It's a good weekend for catching up on Sundance highlights, big and small. Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is, of course, the film on everybody's lips at the moment — and deservedly so — but that's no reason to ignore a more modest independent tale of growing up and growing out, albeit at a slightly different age. Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens' droll, laid-back comedy "Land Ho!" is the first collaboration between the two writer-directors, each one with a handful of delicately formed micro-indies behind them, and it is itself a story of an unexpected partnership: the plot centers on two drifting retirees, formerly in-laws, whose friendship is tested and deepened over the course of a spontaneous road trip through Iceland.
It's the kind of premise that, on paper, could signify treacly hijinks in the vein of "The Bucket List" or "Grumpy Old Men," but Katz and Stephens' film is far subtler and more surprising than that — a story of personal rediscovery that isn't necessarily dependent on overt romance, drastic reinvention or wacky pratfalls. As HitFix's Dan Feinberg described it in his Sundance review, the film plays simply "as a series of episodes and travelogue moments that advance two main characters toward only understated confrontations and small personal revelations."
That this low-key approach proves so engaging is in large part due to the beautifully modulated performances of by Paul Eenhoorn (who made an impact last year in Chad Hartigan's Indie Spirit winner "This is Martin Bonner") and Earl Lynn Nelson, a largely inexperienced actor whose eccentric screen charisma was discovered by Stephens, who also happens to be his first cousin. The team is clearly a close-knit one, with Eenhoorn and Nelson playing off each other's contrasting styles as productively as the two directors do. I got on the phone with them — two by two — to discuss collaboration, avoiding the obvious, and the improbable link between between Nelson and Mo'Nique.
HitFix: Okay, just straight off the bat: What's your favorite buddy movie?
Paul Eenhoorn: Oh, “Midnight Run.” Easily.
Earl Lynn Nelson: I like the cowboy ones. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Paul Newman and Robert Redford – can't beat them.
I ask because “Land Ho!” feels in a lot of ways like a vintage buddy movie dynamic in a fresh context. Is that what you set out to make?
Nelson: We didn't even know what it was! They just put us together for a few days and wrote it after.
Eenhorn: We shot about 10 to 12 pages in Kentucky in May (2013), and used that as a tool to get some production funds and backers.
So at that point, you had no idea where the project was going?
Eenhorn: Well, we knew we were going to Iceland!
Nelson: (laughs) If we made it.
Earl Lynn, you've only ever worked on Martha's films. Does she just call you up, and you go with whatever she's doing?
Nelson: Yeah, she asked me once if I'd be in her movie, and I said sure. And now, if I'd go to Iceland, and I said, "Yeah I will!" And she was trying to get some funds and sent the first couple of movies that we did over to David Gordon Green. That's when he asked me to be on "Eastbound and Down," because he loved my voice.
And Paul, was it your work in Chad Hartigan's "This is Martin Bonner" that brought you to this project?
Eenhorn: It was, yes. Both Aaron and Martha saw "Martin Bonner," and the character sort of clicked with them. At that point, they obviously knew they wanted to use Earl and it fell down to me to take the other part.
The development of your relationship on screen seems very organic. How well did you guys know each other before shooting?
Nelson: Not at all. You see, when the group came to Kentucky, they stayed at my house. So we got to know each other just in time.
Eenhorn: And got to know about tequila and moonshine! Yeah, the opening scene over at Earl Lynn's place – or at Mitch's place, rather – that's where we met. We spoke a bit, and I knew from experience that it was a good match. We had some chemistry, but didn't talk about it much because we didn't have a script until a few months later.
Nelson: And then we got to be friends, spending all that time together, having a few drinks together – on and off the set.
Eenhorn: Yeah, the longer you know Earl the more you love him. But also, much of the credit for their character development goes to Martha and Aaron. It wasn't shot in sequence, so they kept a very good eye and good hands on it.
How much of you, respectively, is in those characters?
Nelson: I'm me in the film. I mean, honestly, I'm the same person all the time. I have a good time. I squeeze life for every nickel it's worth. As we say in the movie several times, “We might not be here tomorrow.”
Eenhorn: Obviously, Colin is a factor of me, though I'm more like Mitch with my friends. But Colin had to be that guy – it wouldn't have worked with two loudmouths on the set! Not that Earl's such a loudmouth, but with two huge personalities it'd have been just a ruckus. So Colin's character is very much the result of working with Earl, as well as working with Mitch.
At its core, the film has quite a classic "carpe diem" message. As two actors who have found the spotlight later in life, if you like, does that resonate with you?
Eenhorn: I had dinner last night with a filmmaker and we discussed this. There still seems to be a lack of film for the baby boomer generation, if you'd like to call it that. And I think “Martin Bonner” showed what's possible. Later in life, when you've been working at something for a long time, to actually get some kudos for what you do is wonderful. But films like "Philomena" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" show there's an audience out there for people our age.
Nelson: People brought up age a lot at Tribeca and Sundance, but I don't think this movie can be pigeonholed as an old man thing. Younger people go through the same things in life: losing their jobs, losing a loved one, getting divorced or whatever. To me, this is a film that enlightens everybody across the board, from the twenties up to their eighties. This talks about life, not just getting old with life.
Did you adhere entirely to the script or was there any kind of room for improvisation? The banter often feels quite spontaneous.
Eenhorn: Well, there's a lot more than they're giving us credit for. It's 50% script, 25% our script and 25% improv. I've got that written down here! Seriously, though, Aaron and Martha let us work on parts of the script when we were shooting. As Aaron says, we would start at the very end and go backwards instead of the other way round. So they captured a lot of what they wanted from the script, but also you'd see parts where it's purely just Earl and me doing our thing. You can't keep it all, obviously. Otherwise it would have been 50/50!
So, would you guys go on a road trip together now?
Nelson: We're on one now! We went to Sundance, we went to Tribeca and now we're in LA. We enjoy each other's company even with the cameras off.
Eenhorn: You know what, it would be fun to grab a Hummer and get in it with a camera crew and just drive across America. See what happens. That would be fun. If you have the money for that, I can give you my number. I'll keep it in mind.