For anyone who has ever thought that spending time in Bucks County feels like being in another world, Justin Schwarz agrees with you. So much so, in fact, that he used its bucolic environs as stand-ins for rural Idaho in his film, The Discoverers.
“I was looking for states that had the rich production incentives and geographic diversity we needed for the film,” Schwarz explained in a phone interview in advance of its June 27 engagement at the Ritz Five in Society Hill.
As an independent filmmaker, the financial and logistical support offered by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, helmed by Sharon Pinkenson, proved as essential as the area’s sylvan surroundings. “A lot of the film takes place in the woods, and we needed a certain type of woods,” he added.
That’s because The Discoverers revolves around a historical re-enactment group that retraces part of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s historic Corps of Discovery 1804-1806 trek westward to map the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Protagonist Lewis Birch, a once rising star of American history on the faculty of the University of Chicago, now finds himself a divorced, middle-aged adjunct instructor with a tenuous position at a Chicagoland community college.
He and his two teenaged children are thrust into an unwelcome family reunion when his mother’s death leaves him no choice but to take care of his obstreperously authoritarian father, Stanley. Making this even more difficult is the fact that Stanley and Lewis have been estranged for so long that Lewis’ children have never even met their grandfather.
The situation becomes even more complicated when Stanley runs off to the re-enactment, where he has been portraying Clark every year for decades. Lewis decides that the best way to figure out his father’s needs is to play along with his father’s role-playing. He and his kids are stripped of all modern accoutrements, giving up phones and iPods in exchange for buckskin and rucksacks. Lewis, who was named after the explorer by his father, and has been trying for years to finish a 6,000-page tome (and counting) on the life of York, Clark’s slave, finds himself pitching tents and foraging all while trying to communicate with his authoritarian father, his dreamily aloof son and cynically outspoken daughter.
During all of this, he has to come to terms with the fact that a minor college imprint has just reneged on his book deal because another book about York has just come out and, as the publisher tells him, “the market can only support one of these types of books at a time.”
There is no shortage of painful moments onscreen, but Schwarz has his actors play the pathos in such an understated way that the film never devolves into melodrama or caricature. The script includes plenty of lighter moments as well. To Schwarz’s credit, he never goes for the easy laughs — there is no mocking of the historical re-enactors, and a life cycle milestone for his daughter is handled in a way never before seen in theaters. Schwarz says that is all by design.
“Comedy comes out of character and pain in this movie — I tried so hard for this movie not to be sentimental and melodramatic.”
Griffin Dunne, who commands center stage in his first starring role in decades, leads the cast. The kinetic, wittily endearing actor of After Hours and Who’s That Girl, who has continued acting in supporting roles while moving behind the camera to direct films, gives an engrossing portrayal of a man struggling to find the way forward in his life. And Stuart Margolin, who has also been acting and directing for decades, imbues Stanley with a barely contained storm of loss, frustration and hurt over the death of his partner and the introduction of his estranged son.
With two such accomplished directors on set, it would be understandable if Schwarz, a first-time director, got a case of the jitters, but he said that the opposite occurred. He recounts how Margolin, who was in Terrence Malick’s 1978 film, Days of Heaven, gave him a crucial bit of encouragement during filming. Margolin knew that the look of the Malick film was one of Schwarz’s visual motifs for The Discoverers.
“When I was fighting for some shots and people wanted me to move on, he would come whisper in my ear that ‘that’s what Terry would do.’ ”
Schwarz adds that Dunne was happy to just be acting: “He said this was the first time in a while he was carrying a movie — it was important for him to be able to settle in and find his character and not think about anything else.”
In addition to spending considerable time in Tyler State Park, Ridley Creek State Park and Fort Washington State Park, scenes were shot at landmarks like Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope and Molden Funeral Chapel in Bristol. Regardless of whether Pennsylvania makes a good substitute for Idaho, the area looks spectacular thanks to the cinematography of Chris Blauvelt, who followed Schwarz’s direction to take the pastoral color photography of William Eggleston as inspiration. Schwarz’s attention to detail included having his crew light nighttime scenes by candlelight and soaking the re-enactors’ tents in tea to give them an appropriately weathered look.
Composer Aaron Mirman created a score that was played exclusively on period-authentic instruments and even the birdcalls heard were from species discovered by Lewis and Clark on their trek.
It is obvious from talking with Schwarz and watching his film that he cares deeply about his cast, crew and characters. It makes sense, in a way, that he once made a career out of trying to better people’s lives. Before enrolling in Columbia University’s graduate film program, the 40-year-old California native spent a number of years in politics, including working on welfare reform for New York City, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and in the Clinton White House.
He said his decision to go into public service was a result of his upbringing. He says that he was attracted to working on welfare reform because of the “idea of collective responsibility and questioning things — it’s part of both my family and my understanding of faith as well. It’s important to have a sense of not necessarily social justice but to think of marginalized people because that is something that is so much a part of the Jewish people.”
Frustration with Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and the ensuing weakening and politicizing of welfare reform caused him to change direction. He wound up a filmmaker instead of a union organizer because Columbia wouldn’t give him a deferral to go to the union training program.
Despite his past, Schwarz says there is no political agenda to his film. “There are a variety of political points expressed” — especially by Lewis’ Chomsky-toting daughter — “but it’s not my political manifesto at all.”
Instead, his description of Lewis and his family’s expedition could just as easily be that of Lewis and Clark. “They all discovered a different America. They all had their own journey.”