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Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens Take Audiences On A Journey in ‘Land Ho!’

The co-writers/directors talk shooting in Iceland, their collaborative process and why short films are vital to a filmmaker’s development.

What happens when two of the most exciting voices in American indie cinema get together and make a movie? You get Land Ho!, an outrageous and surprisingly poignant road movie about two septuagenarians (Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhorn) who take a spontaneous trip to Iceland.  Writers/directors Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens paint a lively portrait of two men at different crossroads in their lives with incredible humor and insight.

We talked to the filmmakers about their Icelandic crewmembers, directing as a team, and why film school was the right choice for them.

Tribeca: Land Ho! is such a refreshing take on the road trip movie genre. Has that genre always been something that interested you?

Martha Stephens: I didn’t initially think of it as a road movie until after it came out. Of course it’s a road movie, but genre didn’t even come into play while we were making the film. We just knew we wanted to make a comedy about two guys taking a holiday. Our original thought was to make a broad studio comedy from the 80s except with no money, non-famous actors and our indie sensibilities [laughs]. We look at the film as a fusion of both of those worlds.

Aaron Katz: We’ve collectively and individually made five films before Land Ho!. It was really fun to be put three-dimensional, complex characters in this studio genre type world. As we got closer to production, the movie started to evolve in our minds. We initially started to think of this comedy with more dry humor, but when we got to set, it seemed more like we were making Tommy Boy. It was great!

Tribeca: Land Ho! marks the first time that either of you has worked with a co-director. What’s the best thing about working with another filmmaker so closely?

MS: When you have two lead actors like Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhorn, the best thing about having a co-director was that you could split the duties. If I was over by the camera talking to our DP, Aaron can be talking to Earl Lynn and Paul.  That collaboration made production run a little smoother and faster. Plus, we could just spit-ball ideas together. That was nice.

AK: Being a director alone can be an island.

MS: I remember working on the script together. I questioned whether a line I had written was funny, and Aaron just started cracking up. It was reassuring. You had someone to check yourself with. 

Tribeca: What is the worst part of sharing the director chair?

AK: I don’t really know [laughs]. If anything, being a director is an egotistical job. At times, I think we both kind of dug our heels in on certain things, but we had to remember we were in this thing together. That could be a little tough to navigate.

MS: I think it’s natural, unfortunately, that film people tend to gravitate towards the male. It is disturbingly sexist when certain people in the industry make eye contact only with Aaron while we were talking to them. I also felt that Aaron sometimes got a little more respect from people we were working with, probably because he was a man. That’s not his fault; it has nothing to do with him. It has to do with other people.

If those short films weren’t so important to us, we wouldn’t be here today making feature films.

Tribeca: You both went to the North Carolina School of the Arts. Was it important for you to go to film school? Do you think the same knowledge can be gained just from watching lots and lots of movies?

MS: I think it depends on where you live. For me, growing up in a small town in Kentucky, I don’t think I could have just watched movies in such an isolated place and still been able to learn as much as I did in film school. It’s not necessarily what I learned from my professors as much as it was learning through other students and finding people I wanted to work with. Film school is all about developing relationships and finding collaborators.

AK: So many of the people who have worked on this movie went to film school with us, like our DP Andy Reed and D.I.T Nate Whiteside. Our group of friends is a really important part of the filmmaking process for us. It’s vital to have that overall sense of collaboration.

MS: From school, I have a really good idea of the classical way to make a movie and I learned how to do every job on a film set. We had to do everything from craft services to boom operating to production design.

AK: You learn how to function on a set with your peers and how to complete a project. That’s invaluable.

Tribeca: Mynette Louie’s Gamechanger Films, which supports women filmmakers exclusively, provided funding for Land Ho!. Can you talk about working with Mynette? What was your favorite part of collaborating with Gamechanger?

MS: Gamechanger financed more than half of the film. Because we were their first project, they weren’t sure how they wanted to operate as a film financing group/ production company. They pretty much let Aaron and me do our own thing, which was great.

AK: I think that the best thing they did was to believe in us and in this project. They didn’t come to us with any changes. They showed that a little trust in your directors can go a long way.

MS: They just gave us some notes for our original cut, but we had final say on everything. It was a very unusual way to work, but we loved it [laughs].

Tribeca: Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn are both outstanding in this film. Do you usually write with specific actors in mind or do you typically develop the characters first? Which approach do you prefer?

MS: I think it always makes it easier for me to write with someone in mind.  

AK: The original proposal for this project was to make a movie in Iceland with Earl Lynn. I had just seen This Is Martin Bonner and really wanted to work with Paul Eenhorn. You just hear their voices and think of the situations and put them in there. We already had a good idea of how things would play out. No one has a more distinct voice than Earl Lynn [laughs].

Tribeca: This was his first really big lead role, yet he seems so confident and comfortable. I can’t imagine him being unsure of anything.

MS: No. (laughs) He just isn’t. Maybe he’s just holding it in and we have no idea but it seems unlikely.

Tribeca: Iceland is breathtakingly beautiful. Can you talk about your experience filming there?

MS: It was great filming there. Before Land Ho!, Aaron and I had always shot in familiar places. However, filming there wasn’t intimidating because we were visitors making a movie about visitors in Iceland. We weren’t trying to be experts. People seemed open to letting us come in and shoot. Everyone was really easygoing and not a lot of questions were asked. We were anxious at first, but then we adjusted to the Icelandic way of approaching things.  

Tribeca: Did you work with an Icelandic crew or did you bring your own crew with you?

MS: We worked with an Icelandic co-production unit called Vintage Pictures. We had two amazing producers, Brigitta and Hlín. They set up the production office before we got there because we had only two weeks to prepare for the shoot. Our movie didn’t really need a production designer, so we got an art school girl named Ólöf Benediktsdóttir to be our props master. We also had a couple of great PAs.  

AK: We should also mention…

MS: Oh yeah! Ólöf also sings the song “Land Ho” on the soundtrack, which all sprung from a karaoke night.

AK: Everyone was blown away! I actually wasn’t there at the karaoke thing but everyone came back just raving. When we were trying to think of a female vocalist with a non-American sound. Our producer Sara said, “’What if we got Ólöf to do it?’ And we said, ‘That’s a great idea’ and we did it.”

Tribeca: This film is such a terrific audio/visual experience. Cinematographer Andrew Reed shot Cold Weather and Quiet City for you, Aaron. Can you discuss working with him on this project? How did the three of you collaborate on the look of the film?

AK: I feel like it wasn’t that different. Martha was just in the mix this time [laughs].

MS: Since we were all classmates, we already had a language established. The language of film is pretty universal.

AK: Martha and I had already scouted the Iceland locations before Andy got there. A week before shooting, Martha and I took him around to start planning our shots. I remember Andy would take out his iPhone and would suggest an exact aspect ratio for our cameras. He knew all the different lenses we had available to us. We took pictures then and made our shot list afterwards.

Tribeca: And what camera did you use?

MS: We used the Red One. We rented the cameras in Iceland at the same time Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was shooting. It was wild. 

AK: Iceland has a great production infrastructure, but they don’t have a lot of equipment available to support multiple shoots. We had to bring the zoom lenses we wanted from Florida.

Being a director alone can be an island.

Tribeca: Can you speak about working with Keegan Dewitt on the music of the film? How did you decide on that synth-pop sound?

AK: We came back to my apartment in Los Angeles after shooting—Martha didn’t even go home to West Virginia. We set up in the dining room and Keegan showed up about a week and a half into editing process. We hadn't even finished a complete cut of the movie yet.  I think, though, that it was a good time to start scoring the film. We responded to the choices Keegan made and vice versa.

MS: We knew the movie had an 80’s buddy vibe to it that we wanted to play with. Since the movie was about an Australian and an American coming together, we also wanted this world music vibe that was popular in the 80’s.

Tribeca: You have both made short films before. More and more often, you find that filmmakers want to skip the step of making short films and jump right into features. Why do you think short filmmaking is important?  

MS: It’s practice. You’re not investing as much money. You can make something for very little money and it’s more disposable—though I hate to say it like that. I don’t think I could just have gone blindly into making a feature without having tried things out in short films first.

AK: The purpose of short films isn’t to make a great film—it’s to learn and experiment. However, when I was making shorts in film school, I did feel like each one was the most important thing in the world.

MS: I think both of us almost quit school when things weren’t going right with our short films [laughs]. The faculty would try to come in and change things and I would say, “I’m going to quit school if you do this to me.”

AK: [laughs] I can’t believe that.

MS: I can believe it! If those shorts weren’t so important to us, we wouldn’t be here today making feature films.

AK: That’s one good thing about film school. It gives you a structure and an environment to make short films and make mistakes. I wouldn’t say that any of my films from film school were good.

MS: Short films allow you to figure out your voice and how you work as a filmmaker. Making shorts is a vital step for any filmmaker, despite what people might tell you.

Land Ho! opens this Friday, July 11, in NY and LA and will expland to select theaters in the upcoming weeks. Click here for more information.



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