Newly minted director Robert Schwartzman’s middle name is literally “Coppola.” The son of Talia Shire, brother of Jason Schwartzman, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Sofia Coppola, Gia Coppola and Nicolas Cage has never shied away from his famous family, though his path to the director’s chair took a touch longer than it did for the rest of his filmmaking brethren. Schwartzman got started in the entertainment business early, though, thanks to roles in films like “The Virgin Suicides” (directed by Sofia) and “The Princess Diaries,” and a musical career with his rock band Rooney, which he started when he was still a junior in high school.
Schwartzman is now making the leap to filmmaking, thanks to his directorial debut “Dreamland,” which just bowed at the Tribeca Film Festival. Schwartzman directed and co-wrote the musically-tinged dramedy (and, oh yeah, he also wrote the score for the film), which follows a directionless young piano player (Johnny Simmons) who unexpectedly falls for an older woman (Amy Landecker) when he snags a sweet gig tickling the ivories at a local hotel. Despite Schwartzman’s family tree, the film wasn’t inspired by Coppola classics like “The Godfather” (though damn if it doesn’t share some major themes with “Lost in Translation”). Instead Schwartzman turned to classic sex comedies like “Loverboy” and “Risky Business” to guide his first feature.
Indiewire sat down with Schwartzman at the festival, where he talked about the film’s unexpected influences, how he learned to edit on the fly and the one thing all Coppolas share.
I feel like you watched the movie “Loverboy” in your youth.
I love “Loverboy.” “Loverboy” was referenced in this. You know that movie.
Yes. Patrick Dempsey—
—Patrick Dempsey, and extra anchovies—
—and Kirstie Alley, being a total babe.
She was a foxy babe in that flick. I love that dancing scene between them.
Your film seems to draw inspiration from ’80s sex comedies like “Loverboy,” where there is actual emotion and real stakes. It’s not a “Porky’s” thing.
Yeah, it’s not! It’s not a broad comedy movie. I love John Hughes movies, because there’s a lot of parts [to them], but there’s some really comedic characters. There’s certain beats in there that keeps the comedy alive, but it’s driven by a lot of heart and emotional characters as well. Like the end of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” when John Candy is walking and waiting by himself, it’s really heartfelt. That’s a really emotional moment. And it gets really heavy at times like him losing his wife.
You can still have a movie keep its comedic elements, but you also have to make sure there’s this thread of something emotional and dramatic that keeps the characters rooted in other worlds as well.
Like in “The Breakfast Club,” it gets really tough.
When they play Truth-or-Dare and they have that Truth moment and they all give a story. I love those movies. I love “Loverboy” and “Risky Business” and I love “Better off Dead,” which is a little broader.
Savage Steve [Holland]!
It’s so good! I’m very mixed in movies that I like and I think that they all have some effect on me in some way. There’s a movie called “The Man in the White Suit” starring Alec Guinness. He invents this suit that just falls apart at the end of the movie. Everyone says, “Oh, my God, what a suit! You must be rich!” But then they find out that this material he created just falls apart.
There’s a little “The Man in the White Suit” influence when Johnny becomes the guy in the white tuxedo. He looks like maybe he’s got something, he’s “made it” in a way. But it’s not real, it’s not rooted in reality because it’s within the movie. It’s not real, it’s Olivia’s creation — he’s just living it out. In the scene he says, “I look ridiculous.” He has a spine. He’s not a spineless man. He’s just overpowered by her influence over him.
Did your love for those kinds of movies directly inspire this one?
I wasn’t really thinking too much about it. I just wanted to start somewhere and for some reason I gravitated towards this story. It just seemed like it was something we could do. It seemed like a story we could do.
I thought it might appeal to actors that might be willing to take a chance and join the movie. People want to play roles that they find interesting and they can do something they’ve never done. So if you’re making an independent film, you can only hope that people are going to get behind you and support you. And if you can give them something to grab onto, they’ll maybe reach and take a chance and do it.
I’ve always loved the movies we mentioned and I just thought this story came to me in some point. I don’t know really when or how, but I just started throwing ideas on the table and then hooked up with my friend, Benjamin Font, and we started kicking around this idea. It just slowly fell into place. It took time to get made, over four years in the making, if you go back to [when we started] the first draft.
If you go back and you look at that first draft from four years ago, has a lot changed?
Yeah, a lot has changed. Even from the script we shot in last June, the last script that was literally shot was very different from this movie in many ways. It came together structurally and in tone and in many other ways in the edit. We explored things that we didn’t even intend on doing originally.
I think that’s the best because you stumble onto something. You watch a shot, you look at it a different way and you go, “Wow, I never thought of it that way. There’s a whole other thing that we have to explore here. We didn’t even see this coming.” I think you just have all these pieces on the table and you have to put them together. It’s like arts and crafts. It’s arts and crafts in that you have a bowl of cotton balls and you thing of glue and you have some glitter. The process doesn’t end until it ends and anything can happen.
You have an additional editing credit. Were you planning on doing some editing initially?
I wasn’t planning on it. The editor we worked with, named Chris Donlon — who’s an incredible editor — was editing a show called “Togetherness” on HBO. Chris was on Season 2 and that was right when we wrapped, he went to that show and had to cut. So we worked at night, we worked from 7PM to 2AM, three days a week, because of his schedule. It took time. It was hard to wait. I just wanted to get in there and start messing around and start exploring what we had.
And you also did the music for the movie. Was that always part of the plan?
I really love writing music. It’s been a part of a lot of my adult life. I’m in a band called Rooney, and touring and making albums. I write a lot of instrumental music. I got to work on the “Palo Alto” score in my cousin’s [Gia Coppola] movie, so I got to write music for her movie. I really love music in movies and the way music affects movies and vice versa. I want to keep writing and composing original music for movies.
It’s cool to do it for my own movie, because I’m close to my movie and I know what I want out of it. But the whole time, I had songs set aside. I had my playlist that I wanted to go to to play songs. I gave Chris [Donlon], our editor, all the songs. The songs that are in the movie are specific moments that were intended ahead of time. They weren’t just found and we didn’t say, “Oh, how about this song?” We really had a road map for music.
You obviously come from a very large family of moviemakers. Do you think that filmmaking is in your blood, or is creativity just encouraged in your family?
The generation before my parents were all musicians, these Italian immigrant musicians. They were prodigies. My grandfather was a flutist in a big orchestra and he played Carnegie Hall when he was 18 years old and all his brothers are violinists. They’re all musical people. And that rubbed off on the next generation, so music became a big part of those films and how music is used because they grew up in a musical family. Music has always been a part of my family as well as film.
But it’s all arts. It’s respecting great poets and great musicals and operas and ballet. It’s not just film. Film is just one piece. It’s one medium of expression, and I think it’s been heavily embraced by a lot of people in my family today who are current filmmakers. But the common thread is wanting to tell stories in some form. It’s storytelling, but it’s about wanting to communicate something, whatever it’s going to be, whether it’s a sculpture, or a movie, or a song or a play, or anything. It’s just wanting to communicate and get some idea across to people.
For more from another title in Schwartzman’s filmography, check out the trailer for “Palo Alto,” embedded below: