Q&A with ‘Grassroots’ author and director

For the first time in the history of the Seattle International Film Festival, the opening and closing night films were both shot in the Northwest. Grassroots, the closing night film, is even based on a real life event: poet/activist Grant Cogswell’s 2001 run for the Seattle City Council, challenging incumbent Richard McIver. Cogswell’s campaign was managed by former Stranger writer Phil Campbell, who later wrote a book about the experience, Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics (in addition to describing the campaign, Campbell’s book also offered up a parallel narrative in the story of U.S. Rep. Marion Anthony Zioncheck, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1936).

Film rights to the book were purchased by director Stephen Gyllenhaal in 2007, and, under the more user friendly title Grassroots (Ziocheck is also being reissued under the name Grassroots: Politics … But Not as Usual), the film will have its world premiere screening at SIFF this Sunday, June 10. The following evening, Campbell, Gyllenhaal and Cogswell will appear at the event “From Failure to Hollywood: A loose evening of poetry, writing and film,” at Hugo House, 7 p.m. (The film also opens in Seattle June 22.)

Since his days at The Stranger, Campbell has relocated to Brooklyn, blogging for The Huffington Post and working on other projects: “I just finished a novel and am going to go out and sell it sometime soon.” He took the time to answer some questions about the process of watching his work change from a book to a film.

What was it like to be informed that someone wanted to make a movie of your book?
Both exciting and nerve-wracking. I was excited that someone from Hollywood would be interested in the story, of course, but I was also nervous about exactly how he would adapt the book to film.

Did it seem a pretty definite project from the start? Given that many film ideas never get off the ground.
My gut reaction to Stephen Gyllenhaal was a very positive one from the very beginning. I knew he was going to make the film, especially because he took such a direct, personal interest in the story and was not approaching me as a studio representative who was merely exploring the idea of making the movie. I met Stephen directly, and I worked with him directly, and he kept pursuing the project despite the numerous setbacks along the way.

Did you expect it would take so long?
I started losing patience around, oh, 2008, but I can be a very impatient person, and at the time I really had no idea how long such a project would take. At one point my wife bought me a couple of Werner Herzog’s diary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, so that settled me down a bit. I mean, it’s not like I was hanging out with Stephen Gyllenhaal in a primitive jungle like a Herzog or a Coppola for years just to see this thing get made. I kept working on my own writing throughout the process.

How do you feel about the adaptation and how your book was distilled to the film’s storyline?
I think I can best answer that with the blog post I wrote for the Huffington Post. In the end, it’s not my book, but I’m ok with that.  [Sample quote from the article: “Yes, my bitterly funny book has been gutted, but no, I’m not upset about it.”]

You’re credited as associate producer. What did that involve?
I actually rejected the title of associate producer at first, because I wasn’t sure where Stephen was going with the movie—he didn’t always share his thoughts with me as he went. But I was still interested in the process, so I read multiple drafts of the script, offered tens of pages of notes about what seemed to work and what didn’t. Most of these notes went nowhere, though some suggested bits of dialogue made it into the film. I like to think that I helped Stephen and his co-scriptwriter Justin Rhodes think more carefully about how they were executing the story. Anyway, once Stephen and Justin got to the point when they had a finished script, and I saw that the script was a pretty good one, concrete proof that they had taken the craft of storytelling seriously, I decided to accept the credit Stephen offered me.

Is it disorienting to watch another actor play yourself?
Yes, very much so. I was on the set for only four days in 2010, and so it was a very short period, but I did see Jason Biggs act out one scene that was pretty similar to what really happened in 2001, and I saw another scene in which Jason acted out a scene that was very much a work of fiction. Both experiences were surreal. Watching the fictitious scene was actually easier, because it signaled that this wasn’t real.

How much is the real Phil Campbell like the movie Phil Campbell?
Well, for a guy who never met me before filming began, Jason did get my general mood down pretty well for that time in my life. And he nailed the beard, because I’m pretty lazy about maintaining it and so it looks unkempt most of the time. But overall the script and the acting made me look better than I made myself look in the book. So in some respects he is a better Phil Campbell than I am.

Was it difficult approaching other people in the book saying “Hey, you’re going to be in a movie now”?
I took great pains to be in charge of the process of getting people who were mentioned in the book to sign a waiver for the film. I wanted people to be very clear what they were getting into, that their character could be fictionalized to a great extent, to the point that those people would no longer be recognizable — that happened a lot in this film — unlike in the book, where I conducted interviews and did a number of things to make sure I had my facts straight before writing. But it wasn’t difficult per se because I used to be a journalist and thus I have a little experience in telling people things they might not want to hear.

I found this quote from you from an interview when your book came out: “What did we accomplish? Nothing. We lost. Grant quit politics and I left town, end of story. To me, more non-fiction needs to end this way; real life isn’t always a happy ending, so why do we keep trying to twist it around so that it becomes one?” This seems to be a grimmer outlook than the movie has; the film definitely ends; even the film’s title is happier than the book’s title. And I see the film’s website has info on how to run for office, get more involved, etc. Is this part of trying to “twist it around” for that happier ending?
To be honest, I gave that answer about accomplishing nothing because I really didn’t like the question. [The question was, “The book ends on kind of a down note. What, if anything, did you and Grant accomplish with the campaign for City Council?,” and here’s the interview.] I’m not a fan of memoirs and other stories that can give a straight-line answer to such a question. I like complication. I like ambiguity. I like the opportunity for conflicting interpretation. I didn’t want to tell people how to read my book. So instead of giving a real answer, I said, “We accomplished nothing.” Probably a bad move, but there’s nothing I can do about it. In any case I still don’t want to answer that question. But, yes, the film does have a happier ending, but then again, maybe my book would have had a happier ending, too, if I had waited until 2012 to write the last chapter. I’m in a much better place personally than I was in 2005.

Are you more cynical about politics now?
As a citizen of a democracy, it is our duty to be cynical about politics. People in power are forever corrupted by power, and so we all need to be on guard for that corruption. We all need to be aware when our leaders let us down. It is a good thing, not a bad thing, to be cynical about politics.

The book/film is about a period 10 years ago. It seems so idealistic compared to what’s going on now. Does a grassroots movement even have a chance?
Limited efforts of grassroots politics always, always stand a chance in this country. Put together enough of those limited efforts, and maybe something larger can be changed. So, even though I am cynical about politics, I am also always hopeful about what ordinary people can do to improve society.

How is this story different because it happened in Seattle rather than some other city? Perhaps you can see Seattle from another perspective now that you no longer live here.
I’m not from Seattle, I’m from the Midwest by way of the South, and I arrived in Seattle just in time to experience the culture shock—for me—of the World Trade Organization protests. For me, this story was always different because it happened in Seattle. To name just one big example, I’m not sure of anywhere outside the West Coast that would see someone like Grant Cogswell—a tattooed poet, an unemployed music critic, a bisexual anarchist sympathizer who filed an ACLU lawsuit against city hall in part to draw attention to his campaign—as a viable candidate. And even though we lost, Grant was very much a viable candidate.

What do you miss about Seattle?
I miss a handful of some very, very good friends of mine, and I miss the Rem Koolhaas library. I moved out of Seattle only a week after it opened to the public, in 2004. I got to walk through it once, and I was so sad after I left that beautiful, wonderful building, because I knew I would never be able to enjoy it the way a Seattleite enjoys it, because I was getting ready to get on a plane to move to New York.

* * *

Director Stephen Gyllenhaal also co-wrote the script for Grassroots. Here he talks about how to market a film that doesn’t have a superhero in sight (though there is a giant polar bear) and the visual “patina” of Seattle that we residents take for granted.

This isn’t your first contact with the Pacific Northwest; you also directed an episode of Twin Peaks. What can you say about that experience?
None of it was shot on location; all of Twin Peaks was done in LA, but it was a wonderful experience, as was making Grassroots. Funny, there is a strange mix of innocence and cynicism in both. I don’t think you can take in the environment of so much beauty, rain and wilderness and not get a mix of something like that. And then there was David Lynch with Twin Peaks. A joy! One of the more astonishing human beings who really digs into the unconscious. Grassroots explores very different terrain, but that’s what makes making movies and TV so much fun!

What attracted you to this project; what made you read the book and think “This would be a great film”?
It was about the two characters, pretty goofy and confused, who start out on this journey with a combination, now that I think about it, of innocence—maybe some stupidity—and gain wisdom—and yes, some cynicism—but ultimately grow up. Growing up is really far more interesting to me than staying young and naive. Young and naive is terrific when you’re young. But it gets stupid as you get older and usually, if you don’t grow up and actually do something, work hard, take some responsibility etc., you also get bitter, angry and blame someone else for your life not having turned out how you liked. I’ll admit, like everyone else, I’ve had my slips into that space then and again.

How did you get from the book’s title, Zioncheck for President: A True Story of Idealism and Madness in American Politics‚ to Grassroots? In some ways I think Zioncheck would be more interesting, though of course people would wonder what it meant.
Nobody would have gone to see that movie. I would have spent all my time trying to explain it. I agree with you, though. I always liked the title, I kind of had to come up with something that explained the movie. And, in the end, Frank Capra was right I think when he said, “A good title is the title of a good movie.” Hopefully people will think Grassroots is a good movie.” We’ll see….

The film has an optimistic outlook, but things feel so much more cynical today. It’s set 10 years ago; how does that optimism translate to an age where “Corporations are people”?
Politics has always been brutal. The progressives—I’m one of them—thought electing Obama would solve everything. It didn’t. Now we have to grow up and not be stupid. That’s the real reason for making this movie, it says we all have to jump in and help with this process called democracy. We need to sort out the mess we’re in. For instance, the fact that our government has gotten itself into a place where it can—incredibly stupidly and cynically—call corporations people indicates that we all have to get out from in front of our TVs and go see Grassroots (very, very important — an important comedy — that’s a joke, kinda), and then do something. If not you, then who? Probably some cynical idiot who thinks he can make some money by calling his corporation a person.

What are the challenges of marketing a film that’s not an “event”? I.e., no superheroes, car chases, or explosions.
It would take a month to explain the challenges. But, of course, everything that’s worth anything is loaded with challenges, endless work, but then you just go out and do it, knowing that even as you go up against these monster corporations with your little film, you’re keeping something a little more human on the planet. And people who go watch Grassroots will get a little of that same thing, which means that as humans you’ll laugh and then laugh again and then, even in one or two places, cry. Real human things. Not un-human things that the super heroes do. Don’t get me wrong, though, I liked Avengers, so—go figure.

Can you talk about the experience of filming in Seattle?
I love the patina in Seattle, caused by the rain. It makes everything look wonderful. We ended up turning the Comet bar into a coffee shop, because all the coffee shops looked too clean and contemporary. When you see the movie you’ll see what I mean. Plus because we had no money we just called the coffee shop The Comet to save money. It was really a different name in reality. Wanna know the real name? Google Grant Cogswell, coffee. I’ll bet it comes up.

What are your thoughts about SIFF and how it’s perceived by those who don’t live here?
I think it’s a festival that is taken more and more seriously. I loved Seattle beyond words. I think it is an astonishingly beautiful place and I hope I’ve captured at least a breath of it in the movie. I’m hoping that Grassroots has a real life across the country, and actually around the world—which is already happening to some degree—films are such an international medium. Seattle deserves it and, by extension, so does SIFF. I think Seattle is one of the few real centers of Americana culture. There’s nothing like it anywhere and, in the final analysis I don’t think the characters in this movie could have emerged anywhere else quite like they do here….