Making your first feature is challenging enough, but being a full-time student while making your first feature seems nearly impossible. 23-year-old Kendall Goldberg made it happen with When Jeff Tried to Save the World, which she worked on during breaks from Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film & Media Arts, where she graduated recently with a B.F.A. in Film Production.

While at Chapman, she was selected as a Marion Knott Scholar and was mentored by producer Richard Gladstein (Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight). Her thesis film, Gloria Talks Funny, starring Candi Milo (who also appears in Jeff) screened at over 50 film festivals, while her documentary short, Dempsey The Diabetic Superhero, was a Student Academy Awards Semifinalist.

For When Jeff Tried to Save the World, Goldberg landed established talent such as Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), who plays the titular character, a manager of an old-fashioned neighborhood bowling alley Winky's World,  and Jim O’Heir (Parks and Recreation), as the owner who wants to sell.

After scouting around 37 bowling alleys in and around Los Angeles, Goldberg returned to her home city of Chicago to find the bowling alley that would fill in for Jeff’s Winky’s World.

Goldberg shot a proof-of-concept short of When Jeff Tried to Save the World during the summer of 2016 that helped her to cement funding. The following summer, she shot the feature.

With When Jeff Tried to Save the World now available on all VOD platforms, No Film School recently asked Goldberg about juggling school work and filmmaking, how she landed such an impressive cast, and much more.

No Film School: How did you manage to make a feature film while you were in school full-time?

Kendall Goldberg: I started the writing process the summer after my freshman year. My intention was never necessarily to make a feature right away. When my childhood friend and writing partner, Rachel Borgo, and I started talking about this idea of making a film in a bowling alley, it quickly snowballed into a story that was clearly too big for a short.

There was never a moment of decision where I was like, "I’m going to make a feature now." It just kind of happened. And throughout the process of trying to make it, which took about five years, I wanted to do anything I could to forward that process. That meant being productive and creative in any way possible.

NFS: Was that what prompted you to shoot a proof-of-concept short? Did that help you with financing or casting or in other ways?

Goldberg: Yes! It was a nice dry run for the feature.  Plus, it helped my writing partner and I discover what worked and what didn’t in our script.

The best part, and probably what sold it the most to investors, was the fact that I got the entire cast from the feature to agree to come to Chicago for four days and shoot a short with me. We established a great camaraderie and trust that enabled everyone to step on set the following summer and feel totally comfortable with one another. It was sort of like having rehearsal a year before shooting.

NFS: How did a young first-time feature director like yourself manage to land such an impressive cast?

Goldberg: Pretty much right after we had a draft of the script ready to go, we had a little seed money to hire a casting director.  It was a really great learning experience and process for me, since I had only really held casting sessions for student films, but ultimately we ended up casting most people through offers or me reaching out and creating personal connections; however, we did cast the title role of Jeff through the audition process. 

When Jeff Saves The WorldBehind the scenes from "When Jeff Tried to Save the World"Credit: Zac Osgood courtesy When Jeff, LLC.

NFS: Did you have Jon Heder in mind for the role of Jeff from the beginning?

Goldberg: No, there was one day where Jon walked into the room and we were all pretty surprised. I guess the script got to his agents somehow and they sent him in, most likely not knowing I was a 19-year-old film student! I actually hadn’t seen Napoleon Dynamite at the time—which I think was a good thing because I wasn’t nervous or star-struck or anything.

Immediately, I wanted to stop the rest of the auditions because I knew we had found our Jeff. I got in contact with Jon and offered him the role, but we also didn’t really have all the financing we needed to go into production. I was pretty naive at the time and green to the process, and I somehow believed that financing would just flow in once we found our lead. Obviously, that's not the case. So I told Jon, "Listen, we aren’t really ready to make the film right away...Can I keep you updated?"

He probably didn’t think it would ever come to fruition, but I made sure he knew how serious I was. We got lunch a couple times, talked about the character, the story, life. We kind of became acquaintances. And then when it came time to shoot the proof of concept, I got the rest of the cast to agree to be a part of it first, then went to Jon and asked him. He had some availability and was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ So we went to Chicago, shot the short, then he had a cameo in my senior thesis film the following December, and THEN we shot the feature. It was perfect. 

NFS: What about the rest of the cast?

Goldberg: Jim O’Heir is another funny story. I found out he’s from a neighboring town, a small suburb outside of Chicago, and I had recently seen a short film he did that I loved. I reached out to him over Facebook because, why not? You truly never know nowadays what social media can really do for you, so I gave it a shot. Luckily, it worked. I'm sure that's not always the case. I think what set me apart was how I made the message personal. We went to rival high schools, and this is in like a small suburb of Chicago, so you only know the name of the town I'm from if you're also from around that area. He knew, and us Midwesterners, we stick together. So he was like, "Of course I'll read it. Anything for a Munster girl!"

Timing worked out because Parks & Recreation was just wrapping up and luckily he’s very active on social media. I got lucky.

With Steve Berg, I met him at my very first Sundance after-party, when I was technically too young to be in the venue. I started talking to him and I immediately knew that he would be perfect for Frank [Jeff’s co-worker] and I asked him right away if I can send him a copy of the script.  I recently learned that he thought I was some sort of young executive or agent, so he gave me his number and his email. I sent him the script right away when I got home and we kept in touch. 

NFS:What did you learn through the casting process that you could share with other filmmakers looking to cast their first feature?

I learned that most actors really love to work and they love to work on good material. So if you’re a filmmaker with a script and you can find a way to get it to an actor you admire, absolutely do everything you can to do so. Because if that actor reads your script and connects to it (and if they’re available, of course), odds are they’ll at least want to meet with you. 

'When Jeff Tried to Save the World' is available on VOD