Below director Stephen Gyllenhaal (yes, father to Maggie and Jake) shares a scene from his political comedy “Grassroots,” starring Jason Biggs, Joel David Moore, Lauren Ambrose, Cobie Smulders and Tom Arnold. Based off the book “Zioncheck for President” by Phil Campbel, “Grassroots” tells the true story of one candidate’s (Moore) unforeseen run for a seat on the 2001 Seattle City Council Campaign against the incumbent nominee, Richard McIver (Cedric the Entertainer). The film is currently playing in select theaters.
I’ve often described “Grassroots” as a comedy about two slacker dudes who jump into a local election. Everything about their campaign is wrong. The more bombastic of the two, Grant Cogswell, is the candidate, obsessed with unseating Richard McIver, the only African American member of Seattle’s City Council. His friend, Phil Campbell, is bitter that he’s been fired from an alt weekly paper and just wants to get even with the world by making a mess.
I’ve liked thinking of it as a comedy. But all along it was the dramatic issues in the piece that pulled me forward. There were basically two issues – the fact that the dudes were forced to grow up as the campaign got serious and the issue of racism in the movie. I tried to keep this second issue relatively under the surface. My hope was that there would be an increasingly uncomfortable feeling in the audience as the film careened forward.
I knew that there was a really wonderful resolution, so I knew I could push the issue a bit. This is based on a true story and the ending sat in the truth of what the two real people did. But I did need to strengthen that truth where I could. The issue of the handshake came to Justin Rhodes (the other writer) and I basically in stages.
There are three handshake moments in the movie. The final one being the scene that appears here. The middle handshake moment was completely made up. As was this one that you see, but it pointed to a deeper truth and it helped with the arc of the characters. It’s been interesting knowing the real people so well. All three of them know that what happens in the movie isn’t exactly what happened in real life (except for the moment at the end, which I’m not going to give away here). But all three of the real people now feel that the movie captures what happened in a deeper sense.
Shooting the scene was pretty straight-forward. We didn’t have much time that day and there was construction outside (if you listen you can hear some of it). We tried our best to shoot around jackhammers, but that wasn’t always possible.
There was a point when I had met with a cinematographer (not Sean Porter, who ended up doing the movie). Ironically, it was this other cinematographer who had made the importance of the three handshakes so clear to me. In the job interview he had talked about shooting the handshake with a great amount of detail, maybe even slow motion and lots of close ups.
At the time I’d liked the idea, but in the end (visually) I threw it away and kept the images simple, shooting just a few angles, not overselling it. If I had had more time I might have done those shots as well, but in the end the actors sold it much better than some fancy shots and all of that work would probably have ended up on the “cutting room floor” if I’d shot them.
Lastly, the scene didn’t totally work until we found a piece of temp music, which gave it just the right mix of irony and emotion. When Nick Urata came in to do the actual music for the movie it took us five or six tries before we got it right.
In any case, this scene plays a pivotal role in the movie, bringing us to what I think is a kind of bittersweet (more sweet than bitter) ending.