In the independent film, Let Go, David Denman (The Office, Drop Dead Diva) plays a melancholy probation officer who gets involved in the lives of three parolees played by Ed Asner (Up, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Gillian Jacobs (Community), and comedian Kevin Hart (Little Fockers, Death at a Funeral). We couldn’t coordinate schedules to get an interview with Asner, but I spoke with Denman and screenwriter/director Brian Jett about the comedy with well-drawn, eccentric characters.
I asked Denman if it was an acting challenge to convey the emotions of a man who is nearly paralyzed by malaise. “It was tricky,” he said. “There was some stuff that we pulled out of the movie that didn’t quite work. It was definitely a slow burn. It isn’t as big a catharsis as some of the other characters are going through. But he definitely has a journey to go on…. He’s longing and looking for something because he’s really depressed and not happy in his life. I think he kind of goes off the rails a bit.”
While Denman hadn’t worked with Asner before, he met the veteran actor when he was younger. “I was in college, and I did a little student film, like a TV project, at Chapman University in Orange County, California, and the teacher was also an executive producer,” he told me.
“She had worked with Ed Asner on something; I can’t remember what it was. And they asked if he would come in and play the president of the school, and he agreed. He came down and shot, I think for just a few days. I was one of the students in that. I didn’t really have any one-on-one scenes with him, but I did meet him at the time. I was a kid. I was probably 18 years old. And then all of a sudden, here I was years later, and I said, ‘Hey, Ed, do you remember this?’ He’s done 150 different shows, but he remembered. I said, ‘I was actually in it.’”
Working with Asner was a pleasure, Denman says. “He’s so present, and he’s a lot of fun. He’s quick as a whip and right there with you. I’m like, ‘Do you need anything?’ He’s like, ‘No, I’m fine. Leave me alone. Do the scene, kid.’ He’s such an old pro. He literally can do this in his sleep, but he was terrific…. Did all kinds of fun improv stuff. I just tried to keep a straight face.”
For first-time writer/director Brian Jett, working with Asner was exciting. “Initially, I was extremely nervous … but he’s just wonderful,” Jett says. “I felt at ease fairly early on because it was pretty obvious from the first take that he’s very generous. When you give an actor a note, sometimes, if it’s not a good note, they can tell you you’re an idiot or that’s the worst thing they’ve ever heard. And someone like Ed, who’s been doing this for a while and is so good, he could have totally tried to steamroll a first-time director. And even when I gave him notes that weren’t good, and I’m sure he knew weren’t good, he still executed them no matter what without any complaint whatsoever.”
The idea for Let Go came from a Dustin Hoffman movie called Straight Time, in which he plays a parolee trying to make it on the outside. That film was a drama, though, so Jett thought the general idea would work well as a comedy. It took about four years from the start of the writing to the finished product, which is actually faster than many independent movies are made.
Jett was lucky to meet casting director Dorian Frankel (Parks and Recreation and Curb Your Enthusiasm), who helped him get his script in front of the right people. “Thankfully, people responded to the script, so we were very, very fortunate even though we were very low budget,” he says. That budget was just under $1 million.
It was more expensive to shoot the film in Los Angeles, but Jett felt strongly that the eccentric peripheral characters in his script could be more easily cast in L.A. with “amazing comedic actors.” This allowed him to work with some of his favorites, even if they shot only for a day — people like Jack Carter and Simon Helberg, just to name two. “There’s no way we could have replicated that shooting anywhere else,” he says.
As is the case with most independent films, the funding process was tough. “It was all raised through private equity investments, mostly in smaller amounts. We didn’t have any huge investors…. It took a while because whether you’re trying to get somebody to invest $1,000 or $1 million, it takes the same time and effort.”
I asked Jett if he got discouraged during the process. “From the financing all the way through post, it’s like being in a very passionate relationship. One day, you’re on the top of the moon, and the next day, you want to crawl under your bed and not come out again,” he says.
Now, Jett has a couple of television comedies that are making the rounds and will begin shooting his second feature film in Los Angeles in 2013. Let Go is also being discussed as a potential TV series. “I think it lends itself really well for television,” he says. “The idea would be to do it for a basic cable like an FX to keep the quirkiness of it.”
Meanwhile, Denman will be in M. Night Shyamalan‘s new movie, After Earth, starring Will Smith, to be released in 2013, and his character on The Office is being brought back briefly, as well. He’s currently shooting a movie called Blue Potato in northernmost Maine, which is loosely based on the true story of the creator of TERRA Blues Potato Chips.
Let Go has done well at film festivals and has been released on iTunes rather than in theaters. So, you can catch it there, and I recommend it if you like indie films. Jett says that sometimes, the best decision for investors is not to have a theatrical release because of the financial risks involved. Still, he’s happy with the result of his first feature.
“I’m grateful on a first film for the opportunity to work with such an amazing cast and crew,” he says. “It’s remarkable.”