Despite being less than two years out of film school, KENDALL GOLDBERG has already achieved quite a lot. While studying film production at Chapman University, Goldberg was selected as a Marion Knott Scholar and was awarded the Women of Chapman Endowed Filmmaker Grant, the Zonta Award, and a Panavision Grant. Before she even graduated, and while making student and short films (including the award-winning Swipe Right, Gloria Talks Funny, and Dempsey the Diabetic Superhero), Kendall was already working on her feature directorial debut.
That feature, WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD, was an expansion of another short film Goldberg made with the same title. The film (both the short and the feature) stars Jon Heder as Jeff, the manager of a local bowling alley called Winky’s World. When Jeff gets word that the owner (Jim O’Heir) is thinking of selling the business, he snaps out of his rut to save his beloved workplace from going under. Shot in an actual bowling alley in the Chicago suburbs (near Goldberg’s hometown), the comedy has screened at over 15 film fests and landed Kendall the International Film Critics’ Prize for Best Directorial Debut at the 2018 Heartland Film Festival.
FilmBuff will release When Jeff Tried to Save the World on demand and digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play on December 7. On the day of the film’s Chicago premiere, co-writer/director/producer Kendall Goldberg took some time to chat with us about proofs of concept, casting Jon Heder, finding the perfect filming location, and the creation (and destruction) of her favorite prop. [UPDATE: When Jeff Tried to Save the World is now streaming on Hulu.]
COLIN McCORMACK: You’re not that far out of film school and into your career, but you’ve already made and released a lot of stuff. How did you hit the ground running so fast right out of school?
KENDALL GOLDBERG: Well, thank you [laughs]. It may seem fast, but it definitely was not. This film has taken me a little over five years, so I did start working on this one when I was in school. I kind of did it on the side; it was always something that was my priority but it was never involved with school. So the summer after my freshman year, I believe, is when I started writing it with my writing partner Rachel Borgo. [She’s] from Chicago, which is where I’m from; we went to high school together. We had this idea and we started working on it but at the same time, I was also doing a lot of short films in school. Because it took me so long to get this feature made, it was kind of nice– it happened for a reason because I was able to try all these other shorts out and – even though they were smaller – do a lot of different types of projects, and that in turn helped me prep for this one and get better and get to the position where I would feel comfortable taking on a full feature.
CM: Is it true that at one time you were juggling three films that were all in the festival circuit at the same time?
KG: Yeah, I mean technically that’s right now. Or I guess it was last month. This film, the feature, we took it to like 15 festivals, which was cool and of course that was always my priority when we were at festivals. But then I also had my senior thesis film, Gloria Talks Funny, which two people from When Jeff Tried to Save the World are in, it was Jon Heder who cameos in it and Candi Milo, who plays Sheila in my feature, was the star of that film. And then I also ended up making a documentary short my senior year. My school was really supportive with both my thesis and that doc short that they were submitting it to like hundreds of festivals, so it was kind of out of my control in a good sense where they took care of it for me. Then all of a sudden right when Jeff was in festivals, I started to get all these notifications that the shorts are in festivals and I needed to send a thousand materials to a thousand different places. It was a lot, but it was nice because I have my two producers on the feature who always helped with Jeff stuff.
CM: The Jeff short film is described as a “proof of concept.” In your view, what did you see as a proof of concept and how did your approach to that differ from your approach to making more of a standard short film?
KG: I actually watched the short last night for the first time in a while because tonight’s our Chicago premiere, so I was just curious to go back and see how I feel it’s held up and how the feature has improved since then. I never really wanted to turn it into a short or a proof of concept; I know a lot of filmmakers do that. Most recently, Jim Cummings made Thunder Road the short, then that was the beginning of his feature, which I thought was incredible. Ours was sort of done in a different way where it was not really ever going to be clips put into the feature. Summer after summer was going by, and summers were my only opportunity to make a feature because I was in school. So as summers went by and I didn’t have the means I needed to make the feature, I wanted to still be productive and still do everything I could to put myself in the right position to get people to trust me and make this movie with me and basically to get people to give me money. That’s the main thing. So when I did decide to make a short I had discussions with my writing partner and my producers and we decided that it would be best in our case to instead of choosing a scene or a couple scenes from the movie and making them really, really good, like almost good enough that we could potentially utilize them in the feature, we decided to condense the feature into a short story version of that feature.
It ended up being like a 20-page script, which was a little long for my liking, but we did that so we could prove to investors and the tech people I was talking to at the time. I felt [we] would do better with a full story versus one good chunk of the story. Plus then we were thinking it might be better to get it into festivals if it’s a full story with a beginning, middle, and end. So that’s what we went for and the main thing for me that I got out of that – or at least what I think helped really “prove” the concept – was getting my cast that’s actually in the feature (almost everyone from the short is in the feature) to come to Chicago for four days to a small suburb, to a bowling alley with me who they don’t really know, trust me, work for little-to-nothing, and work for four days. And that was I think the big selling point to investors and to producers saying, Okay, they trust her for a reason. And to show what we wanted to do on a smaller-scale and say, “Hey, with the right means we can make this 10, 15-times better and more beautiful.” I think we definitely achieved that with the feature, but the short was a really great dry run for me because Rachel and I were able to see what worked script-wise. We definitely made changes because there was still another year before we would shoot the feature after the short. So we still made changes to the script after the short and – I think ultimately for the better for the feature – practice first.
CM: I hear from filmmakers who have a feature that they want to make and as their proof of concept they’re not sure if they want to do a sizzle reel or a trailer, but it seems the way you did it where it’s a shortened version, you kind of get more bang for your buck. It can sell the proof of concept to investors, but also live on its own as a short for festivals or accolades.
KG: Exactly. That’s exactly right.
CM: You talked a little about your cast. I’m sure a lot of filmmakers would be curious about how you secured someone like Jon Heder for a short film.
KG: Yeah. First of all, I locked him into the “feature” before the short. We laugh about this because we just did the L.A. premiere two nights ago and Jon was telling the story about how he’s really the only one who had a traditional audition for this film. It wasn’t because I was like, “Oh, Jon Heder would be great for this role. Let’s make him audition.” He never crossed my mind; it was just that I had no idea who I wanted for the role and that role is one of, if not the most, important roles of the feature. We were doing initial auditions very, very early on – I was a sophomore in college – and I thought that I would be able to make the movie right away. I thought it would be like, You lock in cast and then you get money somehow. I didn’t really know how it worked, but I just went with it [laughs]. So we had a casting director with some seed money at the beginning going through some initial auditions for Jeff and Jon came in one day, which was a surprise to me. But I wasn’t really stunned– like I wasn’t super nervous because I had never seen Napoleon Dynamite at the time. I’ve seen it now, but I knew him from Blades of Glory and Benchwarmers and I was just more shocked. Like, “Oh? They sent him in to audition?” Like I don’t even know how the script got to him, I guess his agents found it and sent him in, which I took as a big compliment.
So he auditioned, he was great, I told him I would love to cast him as the role, then I was like, “But we’re not quite ready yet. We don’t have everything we need.” I think he just knows how indie films work because he came from film school and Napoleon was an indie film. And it’s kind of a weird trajectory because he made Napoleon right after film school or even maybe when he was in film school, and they started it as a short, which again I did not know this. So we had a weird sort of parallel between our careers, at least in how I got my start and how he got his start. So he auditioned and I was like, “Can I keep in touch with you?” and he said, “Sure, if I’m available when you’re ready, I’ll do it.” So it was great, and I kept in touch with him for two years and then we decided to do the short. I got everyone including Jim O’Heir to sign on first to do the short and then Jon said he would do it, and the rest was history. Then he came and cameoed in my senior thesis before we shot the feature and then we shot the feature the following summer when I graduated. So I got to work with him a couple times already, which was great. To establish that trust and that connection and ultimately what became a friendship before getting on set for the feature, was really special.
CM: When a location is so central to a story as the bowling alley is to this film, how early did you start trying to secure a location? It seems like even more than the cast or something, that location could be the make-or-break of whether the film goes or not, right?
KG: Totally. I don’t know how some people feel about this, but as a kid I loved Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan, and he talks about how that location was like a character in the film. I don’t remember where I heard this, I think it was in some interview a long time ago, and I don’t know why but that really stuck with me. My first real short film was when I was in high school and I brought like 70 people from my high school to work on this small movie with me. We shot for three days in a Laundromat and I was just so struck by the idea of that location that I was like, Okay, the camera’s never going to leave the Laundromat. We’re going to stay inside and it’s just going to tell a story of the people that come and go, but what their life is like in this environment only. So since then, it’s been one of the ways I come up with ideas for stories. That’s how this started, with the idea that I really was intrigued by the location of a bowling alley. I don’t even remember what brought me to thinking about that because it’s not like I really have a connection to bowling alleys. Before I made this movie, I did not bowl. Really, truly, I’d only been to a couple bowling alleys. Now at this point in my life, I’ve been to more bowling alleys than you could ever imagine. I was just struck by the idea of something that was kind of worn-down and yucky, stained carpets, smells like beer and cigarettes, but yet could be so loved and worshipped by a community and could be seen through someone’s eyes as this bright, amber glowing-under-the-neon-sign, very beautiful thing that’s been through the hands and hearts of so many. That’s what kind of intrigued me and that’s how Rachel and I got started, but the process of trying to find the bowling alley was really important.
I went to about 37 bowling alleys in and around the Greater Los Angeles Area when I was in school there because I thought that’s where we would shoot the film. My crew was out there, those were the people I knew, I knew how to rent equipment in L.A. And I went to so many and I just could not find the right fit, look, feel. Everything was too expensive. Everything was too fancy or way too large. I came home for winter break and I went to three bowling alleys here – in a suburb of Chicago because sometimes the ones in the city are pretty hip as well. The third one I went to was Lan-Oak Lanes in Lansing, Illinois. And it just was like straight-up out my internal thoughts that I’d been having for three years. I had had concept art drawn by a concept artist two years before I found it and it was almost exactly the same, color-wise and everything. And the owner was so friendly and so open to the idea. He kept in touch with me after I left before I was making my decision and he was like, “I hope you guys choose this place. We would love it.” Then it turned out that Jim O’Heir grew up bowling there in a league and I didn’t even know that. So yeah, we had a lot of small-time connections and it was also like 10 or 15 minutes down the road from where I grew up, so it just ended up being the perfect combination to get me started. To be able to work with family and friends on this film is what made it such a special process.
CM: And I’m sure the further you got out of L.A. the more accommodating the location people could be. They’re looking at it as exciting and an opportunity and more than just dollar signs.
KG: Oh yeah. Right.
CM: How much production design went into the bowling alley? There’s so much signage and props and staff uniforms, how did you work with your production designer to get all that right?
KG: One thing that was really nice about that bowling alley was that it definitely already came with a vintage vibe to it and a lot of the things in it we left as-is and that was really cool. That being said, my production design team is incredible. My art department was led by four women who were pretty much my age; very young, very talented. I got great friends out of it also, which was really cool. They work a lot on Joe Swanberg’s stuff; they work on Easy, they worked on his movies Win It All and Drinking Buddies. Three out of four of them worked on my short as well, so we had that camaraderie established before the feature. When we were doing the short I was like, “Obviously we have a limited budget. Here’s what we can do, then when it comes to the feature and I hire you guys for the feature, this is what I want to do.” So we had had those initial discussions like a year-and-a-half prior to making the feature.
Then when it came time to actually spend a little more money and make it great, one thing I was a really big proponent of was neon lights. It’s something that for some reason I’m very drawn to – some people would say obsessed [laughs]. We created – which was to me the staple and the centerpiece of the production design of the film – we created a neon light that was nine or ten feet long that was custom to the name of the bowling alley in the movie, which is Winky’s World. It was just beautiful. It hung on the wall and we all had to be really careful, and had like three discussions with the entire cast and crew, “No one can go more than three feet near it!” It was a very fragile thing and it lasted us through the whole shoot – no problems, except for sometimes a little flicker that we had to fix – no problems until the day after we wrapped. We had a skeleton crew and myself go back one day after we wrapped to get some extra shots of the bowling alley. One of the main shots of the movie is the light turning on, we show that a couple times. We had to get that shot. We had had Jon flick on the light switch, but we had to get the shot of the actual neon light turning on. And… [laughs] one of my crew members went up to plug it in and rested his hand on one of the letters – the W – and it cracked immediately.
CM: Oh no.
KG: Yeah, so we were freaking out and we were like, Oh God, what do we do? We still have to get the shot. So we talked to our VFX supervisor – we called him up, he was in L.A. – and he was like, “No, get the shot. It’s fine, I’ll be able to VFX the W. We’ll be good.” I was like, Great! And I talked to my production design team, and we had said we were going to donate the sign to Dale, the owner of the bowling alley, because he loved it so much and it was the least we could do. It was too big for me to take; at the time I was like, Oh yeah, I’ll ship it to myself in California! Then it was like, no it will definitely break on the way [laughs]. So we decided to donate it to him and long story short, I came back like a week later – we were going to get the W replaced and fixed – and the sign was gone. It was in the dumpster. Someone who worked at the bowling alley thought it was totally broken and threw it out and the whole sign was shattered.
KG: I know. It was one of the most devastating things, but the lucky thing is that it will live on in the film. We didn’t have any problems with it up until that last day after we wrapped. But it’ll be a great story to tell!
CM: Yeah, and you actually lived the “we’ll fix it in post” rule.
KG: Exactly, yeah.
CM: Was that Visual Effects person the same one who worked on the custom arcade game that Jeff creates?
KG: He did the screen comp and the placement of that, but the people who created the game – Justin and Luis – we actually found them online. We were using I think Fiverr? Whatever website you can use to contact graphic designers; my producer Shane and I reached out. They had a really cool pixilated look to their work – that kind of 8-bit style, which is what we were looking for. We sent a lot of examples of games and actually I referenced Wreck-It Ralph a lot. There’s a lot of stuff in that movie that’s actually perfect – like there’s a scene that has a very similar camera move to our movie, so I was like, “Okay, let’s just do exactly that.” Didn’t think I’d be referencing a Walt Disney animated film anytime soon, but yeah! They were incredible. I had always had the idea of what I wanted the game to look like, but it was really them who brought it to life. That was cool.
CM: Did your crew end up being a mix of people you brought out from L.A. and local [Chicago] hires?
KG: Yeah. Let’s see, we brought my producer Jimmy, my script supervisor Rachel, my key grip Nasser – who’s one of my best friends and he’s really talented and he worked on the short, so I was like, “You gotta come! You gotta be a part of it.” My DP Nico, my VFX supervisor Jordan, our Steadicam op Quaid, and our dolly grip Ryan. Those were the people – if I’m not missing anyone – that came from L.A. Then we had a couple of post people in L.A., like my colorist Brian, the guy who created our neon light titles in the opening, Broden. We actually went to school together, all of us, at Chapman University. A lot of talent has come from that school and the best thing I’ve gotten out of that school by far is the people I’m collaborating with. There are so many more too that didn’t get to work on this film, and they were all at the L.A. premiere. It was a bittersweet thing to not be able to bring out everyone because it’s impossible to afford. But everyone in Chicago that worked on the film was so incredible that it was a really great “best of both worlds.” Building a new crew, you know? And I’ll always be able to call on my Chapman friends.
CM: And now you have a community in both parts of the country.
CM: Do you still have a ton of work on your plate like you did before and during the feature?
KG: Kind of, yeah. It’s been a lot with this movie still to this day. And I don’t think we’ll be done until with this movie – I don’t know if we’ll actually ever be done with this movie – but I’m consistently working on this movie every day and I think I’ll be doing that for at least another month as it gets released. It comes out on all VOD platforms this Friday, so that’s cool and it’ll be good to have just released it. But there’s always marketing, I’ve got a lot of interviews, making sure it gets out into the world. I’m probably the best person to do that and spread the word, so I’m still working on it. But I hope to transition full-time to another project or another couple of projects by the end of the year, which I think will happen. I’ve got a lot of things that are in super-early stages that I’m working on. I started writing a movie and I started creating a comedic docuseries with Steve Berg, who plays Frank in my movie, so we’ve got that together. Then I’m also writing another movie with Rachel Borgo, my co-writer on this. I’m writing another movie with a girl that I met recently. And then I’m trying to adapt a book, actually, by myself. That would be the first thing that I’ll write on my own – besides my senior thesis – if I end up sticking to that on my own.
CM: That’s exciting. You’re going to Chicago today for the premiere there?
KG: Yeah, I’m heading to Chicago. We got to Chicago yesterday, but my parents live in the suburbs so I’m in the suburbs right now. Then I’m going to head downtown in like an hour. Jon is probably in air right now; he lands in an hour or so. We’ll meet up with him and hang out and do some interviews. I think we’ve got some TV spots today, which should be fun. Where are you based? Are you in L.A.?
CM: I’m in L.A., yeah.
KG: I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chicago, but there’s a theater called the Music Box Theatre.
CM: I’ve heard of it. I’ve been to Chicago, but I’ve not been to that theater.
KG: Well it’s a very cool, old school, ornate place and I’ve always dreamed of screening there. We’re premiering there tonight, which will be very fun. Hopefully we fill it up – I mean, I don’t think we’ll fill it up all the way. It’s a 750-seat theater [laughs]. But I know we’ve sold quite a lot, so hopefully!
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