Jake Kasdan, The TV Set
Writer-director Jake Kasdan comes from a filmmaking family: his father is Hollywood heavyweight Lawrence Kasdan, director of Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983) and Grand Canyon (1991), and his younger brother Jonathan has just written and directed his first film, In the Land of Women. Jake’s own debut came in 1998, when he wrote and directed the quirky private detective movie Zero Effect, which he followed up in 2002 with Orange County. In between, Kasdan directed several episodes of two high-quality but short-lived Judd Apatow-produced TV series, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and also helmed the pilot for a TV version of Zero Effect.
Kasdan’s time working in television inspired him to write and direct his latest film, The TV Set, about the myriad frustrations of trying to create something meaningful on the small screen. The movie centers on disheveled writer-producer Mike Klein (David Duchovny, a great performance playing against type) who conceives the idea for ‘The Wexler Chronicles,’ a TV series inspired by his brother’s suicide. The script for the pilot is greenlit, but Klein then sees his vision for the show constantly undermined and manipulated by everybody from network boss Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) downwards. The TV Set is a damning — and extremely sharp and funny — indictment of television and its need to stifle creativity and originality in pursuit of higher viewing figures. Kasdan maintains it is not a satire, but an accurate picture of the industry today.
Filmmaker spoke to Kasdan (in between takes on his new film, Walk Hard) about being part of a directing dynasty, his experiences in TV — and what makes him cry on set.
Filmmaker: What was it like growing up in a family like yours? Did you feel pressure to go into film too?
Kasdan: I never felt great pressure to do it. It was really just my father [who was making movies], and everyone else has gotten into it since I have. So at the time that I was getting going, my brother, who’s a lot younger than me, was not doing this kind of work. I grew up around movies, but I wouldn’t say that I felt a great pressure. I was exposed very early to a lot of what’s great about making movies, and as a result I developed an appetite for it very young.
Filmmaker: How much of The TV Set was influenced by your experiences on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, both of which were canceled in their first season?
Kasdan: Certainly the movie is an amalgamation of all of my experiences and the experiences of my friends compounded into one movie. I would say that it’s not a directly biographical experience, but it is, as I said, a collage of all our experiences. It’s a world where I’ve spent a lot of time.
Filmmaker: How closely is the Mike Klein character (played by David Duchovny) based on you?
Kasdan: I don’t think of it as being directly me, but it’s definitely a little like me, like Judd, like a lot of us wrapped into one guy.
Filmmaker: The movie comes across as satirical, but you’ve said it’s an accurate portrayal of how TV is today.
Kasdan: To my experience, yes. I don’t really think of it as satirical because I don’t think that there’s anything in it that’s particularly exaggerated or over-hyped. I think that everything that happens in the movie you could see happen, and in fact most of it is happening somewhere right now in almost that kind of language in the midst of pilot season.
Filmmaker: The film seems to say that total compromise is inevitable when you’re bringing a TV project to fruition. And your decision when you had to cast Sigourney Weaver as Lenny — rather than your original choice, Ben Stiller, who became unavailable — was also a compromise of sorts.
Kasdan: I never thought of that as a compromise. There’s a difference between making choices that are different than what you originally intended, and being forced into taking the edges off of something. That was in no way a compromise – that was a huge coup. I got this really wonderful actress to play this part. It wasn’t until a moment after I’d finished the script that I realized what the character should be, and that Sigourney was the right one to do it.
Filmmaker: After making The TV Set, do you think you’ll be able to work in television again?
Kasdan: My television career may be over — I have to acknowledge the possibility that that’s the case. I certainly wasn’t protecting anybody.
Filmmaker: You often work on projects with your friends, such as Mike White and particularly Judd Apatow. Is that to try and help guard against your creative vision being sabotaged or diluted by the suits?
Kasdan: It’s a combination of that, and the fact that I really like working with those guys. They’re really good friends of mine and those friendships are born of collaborations. A lot of us from Freaks and Geeks have continued to work together a lot: me with Judd a lot, and also with Mike White on Orange County. I love working with those guys. Judd’s the best producer around, for me, and he’s a very good friend of mine.
Filmmaker: You’re shooting Walk Hard at the moment, with Judd producing. How’s that going?
Kasdan: It’s going very well. The movie is a fake music biopic, the story of a fictional music legend, Dewey Cox. It’s really fun — we’re having a really good time.
Filmmaker: The music in your films is always very effective and well-chosen. What’s your favorite Bob Dylan album?
Kasdan: Blood on the Tracks. It’s probably my favorite album of all time, and it’s probably the most profound experience I’ve had with a record in terms of discovering an album at a time when you’re really receptive to it. The way that he writes and sings on that record made it one of the formative pieces of art of my adolescence.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst into tears on set?
Kasdan: I cry laughing on set a lot, and have several times on Walk Hard. And I always get emotional and sentimental when movies end. The design element of Walk Hard is so extraordinary that I have to say there have been a couple of times when I’ve walked on the set and have been overwhelmed by how good the work is that it’s kind of moving. I can’t believe the quality of the look.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you’ve ever made?
Kasdan: I don’t know, tough call. Usually you feel like the smartest decisions you’ve made are the things you’ve chosen not to do. There’s movies I haven’t made that I’m glad I haven’t made, there’s actors I haven’t worked with that, in retrospect, I’m glad I haven’t worked with.
Filmmaker: Finally, if someone gave you $1m dollars and you had to spend it in a week, what would you spend it on?
Kasdan: At this point, probably an extra week of shooting!