Filmmakers have two options when they are overwhelmed by our suffocating reality. 1) Lean in, embrace the misery of it all and root out the horror by meticulously detailing the experience. 2) Run away, hit the road and explore new, unfamiliar horizons. In 2016, post-election, writer/director Hannah Fidell sought a new headspace to inhabit. Her previous films (A Teacher, 6 Years) detailed chaotic and stressed human relationships with a strong emphasis on the pain of emotional growth.
For her latest feature, Fidell sought joy and the absurdity of self-exploration within the tropes of the road trip film. The Long Dumb Road is a hilarious collision of personalities embodied by the frenzied, anarchic energy of Jason Mantzoukas forcing himself into the shotgun seat of Tony Revolori’s painfully introverted artist traveling from the comfort of his home to the L.A. art school that will no doubt alter his worldview for the better. The film was a mini-sensation at Sundance this year, and hailed by our own Neil Miller as “delightfully weird, relentlessly funny, occasionally vulgar, and thoughtful in all the right ways.”
We spoke to Fidell and her two stars over the phone, and it was immediately apparent that The Long Dumb Road represented a significant entry in all of their filmographies. The most important aspect being that Fidell needed a good laugh. “I mean, we started shooting the day right after Trump was sworn in,” Fidell explains. “It was just incredibly cathartic, and I think for me too, right now, the last thing I want to do is sit down and watch a serious drama about the state of the world when I need to laugh. I’m trying to find laughter as much as I can.”
That glee erupts the moment the recently unemployed Richard (Mantzoukas) offers mechanical assistance to the stranded Nathan (Revolori). Mantzoukas is a born scene-stealer and is often injected into films like The House and Dirty Grandpa to enliven exposition and eradicate dull narrative. He has never had as much room to navigate a character arc as he does in The Long Dumb Road. “So rarely am I asked to do a role,” the actor acknowledges. “Usually I kinda pop in and out. I come onto a TV show for a couple of funny episodes, or I come into a movie for a couple of funny scenes, and all I’m really responsible for is some jokes and maybe a little bit of exposition or something. But in this case, the idea of having to really build a character who starts from point A in the movie and ends at point Z, and give a performance, hopefully, that you are along the way finding the moments and watching this journey unfold for him emotionally is actually quite different.”
As Nathan the young wannabe photographer hitting the American highways in a quest for a real reality, Revolori saw an opportunity to undertake the classical young man’s mission of inward expansion. “I grew up in Anaheim, California,” he chuckles. “So just being an actor and being so close to Los Angeles, you don’t really need to make that much of a trek. 30 minutes on a highway with no traffic, two hours with some traffic.” So, yeah, no necessary Richards to upturn his life.
Revolori never had the need to rip himself from his surroundings and break free from oppressive normalcy. At the same time, he did partake in a journey of identity when Wes Anderson cast him as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel. “I left home for the first time,” says Revolori. “While I was in that process, I flew out to Paris to meet Wes and for kinda like a final audition type thing. It was awesome. It was a bit of an odyssey and a journey to try to figure out whom I am in this section and then going to shoot the movie. So I feel like that’s kinda similar, but I wouldn’t say I had a journey much like Nat’s in the film.”
While The Grand Budapest Hotel was certainly packed with all manner of characters along with the actors assigned to bring them to life, there was no one as wild or enthusiastically dangerous as Richard, Jason Mantzoukas’ drifter philosopher mechanic. In some ways, all Revolori had to accomplish was a combination of absorption and deflection of that energy. “Richard would knock anyone on his butt,” he firmly states.
Fidell found her two road buddies in the traditional manner. Working with her casting director, weeding through a list of names, finding the top picks and crossing your fingers that the financers will sign off on them. Upon putting Revolori and Mantzoukas, Fidell was struck by their combination. “I met with both of them and just fell in love,” she says. “I could tell they were the right people for the part, which is rare. Their chemistry is undeniable.”
If Revolori and Mantzoukas don’t work together than The Long Dumb Road falls apart before it can even start shooting. The two actors met beforehand to test out their rapport. It was a do or die situation. “Tony and I went and did an escape room together,” Mantzoukas enlightens. “It’s just here in LA. But it was really funny, and that was our first time meeting, which was wild.” Did they make it through to the end? “We did it! We finished, just the two of us. We escaped the prison!”
Revolori certainly did not forget the incident. “These kind of situations bring people together,” he laughs. “You gotta do it, and see if you don’t hate each other afterward. I think it was wonderful. We both kind of came in being a bit nervous, on the reserved side. And then it was, you know, wonderful getting to know him a little bit more. Working 50/50.”
How could you possibly reject Mantzoukas? Looking at his various cinematic and television appearances, as well as his weekly trips into movie hell on the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast, one might get the impression that he could find chemistry with any actor. “I’m hard pressed to figure out or remember a time when I didn’t have chemistry with somebody?” Mantzoukas takes a long pause while he thinks it over. “I think that kind of comes a little bit out of my improve UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] training. To really listen and agree and support. All those kinds of elements of improve, I think make you a better scene partner.” Mantzoukas gives another long pause, “Maybe Nick Kroll. I have no chemistry with that guy. Get him out of here. No thanks.”
There were a lot of paths that The Long Dumb Road could have taken across the country. However, Fidell was only interested in exploring the American Southwest. “It’s the iconic imagery when you think of a road trip in America,” she says. “Also, I’ve done that drive myself several times. It just feels like a whole different universe to me.” It was crucial that the highway could become a void of isolation.
Fidell was looking to escape the drudgery of drama and found rejuvenation in Revolori and Mantzoukas. In accepting the challenge to confine her camera on two actors locked into two car seats for the majority of the film, Fidell went to a few seemingly odd sources for inspiration. “Specifically for driving scenes, we really looked at Training Day,” she says. “We wanted this to be a comedy version of No Country for Old Men. Just something elevated, something that isn’t your traditional indie film look, or even your traditional big-budget comedy that’s barely lit.” Fidell and her cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo dug into Roger Deakins’ toolkit. “We shot anamorphic and with these really cool, old vintage lenses that did really weird things.”
Ultimately, the film is an encounter between two lost individuals wandering in search of a purpose. You’ve seen this dynamic in the past, but these characters usually wear the faces of Steve Martin and John Candy, or Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, or Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. An infinite rotation of white dudes. Fidell, actually, originally concocted the narrative as a short film with co-writer Carson Mell in the Richard role and Peter Vack as Nat.
Casting Mantzoukas and Revolori in the parts immediately freshens the point of view of the film. Fidell says, “Just changing the character to someone who isn’t white, I think it added more depth to the story and sort of made it more interesting.” Revolori continues that train of thought, “I think that’s really, really forward thinking and amazing that it happened.” Not to knock Mell and Vack, but their fit was a little samey or repetitive a.k.a. blah.
The Long Dumb Road traps its audience in the backseat behind Revolori and Mantzoukas. Just as you can’t escape them, they cannot escape each other. While the film is striving to accomplish plenty of laughter, the quest is for an authentic American experience. Revolori exclaims, “We just want people to laugh, but at the same time, it does have realistic messages and settings. You’re laughing at it, yes, but you also realize you might be growing a little bit.” The real America Nat is chasing already has his hands on the steering wheel.
The Long Dumb Road is now playing in select theaters.