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How an Independent Filmmaker Went From Being the Farrelly Brothers’ Assistant to Making the Movies That Studios Wouldn’t

With one indie under his belt, the "Wanderland" filmmaker switched to the studio world. Here's what he learned and why he's changing gears (again).


Editor’s note: Nearly 20 years after making his feature directorial debut, Josh Klausner’s latest feature film, the musical “Wanderland,” is set for its world premiere. Klausner’s path from indie film and back again is a unique one, including stopovers in the studio world alongside big names like Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Paul McCartney, and Shrek himself.

We asked Klausner to reflect on his career so far, and what’s next for a filmmaker who has never taken the easy way.

My path to directing “Wanderland” was a bit like the rambling journey its main character Alex takes over the course of the movie. For me, it was about stepping off the path I was on as a studio screenwriter to reengage again as an independent filmmaker.

You’d never know it from “Shrek Forever After” or “Date Night,” but I always believed I’d primarily work in the world of independent film. It was movies like “Bottle Rocket” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Slacker” that I connected with growing up — that drew me in, excited me, and made me want to work in film. Right after college, I made a very unconventional short film that went to Sundance and won a Student Academy Award. It was an esoteric film — written in jibberish, no less — and certainly no calling card to write blockbusters in Hollywood.

But then, as often happens in the circuitous path of life, a chance meeting with Peter Farrelly got me a job as an assistant on his first film. It was supposed to be a small independent comedy called “Dumb and Dumber.” It led to the opportunity of me directing Second Unit for the Farrellys on their subsequent studio films. Then, a comedy script I had written (about a young boy whose older brother is thought to be the second coming of Christ) got the attention of both filmmaker Shawn Levy and Dreamworks Animation, and I soon found myself writing films on a scale I never imagined.

I’ve loved the experience of being a studio screenwriter. The numerous drafts and outlines and rewrites and story meetings allowed the process of writing to evolve from mysterious inspiration, over which I had no control, into a craft upon which I could rely. In animation, every story point is torn apart and analyzed completely before it’s put back together — a painful and collaborative process, but also liberating as it makes you realize that no moment in a script is sacred or precious or unchangeable. Also, seeing how directors like Shawn Levy and Mike Mitchell handle their enormous film productions with such grace and ease taught me about creativity under pressure and about keeping your eyes on the overall picture as opposed to getting thrown off by the bumps along the way.

But I began to miss the whimsy in the stories I was telling. The moments that maybe can’t be justified by the story department, but just feel right. The rare accidents. I wanted to be surprised again, and to surprise myself. I wanted to make a film like the ones I watched time and again — Hal Ashby films like “Harold and Maude” and “Being There” (yes, studio films, but not easily made today). They were light and funny, but left you with the deep feeling that something much deeper and profound happened over the course of their stories. They almost felt arbitrary at times — and because of that, they were alive and unpredictable.

When I started to write “Wanderland,” I knew I would have very limited resources, but in many ways that ended up being an advantage. Someone once said to me, “Give me all the colors of the rainbow, and I don’t know what to paint, but give me three colors and I can make a masterpiece.” I found that, after working in the studio world where anything seemed possible, the friction from the limits of making a small independent film inspired me as a storyteller. Instead of set pieces and explosions, it was about a corn maze a local farmer would let me use, or the free beauty of filming a sunrise on a beach. Instead of worrying about structurally leading up to the breakup scene that needed to come at the end of Act 2, I allowed myself to intuitively take the journey of the main character and instinctively feel where I wanted the story to go next.

That intuition led to things I would have never expected — such as the songs performed throughout the picture — and eventually a story evolved of an isolated man who always wished that he lived in the world of a musical…only to discover over the course of an all-night comical and surreal odyssey that he actually does.

“Wanderland” is in many ways about connection in the modern world — how we’re more technically linked to each other than ever before, but we’re in danger of losing the magic of direct, face to face human interaction, with all of its surprises and unknowns. And for me personally, the making of the film ended up being all about reconnecting with the surprises and unknowns in storytelling that first made me want to become a filmmaker.

“Wanderland” will have its world premiere at this weekend’s Hamptons International Film Festival

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