INTERVIEW WITH KENDALL GOLDBERG, WRITER/PRODUCER/DIRECTOR OF WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD BY RACHEL BORGO, CO-WRITER OF WJTTSTW
In the weeks coming up to the Chicago premiere of WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD, I can hardly keep my excitement contained. My writing partner, and the director/producer of both the short film and the feature, has insisted on withholding the final product from me for nearly a year now. “You gotta see it on the big screen first. You just have to,” Kendall had insisted. Kendall and I have written together since high school, so I know better than to argue with her on this. I will be seeing the film in its entirety on December 5th for the very first time, surrounded by friends, family, and utter strangers. It will be on a Big Screen at the Music Box Theater, just like she wants. Am I any less anxious? If you’ve seen WHEN JEFF, you probably know the answer to that. Interviewing my creative partner was like peeking behind the veil, stepping into her always stylish sneakers for even a moment. Thank you to #DirectedbyWomen for the opportunity to talk in depth about our work—something we’d never done before.
RB: Let’s just talk about the production of the movie. Start easy. Tell me a little bit about the journey of WHEN JEFF. When was the moment that you thought, shit this is never going to happen, and when was the moment that you realized that it actually would?
KG: It’s hard to say. I don’t even remember our writing stages. It’s kind of all weirdly a blur to me. I don’t know if it’s because it was all spread out over five years. There were so many moments along the way that I was like, oh shit, this is never going to happen, that there are too many to count. But never, oh shit, this isn’t going to work, let me give up. Instead, it was, let me try something new. Let me talk to someone else, or let me go behind these people’s backs, or let me go under this bridge or let me go around this tree.
RB: Wow, great metaphors.
KG: Thank you, I’ve been working on my metaphors. You know what I’m saying, though? There were small moments of defeat and then I was picking myself back up whether it was an hour later or the next day. I never really was down on my luck for too long. I’m hoping that’s something I continue feeling throughout my career. I don’t know if it will be. Maybe it was just a first-timer thing. We were agreeing to it when we were making this movie. Every step of the process I had no idea what I was doing. I had a general sense, like, oh, I have to do this to make a movie, right? But I never knew exactly what step to take because everyone’s path is different. Even though people were guiding me with their advice, it wasn’t always the right advice for me or the position I was in at the time. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into and I didn’t fully understand the capacity of the product. So I didn’t psyche myself out in any way. When I got a no, it was like, fuck, let’s move on.
RB: I feel like that resilience is something very difficult for a lot of artists. Would you say you have a process or a question you ask yourself when something doesn’t go according to plan? Do you go to a certain person? What is your fallback when you’re falling?
KG: It depends on why I’m falling and at what point along the way it is. I have people that I go to for advice. You, my mentor Roy Finch, Shane, Jimmy. I have people to turn to. But I never get the answer, per say. I trust these people and they’re agreeing with me, so I know I’m doing something right. But it’s never necessarily the answer. In a sense, I’m lucky. I’ve known that I wanted to do this since the moment I knew what filming was, what picking up the camera and pressing the record button was. I’ve always wanted to do it. I’m lucky that I’ve always known that. If I want something to work, I’m going to make it work. Part of my personality is that when I’m into something, when I want something, I go after it. Hopefully nothing stops me, but if it does, I’ll try to find a way around it.
RB: To me, the fact that you’re so into your projects is a relief. I always know that when you’re excited about something, you’re not going to let it go. With JEFF, you must have been excited about it to make it happen. That was always such a relief to me because my script was not going to go nowhere. It was going to get made at some point because I had Kendall on my team. You must have really loved the characters. Out of all of the characters in our movie, which would you say you relate the most with at this moment in your life?
KG: I think maybe Carl. We don’t see a lot of him. He could be seen as the antagonist. To give a little backstory, Carl owns the bowling alley, doesn’t care much about it, and wants to sell it. As an audience, we are left not really knowing why. We assume he wants the money. He doesn’t care about the place. He doesn’t care about the people whose lives its affected. And while maybe that is true at some points in the story, he gets his little moment at the end where he almost apologizes and offers an explanation. He tells Jeff that he had to do something for himself, and that he’s sorry that it affected Jeff’s life. Maybe it’s a little selfish, in the movie, but I’m trying to think about myself a little more. There are moments when I’ve said yes to things I don’t want to or need to be a part of. I just did a tarot card reading that said that I need to start thinking about myself and making decisions for myself more.
KG: I take that with a grain of salt. But I would say, at this moment in my life, I relate with Carl.
RB: The ability to say no is something difficult and lost on our age group in particular. The idea of missing out on an opportunity is so suffocating. It makes me incredibly anxious.
KG: I have such hardcore FOMO. Ask Jon [Heder]. While we were in production, if the cast were to ever do anything without me, I would freak out. I was like, you guys can’t hang out without me.
RB: Yes! That anxiety is constantly with me. This movie focuses peripherally on anxiety and disorders, how people handle them. Jeff with his anxiety, Sheila with her alcoholism. What do you think those aspects of those characters brought to the story?
KG: Of Carl?
RB: No, the whole movie. Or we could just talk about Carl for the whole interview.
KG: Jim [O’Heir] would be so thrilled. He was running around at the last festival saying, “You know, no one realizes this but I really was the movie. Jon just needs the attention to survive.” But to answer your question, I think it made the story very human. In Sheila’s case we play up the alcoholism to a comedic degree, but not in an over the top way.
RB: Keeping it sensitive.
KG: Right. Specifically with Jeff’s anxiety, it makes him a multifaceted character. He’s dealing with real problems, not just losing the bowling alley. Even though we’re saying it’s his home and he loves it – to some people, they would just be able to move on. There are other factors that are causing him to be unable to move on. That is a very real thing that a lot of people deal with. Our generation talks about anxiety freely and is open to admitting that we have it. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, or people’s parents put a lot of pressure on them, and then there’s a snowball effect.
RB: Right. Anxiety was something we both could understand clearly from experience. I think that came through in the script.
KG: I get a lot of people coming up to me at screenings. It’s always positive. Saying the anxiety is relatable and that they haven’t seen it portrayed on screen very much.
RB: Speaking of the heavier side of the script, casting these comedic actors was a brave choice. There were definitely moments when I was on set that I felt that the actors brought such a spark to their characters. Were there any moments in the final product of the film that weren’t scripted? That were improvised?
KG: There’s a hilarious improv line from Frank. To set the scene, he and Jeff have to find a band for Friday Funday. The actor Steve Berg made a joke about not getting a band at all. Instead, just Jeff should just give him some Norwegian death metal, cocaine, and a turntable. That line made it in the movie because it was so funny. He also improvised the phone call at the beginning of the movie where he talks about twisting his own breakfast turkey sausage. He wants to stay “heart healthy.” Every line he made up I wanted to keep. But I could only keep so many. There were a lot of moments from Jon, too. They weren’t necessarily unscripted. Rather, it was what he brought to it in his face or body language.
RB: It was so thrilling seeing Jon in such a serious role for a change. Speaking of the cast, what was it like working with them? You managed to wrangle together a cast of misfit, cult classic icons. Napoleon Dynamite, Parks and Rec, Adventure Time, Dexter’s Laboratory. How did that level of history affect your direction?
KG: We did get to make the short film first, so that was nice. I got to work with a lot of the cast ahead of time. It was a dry-run, practicing for the real thing. And then for the feature, we were shooting in the same location. It was like returning to camp. There was a slight nervousness, but it wasn’t from working with them. I was just nervous about making a movie! I was so busy with all the logistics that I didn’t have time to let it affect me. It was such a weird, immediate thing. Especially with Anna and Maya. That was the first time I worked with them, because they weren’t in the short. There was a click. Everyone trusts each other. They’re letting me do my thing. I’m letting them do their thing. We both get some, we both take some. It was a very equal relationship.
RB: You mentioned the bowling alley – having the short filmed there first and returning to it for the feature. Why shoot in Chicago? Why shoot in the region? Why not LA?
KG: I was only originally going to shoot in LA because that’s where my resources were at the time. But I couldn’t find a bowling alley there. When I came home to Munster for winter break, I looked at a few bowling alleys around here. The one we chose was Lan Oak Lanes in Lansing, Illinois. It’s only like fifteen minutes from where we both grew up. It was great. It was perfect. Everyone in the Region was so much more receptive and willing to help with the movie. It was a no-brainer that this was the place.
RB: I can’t say enough that I’m very relieved that you shot it where I live! I definitely wrote the film with that bowling alley in mind.
KG: I didn’t know that.
RB: Seriously? That was the only bowling alley I went to growing up.
KG: Oh, I did not know that. You should have suggested it!
RB: That seems so obvious, now, you know?
KG: I definitely wrote it with Chicago in mind. Small suburb, not LA. I always wanted it to be winter, until we changed the months to match the shoot timeline. I always imagined winter.
RB: Me too. I don’t think that changing the season really lost anything on the film. Honestly, being in winter might have made it more of a drama, which is not what we necessarily wanted from it. On the subject of the bowling alley, which hosts a small arcade, Whizzing Winky’s wasn’t always the game that the movie centered around. Can you talk about that decision and what the creation of Winky meant for the film?
KG: I originally wanted Pac-Man to be the game in the movie. He’s going through a maze, he’s trapped, like Jeff. I even have the standing arcade game in my basement in Munster. We looked into getting the rights to Pac-Man, and it was going to be expensive. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford it. We probably could have. It was smarter financially to create our own game. It was better for the story that Jeff created the game himself. It shows that he’s intelligent and talented, and that he really loves the place since he made an entire arcade game off of it. Then, it makes more sense when the lines become blurred between the game and real life. Winky would be flooding his thoughts, because he created the game.
RB: I would love to play that game on my phone. I only have one more question for you. As a 23-year-old woman, starting this project when you were only 19, why write and produce a movie about a middle-aged white guy with the most generic name ever?
KG: I’d like to hear your answer first.
RB: To be completely honest, it felt like the easiest way to start. It was a character archetype that I was familiar with from all the movie and TV shows I had watched. A straight-laced, not comedic, middle-aged male character. For me, it originated from this point of safety. That is kind of bizarre that as a woman I felt more comfortable writing a man’s part. Eventually though, it became about his anxiety. How he coped with change. It came from a deep place of our own coping with life changes – going to college, making new friends, trying to start careers for the first time. Trying to establish ourselves and figure out who the hell we’re going to be. All of those changes happen right at that crux between being a teenager and an adult. That became much more important to me as we worked on the script. That’s how I related to him the most.
KG: That’s a good answer. But you had a second part to the question, didn’t you?
RB: Oh! Why the most generic name ever?
KG: I don’t remember. I’m pretty sure that the name Jeff just appeared at one point.
RB: I don’t remember either. It’s a very accessible name. He can be Jeff to his friends. He can be Jeffrey to his maternal figures. He can be El Jefe to Frank.
KG: True! My answer to the question is similar to what you said. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Jeff was the furthest thing from me. We probably both did this. I projected my fears and insecurities and anxieties onto this character. Then, I tried to create a difference by choosing a physical form for the character that wasn’t me.
RB: There’s really no way to not put yourself in your work, hard as you may try. I can see how that was an effort to put a little distance between ourselves and the art we were creating. It gets tiring to watch someone’s art when it feels like watching their biography. We wanted to show people that we were more than just 19-year-olds making our first movie.
KG: I have no interest in doing a film about a 20-something right now. I always want to write about someone younger or older.
RB: Follow-up question that wasn’t necessarily scripted: for your future projects, what kind of characters are you hoping to include and focus on?
KG: Right now, we’re doing something with younger characters. I like to look back on younger years. I don’t have a lot of years to look back on, but I enjoy stories of children. And then making those stories relatable to adults. There isn’t a character or diversity I’m particularly looking for in my movies. If it’s right for the story, it’s right for the story. I will always be an advocate for helping diverse voices tell their stories, which will then in turn feature those characters on screen.
RB: It’s about creating honest art instead of reaching a quota. I love that.
RB: Is there anything else you’d like to add before concluding our interview?
KG: Just that WHEN JEFF will be premiering in Chicago at the Music Box Theater on December 5th and 6th, so get your tickets if you’re in the area. WHEN JEFF will be released on all platforms on Friday, December 7th! Check out our website whenjeffmovie.com for more info and follow us on Facebook. Instagram and Twitter for great BTS blackmail of Jon Heder!
BRIEF SYNOPSIS OF WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD:
Jeff (Jon Heder) is the manager of an old-school bowling alley called Winky’s World. When he discovers the owner Carl (Jim O’Heir) is selling Winky’s, he takes matters into his own hands. In hopes of sparking nostalgia within Carl, Jeff throws a party at the bowling alley in homage to its opening celebration. Jeff struggles to hide Winky’s World from his family who, for years, believed Jeff was putting his computer engineering degree to use. He can no longer ignore his mother’s constant phone calls when his sister Lindy (Anna Konkle) and her med-school roommate Samantha (Maya Erskine) show up to his apartment unannounced. Jeff is forced to face the reality that his life as he knows it may slip out of his grip. A secret hidden within the walls of the building may be exactly what it takes to keep the ball rolling when the lanes begin to look more like a maze than ever before.
Originally from Chicago, 23-year-old Kendall Goldberg is an LA-based writer, director, and producer. In August 2016 Kendall directed a proof-of-concept short for her feature WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD, starring Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Jim O’Heir (Parks & Recreation). She co-wrote, produced, and directed the feature in August 2017. It screened at over 15 festivals and Kendall was awarded the International Film Critics’ (FIPRESCI) Prize for Best Directorial Debut at the 2018 Heartland Film Festival. Heder won the Indie Vision Breakthrough Performance Award at the 2018 Twin Cities Film Festival. Kendall graduated with a B.F.A. in Film Production from Chapman University. There she was honored with the Women of Chapman Endowed Filmmaker Grant, as well as the Zonta Award, to put towards her thesis film, GLORIA TALKS FUNNY, starring Candi Milo (Dexter’s Laboratory, Astroboy). GLORIA went on to screen at over 50 festivals and won several awards, including the Limelight Award and a $60,000 Panavision Grant at the Ojai Film Festival. Her documentary short DEMPSEY THE DIABETIC SUPERHERO was a Student Academy Awards Semifinalist. Kendall recently signed with Chicago-based commercial / music video production company StrangeLoop. She was selected as a mentee for the 2018 Women In Film Mentoring Program. Kendall has three features and a docuseries in development through her company Bad Rack Entertainment.
Rachel Borgo is a writer for the screen and an actress for the stage located in Chicago, Illinois. She has been writing screenplays since high school, alongside co-writer Kendall Goldberg. She received her BA in Theater and Creative Writing from Valparaiso, University, and moved directly to Chicago to purse her career as a writer. WHEN JEFF is her first, fully produced, feature-length film. When she isn’t writing scripts, she is freelancing and generating copy for the marketing departments of Windy City Playhouse and The Impostors Theatre Co. She loves nothing more than to sit with her fellow creatives over tea and discuss what’s next.