Griffin Dunne was an Academy Award nominee as the director of the Oscar-nominated live-action short film Duke of Groove, which marked a breakout role for its lead actor Tobey Maguire and which also starred Kate Capshaw and Uma Thurman.
His feature credits as a director have included the hit Practical Magic, which teamed Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman; Addicted to Love, starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick; Fierce People, starring Anton Yelchin and Diane Lane; The Accidental Husband, starring Uma Thurman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Colin Firth; a segment of the comedy anthology Movie 43 starring Emma Stone and the acclaimed mockumentary [Lisa Picard is] Famous.
As an actor, Mr. Dunne is best known for his starring roles in two unforgettable dark comedies, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. He was a Golden Globe Award nominee for his performance in the latter, and was an Independent Spirit Award nominee in his capacity as a producer of the film. He also appeared in the Oscar-winning drama Dallas Buyers Club
Among the other movies that he has produced are such acclaimed films as John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, starring Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano; Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, starring John Heard; Michael Hoffman’s Game 6, starring Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr.; Luis Mandoki’s White Palace, starring Susan Sarandon and James Spader; Lasse Hallström’s Once Around, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter; and Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, which was scripted by Academy Award nominee Naomi Foner and starred Academy Award nominee River Phoenix.
Mr. Dunne’s many other films as actor have included Robert Redford’s Quiz Show; James Foley’s Who’s That Girl, opposite Madonna; Luc Besson’s The Big Blue; Amy Heckerling’s Johnny Dangerously; and Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties, with Clive Owen, Marion Cotillard, and Billy Crudup.
Television audiences have seen him in guest appearances on, among other shows, Frasier, for which he received an Emmy Award nomination; Girls; Damages; and, in a recurring role, House of Lies
ABOUT HIS NEW FILM THE DISCOVERERS. OPENING IN NY MAY 16TH AND IN LA MAY 30TH
Washed-up history professor Lewis Birch (Oscar and Emmy nominated Griffin Dunne) takes his begrudging teenagers – Zoe (Madeleine Martin, “Californication”) and Jack (Devon Graye, "American Horror Stories") – on a road trip to a conference in hopes of jumpstarting his career and reconnecting with his kids. But, when Lewis’s estranged father Stanley (Emmy Award-winning Stuart Margolin) goes missing on a Lewis and Clark historical reenactment trek, Lewis is forced to make a family detour. The Birch family find themselves on a journey of discovery and connection as they make their own passage west.
THE DISCOVERERS is a charming bittersweet comedy and moving debut feature from writer/director Justin Schwarz, led by Dunne's striking comeback performance. This heartfelt tale of family dysfunction and rediscovery features a talented ensemble cast including Emmy-nominee Cara Buono ("Mad Men"), David Rasche, (IN THE LOOP), Dreama Walker (“Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23”), NBR-winner Ann Dowd (COMPLIANCE), Becky Ann Baker ("Girls"), Scott Adsit (“30 Rock”), and John C. McGinley ("Scrubs").
The creative team includes cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (BLING RING), production designer Kelly McGehee (WHAT MAISIE KNEW), editor Geraud Brisson (BIG SUR), and costume designer Kim Wilcox (NOBODY WALKS).
AN INTERVIEW WITH GRIFFIN DUNNE (from the film’s press notes)
A Q&A WITH ACTOR GRIFFIN DUNNE (“LEWIS BIRCH”) Q: What about THE DISCOVERERS attracted you to want to be in the film?
GD: First of all, I was really taken with the tone, emotion and the humor of Justin’s script. I found there was a level of great humor that comes out of despair. The script had a kind of salty-sugar balance, yin and yang, happy-sad kind of tone all the way through it and I think the best comedies come out of that. Comedies aren't really about people whose life is going swimmingly, there's nothing funny about that. They're always about people at the crossroads of their life and the extreme reaction they have when they reach these crossroads. The script was kind of this great comedic metaphor for a personal journey that we all take, that we all find unavoidable.
But I also quickly identified with my character, Lewis. Hitting the half-century mark, like he has, was something very relatable for me. You can be very reflective about how your life has gone thusfar and how much you’ve accomplished. And to have something you care deeply about, that you’re not sure anyone will ever see, like when directing a movie.
My daughter has just moved out of the house to start her own life. So much of my life in the past 20 years has been devoted to being a dad – now that role has changed. So it hit a lot of tones of the heart for me. It was very timely.
Q: Describe where Lewis is at when we meet him.
GD: Lewis is at the crossroads of his life and he’s got a lot of problems: personal problems, family problems, work problems. He’s rather estranged from his children, a casualty of his own divorce. He’s a historian and has a book he’s worked on for years about Lewis and Clark which is about to be published, and he’s going to deliver a paper about it at a conference in Oregon. It's a career break he very much needs, but it coincides with the time he has his children, so he brings them along for a family road trip.
But his mother dies, and he quickly finds himself and his two kids following around his senile father on a Lewis and Clark “Trek” re-enactment – not what he’d expected to find himself doing. Plus, he finds out his book isn’t getting published after all. But through all of this, he finds himself in a surprising intimate relationship with one of the women re-enactors, played by Cara Buono, and really bonds in a strong and profound way with his children – and his father. He comes out of himself and really feels compassion for other people, and takes the focus off his own life and career. It really turns out to be his salvation, kind of brings him back to life.
Like all the other characters, Lewis has this journey of his own self-discovery where he assesses what it is important to him. His relationship to his father is important and the connection he makes with his children is important and he just sort of gives himself permission to feel okay about himself.
He's put so many years into something that he kind of feels that his life doesn't really add up. But I think as the result of this journey, he sees he has made a difference and he's still in the game and he will make a difference, which is kind of a tough thing to come to if you're having a mid-life crisis. It's a tough thing to pull out of and this guy does.
Q: Are you a history buff yourself?
GD: I am, in fact. It was so great to research something that really interests me. I usually play sort of urban characters in screwed up relationships in modern settings. I don’t need to research that a whole lot.
Q: What kinds of things did you do to prep for your role?
GD: I read quite a bit about Lewis and Clark – I read Meriwether Lewis’s journals and a number of other books, many recommended by the director, Justin, who knows everything about them.
Q: What kinds of things did you learn about Lewis and Clark?
GD: The most striking thing I learned was about the tragic circumstances of Meriwether Lewis himself. I never knew he had shot himself. Or about his close relationship with Thomas Jefferson, for whom he was a secretary. And the details of their incredibly arduous journey into the unknown – with only a single casualty. It was a wildly successful journey, something that would have been comparable to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in the last century.
Q: Lewis’s life in so many ways parallels that of your character, on a personal level.
GD: Absolutely. That’s something that both Justin and I were taken with, and something Justin has masterfully written into the script, in an unobvious way – he leaves it to the audience to spot, without connecting the dots for them.
My character, Lewis, with the derailment of his book and everything, has a fear that his life will come to a tragic end like Meriwether’s. He begins wondering the same thing that the explorer did – What have I done? What have I contributed? We all have this need or calling to make a mark in the world. Meriwether’s never came until after his death. He quickly became a forgotten man until then.
Q: Your own career had a lot of early successes – did you relate in that sense to your character?
GD: I certainly did. It’s been quite some time since I had a role where I was the central figure. A lot of my energy has gone into producing and directing – leading roles in my age range don’t come by that often, like they do when you’re in your 20s and early 30s.
Lewis probably came out of the gate really strong early in his career, as a young professor, filled with promise. And life deals you a lot of joy, as well as a lot of setbacks. He’s like so many of my peers, asking himself, “Are my best years behind me? Can I do my best work in the time I’ve got left?” It’s an interesting thing to explore, and a subtext that carried me through the film.
Q: And how did that personally resonate?
GD: I rediscovered my passion for acting in The Discoverers. Playing this guy who was my age, who is a father, as I am, who'd been working a long time in a field - I don't know if you can equate movies to being a historian - but there are certainly trends - it's certainly an uncertain future being an academic and being a filmmaker of any kind in this day and age. So there was a lot to work from.
And the script and the story is very much about adjusting to new chapters in your life so it was kind of nice to have that parallel of a part in a movie and go through that in a personal way as well. I’ve had two very strong acts, first as an actor and then as a director, and I feel a third one coming on. So there's a certain kind of quality of the script where this guy is going through changes in his life and you know his children have grown up, did have enough of a connection to them, has he done enough - Lewis - in his life and in his work to make an impact - and have I - this is the kind of stuff that people think about once they're somewhere into their fifties, so it was kind of like two trains running on the journey of playing this guy and on the journey the character went through.
Q: You were fortunate to get to work with a fantastic veteran character actor, Stuart Margolin, who plays your father, Stanley.
GD: Stuart is actually one of my oldest friends, though this is the first time we’ve had a chance to work together. He not only brought a ton of experience to the set, but even though he was working on a film with a smaller budget, he totally dove into the character and completely invested himself in it. He approached it like a hungry young actor. The message from Stuart – by his example – is about staying in the game. You gotta bring your passion into your work, no matter where you are in your life. That was a wonderful energy for me to feel.
Q: Your scenes with Cara Buono seem so natural together. What was it like working with her?
GD: I was thrilled when I hear Cara Buono was cast because I had a huge crush on her from seeing her in Mad Men. I thought John Hamm's character really did her wrong. So I was thrilled to play a guy who would be pretty crazy about her. And it was very easy to do.
She’s able to deliver such an incredible warmth – it was something I could feel even in our first scene together, at my mother’s funeral. It was nice to have that possibility of a romantic relationship for my character, and Cara just made it so easy. That warmth just comes right off of her. It was really easy to play having a crush on her.
Q: Your daughter is played by the very funny Madeleine Martin (“Californication”). What were scenes with her like?
GD: I laughed with her probably more than anyone. She has such a great laugh, and I would go to very cheap, dark places to make her laugh further.
Her comic delivery is pretty incredible, particularly for an actor who’s so young. She just hears lines differently than other people. She has a completely unique way of delivering a line and getting a laugh out of a situation. And the way she does it is so effortless, which is the best way. She never goes for the laugh – the laugh comes to her.
We actually got very close – it was as if she was really my daughter. She would look at me sometimes, particularly when our characters were in conflict, with an “I can’t believe this guy is my father” look of incredible disappointment. It was terrifyingly realistic.
Q What was it like working with Devon Graye (“Dexter” and “American Horror Story”) who played your son?
It was great to work with a guy who is at that period of his life in his career where he took everything so seriously. He hadn't done quite enough to be really jaded about it and really was interested in our history of my character and his characters history - what kind of father I was and what kind of son he was - so it was really great to have those conversations, his commitment was refreshing.
Q: Your own daughter, Hannah, actually appears in the film.
GD: She does, as one of my students in the beginning of the movie, we got a little scene together. It was her first SAG film, and it was fabulous of Justin to bring her onboard. She did a great job.
Q: This Justin’s first time directing a feature film. What was your sense of him as a director, in terms of his style and approach?
GD: I’ve worked with first-time directors before, and it’s usually their first film after film school or having made a short. But Justin was a fully-formed figure by the time his first movie came around. It was great to see someone who had written something and obviously had been living with it for such a long time really realize it and see his passion.
He was very clear about what he wanted. He was very decisive and had a very clear picture in his head of what this movie was like. And he had such specific ideas in terms of the tone of Lewis Birch that it pushed me in directions that I wouldn't have occurred to go in, that were outside my comfort zone that were much more right for Lewis than for Griffin. So I think in that sense it put me in a good position. I always felt very comfortable on set and free to do a lot of stuff.
He was much like a voyeur – he would watch the monitor and he’d know what was right when it was right. But he was also very open to any ideas we had. It was very, “You show me, and then we’ll play.”
Q: Much of the film takes place in Idaho, with the re-enactors. Where was that shot, and what was it like to film on location?
GD: That was filmed mostly around Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The locations were far away from where we were staying, with long drives to these isolated places. We walked and walked and walked – there are lots of scenes where Justin just filmed us walking, even without any lines. You just carry your musket and wear your furs. You actually quickly become attached to your musket – it very much felt like a period film, and like we were really “trekking.”
Q: So it was pretty rustic.
GD: Definitely so. We’d change clothes in one tent, and do a scene in another. Our base camps were in small towns – we traveled around a lot. It was a lot like doing theater earlier in my career, being in a preschool or something and changing clothes behind some flats they’d put up. We had cots, where we’d lie down and rest during lunch – and then put on our coonskin caps and grab our muskets and go out and shot some more scenes. It was very humbling for people used to having trailers! It was pretty low to the ground – it was pretty funny.
Q And the area you shot in Oregon had a personal significance?
I'd never been that far up the coast of Oregon. When I saw where we going to, where the cliffs are at the very end, it was quite a moment for me because it was just outside the area St. Helens, where my father -- who when were shooting the movie had just died the previous year-- lived. When I first moved to New York in the seventies and early eighties, he had gone broke, had to change his own life and go on his own journey. And he drove up the coast from Los Angeles and his car broke down in the town of St. Helens and he lived in this cabin for about a year or so. And he sort of taught himself how to write and became a novelist in this cabin. And we were shooting right near there. And I was really struck by the irony of me playing a guy who's kind of the journey of his life and shooting the final - I guess his insightful moment - right the very town where he went to have that very moment.
Q What do you think audiences will relate to in the film?
GD: I noticed that people like families and they liked screwed up families. What's that expression - show me a happy family and I'll show you a boring story - well this is not a boring story.
This film has a tremendous amount of heart. All the characters have a great deal of heart. And they all kind of wear their heart on their sleeve and the heart gets really dusty and dirty on this trek on this messy, dirty, funny trek.
With the films of like Wes Anderson or something like Little Miss Sunshine I think when you see very appealing, very confused people who are sensitive and wanting to either find their voice or their direction in life or grapple with what love means, I think if it is done in a really engaging way there is a very wide audience for it. Because it's usually told by a filmmaker who has a very unique voice and Royal Tennebaums and Little Miss Sunshine are not the same voice and The Discoverers is not that voice but they are all three unique under the umbrella of being really funny and appealing, having characters that you really care about.
Q: What did you learn about re-enactors from doing the film?
GD: Before the movie, I kind of thought of them as a bit of a joke, like when I’d see them on the History Channel. They’re an odd group, and Justin dealt with them in a very sweet way in the script. They were all misfits, but shared a real passion for a remarkable journey in American history that isn’t fully appreciated.
There are people that have a passion that is so particular – there’s probably no one else they can talk to about it, except each other. I came to appreciate their passion, and was quite touched by it.
Q: What did you learn from the whole experience, the whole journey Lewis takes with his family?
GD: That we’re all still works in progress. You have to stay in the game. If you reflect and dwell on your past in an unsatisfactory way, your life is already over. You have to keep pushing yourself and dig deeper. Otherwise, you might as well give up.
Lewis goes through all this and comes through on the other side, not having given up. Instead, he’s realized that while the route he had always envisioned for himself didn’t end up happening, there’s still a route for him. And he’s on it now. I've been fortunate enough to start off as an actor and then go into producing and directing and I'd say doubly fortunate to have at this point in my life this incredible part that was just sort of sent to me out of the blue. And it was kind of great to just go in, have such a demanding part, and use so much of my life and experience that I could apply. It was really a unique experience and overall it’s a part I’m most proud of playing.