Martin Hynes, The Go-Getter
Though best known for playing a legendary director on screen, Martin Hynes seems destined to become an auteur in reality as well. A native of Eugene, Oregon, Hynes studied history at Columbia before embarking on a career as an actor and sketch comedian. He then enrolled in the graduate film program at USC where he not only made the highly-regarded short Al As In Al (1995) but played the eponymous lead in Joe Nussbaum’s cult favorite George Lucas in Love (1999). He made his feature debut with the Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy The Big Split (1999), which he wrote, directed and co-starred in opposite Judy Greer. Subsequently, Hynes has focused on writing: he sold a spec script, Stealing Stanford (which, in 2002, was made into a very different film as Stealing Harvard), and on commission penned the Martin Lawrence vehicle Expiration Date and a remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Hynes’ directorial return, The Go-Getter, was inspired by his emotional response to the death of his mother and the collapse of his marriage soon after. A feeling of poignancy and loss underpins this individualistic road movie, the story of Mercer (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young man who steals a car to drive across the country and tell his half brother that their mother has died. The journey is punctuated by Mercer’s quirky encounters with the people he meets on the road, such as his childhood crush, Joely (Jena Malone), his half-brother’s ex-colleague (Judy Greer) and ex-lover (Maura Tierney) – and Kate (Zooey Deschanel), the surprisingly unperturbed owner of the car he stole. The Go-Getter is, in essence, the perfect indie road movie: it has all the requisites, such as offbeat characters, an evocative soundtrack (by M. Ward), and lush 35mm cinematography, but what makes it work so beautifully is that these elements exist not for show but to better tell the story, which has a clarity and emotional resonance that takes Hynes’ movie well beyond the ordinary.
Filmmaker spoke to Hynes about his move away from acting, the roots of The Go-Getter, and abandoning his lead actor while shooting guerrilla-style in Mexico.
Filmmaker: OK, before we get started, let’s just get rid of the elephant in the room: you were George Lucas in George Lucas in Love.
Hynes: [laughs] Yes. I was a grad student at USC and I used to act. Before I went to film school I was an actor, and at the time I still fancied myself something like a goy-ish version of Woody Allen. I got a call at some point from a guy named Joe Nussbaum and he told me “We’re making this film George Lucas in Love. It’s a funny little satire, and we think you look like a young George Lucas.” I’m not a Star Wars fan, so he had to explain to me why things were funny, but I said OK. It was a two-day shoot, and it was really fun. The thing was so ridiculously successful because of the cult of Star Wars, it was unbelievable. We shot it on May 1, and by June 10 I was in a hotel room in Chicago when my agent called and said, “You should watch CNN at 3 o’clock,” and I was on TV. The film had been passed around Hollywood so quickly, and this was before YouTube. Lucas apparently sent a very nice note to Joe saying that my performance “gave him tingles,” which is a little daunting to hear.
Filmmaker: And then you also acted in your first feature as writer-director, The Big Split.
Hynes: That was right after film school. I had sold a script and basically took all the money and managed to lose it all very quickly by making The Big Split. That was when I still thought I was Woody Allen or something. I didn’t realize yet that I cannot do everything all the time, and really well. I had not had that pretty obvious realization that I was not a superhero, and what I realized (despite my then overweening vanity and arrogance) was that I would never become anywhere near a director if I kept writing parts for myself to act in. And I would never be a good writer because my range as an actor is, as was said about Katherine Hepburn, the entire emotional gamut from A to B. I’m a pretty decent straight man, but it’s so dull to write for that. So I had a realization that I had to do less. I stopped going to auditions and focused on writing better stories. It took me three different scripts finally to write Go-Getter, which was something that people starting responding to.
Filmmaker: You also wrote scripts on commission for studios in that period.
Hynes: That’s the way I’ve been able to pay the rent most of the time since film school, but for the last three or four years I haven’t. I went to school to direct, but I took a lot of writing classes and so when I finished and was working at an ad agency and really hating it, I decided to write something to sell. Unbelievably, it worked. I wrote this film that was called Stealing Stanford, which was this funny comedy about this mom and dad (who I imagined to be Diane Keaton and Steve Martin) who can’t pay for their daughter’s education and so take to a life of crime. That was bought and then completely changed – the part written for Diane Keaton was played by Tom Green. I think Diane Keaton and Tom Green are often up for the same parts… But that lead to other jobs which allowed me to pay the bills, but I was still pretty focused on making my own movies.
Filmmaker: You say in the director’s notes that The Go-Getter was written out of loss, “a parent and a young marriage.” Can you elaborate?
Hynes: I think that more than anything accounts for the creative changes that happened with The Go-Getter. Just when we were making The Big Split, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. There was something about that – and quickly understanding that she was going to die – that changed my perspective about life in a way that I didn’t expect. In the midst of being shaken up by that news, my perspective about my marriage changed. I was really young, and so that marriage ended just after my mom died. That was a huge amount of loss. I remember I went home for Thanksgiving that year and my father gave me all these letters that my mom and dad had written to each other the one time in their marriage they weren’t in the same place. I sat in the University of Oregon library and just read these letters for three days; I remember looking out of the window at these huge Douglas-fir trees moving in the wind in this old pioneer cemetery. That was the point at which I had this conscious thought of “I have to do less.” I thought “This is going to take a really long time because I’m not a good enough director yet,” and that’s the point at which I started writing really different things which led to The Go-Getter. But that was ’99 and I didn’t write The Go-Getter until ’04.
Filmmaker: How long was the gestation period on The Go-Getter?
Hynes: Remarkably short considering how long some of the other gestation periods have been. I wrote it in ’04, we shot it in ’05 and finished editing it in ’06 and then waited for Sundance in ’07. It’s really the period between shooting it and now that’s been long. I wrote it and met with Lucy Barzun Donnelly, my producer, and we really hit it off. Within six months, she had the money for the movie, which never happens, plus, she got it without actors attached. The first person we had attached, actually, was M. Ward. Written into the script was “Mercer goes into his buddy J.’s band rehearsal to borrow a shirt, and they’re playing a song and then they stop, and then that song becomes the overture and that band becomes the whole soundtrack.” But I didn’t know what band it would be, I just wrote it into the script, thinking “It’ll work out one way or another,” and then I heard Matt play and thought he was tremendous. We sent him the script before we sent it to anybody else and he said yes.
Filmmaker: His music works beautifully as a thread that runs through the film.
Hynes: Matt understood the script right off the bat. We met in L.A and had burritos and talked for three hours, about movies mainly, and discovered we had a lot of the same tastes. He trusted me and said I could use any of his songs and that we would together on some other things. He’s not a film composer, but he did some really cool little instrumental pieces and then recorded that end titles song with Zooey which is obviously how they met, and they’ve gone on to do some lovely work [under the name She and Him].
Filmmaker: You assembled a really great cast for the film, despite the low budget.
Hynes: From top to bottom, I’m so lucky. Zooey read it and really liked it, the same with Maura, Bill, all these people. This, more than anything I’ve written, has this nice energy around it. People responded. Lou just read the script and responded to it, and the story with him is pretty funny. He’d been in Thumbsucker and Lucy kept telling me, “You’re gonna love this kid, he’s perfect.” I finally saw it and thought, “Of course. We’d be so lucky to have him,” but it was a few days before I was leaving the country to go to Norway for a friend’s wedding. I said, “If Lou is anywhere near here, I have to meet him before I go.” Then I got a voicemail message saying “Hey, this is Lou Pucci. I’m doing this press tour and I’m going to be in San Francisco tomorrow. Do you wanna have lunch?” It’s Sunday at midnight and on Tuesday morning I’m leaving for Norway, so I called him back and said, “Sure, I’ll meet you for lunch. No problem.” I flew to San Francisco and I went to the hotel where his junket was happening. I met Lou and his press people said, “You have exactly an hour with him, that’s it!” We had a really nice lunch and I’m thinking, “God, this is going really well, we’re clicking, I think we really get each other.” At the end he says, “I have a really good feeling about this, but I need you to do one thing for me. I need you to insult me.” I said “What?” He said, “Yeah, I’ve got all these people blowing smoke up my ass on this press tour and it all seems like such total bullshit. I really wish you’d just cut me down to size.” So I just kinda went off on him, and he thought that was hilarious. A week later, he said he’d do the movie.
Filmmaker: This is only your second film, but the atmospherics of the film – the cinematography and the music – are incredibly stylish but also completely unified and assured. How did you achieve that?
Hynes: For me, this film felt emotionally and professionally like a restart and, in terms of the directing, I really went back to school: I watched scores of films that I wished I’d watched before and I also became better friends with Byron Shah, my cinematographer who I went to school with. We watched films together and talked about them as I was writing The Go-Getter, so the idea of how this would be shot was even built into the script. Byron and I then convinced Lucy to give us $20 – 25,000 to go on the road for a week and to shoot about 8,000 feet of film and travel about 2,000 miles. It was four of us on the road in a minivan and a shitty picture car for eight days: we did a big loop and hit almost all of the locations in the film. We tried everything – different filters, different lenses, different film stocks, different shooting styles – and had all this film, and it paid off so remarkably. It’s something that people don’t usually do and we found it to be so incredibly beneficial. Not one frame of it ended up on the movie, but it paid for itself time and time again. Then we went back with the principal crew and tech scouted the locations again, and in Mexico. To make a film like this for so little money when you’re shooting on 35, we had to plan every single thing.
Filmmaker: Aside from your previous desire to be Woody Allen, what are you influences?
Hynes: Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail is really the best road movie I’ve ever seen and I think anybody would be lucky to make anything with that kind of emotional honesty to it. Also Wong Kar-Wai and Hirokazu Koreeda were people that we watched. [Koreeda’s] After Life is one of my very favorite films. Obviously Godard is in there; in The Go-Getter, you probably noticed the dance from Band of Outsiders.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced during your time in the film industry?
Hynes: We’re shooting the final day of The Go-Getter in Mexico in Encinada and somebody’s forgotten to bring the permit that says it’s legal for us to shoot. We have a crew, a flatbed truck with a camera on the back of it, we’re shooting at rush hour in a Mexican city with no permit and no police helping us – so, of course, we get pulled over by the cops. I don’t speak Spanish, and everybody’s arguing and telling us they’re going to take everything and throw us in jail, so we have one other little camera and we walk off down the street. We go a couple of blocks around the corner and we’re setting up a shot with Lou – who’s two blocks up the street – when our second A.D. comes running around the corner and says, “Everybody go, the cops are coming! If you don’t have your paperwork, run, they’re going to take us to prison!” So we all just scatter, leaving Lou Taylor Pucci two blocks up the street; he turned around for just a second and everybody’s gone!
Filmmaker: If you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Hynes: Leslie Shatz is wonderful. He’s the sound designer who’s recently been working with Gus Van Sant – he did Last Days and I think he did Paranoid Park and Elefant as well. He’s just the fucking bomb. I’m talking about somebody who is masterfully and poetically using subjective, non-linear, non-representational sound to tell an emotional story in a way that’s just, like, ridiculous. I would be so lucky to ever get to work with him.