Martha Stephens by Steve Macfarlane

Directing a comedic travelogue set in Iceland.

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Land Ho! Directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens. Photo by Elizabeth McKee.

Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho! emerged as the no-joke feel good movie of the summer, a gently spun yarn about two former brothers-in-law (Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn) who reconvene for a once-in-a-lifetime jaunt to Iceland. With unhurried grace, the film puts time and pleasure into revealing how it’s not going to reveal too terribly much of any one thing. Land Ho! becomes a study in counteracting textures gorgeous, wind-blown landscapes and agonizingly repetitive conversations, pivotal character details that rise and fall in conversation without being remarked upon further.

As a comedy, Land Ho! has an eye for naturalism and languidness of pace that connects its gags back to real life, not an attendant sub- or-specialty genre. Stephens and Katz’s readiness to put their movie in the hands of their lead actors influences its shape and direction, making it a more performative collaboration than the form normally allows. It’s a film as strong as it is light, and its depiction of late middle age is a remarkable contrast to the types of old-folks comedies being churned out by major studios today—which, happily, was a topic brought up by Stephens in our cellphone conversation.

Steve Macfarlane Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this particular film? How long had you and Aaron Katz been looking to collaborate?

Martha Stephens Actually, we hadn’t been planning on making a movie together; it hadn’t really crossed either of our minds before. But we were both in between other projects—features that were maybe a little more costly, because Aaron wanted to do a science fiction movie and I was working on this big family drama. Anyway, we couldn’t find financing at that moment and we were both itching to do something creative, and I think the idea came to me just out of my own restlessness: wouldn’t it be fun to make a comedy in Iceland with Earl Lynn Nelson? I was planning a vacation there so Iceland was something I’d been focusing on. I just wanted to take Earl to Iceland, and then I thought co-directing it would be fun too. We were looking at it more as an experiment or an exercise, to try a new thing, and it ended up becoming something much bigger than we expected once we started going into preproduction.

SM So the two things intrinsic to the film that were mandatory to your participation, let’s say, were Earl and Iceland.

MS Right. Earl Lynn is my mom’s first cousin, so he’s been in my other two movies, so I always knew I wanted to do something where he was in more of a leading role, not a supporting role; I just hadn’t thought of what yet. But he’s such a distinct, larger-than-life personality, I thought he was ready to carry a movie, a travelogue, basically.

SM Was there ever a version that required his character to be more of a dramatic presence? He’s closer to comic relief than Paul Eenhorn’s character. I guess I’ve been conditioned by other (worse) movies to anticipate some big dramatic reveal to happen. It’s to your and Aaron’s credit that the mic-drop never exactly happens like that.

MS I mean, that’s not really either of our styles. We really just wanted the two guys to enjoy each other’s company; it’s a movie made up of small moments about small moments, and how those can have a lasting effect as well. It doesn’t need to be some huge dramatic twist for something to mean something to someone. So what we got was always, pretty much from the beginning, what we intended to get.

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Land Ho! co-stars Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn. Photo by Andrew Reed.

SM Did the two leads have any prior experience working together before you put them together for the movie?

MS We shot the opening scene in Kentucky a few months before we went to Iceland, so that was a way to see if they had chemistry, and to see how Aaron and I could operate on set together as a team. So they had that weekend. The night we all got to Kentucky, Earl Lynn invited everybody to his house and we had a party, and that was kind of his introduction to Paul. Earl Lynn offering moonshine, being very colorful. He’ll tell you that he “doesn’t know a stranger”; he treats everyone like kin, basically. So I think it was easy for Paul to fall in with him, because Earl embraces everyone.

SM So the first scene of the movie has this kind of meta-introduction going on, on both sides of the camera.

MS Well, Aaron and I have known each other for twelve years. We had a good idea of how things were going to go, but he had never met Earl Lynn, neither of us had ever met Paul, and Paul and Earl Lynn had never met. There were other new things as well: trying to shoot with two cameras for the first time, neither of us had ever done that before. That scene was an experiment, and it went well, so we it cut together and it helped us find some of our financing.

SM How easy was it to secure financing when you’re making a movie about two men who are past their middle age?

MS Finding money for any film is difficult, I guess, unless you’re super-rich or you have really great connections. It was difficult, but we found it all within a summer, so it wasn’t thatdifficult. We reached out to Gamechanger, which is this new company who wanted to find and finance female-directed movies, and they were looking for genre-specific things: horror, comedy, whatever. Mynette Louie—the president of Gamechanger—had worked with Aaron, so when we tossed the project to her, she saw it was a comedy, and she thought maybe there was a market for it exactly because of movies like, you know, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There’s this little golden age of movies about older people that have popped up more recently. So they came onboard to finance half the movie, based on what she presented to them.

SM When you read reviews, does it bother you to see your movie aligned with those more conventionally feel-good titles?

MS I mean, I don’t care. (laughter)I embrace it. People need to put things in boxes to find an audience, so if Sony wants to really push that sort of baby-boomer crowd, and try to present it as one of those movies, I’m totally fine with that. I don’t think it is that, but sure. I think it’s much more set in this world. So many of those movies are so Hollywood, you can’t really relate to the characters—like a Nancy Myers movie. You don’t have access to that kind of cash; I think our characters are much more down to earth and real, and that sets us apart. It’s a more natural film, in general.

SM That’s one of the things I liked about it. In those movies, everyone is fabulously wealthy and nobody talks about it. Your two leads actually have a pretty frank conversation about how much the trip to Iceland is costing Earl Lynn’s character.

MS Right. I prefer the flaws, and I find class and money to be interesting subjects. I’m from a very poor region and I liked adding in there that Paul’s character was broke.

SM Did you have a special fascination with Iceland?

MS Well, I was taking that vacation, and it’s just such a beautiful place. I’m a sucker for really pretty landscapes and I love using nature in my movies. So we ended up saying, “Let’s just make a movie in Iceland,” but of course you wonder if your subconscious leads you to certain things. And there’s also the humor that comes from being in a place that wouldn’t be expected. You’d expect these characters to go to some tropical island, or Hawaii. So it’s playing off the comedy—and it happens throughout the movie, I think—of opposite expectations, opposing forces, and things turning out differently than how you’d expect. We were playing with the audience’s expectations, putting them on an island, so they were isolated and stuck with each other, and to contrast these two guys with such an ethereal landscape. It was fun for us, as a running gag.

SM Your camerawork starts out being very tightly focused on the two guys, and the aperture literally seems to widen as they’re getting further out there. And it is beautiful.

MS I’m pining for it right now. I wish I could be there. It’s just a more character, relationship-driven story than a plot-based story, and it was always going to be that. It’s more about snapshots, like I said, small moments, than some huge story arc.

SM Is that real weed Earl Lynn is smoking throughout the movie?

MS No! (laughter)It was tea. We rolled black tea and they had to smoke black tea. Apparently it was terrible; they complained a lot.

SM How many of those takes did you have to film?

MS I don’t even know. Earl Lynn is a bear of a man so he can handle a lot, so I don’t even know how many. I feel like our prop master Olaf was always rolling black tea joints, like all the time, so I think he had to smoke a lot. Earl Lynn still complains about it. He got to see so many beautiful things, and do things other people never get to do, and yet he’s still going on about the fact that we made him smoke all that tea.

SM The movie feels effortless, but I can’t imagine the shoot was that easy. Was there any particular day, or scene, that took a toll on everybody?

MS The most difficult scene was the night scene, when the two guys get lost and they have glow sticks; we couldn’t run power up there, so there was really no way of lighting it. Our window of filming was really very small. We basically had to sell it, and make it seem like they could really get lost. We had to wait until the very start of the night, when there’s still a little bit of the moon in the sky, and we were out in this farm pasture on a hillside. There was a ton of animal crap everywhere, we couldn’t see where we were stepping, and of course it was really cold. People were anxious because we were trying to get something in so short of a time. We ended up shooting coverage that we couldn’t use because it just didn’t match, but I really liked the way it turned out. That was a rough night. We went really late.

SM There’s a scene where Earl Lynn’s character is chatting with a couple newlyweds in this bed and breakfast, and he walks up to the man and whispers this advice: “No matter what happens, she’s always right.” Was that anecdotal, or improvised?

MS We added that scene once we were in Iceland, actually, and it’s written for him to whisper something in the guy’s ear, but we let Earl Lynn go a little wild and say a bunch of different things. Some of them were very off-color, very crude, bedroom talk kind of stuff. We had him do variations, and we ended up going with the more heartfelt one instead. But those are all Earl Lynn-isms.

SM It’s heartfelt, but it seemed a tiny bit cynical to me. In a way that I liked, though.

MS Right, right. But he also said, “Don’t let the sun set or rise on a problem.” I think it’s a sweet scene. He’s obviously so lonely, looking for companionship, and his friend has ditched him; he’s trying to hold onto this passive audience in the couple. I think it’s a funny, endearing scene. But yeah, there’s like a hint of desperation there, too.

SM Were there any moments the actors weren’t in on? There are scenes where they’re very free to ramble, conversationally, in a way that seems performed but also looser, more like it’s been captured.

MS Some of the scenes were improvised just because we weren’t sure of the conditions leading in. When they go to an art gallery, for instance, we didn’t know what was going to be hanging on the wall, so Aaron and I scrambled and came up with the kind of take each character would have on each of the pieces. And then we let them riff on it according to the seeds we planted. So yeah, I think they ended up becoming their characters in a lot of ways, certainly in relation to one another. They got on each other’s nerves a lot, which isn’t surprising when you’re spending these twelve-hour days with the same people.

SM Sometimes you direct somebody and they don’t entirely know how their character is going come off until they’ve seen the finished film. I guess it’s the script vs. the casting, the influence of the performer on the character.

MS We wrote with them in mind, so the characters are very in tune with some part of each of the actors; if anything, I think both actors were really surprised with how well it turned out, because when we went to Sundance they told us they were both “shocked,” it was as good as it was. (laughter)I don’t know why they thought it was a surprise, but they were surprising themselves, I think, with how good they were.

For more on Land Ho!, visit the film’s website.

Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail. His film SHIRT TERMINATORS debuted at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival.

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