My Lunch With Lambert: Journey to a First Feature
Interview by Ray Schillaci
The idea of taking the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, and giving us a slice of small town life as it happens to be engulfed in panic, could easily be a tension-filled drama. To have someone turn it into a gentile, reflective comedy takes quite a deft touch. Writers Jody Lambert and Michael Dowling, with Lambert directing, have proven to be more than up to the task. The film festival favorite Brave New Jersey has gone on to win awards, the hearts of audiences, and many critics from all over with its echoes of Capra, Spielberg and Zemeckis. I had the chance to sit down with writer/director Jody Lambert and discuss his brave new venture.
Since we last met briefly during a Q&A of Brave New Jersey at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, where the film won three of the top prizes, I was pleasantly surprised as to how grounded and humble he was. While getting reacquainted, we discovered we were both (818) boys. I grew up in North Hollywood, and Jody in Encino, CA. Both of us have a profound love for film, and it felt like we could have talked for hours, which probably ticked off our server who was quick to point out that he had brought a container for leftovers. This went ignored as we continued on about his film, family, and the perils of independent filmmaking.
This being your first feature, what motivated you to tackle this particular story?
I think that Mike Dowling, who I wrote the movie with (and met at NYU), we just always thought that was a real pop culture nugget that really hadn’t gotten a movie treatment yet. There had been a few TV movies over the years, but nobody had really tackled this story of the broadcast from the point of view of the people that heard it and believed it, and what that meant over the course of one night for those characters. We just thought that would be a really fun way to do a comedy, a kind of human story about people who are suppressing their emotions. And on this one night, everybody kind of becomes their truest self.
What prompted the title?
(Jody laughs reflectively)
Who came up with it?
I actually came up with it. We were trying to find something that sounded science-fiction (but also was funny) and also what we were trying to avoid, which maybe now we should have leaned into it. What we were trying to avoid was a title like, We Interrupt This Broadcast or something kind of like…
That sounds more dramatic, though.
Yeah, or like, that skewed the movie too much towards a ’50s sci-fi parody. And even though Brave New World is not actually an alien invasion story, just the play on that kind of science-fiction classic film felt like a fun title.
How did you get the cast for such a small independent?
I co-wrote a movie a couple of years ago called People Like Us, directed by Alex Kurtzman (Mission: Impossible III, 2009 Star Trek, Sleepy Hollow), and I got to know the casting director really well in the process of making the movie. I sent the script to her, Denise Chamian, just kind of wanting her opinion. She does big Hollywood blockbusters, and I didn’t think this was the kind of movie that she would want to do. She loved it, and said, “Let’s go find some actors.” So, we started to put together a list of people that we thought would be really good for the movie, and she suggested Tony Hale. We thought that was such a brilliant idea.
Who was absolutely wonderful, because he comes across like your Jimmy Stewart.
Yeah. He really hasn’t gotten to play that sort of real, kind of sensitive side of himself. In Arrested Development and Veep he plays a lot more physical comedy. But when you meet him, he’s so sweet, intelligent, and earnest, all these qualities that our character of Clark has. So, when I met him, suddenly you go from, “yeah, he’d be good” to “please, say yes. I don’t want to have to find anyone else.” And luckily, he said yes and we were off to the races once he agreed to do it.
How did you get Dan Bakkedahl (Hitman: Agent 47, Observe and Report), who plays the preacher so wonderfully?
Dan auditioned, and I wasn’t really familiar with him, although, I had seen The Heat, in which he plays the albino cop. He is very funny, but I didn’t realize it was him. Our casting director sent us a tape of about eight actors reading those scenes. And, he (Dan) was electrifying and so funny. You know, something happens when the right person says the words and looks the part. You get the chills. You kind of go, my God, that’s the guy! Subsequently, I learned that he had been on Veep with Tony (Hale) and called Tony and asked to recommend him for the part It turns out he didn’t need Tony’s endorsement, he was just so good, and we were lucky to get him.
This movie appears to have a sweetness to it that harkens back to early Spielberg, Zemeckis, and even Frank Capra. We’re you going for that feeling?
I think that is certainly in the DNA of the movie, and in the script. We kind of knew that sort of small town feeling, but we were really more influenced by Peter Bogdanovich, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, and some of the little visual touches that he brought to those movies that we were really attracted to and paid homage to. Like, Bogdanovich would do a great thing in his movies where he would start a scene close up on somebody, like a small character you don’t even know who they are, and then he would pull back to reveal where they were. And, we thought that would be a really fun thing to do a few times in the movie. I definitely feel that it has a little of an Amblin sense of adventure and a little of that Capra small town kind of innocence. But I would say more Bogdanovich than those guys were in our minds.
Did you ever feel you a need for more of a sense of urgency in the film? Because, you’re all talking about the possibility of the end of the world.
When we were writing the script, we always worried that the audience would be so far ahead of the characters, because they know nothing is coming. And, we wondered, does that mean the movie will feel like…not a lot of tension? But, when we were shooting, the actors were bringing a lot to those scenes that were happening after they thought Martians were coming and playing the scenes beautifully, and adding a lot of humanity and depth. There is an urgency, because of all these characters, every scene there is something new, bubbling up for them, leading toward a big revelation. Not once did we feel the pacing of the movie was going slow.
No. Not too slow. That’s not what I meant. There is a lightness that permeates around the film that’s enjoyable. And, I didn’t think you get that tension that one would get with an end of the world crisis. Instead, it’s extremely fun. It didn’t seem like we needed the tension. Whereas with a few in the audience felt it lacked the tension that they thought it required.
Well, I don’t know how you would keep that up for ninety minutes without the movie feeling totally frenetic, which wasn’t what we were going for. The fact that the broadcast happened with people thinking Martians are coming, but they know it’s not for another few hours ‘cause they sort of calculated when they think they will arrive. I think what gives the movie urgency in my mind is the connection the characters have to make in such a short period of time in terms of before they are all wiped out. In other words, they have to get their business done.
What was the most difficult part of the production, besides funding?
It’s really tough to shoot all night. You’re body is not prepared to stay up for three weeks in a row, all night, and sleep all day.
Not just you, but an entire production crew and actors as well. So, how did that fare with them? Any short tempers?
No. Everybody was really collaborative and relaxed, which is good. I know there are filmmakers out there that thrive on that tension on the set, but I don’t think that’s for me, for this type of movie. I don’t think that environment would have been helpful. We needed everybody prepared, open, and ready to go without it feeling panicked. Panic was on the screen, but behind the scenes it was as relaxed as it could be for a movie that is moving so quickly.
Was funding daunting considering it was not a superhero or action-laden movie?
Yes. Originally, we tried to go the traditional route, get production companies and studios to just buy the script. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise because I wouldn’t have ended up as the director if a studio had bought the script. We had one brave financier who wrote a check to make the movie happen, and because of that we got to work with all the people we wanted to work with. There was not a lot of interference. The financier was very collaborative.
Was that because it was a friend or a friend of a friend or was it the strength of the script?
I think both and he just liked the vision we all had for the movie. We were not going to hire people that could not deliver. He could see that we were getting all the right people for the positions from the actors to the department heads. It was a real good group of people that came together, and I think that ends up on the screen.
When did you get the first notion to do the story?
Many years ago. We’ve been toiling away at the script for a really long time.
What’s a long time?
I’m almost embarrassed to say.
No, no, it’s okay. I’m asking this for anybody that wants to get into film. They need to know. You need to give them some hope here.
Well, we wrote the first draft for the script in 1999.
And, the inception of the story might have been in ’98, ’97?
No. It was like we started and banged it out. Some of the characters are up there. But, from moment to moment it’s not anything that was in the movie. It was our first attempt at telling the story and every year Halloween would come around and there would be some story about the War of the Worlds broadcast, and Mike and I would freak out. Somebody is going to get to this movie and we just hung in there, and hung in there. We would put it down and work on other projects, and other things. Life would take over, and we would just say, how many times can we revisit this script? But we kept coming back to it, because we believed there was something special about it.
And at what point did you say, now we’re going to show it to the studios or now we’re going to do this with it?
So, after I did People Like Us with Alex (Kurtzman), we went back and looked at the script, and I learned a lot about screenwriting by working with him. Even though his picture was more of a family drama, he’s well known for these big action movies, but he’s really this intelligent, intuitive writer. Even in those movies, there’s a lot of good character development and structural things that were very helpful to going back and looking at our script, and sort of filling in a lot of the gaps. Things that were missing from the arcs of our characters. I went back to my writing partner and told him, I think I’ve learned some things that we could apply to Brave New Jersey, and we went back in about 2012 or ’13, and picked up the script after setting it down for years and we just banged out this new version, and did like a page one rewrite. It’s all the same characters we had, but the structure, the scenes, moments, details all emerged to the version of what you see on screen now.
As we continued to discuss Lambert’s propensity for wanting to not only engage, but win over an audience, he revealed that mindset was probably passed on to him through his father. You see, Jody Lambert’s dad is none other than Dennis Lambert, musician, songwriter, and record producer. He and his business partner, Brian Potter wrote and produced for such greats as The Grassroots, Dusty Springfield, The Four Tops and Richard Harris.
In fact, he and his partner wrote the 1960s counterculture era anti-war song “One Tin Soldier”, made famous in the movie Billy Jack. This sidetracked to a fascinating discussion on writer/director/producer/actor Tom Laughlin, who played the title character and how he was probably one of the first true independent filmmakers. After chatting about one of the seminole films of the ’70s, we finished up talking about Jody’s father, who was also famous for “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I Got”, “Rhinestone Cowboy” (he produced that one), “Baby Come Back”, and “Nightshift” by The Commodores. Needles to say, I was geeking out.
Jody continued to tell me about his dad’s approach to songwriting, and writing pop songs that were hits, but hopefully a little bit smarter than the lowest common denominator of pop music. That really stuck with him. Jody conveyed to me that he was far more interested in the audience reaction than awards, and explained that’s why he was embarrassed when receiving all the awards in Phoenix.
He appreciates it, but finds the audience reaction far more exciting, and standing in the wings of the Harkins Theater, where people couldn’t find a seat. That’s comes from his dad’s “aesthetic of like”, who wanted to write songs that he wanted a lot of people to like, but not in a cloying sense or sort of patronizing way. Just like Jody wants to write things that will strike a chord. That’s where his taste is, and that’s what this movie does pretty well. And, his dad wrote the score to Brave New Jersey.
How well do you write with others? Especially with your partner, Michael Dowling?
Writing with somebody is tricky. It’s wonderful at times because you’re both bringing things to the table that wouldn’t be there without the other. And then it’s hard at times, because you’re fighting for things you really believe are important, and if the other person doesn’t see it that way, then it can be tough. But, the few times I’ve done it, I’ve gotten lucky. You get in a groove and you see the other person is filling in holes that need to be filled. Overall, it’s been a fun collaboration. With the rest of the crew it’s really fun when you have talented people around you who are making the movie better, and you’re just steering the ship, and allowing people to be their most creative selves. It’s a rewarding part of making films.
Okay, here’s a wish for you. If you had your dream choice of a release date, what would you have picked, and why?
(laughs) I think it’s tricky in the summer, because the blockbusters are getting a lot of the attention.
That’s what I was concerned about (in reference to his release date).
But, I think now there are so many movies that no weekend is easy. There’s always going to be a lot of competition. You know when you have a movie coming out, and you’re like, hey everybody, drop everything, and come do this! You realize how many things are competing with your attention. It’s not just other movies. It’s what band is in town this weekend. What restaurant is hot. What show is playing at the Taper. What stand-up comedy can I see. There’s so much out there. What’s on Netflix! My feeling is when I show up to the Q&As this weekend, whoever’s there, I’m happy they’re there. They chose this movie over everything else.
As they should. It is one of the feel-good movies of the year. Okay, now let’s live this end of the world scenario. It’s hours before the Martians land, and it’s not going to be good. What would you do?
I think I would gather all my loved ones. Family, my girlfriend, and her dog…
Yeah, her dog. I wouldn’t get her there if the dog couldn’t come. So, he has to come. I think we would listen to some music. Drink some wine. Do some dancing, and I would just want my loved ones with me as the aliens came and obliterated us all.
And, that includes the dog.
I cannot emphasize enough not only supporting independent filmmaking, but seeing Brave New Jersey on the big screen. It’s a lighthearted delight that will have you leave with a big smile on your face. So much better than being bombarded by car crashes, total devastation of cities by robots, and alien invaders. Brave New Jersey is now playing in theaters, and is available on iTunes and VUDU.