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John Krasinski on Directing 'The Hollars,' Fatherhood and His First Acting Job

Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Krasinski in "The Hollars"
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John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick in "The Hollars."
John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick in "The Hollars."

The KCET Cinema Series continued its fall season at the historic Aero Theatre on Tuesday, August 23 with a screening of "The Hollars." The acclaimed comedy-drama stars and was directed by John Krasinski ("The Office"). The ensemble cast also features Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins and Sharlto Copley as a family who must come together under trying circumstances. 

Following the screening, Krasinski appeared for an insightful Q&A session led by film expert KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond. Below is an excerpt from the conversation. 

The KCET Cinema Series is generously sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. 

John Krasinski on how he ended up directing "The Hollars."

About six or seven years ago, I was sent the script. I don't know if I've signed onto anything faster. There was something so special about this script. It was so real and honest. There's a whole lot of family movies out there and I had seen most of them and didn't love all of them. Then, this one came along and I said, this is as good a script as you can get in any genre, so I jumped on it. It was so special to me. 

And then about four years into it, as happens with a lot of small movies, the financier at the time called me and said, "I can't get it made, would you ever want to buy the script from me." I thought, you made the wrong call. I'm not George Clooney and then after I thought about it for a split second, I said, I can't pass up this opportunity. I can't not let this movie be made. So, I did buy the script and, I think two days later, called Margo Martindale because my whole idea was that if I'm going to make it, I have to make it with the perfect cast. She was my first call. 

On casting "The Hollars."

John Krasinski: I actually didn't have a casting director on this. This was one of those things where, because I bought it and I was in total control of it, I thought, how often do you get the chance to call every single person you want for the role and talk to them about it? And every single person I wanted signed on, which is insane. Richard Jenkins, I wrote him an email and he said, "Yeah, I like the script -- Margo Martindale, if you can get her, I'll do it." I wrote back, "Ha, ha, ha!" And he wrote back, "I'm not kidding." So, as soon as Margo signed on, we had Richard. It was a twofer. Everybody else is so phenomenal. Sharlto was really somebody that people were surprised by. I had loved him in "District 9," absolutely loved him.

Pete Hammond: He's a South African actor. He's got an accent.

JK: Yes, a very strong accent. He's here right now. It's a real, real accent. It's a beautiful accent, but when you think about how he got an American accent, it makes no sense. It's acting. But, I saw him in "District 9" and he was doing all these action movies and, when we were writing "Promised Land," I went to meet Matt [Damon] and Sharlto was on set. He was in some robotic uniform and when I met him, he was so sweet and loving and such a puppy dog spirit and I said, that's who should be playing my brother in this movie. 

PH: You know who I love in this movie too is Charlie Day.

JK: He's fantastic, isn't he? Charlie, I made one call and he read it and I said, "What did you think?" And he said, "Yeah, I like it, um, you're sure you want it to be me?" I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Alright!" He was in the movie. It took one question and he was in. 

John Krasinski and Margo Martindale in "The Hollars."
John Krasinski and Margo Martindale in "The Hollars."

John Krasinski on the scene where he swings on a tire over water.

Yeah, you just go for it. Down in Jackson, Mississippi. I'm from Boston, so I was completely ignorant. I was like, all these ponds have crocodiles in it, I know it. So, I was terrified for my life. Everybody down in Jackson was, like, nope, no crocodiles. I was like, "Yeah, right." So that was my biggest terror and my biggest worry, swinging out, but we rigged it with a stunt rope that these guys came up with that was fantastic, so I got a tiny button in that moss on the rope that clicked it whenever I was ready. The guy said it was a really sensitive trigger, so that definitely made me nervous. 

Yeah, that was one take. The one you see in the movie is one take and then the DP, Eric Edwards, who is amazing, said, "I think I need one more just so we can have something to cut away to" and I'm pretty sure he didn't need that. He just wanted to see me go in again. 

On the scene where he shaves Margo Martindale's head.

What that looks like, what it should look like, is a third of our budget, which it was. That was an amazing scene. She couldn't shave her head. Believe it or not, she did say she would have shaved her head, but she was on one of 84 television shows so she had to go right back to work after our movie and our amazing hair and make-up woman, Kelly Mitchell, who is a good friend of mine, she said, "You can't do a bald cap, you have to go and get this." There's this genius artist, he basically did a prosthetic, so that's a full head cast, the whole deal and every single hair was hand-stitched. It took him about three months to make. So, even though it's not her real head, we still only had one shot, so it still felt very intense to do that scene. What was amazing was that Margo had a transformation in that scene because she said there was no moment where she thought it was fake. She just saw her hair falling off and she was looking right in the mirror and she said, "That's as vulnerable as I ever felt in my entire career." 

On the scene where they sing an Indigo Girls song. 

Those are two great examples of how, like I was saying, this is a great script, but I truly, if you gave me all the time in the world, I would have never come up with this specificity of how to show true love between a mother and a scene like that head-shaving scene. There's something about that gesture that is so loving and so unbelievably powerful.

And then, the Indigo Girls. It's so real. The fact that the father had been crying the entire movie is the one who steels himself and is able to do this song, that's what Jim does so beautifully. He writes unlike anybody else. He's fantastic. 

On working with Josh Groban.

Isn't it frustrating, though, how good he is? A world-renowned singer -- what's this acting thing you speak of? And I'm going to come in and just crush it. He did such a great job. 

Josh Groban serenaded Margo Martindale for her birthday on set. It was beautiful. It was very sweet. She was so blown away. She's such a huge fan. Sharlto, I could see kind of a confused look as he was clapping after it. He was like, "Who's this guy?" Margo said, "You don't know who he is?" He said "No." She said, "Go check Twitter." He's like, "Oh my God, he has like a 100 million followers." The best part now is that they're best buds. They hang out all the time. As soon as Sharlto got to know Josh Groban. I just love the idea that Ron and Reverend Dan are really good friends now. 

On how having a child affected his work on "The Hollars."

It changed everything in every single way because all the cliches are true. As soon as you have a baby, it changes absolutely everything. I've always wanted to be a father. My hero is -- both my parents -- but, as a father, my hero is my dad. If I could just be a quarter of the guy he is, I win at everything. 

It was not about me fearing having kids, like this character, but my daughter was four-and-a-half months old when we started shooting and I think that, from the time that I signed on as an actor, just thinking it was a good script, to the time I was shooting, it was a complete transformation of how I saw this script... I felt this bigger weight to the movie. I thought that this idea of family having this existential pull on you more than any other group of people that you'll ever meet in your life -- and even if you don't get along with your family, you love your family or you talk to them or you don't talk to them, they still have that pull. They're always connected to you in a way that nobody else is and those channels of love and connection are always there. They may not be open all the time, but they're there and this is about a family that is just opening those channels one more time. And I think it's so beautiful so I was pulled in this bigger way. I understood my parents better. I understood my brothers better. I actually understood the idea of being from a family name. I know that sounds kind of corny, but I never thought about lineage before. I thought, I have grandparents and all that stuff. So there were a lot of bigger things going on. Needless to say, I was crying all the time on set. 

Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, John Krasinski, and Anna Kendrick (from left to right) in "The Hollars."
Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley, John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick (from left to right) in "The Hollars."

On the film's 22-day shoot in Jackson, Mississippi. 

The budget was small, but it looks much bigger thanks to our DP and our insane crew. Everybody worked so hard on this. I think everybody was bringing what they thought of their family to this. 

The key for me was that I needed it to feel like your hometown. I needed it to feel like your family. I needed it to feel like your diner, that your parents or you take your kids to, that they may have not been there for a while. I remember one story was that we were location scouting for that diner and we saw seven or eight places and I went in with my production designer, who is from Chicago, and I'm from Boston, and we walked into a bunch of places and as a director, I'm trying to make it work in my head. I said, "I think I can make this work." He's like, "Don't even try, let's go." We left and we walked into that place [the diner seen in the film]. WIthin a split second, he went, "Yup, this is it." I said, "This is it. This is the place that my parents used to take me." He said, "This is the place my parents used to take me." So there was this magic on set where we were just trying to find all of these universal connectivity places and it was beautiful. It was really fun. 

On the first time John Krasinski and Margo Martindale worked together. 

My first job -- period -- was working with Margo Martindale. I was an extra in a Marshall's commercial. You're welcome. I was probably 20. I was still in college and I went down to Boston to be an extra in this Marshall's commercial and they bumped me up to featured player, which means you get to interact with the lead actors and the lead actress was Margo Martindale. So, I've known her for 17 years. I was the young gentleman helping her find a very reasonably priced handbag. 

It's much nicer coming from her, but it's true, she said, and she reminded me of it during press, she said, "I am not a betting woman, and I have no money, but if I did, I would bet it all on you." We worked together for one day. It was crazy.

On the music in "The Hollars."

I made one call to Josh Ritter, who is an incredible artist and has 90 percent of the music here. Pitched him the idea, said, this is the type of movie I'm trying to do, I want to do a "Terms of Endearment" for our new generation. He said, take the whole catalog. Anything you want, you can have it.

Pete Hammond and John Krasinski talk about "The Hollars." | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.
Pete Hammond and John Krasinski talk about "The Hollars" at the KCET Cinema Series.  | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

John Krasinski on directing himself. 

On this particular movie, it was not only very easy to be the actor/director, but it was actually vital and honest because I think the key to this movie is that that family has to feel completely organic and genuine and they have to feel like they're a real family, and in order to do that, it helped so much that I was one of the people in that sort of bubble of special acting that was going on. My job was just to clear out an environment where they felt safe and empowered to do great work and I know I'm the one billionth director to say this, but in all the '70s movies I loved, there's something about "Carnal Knowledge" -- long shots that allowed people to play things out. So, once I was in there, I never called cut, I just had very quiet conversations with the actors and they would say, "I want to try to this" and "I think I hit that wrong, can I try this?" I said, "Yeah, try this." By the time we had it in our heads... they didn't even know I was rolling the camera. It almost felt like a play or, as Margo says, it felt like we were shooting a home video, which is the best complement ever. It helped to stay in it because if I yelled cut and went behind the monitor and gave them notes and stuff, it would have lost this feel that the family had right from the beginning. 

On rehearsing "The Hollars."

The day before we shot, I think it might have been the day that Richard landed, we had a read-through. All I said was I just want to read through the script. That's it. 

By the time we got to page 12 or page 15, we were just watching Margo and Richard. They were married. I'll never forget, there was this tiny thing where Richard was flipping to the next page and he went to say something and he grabbed Margo's wrist and held onto it and I was like, oh, my God. It's so beautiful. Everything he did was so loving. It looked like they had been married for 35 years. 

Sharlto and I were very intimidated, so we were trying to dance around and, kind of like kids do when their parents are that much in control, and then the funniest thing happened. Sharlto was getting so antsy. I didn't know what was going on. We were only halfway through the script and he said, "I'm sorry, it's the World Cup. I have to go in the next room and just check the score." I was like, "Uh, OK..." So he left and as soon as the door shut, Richard Jenkins goes, "What the fuck?" And Margo Martindale goes, "No no no, just let him go. Just let him go." And I went, "this is my family." It was so perfect. And then next day we were on set and we were family. We were done. 

John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick in "The Hollars."
John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick in "The Hollars."

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