One of my favorite parts about blogging for TCFF is meeting various indie filmmakers. I’m glad I got to meet Jon Weinberg over coffee one rainy evening, and it’s one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve done in my seven years covering the film fest!
Scott thinks he might be dying. Not at all an uncommon thought for Scott, but today the lump he believes he found “down there” might actually be real. Today also happens to be the day of his friend Kens funeral. Funeral Day is a darkly funny movie about a man who skips his friends funeral in an attempt to start living his own life to the fullest.
Funeral Day is a dark comedy that could double as a male health PSA. My blog contributor Sarah reviewed the film here, and while I agree it’s a bit on the raunchy side, the writing is fun and zippy. Definitely one of the strongest feature film debuts that premiered at TCFF, so I hope Jon would continue making movies in the future.
Collaboration with Testicular Cancer Society
The filmmaker raised awareness for testicular cancer in collaboration with the Testicular Cancer Society. During the post-production stage, Jon sent a tweet that caught the attention of Testicular Cancer Society founder, Mike Craycraft, a testicular cancer survivor who waited seven months after feeling his lump before having it checked. In the film, after feeling a lump on his testicle, the main character refuses to go to a doctor, “which is not uncommon in men,” explained Craycraft.
Both the society and the producers of the film hope that by engaging in co-promotion, more men (and the women in their lives) will become aware of testicular cancer and be proactive in the diagnosis and care process.
A full cast of experienced and recognizable talent include: Tyler Labine (Deadbeat, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil), Tygh Runyan (The upcoming Versailles, Stargate Universe), Suzy Nakamura (Dr. Ken, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Horrible Bosses 2), Dominic Rains (Best Actor award winner at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival for his role in Burn Country, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Loner) and many more.
Funeral Day is written by Kris Elgstrand, an award winning screenwriter, whose most recent film, Songs She Wrote About People She Knows, premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Quick bio about Jon Weinberg:
Funeral Day is the debut feature film of director Jon Weinberg, a Minnesota native who grew up in St. Louis Park. Weinberg received a degree in theatre from the University of British Columbia, and later continued his training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) before moving to Los Angeles in 2006. He has appeared on film, TV, stage as well as audio. His directing work includes several stage productions, commercials, and an award winning short film. Weinberg is also the author of the award winning photography and poetry bookA Calm Position (In Due Time Press). He is currently producing an upcoming web series with Ethan and Dominic Rains.
Q: So that was interesting how you ended up partnering with the Testicular Cancer Society. Tell me a little bit about that.
Post [crowd]funding campaign on Seed & Spark, during that time I tweeted out. Just to get some people’s attention, I tweeted it out to the Testicular Cancer Society. They seemed like they had a little bit of a sense of humor with, you know, dealing with the disease, at least what I gather from their tweets and their website. And actually it caught the founders’ attention. It was Mike Craycraft and he tweeted back and then he said, I want to talk to you.
It was just like that. It’s very now, you know, that really wouldn’t have happened five years ago with the whole social media thing. And so, we connected and he basically said that, from seeing the site and reading the synopsis and stuff that he had a similar experience in it. I remember thinking at first like ‘I hope not because the guy goes through a lot of crazy shit in this movie.’ Then he starts to tell me how a number of years ago he found a lump. And for whatever reason he just thought ‘I have cancer, I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t want to go to the doctor. And he threw himself a going away party. He didn’t tell anyone why and didn’t go to a doctor and sort of went on an adventure thinking ‘Ok I’m going to die anyway…’ But eventually he said ‘Wait, what am I doing? This is silly.’ And he waited unfortunately a while [to get tested], but fortunately not too long because he’s still alive now. But he did have cancer and they had to remove one of his testicles.
Now he’s fine, but from this experience, it motivated him to get other people more aware of it with this wonderful organization. It doesn’t just raise awareness but they’re also advocates for patients and stuff. Anyway, so we partner with him which has been great and I’m learning a lot. And our mission is to work together. He wants to be able to screen the film, maybe at some college campuses, to educate and just facilitate conversation. So yeah, this collaboration is obviously a win win. I get to be a part of something great, that has a great cause.
Q: How was your collaboration writer Kris Elgstrand?
Yes, Kris is a writer based out of Vancouver who wrote the screenplay. We’ve worked together. He had originally written it for himself, but he put it on hold while he was working on the project. And then I got into it, and I had decided I wanted to make a feature. I was reading different scripts and I remembered that script because he had sent it to me. I basically said to him, ‘Hey can I do it?’ And he said ‘Yeah, let’s make that happen.’ So I took it from him and then I grabbed another couple of producers and then we started putting it together.
Q: So I’m curious, I know you wanted to make it. But what made you decide that you want to also star in it?
Yeah. So originally, I was looking for something to act and that I could also produce that I cared about. So that was, originally I wasn’t intending to necessarily direct. I had directed a short and a few other things. But this would be a first feature so I wasn’t intending to be just like ‘oh I’ll just direct myself.’ But as I started prepping for it, it sort of made sense that I was going to be the co-directing it with someone. So I just started directing it and certainly it was important to me to make sure I had one of the producers… you know, we have a full crew. It was a small film but we did have a 22-person crew. We did have a big truck and you know, we went by the rules, we had permits and all that. But on set it was very important to me to have someone at the monitor all the time, because I was in it. So you know one of the producers, Ron Buttler, help co-directed me up there on set. So I always had people I trusted around me, which you should always have. We had a really great team. And, we were able to, not with everyone, but we were able to do some rehearsals beforehand that made it a little bit more comfortable because we had a very quick shoot.
Q: Tell me a bit about the filming process? How many days it took you to shoot this?
13 days. It was a very quick shoot, you know. We shot the whole thing in like 13 days. We had some pick-ups but it was quick. We shot everything on location in L.A. We had a great cinematographer named Jeffrey Cunningham who just fantastic and everyone worked really hard. Kris [the writer] couldn’t make it out to the set but he was very hands on beforehand. We had a script supervisor and there were even times where we had to rewrite a little section or two, we could always call Kris, so we’re able to always be in contact. He’s great, he’s the kind of writer that writes for the actor. I mean it’s very dialogue-heavy kind of film, he writes a very talky kind of dialogue. A lot of people asked me if some of it was improv but no, he wrote a lot of it in the script.
Q: I have to ask you about casting. Tyler Labine, I saw his film at a film fest a couple of years ago. It’s called Best Man Down now, but at the time it was called Lumpy.
Yes, and he’s a great, great guy.
Q: And then Dominic Rains, too, who’ll also be here for the premiere for three of his films. I know he’s originally from Iran, but he plays an American in this movie, correct?
Yes, he’s from Iran. He moved to England but he actually then grew up in Texas. So he speaks with an American accent in this movie and he’s fantastic with accents.
In fact in [Dominic’s film] Burn Country, he has an Afghan accent and in The Loner he also has an accent. I’m just going to talk about how much I love him. He’s a wonderful guy and an amazing actor. So in my film, he’s playing you know, like you said before, sort of a jerk and he’s funny, he’s really funny. It’s such a different role from the two other films he’s screening here in TCFF. As you already know, he plays an Afghan fixer in Burn Country and in The Loner he plays an Iranian gangster.
Q: So about your casting process. Did you have to audition the actors then, or did you just talk directly with them?
I was very fortunate. I’ve been in L.A. for a while so I had worked with various people and had made friends with various people. It was important to us to get the right cast. So of course we wanted people with some names, but we cared about putting the right actors in the right roles. We did have auditions but we were also able to deal directly with actors. Meaning it was either my friends or producers’ friends or friends of friends, and so we were able to get the script directly to actors, sort of bypassing the agent or the manager.
So we did hold auditions and you know, we’re very fortunate that they would even want to come out. So I’ve known Dom [Dominic Rains] for a while, we were in a play together ten years ago and Tyler and I knew each other from Vancouver. But of course they still need to want to do the productions. So some did come in to do the audition, and some we just knew they were right [for the role]. But we were very fortunate to sort of have these actors read it and say ‘oh yes I’m interested in doing it.’ And yes once that happened, we dealt with their managers, agents and all that, but we were also able to sort of just go directly to them. But yeah, for a number of the parts, we also did hold auditions. We’ve been very lucky with our cast.
Q: There’s always that chicken and egg question. You either have to cast everything all ready to attract the investors, or do you have to have the funding first in order to attract the cast. How was it for you in making this film?
I knew I had the energy and I’d be able to do enough to make a small movie. This is my first film, you know, I’ve never formed an LLC before and all that. So we did that. So I had friends that we’d been talking about making movies you know, and then finally, ‘OK here’s something to make.’ So we came together and we formed a company. Then you know, you literally just reach out to those you know first. Literally parents, friends, uncles, aunts, and then friends, and even friends of friends. So for the most part, most of the production budget came from the people we knew. You know, people who want to support you. I mean hopefully we can make them their money back of course, because you want them to trust you for later.
So it’s a certainly a process and you know, we’ve created an investor packet and we reached out to people, people we think might be interested. And some who do, it might not be the right time for them, so there’s a lot of ‘nos’ and you have to wear a business man hat. That was all new to me but you do it, because when you want to make something you’ve got to do it. So we thought, as long as we can get sort of enough to make the movie, if we need more money, it was my idea that we could raise a little bit more money through crowdfunding later after we have already made the film.
So once we felt we had enough that we feel we’re not going backwards, we started setting dates and trying to hire our crew, which was another process. It’s a small movie but still, y’know, it was still a SAG contract and all that kind of stuff.
Q: Were there any particular snafus during production that you wouldn’t mind sharing about?
Oh yeah. We had many snafus and I’m told that’s normal. Though of course when it happened to you it felt sometimes like, ‘oh that’s it. I quit’ you know, those moments. One of the things that was frustrating was we lost two actors on day two. It was supposed to be like two days before we start shooting and they were actors we were very excited about. And coincidentally they play partners, like husband or wife or whatever. I can’t remember exactly, but one of them got a big part in a big NBC show or something like that, so what can you do. And they were actually needed for just two days out of the 13-day shoot. So you know, we talked to their agents and because our shooting was so tight, we couldn’t rearrange and they happened to have to shoot their projects at the same time. So all of a sudden it was literally like, a little bit of panic. So this was like day two and we had a 12-hour day literally after 12 hours we’re all stressed out. So we get together, the producers and everyone, we sent out e-mails, we talked to everyone on our crew if they know anyone that fits this [role] description and literally, the day after, after a 12-hour day we held auditions in my apartment. It was crazy. It was like, work all day and at night we held audition.
Well, we were so lucky. We’ve got Kristin Carey [who was in the Scandal series recently] who’s just fabulous and funny. And also Jed Reese, who we recently seen in Deadpool [as the recruiter]. He’s just this great actor and he’s also in Galaxy Quest if you remember that great film, he was one of the aliens. He’s so funny in this. So they came on with very little notice but really, they’re both phenomenal, I can’t say enough about them. So that was one of the big snafu that ended up working out much better for us.
Another thing was the location. We lost a location that was very important to us. We got a location so that was hell, and we were supposed to be there for three days. It was so bad because of various reasons. It was a condo and there were issues that even though we paid for and all those things, the owner even after a contract didn’t want us there and all the stuff, and she was watching every moment of it. So we were like, ok, so we had to rewrote some of the scenes so we didn’t have to shoot it at that location. So things like that happen.
Q: How about the location, you shot this film entirely in L.A.?
The story was actually written for Vancouver. But we ended up shooting it in L.A. I think it’s interesting because L.A. is, as they say, sort of a character in the film. The main character Scott, he doesn’t have a car and he runs from place to place, which is crazy in L.A. And so we thought it was really fun. And also you get to see little parts of L.A. and in Vancouver it has a similar feel in some ways. I mean there’s more transportation and stuff like that there, but it was sort of written in that same way. The character, even though it wasn’t said in the movie, but maybe he doesn’t really trust cars and stuff. I think it added more to the story that he’s running in L.A. Yeah, I think the way it was originally written in ways that you could move from city to city without sacrificing the story.
Q: I thought Dominic’s character you know, being a realtor with his fancy car, his Maserati, it made sense in L.A.
It’s funny. I think some of those little bits were actually changed once we Kris knew we were shooting it in L.A.
Q: What’s the most memorable moment for you as an actor AND director filming this?
Yeah it was fun. I mean what we’re doing was certainly difficult, but like I said we had a good team. I had someone who was always at the monitor during the shoot. Because we were doing it so quickly you know, you could only watch playback so often right you can only we watched the tapes. Sometimes we just didn’t have time, so it was a huge help to have Ron Butler there. Honestly, as an actor, it was a fantastic experience working with the cast. I got to work with Tyler and I got to work with Jed and Dominic. Oh I didn’t mention Suzy Nakamura who’s on Dr. Ken on TV right now. She’s wonderful. I mean I just got to work with all these people you know, with Tygh Runyan [who’s starring on the Versailles series] and of course Kristin. So as an actor, that was the highlight to work with them. As a director, having some control over the actual product is pretty great. From the beginning of the shoot and being in the editing room.
Also working with the composer. We’ve got a great composer, Ariel Blumenthal, based out of L.A. Music is very important to me, so to actually having a composer for the whole film is amazing. As for ambient sound, or the practical music, so if there was like a song at a diner or something, I had musician friends who were wonderful and generous. They gave me their songs to use in the movie. So I think as a director and just being able to be a part of the whole thing is really something.
Q: So what’s next for you? Do you want to keep doing features?
Well I think it’s egregious to say I want to do it all. But definitely make more features. Acting certainly, but I want to be directing more, maybe with myself a little less in it, so I’m looking for the next feature to work on. And in the meantime I’m working actually with Dominic and his brother Ethan Rains. They’re awesome. So Ethan has has created a Web Series and so Dom, he and I are producing it. We have some writers for that, so we’re working on that but then hopefully, you know, we’ve been talking about creating another movie together also.
Q: So if people ask me, where can they see your movie?
So we just started our festival run. We premiered in a festival in Austin and you know, it was cool we were nominated for something and I won Best Director. And then TCFF is our second film festival. Then in November we’re going to Reading Film Festival in Pennsylvania, the EyeCatcher film festival in Oklahoma and then Key West Film Festival which I’m very excited about, I hear is just wonderful. Hopefully we will find a distributor, I mean you want to find the best situation that you can to get it out into the world. Less and less films are hitting theaters but still it’d be great if it could somewhere. But you know, you have so much you know from Hulu, Netflix to Amazon and all that.
Q: Nowadays a theatrical release doesn’t seem that important anymore because I think more people are watching stuff at home, right?
Yes I think it’s not as important in sharing your film. Of course I’m still an old school in that I believe in the shared experience of watching a movie at the theater. So I love going to the movies. I love the big screen. I love when you know, my movie is a comedy right, so I love watching people laugh watching it. But of course there’s is something so wonderful about the time now when you can make something and still put it out of the Internet or wherever that can be seen across the world.
Q: Last but not least. Who are your inspirations in terms of filmmakers?
I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s he’s wonderful and I think during or before I was making this film, I watched Punch-Drunk Love a lot. Not to compare myself to that but you know, I love that the film is based in reality but slightly heightened and strange. I thought Adam Sandler was great in it. And of course I love the Coen Brothers and you know, the fact that they’re also from St. Louis Park 😉
So yeah, certainly I’m inspired by those kinds of films. But I also like great dramas, like Moonlight which is fantastic. Barry Jenkins, I met him briefly during his film premiere at Telluride and I heard him talking about it. It’s a beautiful film, it’s heavy but in a beautiful way. Another film I saw this year which had just enough comedy to keep it light even though it is heavy is Manchester by the Sea.
Towards the end of our interview, we also talked about how great Captain Fantastic was, and Viggo Mortensen’s performance. I teased Jon that hopefully he could cast him in his next film. ‘One day, one day,’ he replied. We also talked about how great Brooklyn was with Saoirse Ronan. We ended up chatting much longer than planned at Caribou across the street from Showplace ICON Theatre and really we could go on for hours talking about movies!
THANK YOU SO MUCH Jon for taking the time to chat with me!