Stephen Gyllenhaal and Jason Biggs interview: Grassroots

With political comedy drama Grassroots out now, Michael spoke to filmmaker Stephen Gyllenhaal and star Jason Biggs...

Following the American Presidential Election results by a mere handful of days, Grassroots is an indie dramedy with political ambitions. Written and directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal and starring Jason Biggs, the film is based on the real-life story of a pair of chums in turn-of-the-millennium Seattle who decide to campaign for a seat on the City Council by staging a grassroots campaign against the incumbent councillor.

A few weeks back, in the midst of the madness that was the London Film Festival, we sat down with Biggs and Gyllenhaal (who was enjoying a cheeky lunch break) to talk about the adaptation process, voter apathy and how politics makes strange bedfellows of comedy and drama.

It says at the beginning of the film that ‘most’ of it is true. How much of the story did you have to change or embellish to bring it to the big screen?

Stephen Gyllenhaal: To begin with, I have yet to have a book give me all the dialogue. So you have to make up all the dialogue. That’s all not true, to begin with. Well, some of it could be true! But most of it, structurally, really was true. It’s more or less the way it happened.

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Jason Biggs: From my side of things, I didn’t meet Phil [Campbell, the basis of Biggs’ character in the film] until a few weeks into filming. Stephen, from the beginning, had the source material, he knew Phil and he knew what he wanted from me. And I just listened to him.

SG: He listened to everything I said.

JB: Well, that was my job! But part of it, too, was we weren’t making a biopic of some person who was a legend who I would be compared to. You know, I wasn’t Jamie Foxx doing Ray Charles… So in that sense there was a freedom, and Stephen wanted us to create characters that were real and stood on their own. There wasn’t a specific guideline in terms of what we needed to encapsulate. But the great thing there, the first time I met Phil, he came and he watched a scene I did, he said ‘Oh my god, you nailed it!’ But it was the world, it was what Stephen wrote on the page…

SG: It was a movie star playing him, also!

JB: ‘Wow, it’s the perfect version of me!’

SG: In fact, I said to Phil at one point, along the lines of ‘most of this is true’, that he’s going to have to accept that whatever happened is gone. The movie is all that everybody remembers. 

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I imagine it’s more important that the film is true to the story’s political themes. Were they what attracted you to it in the first place?

SG: I’m very political. I certainly love history and follow politics – it’s almost like a drug. But I think what really drew me to the movie was the process of democracy. What I’m starting to understand the deeper I get into politics is that what needs to be protected is democracy. Right, left or centre.

There’s always been corruption of power and rich people controlling what’s going on, but then there’s the process of democracy. Now, part of that process is getting elected – that’s a huge part – then there’s governing, and then you have to consider getting re-elected, so you have to think about the people. I think that people often lose track of that and are willing to be lulled into a cynicism so they don’t have to participate. And I think that’s lazy. Cynicism is lazy. You have to find your way through to solve problems, and I think that’s what the movie is really doing. Here’s two people who you think should never have done this, and they’re really going round and solving some problems.

That’s one of the key undercurrents of the film. At the start, the two young men paint the incumbent politician as ‘the bad guy’, and grassroots activism is seen to be the antidote to that. But as the film progresses, not only is the ‘bad guy’ revealed to actually be quite good, but grassroots activism starts to seem too militant, shallow and unpredictable. Do you think that’s a danger, then, that grassroots campaigns, in the pursuit of engagement, can raise a mob?

I think to a certain extent is has to. When you’re running, you have to be very specific and very smart. And I’ve learned a lot about how successful grassroots campaigns are run, and it’s a strategy. It’s like making a movie, you have to strategise and deal with the real world, not the fantasy. You can live in a fantasy as long as you sit on your couch and play video games – I’ve no problem with that. But, then you have to jump in and do some stuff. And when you do, and you really do it, you have to compromise, you have to negotiate, you have to make deals. It’s what making movies is about, you have to really become an adult, and it’s fun. It’s much more fun than living in fantasy. 

Grassroots was given a limited release in the US earlier this year, but it’s being released in the UK alongside the Presidential election in the States. Obviously, the story is quite specific to local elections and Seattle, but how far do you think those themes go?

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I think we’re certainly spotlighting grassroots politics in the election, but I think the thing that’s amazing about the movies is that they have long, long lives, they affect people for a long time. And I may put together, down the line, a school presentation where you show the film and you talk about grassroots politics, which might have a really interesting life in the States, and maybe in other countries too, where you really start talking about activism. Because I think the grassroots issues are going to be around long after this election, both in the UK and the United States, because I think that the individual versus… not like the corporations are all terrible, we all work for corporations, but the agenda of the corporations is different to the agenda of community, and they need to be aired and opened up, and there’s no better way to do that than democracy. 

Why do you think that comedy, or comedy-drama, is the best genre to communicate these heavy themes and concepts, rather than documentary or a more overtly political drama?

SG: What comedy does is it grows this tree, and it’s blossoming, and you’re laughing, and then you chop it down. And when it comes down, you’re devastated. And the audience will keep going with that. One of the darkest films made in the early 80s, when they could still make movies like that, Silkwood [the biopic of union activist Karen Silkwood], was a really, really dark movie. I was at the Sundance Lab and they were talking about this, and they said, all Mike Nichols did when they were writing the script was ask ‘where are the jokes?’ And if you watch the movie, you’ll see, all the way through it, there’s a joke in every scene. But, of course, it’s a horrific movie to watch!

So that’s what I keep looking for. There was a guy, not very well known, who used to mix comedy and drama. Back and forth, all the time. And he will one day be rediscovered. His name is William Shakespeare.

JB: [bursts out laughing]

Gentlemen, thank you for your time!

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Grassroots is out in UK cinemas now.

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