The Discoverers from OC-Raised Justin Schwarz Gets at Least Another Week in Irvine: Update

Categories: Film and TV

See the update at the end of Page 2 on the Irvine run of The Discoverers being extended, with a link to the Voice Media capsule review.

Director Justin Schwarz and star Griffin Dunne bond while promoting The Discoverers.

ORIGINAL POST, MAY 30, 10:58 A.M.: Writer-director Justin Schwarz is finding out you really can go home again, and this weekend that will be times two as he's appearing at screenings of his bittersweet comedy plucked from the Lewis and Clark trail, The Discoverers, at two of his former stomping grounds: Los Angeles and Orange County.

The Discoverers is a witty, biting and ultimately sweet look at a washed out college professor named Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) taking his teen kids (Madeline Martin and Devon Graye) to a conference in Oregon, where he is set to introduce his massive, career-resurrecting new book on a slave who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

But a family tragedy changes the itinerary, and the Birch brood winds up on the actual Lewis and Clark trail with historical reenactors who include Lew's father (Stuart Margolin), who fell silent after the tragedy and then melted into his reenactment character. Lewis is tasked by his wealthy brother (John C. McGinley) to snap gramps out of it before continuing on to the conference.

Schwarz's feature-length debut, which played the festival circuit for a couple years and rolled at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April 2013, finally made its theatrical debut two Fridays ago in New York City, where it won critical nods from The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The Village Voice. Only two theaters host the roll out to the Left Coast today: the ArcLight in Hollywood and Edwards University Town Center 6 in Irvine.

That's drawn Schwarz, his wife and their 19-month-old son from their current home base in New York back to SoCal. He'll take questions from the audience tonight after his movie screens at the ArcLight, which is fitting because the then-maker of short films was living in LA when he wrote the screenplay for The Discoverers.

Schwarz will repeat the audience Q&A thang after Sunday's 1 p.m. showing at Edwards University, which is fitting because he found Orange County's premiere indie-leaning moviehouse a refuge while growing up in the Tustin-Santa Ana area. (In the interest of full disclosure, he's asked me to moderate Sunday.)

"I went to all public schools," Schwarz makes a point of telling me on the cell during his hectic trip out here. (Something anyone who has traveled with a toddler understands.) "I went to Foothill High School, I went to Hewes Middle School and I went to Arroyo Elementary School."

But check this out, Knights, Highlanders and Mustangs: Schwarz went on to Yale for his undergrad and Columbia for his MFA. He returned to LA from the East Coast to get an agent, and it was six years ago there where he came up with the idea for The Discoverers after another project he was set to direct fell through.

"The economy had cratered. I was just looking to make a movie on a small scale, trying to find a way to make it happen," recalls the 40-year-old, who often spent his breaks from writing watching indies at ArcLight.

Quadratic Media
The Discoverers plunges a dad and his teen kids into the world of historical reenactors.

The main inspiration for The Discoverers, which Schwarz also co-produced, was something he wrote in his journal early on that Dunne's character would end up saying on screen: "You can't divorce your family, even if you don't get along."

"When I came upon that, it made me interested in exploring family relationships, like father-daughter and father-son," Schwarz says. "Then I thought having a character who is an academic would also be interesting to explore. And I knew I wanted to make a road movie and something with reenactors."

He'd caught the reenactment bug attending a Hewes Middle School trip to Washington, D.C., and Colonial Williamsburg, where the Lewis and Clark expedition was among the living history presentations. Schwarz, who was editor of his school newspaper and later wrote for the Tustin Weekly, plunged into research of the journey for his film.

"Lewis and Clark and early explorers became a great metaphor," he says. "The more research I did, the more I found out this was not the story I learned in school. Meriwether Lewis had an existential crisis and killed himself. Lewis Birch is not suicidal, but the idea of the weight of history we all feel sometimes is something I wanted to present.

"The film is about discovery. The road movie genre lends itself to that, personal exploration. It's a great vehicle for history and familial history."

Meanwhile, the idea of shunning the modern world to live like they did back in the day presented multiple comedic opportunities. "It's very interesting to see people who are not Native Americans tending to be Native Americans as part of the experience," Schwarz cites as a for instance capitalized on in The Discoverers.

But it's not enough the filmmaker has Dunne, the great everyman actor of After Hours and An American Werewolf in London fame, providing commentary to the madness. The movie's funniest lines are stuffed into the mouth of Maddie Martin, who Showtime subscribers know as David Duchovny's daughter on Californication.

"I think that's not intentional," Schwarz says. "You create the characters and part of her chemistry was she almost always has the last line. It allows you to create comedy around that. And part of that was editing. In fact, I had to sort of scale back some of her scenes because they seemed so repetitive. But she definitely gets the laughs when I watch this with an audience."

He'd never seen Californication and did not know what to expect when Martin came in to read for the director.

"It's such a hard part, the verbal gymnastics and sardonic, caustic wit," Schwarz says. "She had to be in sync with Griffin's character in what she brings to the table. Also, there is a vulnerability she uses as a defense mechanism at some point; it's like she's too smart for her own good.

"When Maddie came and read for me, she had to do the period [as in menstruation] scene, and she did it just exactly like what you see on the screen. It's a heartfelt and painfully funny scene. There was a nice chemistry between her and Griffin."

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