because we didn't have a script until a few months later.

Nelson: And then we got to be friends, spending all that time together, having a few drinks together – on and off the set.

Eenhorn: Yeah, the longer you know Earl the more you love him. But also, much of the credit for their character development goes to Martha and Aaron. It wasn't shot in sequence, so they kept a very good eye and good hands on it.

How much of you, respectively, is in those characters?

Nelson: I'm me in the film. I mean, honestly, I'm the same person all the time. I have a good time. I squeeze life for every nickel it's worth. As we say in the movie several times, “We might not be here tomorrow.”

Eenhorn: Obviously, Colin is a factor of me, though I'm more like Mitch with my friends. But Colin had to be that guy – it wouldn't have worked with two loudmouths on the set! Not that Earl's such a loudmouth, but with two huge personalities it'd have been just a ruckus. So Colin's character is very much the result of working with Earl, as well as working with Mitch.

At its core, the film has quite a classic “carpe diem” message. As two actors who have found the spotlight later in life, if you like, does that resonate with you?

Eenhorn: I had dinner last night with a filmmaker and we discussed this. There still seems to be a lack of film for the baby boomer generation, if you'd like to call it that. And I think “Martin Bonner” showed what's possible. Later in life, when you've been working at something for a long time, to actually get some kudos for what you do is wonderful. But films like “Philomena” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” show there's an audience out there for people our age.

Nelson: People brought up age a lot at Tribeca and Sundance, but I don't think this movie can be pigeonholed as an old man thing. Younger people go through the same things in life: losing their jobs, losing a loved one, getting divorced or whatever. To me, this is a film that enlightens everybody across the board, from the twenties up to their eighties. This talks about life, not just getting old with life.

Did you adhere entirely to the script or was there any kind of room for improvisation? The banter often feels quite spontaneous.

Eenhorn: Well, there's a lot more than they're giving us credit for. It's 50% script, 25% our script and 25% improv. I've got that written down here! Seriously, though, Aaron and Martha let us work on parts of the script when we were shooting. As Aaron says, we would start at the very end and go backwards instead of the other way round. So they captured a lot of what they wanted from the script, but also you'd see parts where it's purely just Earl and me doing our thing. You can't keep it all, obviously. Otherwise it would have been 50/50!

So, would you guys go on a road trip together now?

Nelson: We're on one now! We went to Sundance, we went to Tribeca and now we're in LA. We enjoy each other's company even with the cameras off.

Eenhorn: You know what, it would be fun to grab a Hummer and get in it with a camera crew and just drive across America. See what happens. That would be fun. If you have the money for that, I can give you my number. I'll keep it in mind.


HitFix: As filmmakers, you both had quite separate and defined aesthetics, developed over several features apiece. Why did you decide to work together, and why now? 

Aaron Katz: Yeah, Martha and I have talked a lot about how “Land Ho!” combines many elements of both of our previous films in a way that makes something very different from what either of us would make on our own.

Martha Stephens: I think we decided to work together because we were both getting projects ready and weren't sure when we were actually going to get to make them – and we were both feeling a little stagnant, itching to do something. So we thought, why not put our resources together and make something fun, like an experiment? We were tossing around an idea to make something for $50,000, just to get our creative juices flowing. Then it became bigger than we thought.

Katz: Pretty much every idea of this film was to allow ourselves to cut loose in terms of the writing and shooting it. Even in editing, we just tried to have fun with it – to make a comedy inspired by some of our favorite movies like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” but approaching the characters as a complex, three-dimensional people.

I kind of think of your film as the anti-“Bucket List.” It's about aging, but doesn't condescend to its characters. You seem to see quite a lot of yourselves in these men as well.

Stephens: Yeah. Aaron is a really big fan of “The Bucket List,” though. Maybe he was inspired by it.

Katz: I have never seen “The Bucket List.” Stop selling me out.

Stephens: Seriously, we were never like, “Let's jump on the golden oldie bandwagon and make a movie about older people because 'Marigold Hotel' and 'Quartet' and all those movies have been doing so well.” We just wanted to make a movie where we took someone like Earl Lynn out of his element and dropped him in a foreign land. We thought that would be fun.

Katz: Earl Lynn and Paul were the impetus to write the script, so for us it wasn't writing a movie about old people – it was writing a movie about these particular guys. And as Earl Lynn says, the themes in the movie can apply to anyone. It's always tough to figure out where you're going in life and what to do next.

It's a story of a very evenly balanced partnership. Do you think that lent itself to being directed by a duo?

Katz: Definitely, yes. And we also shot with the two cameras, so there's a lot of things that are kind of doubled in this movie. A lot of times while we were shooting, Martha and I would briefly talk after a take, and then each of us would separately go wind up Earl Lynn and Paul. And whenever we would talk briefly for a moment, they'd get suspicious that we were…

Stephens: …up to no good.

Katz: Yeah. But I think it was a really great thing. What makes us really proud of this movie is that there are some things in it we didn't expect to happen, but we set up circumstances that allowed those things to happen. 

How did the idea hatch in the first place? What was the spark?

Katz: Well, Martha had the original idea because she and her husband were planning a trip to Iceland.

Stephens: Yeah. I've always had a thing for Iceland, and I was doing my research and planning and looking at pictures and I thought, wow, I really want to make a movie here. And then I combined that with the idea I'd always had to use Earl Lynn in a leading role. He's always been been part of my life. Then David Gordon Green saw my first film at SXSW and told me that, apart from Mo'Nique in “Precious,” Earl Lynn gave his favorite performance of the year, and that I needed to give him a leading role as soon as possible. That really stuck with me over the years.

Did you consciously look for a co-star as contrastingly reserved as Paul Eenhoorn?

Stephens: We definitely wanted it to be an odd couple.

Katz: We saw “This is Martin Bonner,” and I thought he was so perfect – such an ideal balance to Earl Lynn. But what I like in the movie is that, while Paul's on the whole quite reserved and Earl Lynn very outgoing, they both have moments of switching roles. We were just talking about how hanging out with someone can really bring out different aspects of your personality. It happens for them, and I also think it happened for me and Martha in terms of our directing approach.

What, then, do you both feel you learned from each other from working together on this project?

Katz: I'd say the thing I take from it the most is remembering to have fun, and remembering that setting up the guidelines for what the movie is going to be is great, but within that, you should let yourself do something weird. Don't throw out an idea that seems crazy, because it could be something that just works for the movie.

Stephens: I'd agree with that. Personally, every time I get to make a movie it's a learning experience – I understand my strengths and weaknesses a little better, and take that with me to the next one.

Katz: Oh yeah, shoot more B-roll.

Stephens: (laughs) We were actually making a list during editing of things that we should have done, and it really was mostly things like that. More B-roll. More wild sound. When you're in the middle of making a movie and you're running around, especially when the movie's small and you're wearing a lot of hats, those are the things that get forgotten first. Maybe I should, like, write that down and put it in my pocket.

The soundtrack is really special. I love how you mix music that seems very much from the characters' lives with contemporary pop that doesn't. Was there a plan behind that, or were you just trying things out?

Stephens: We waited to determine that on set, and the spirit of the movie then kind of dictated the soundtrack. After we shot the Kentucky portion, we realized how much this movie had in common with sort of an 80s buddy movie. So we went with some more retro stuff because of that.

Katz: But then we looked at a lot of different things for inspiration. Our composer, Keegan DeWitt, hung out with us while we were finishing the first cut, when we were looking at everything from “Tommy Boy” to “Local Hero” for inspiration. The 80s were such an interesting time, and pop was really integrating a world of music. So we'd listen to some Paul Simon, and then some Richard Marx…

Stephens: Well, Richard Marx wasn't doing world music. But we were just listening to a lot of top 40 stuff, and also some things that are maybe a little more poignant and off the radar.

Katz: Our approach with the music was the same as with everything else: have fun with it, don't be afraid of referencing pop-culture points, but don't copy them either. Use them as a jumping-off point. Keegan did a great job. He'd be frantically working over there, sometimes going to the other room to record something and we'd be focused on editing the movie. So it was always a surprise what he had for us.

Obvious question to close on, this, but are you guys planning to work together again at some point?

Stephens: We talked about maybe someday doing a sequel to “Land Ho!” But I think right now we both want to continue with the projects we were trying to get made before this one.

Katz: One of the goals of this film was to energize us both on our own projects, and it's done just that: we are a bit more expansive in our production scope now. But yeah, we had a blast working together.

Stephens: And we've talked about a “Land Ho!” TV pilot, too. Things like that.

Katz: We're expecting to have as many “Land Ho!” films as there are “Fast and Furious” movies.

“Land Ho!” opens in theaters today.