Discover how director Fidell and her cast brought a fresh take to the road trip genre.
A genre that tends to be equally hilarious and heartwarming, the "road trip" movie can be a difficult beast to pull off. If a screenplay struggles to craft well-written, fully developed characters, why should the audience care about (or want to spend time with) two polar opposites confined to an automobile? If you can't identify with the characters, then the third passenger—the viewer— may want to get off at the next exit.
Hannah Fidell's The Long Dumb Road avoids every pratfall and, at a brief 90 minutes, makes you wish the pave-hitting journey was longer. Starring Tony Revolori and Jason Mantzoukas as two gentlemen strangers united under unusual circumstances, the film identifies the tropes of the genre and grows them outward. Revolori plays Nathan, an incoming art student intending to drive solo from his native Texas to his college in Los Angeles. Quickly experiencing faulty engine issues, however, forces Nathan to receive car help from Richard, a wandering outspoken drunk who in exchange asks for a lift. To say the two men, approximately 15 years apart in age, are on different paths—Nathan is a quiet, respectful young man interested in taking photographs of the world around him and Richard carries a knife, drinks excessively, and has his heart on his sleeve and vomit on his sweater—would be an understatement. Richard wants to "put hair on Nathan's chest" and Nathan, running increasingly low on funds and travel time, would love to get Richard off his.
Cutting through expectations and expanding on the comedic virtue of outsized masculinity determined to prove itself, it's less a film about an emerging friendship than it is about personal individual growth. It keeps it refreshingly simple. By film's end, the two men do not arrive at a stunning introspection; they simply get to where they're trying to go. Shot in 22 days on an ALEXA with Panavision anamorphic lenses, The Long Dumb Road is a film with one eye on its characters and the other on its geography. Never has a trip from Texas to Los Angeles been filled with such stop-and-starts, gunpoint holdups, and Lone Star beer.
No Film School: Hannah, were you looking to make a film with two really hilarious actors riffing off a script inspired by the classic "road trip genre?
Hannah Fidell: Well, initially it was because I really wanted to work with Carson Mell, my co-writer on the project, and this felt like the perfect story to both bring our abilities to. And then it ended up being prepped for six years because I made a short that was almost all improvisation (I wanted to figure out a way to really shoot improv) and the feature took about six years [to get off the ground]. Out of that improvisation, these new characters began to come to life, and Carson and I realized that we really loved them and wanted to keep hanging out with them.
NFS: Each road trip movie has characters who attempt to get from Point A to Point B. How do you then create fresh situations that prevent them from getting to point B? How do you continue to throw in inspired wrenches that delay their travels?
Fidell: We watched a lot of movies as examples for our movies, such as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Dutch, Sideways, and Y Tu Mamá También, where you see these people come in and out of the story in a way that actually breaks traditional writing rules. It keeps the movies fresh.
"There isn't any weird exposition that we have to give to let the audience know, 'Oh, they've now traveled 200 more miles' or something like that."
NFS: Also interesting about your approach is the inclusion of Google Earth-like text cards that inform us where in the country our characters currently are and how much longer they have to go. In one particular scene, the characters have to drive further away from their intended destination and the cards subsequently add on the extra miles.
Fidell: Yeah, that wasn't in the script, but as we were cutting the film, I thought it was important that we ground their trip in reality, to help the audience figure out where they really are.
Jason Mantzoukas: Because so much of the action isn't contingent on necessarily where they are, it's nice to have those markers to tell you, because the characters never say, "Oh, we're X amount closer," or anything like that. So those markers are really nice in consistently updating the audience.
Tony Revolori: And it's not a cheesy, "let's go to a shot of a map to show where the characters currently are" kind of thing.
Mantzoukas: There isn't any weird exposition that we have to give to let the audience know, "Oh, they've now traveled 200 more miles" or something like that.
Fidell: What's great is that it inherently adds a kind of tension by seeing those on-screen.
NFS: Jason and Tony, how did you both come aboard the project?
Revolori: I was sent the script, read it, and had a lovely, lovely lunch with Hannah where we talked about the characters and the film as a whole. After that first meeting, I was hooked and I wanted to be a part of this. Luckily, she said "no." And then she went to Dev Patel and he said "no," and then she went to...
NFS: Wait, is that true?
Revolori: [laughs] No, no, it's not.
NFS: You never know!
Revolori: No, no, no. After that brunch, I was attached to the film and then it was all about just waiting for...
Revolori: Money, and finishing all of these other movies and all this other stuff. Once you get the money and the greenlight, it's like "Let's go!"
NFS: And you, Jason?
Mantzoukas: It was a pretty similar process. I read the script, loved it, and met with Hannah. We instantly had a great kind of rapport. She's such an easy hang. They then went to Dev Patel who passed again [laughs], and then I came in. We continued to talk about it before we began production and I decided to come on.
"It's very hard to create something new and different in a car (and especially with our budget and the number of days we had)."
NFS: Both characters are pretty stationary throughout the film, trapped in a car that provides nowhere to look but at the open road in front of them. Does that provide a different kind of acting challenge?
Mantzoukas: Oh, I wanted to enroll in acting classes that were specifically catered to how to act in a car. We knew that Hannah really wanted us to give believable performances in that car, and so I wanted to take a three-month course on acting in cars, which primarily focuses on how to not use your legs. When you're acting—I don't know about you— but I'm always looking at actors' legs because that's where the motion comes from, the motion and the emotion, that is. [laughing] A lot of it involves trying to take what is emotionally resonating from your legs and putting it into your other body parts.
NFS: And as a director making a film that is, for a long period of time, set in a car, Hannah, how did you work with with your DP Andrew Droz Palermo to capture a visual feel that's something more than just shot-reverse-shot, etc.?
Fidell: That was hard. It's very hard to create something new and different in a car (and especially with our budget and the number of days we had). It came down to, "How can we shoot this in the most effective way possible, and how can we get the performances we want and still get in there with a camera and explore?"
NFS: How did you go about finding the ideal locations? The film features scenes outside of the car in funky, niche bars, hotels, and gas stations...
Fidell: That hotel was actually created on a field outside of Albuquerque where our production designer, Almitra Corey, and her team just...
Revolori: Went to town on it.
Mantzoukas: It's what we call "movie magic!"
Fidell: And that bar did exist, but the hotel did not. We basically watched Sicario and copied all of their locations.
Revolori: Didn't we shoot at the same gas station?
Fidell: The bar and the gas station...
Mantzoukas: A lot of Hannah's direction was more Sicario-like.... [laughs]. She'd say "more Sicario," or "too much Sicario, can you please pull it back a little?"
NFS: And Tony, given the beautiful landscape that you're passing through and playing a character who is an inspiring photographer, how did you make that character your own?
Revolori: I feel like I didn't have to do much because Andrew Droz Palermo is a fantastic cinematographer. He took all the photos that we used in the film, you know, the photos that my character, Nathan, shoots. That's all Andrew's work. I feel like I didn't have to do much to make that [believable] because he was so amazing at working with Hannah to make sure the shots fit my character's lifestyle. All I had to do was point the camera and let him do the work. That was extremely helpful and I'm very thankful for that. It was like a masterclass for me, as I do love photography and take a lot of photos myself (they're not great, but I do shoot quite a bit) and it was nice to see him operate. He helped guide me.
NFS: The scene where Richard visits the home of his former girlfriend, Stacey, features two very awkward, uncomfortable moments: one is a conversation in the kitchen between Richard and Stacey, and one takes place in the bedroom where Nathan takes a photo of Stacey's teenage daughter. It's simultaneously uncomfortable and heartbreaking. From both an acting and directing perspective, how do you properly balance these tonal shifts?
Revolori: Both situations are really funny, but also, like you said, very sad. The young daughter obviously hates her life, hates everything really, and wants to leave [it all behind], and then Jason's character has that conversation with Stacey, played by Casey Wilson, with this hilarious dialogue in a very realistic moment that does happen and, I'm sure, is happening somewhere in the world right now. It's just something that Carson and Hannah did very well, writing these moments into the script. The edit and everything else comes into play too, but I think it all started with their script.
NFS: With those warm, pink filters, the lighting in the bedroom scene features a much warmer visual tone than the rest of the movie.
Fidell: Yeah, that's all Almitra. She just really did a great job of creating a teenage girl's bedroom..
Mantzoukas: That's because she is a teenage girl.
Fidell: [laughing] Yeah, inside she is.
Mantzoukas: We should mention that all of the crew were teenagers.
Revolori: I demanded it, because I was a...
Mantzoukas: Hannah insists on working with full teenage crews. We pay them in Likes on Instagram. [laughs]
Fidell: I wish that were the case.
Mantzoukas: I will say that one of the things that I think the team did an amazing job with is how those two scenes build tension in very different ways, different versions of it, and how they build to a very satisfying, cathartic explosion. It's very hard to build tension that cuts between two different scenes, you know? It's not just a one scene kind of ramp-up, but you essentially have to go back-and-forth between two different versions that ultimately meet in that living room. I love that whole section. I think it's really wonderful.
NFS: The film is about two male leads, but they encounter two very strong women on their trip, played by Taissa Farmiga and Grace Gummer, that put them "back in their place," if you will.
Revolori: I was talking with Grace earlier, and she leaned over to me and said, "I love that this movie is about two men, and it's made by women." Anyone can make any movie. It doesn't matter about race, sex....
Mantzoukas: It's also good that we let women tell men's stories.
Fidell: [laughing] I think so!
"The characters grow as people, but they don't grow enough so that it changes their whole personalities."
NFS: As mentioned in my introduction, there's no false, sentimental ending here. The characters say goodbye and go their separate ways. It's satisfying because, of course, that's how their stories would have to conclude.
Revolori: As weird as it is to say, the great thing is that it's a very realistic ending. When you have an experience in an intense situation like this, a bond is created that's not easily broken, and yet you go on to do your thing regardless. A lot of movies have it where it's like, "Here's the happy ending! They lived together forever!" And it's like, "No, these characters split, and this is the story of the time they were together, and their lives are going to move on and who knows if they're ever going to see each other again." They won't. Nathan went to school, Richard went to Vegas to do what Richard does, and they both change in a lot of ways.
NFS: You both get to your intended destinations, and each destination has very different consequences.
Revolori: They grow as people, but they don't grow enough so that it changes their whole personalities.
Mantzoukas: I think each of these guys needs five-percent of what the other person has. Of course, they eventually split, but they're changed in small ways, in a lovely way, for the better. That I quite like. I know this was based on a friend of Hannah's real-life experience of picking up a hitchhiker.
Mantzoukas: And the events that surrounded that. I think it's a transactional few days that happened and yet it's meaningful to the both of them. That's it, that's what it was, and they'll both be telling these stories to people ...
Revolori: "Oh man, I met this guy ... "
Mantzoukas: Just like the real Nat (Hannah's friend) told her their story.
Fidell: And Jason's character will be talking about his best friend Nat forever.
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