Sundance 2014: The alarmingly different, utterly charming personalities of 'Land Ho!'

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Image Credit: Andrew Reed

Road trip movies (and road trips in general) live and die by the likability of the travel companions. Writing and directing team Martha Stephens (Pilgrim Song) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather) knew that, of course. Their film Land Ho! reunites a pair of 70-something ex-brother-in-laws for a trip around Iceland.

“We wanted to make a comedy that was sort of an ode to comedies that we loved growing up like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Uncle Buck and stuff that’s really fun, but we also wanted to incorporate the way that we made movies,” said Stephens.

Cast chemistry is key for a film of this nature. But for a small production, sometimes there just aren’t the resources to get the leads in the same room before shooting begins. A scary thought for any production, but on Land Ho! one of the main cast members was also a non-actor.

An oculoplastic surgeon by trade and a cousin of Stephens’, Earl Lynn Nelson began appearing in Stephens’ films a few years prior to Land Ho!. Director David Gordon Green, a fellow North Carolina School of the Arts grad, took notice after Passenger Pigeons and cast Nelson in an episode of Eastbound and Down. Nelson has a thick Kentucky accent and a clear detector for bulls–t. Everyone calls him “Earl Lynn.” The press kit bio even playfully notes his fondness for “the art of partying and good living.” Anyone who has spent five minutes with him would be hard pressed to dispute that claim.

In Land Ho!, which was just picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, Nelson plays Mitch, a brash former surgeon who convinces his forlorn ex-brother-in-law to head to Iceland for some adventuring.

“He’s sort of my muse,” Stephens said of Nelson. “I wanted to put him in a more leading role, and I thought ‘I want to take Earl Lynn to Iceland.’

Paul Eenhoorn on the other hand, is a soft-spoken Australian actor living in Seattle. He’s been acting since his teens, and got some widespread acclaim for his performance in 2012’s This is Martin Bonner. In this film he plays the mild-mannered, somewhat resistant Colin.

On screen, the pairing meshes brilliantly whether they’re chatting with a local eccentric at a club or analyzing works of art. You’d think the two men had at least had dinner together to assess their rapport prior to shooting such an intimate film. Not so.

“You saw the first part of the movie?” Nelson asked. “That’s the day we met.”

“I met Paul in the airport on the way to Kentucky,” said Katz, recalling that first day and the only “test” they had scheduled in the production — smartly before boarding a a plane for Iceland. But it worked. “We were making a movie 12 hours later,” he says.

“There’s something you look for in other actors and that’s a consistent performance. And we got it with Earl Lynn,” said Eenhoorn. “He never wavered from The Guy. I learned to work with that, and I knew I could work with Earl Lynn in that way. I felt responsible, though.”

“[Paul] changed my diaper,” Nelson joked. “You want to talk about the hardcore, or just the regular stuff?” When Stephens asks what he means, he continued: “The hardcore is that people couldn’t believe that we had only known each other for such a short period of time. And we were good together.”

“These two guys have such different approaches to performance,” said Katz. “Earl Lynn said there are little changes to the character but it’s mostly [him]. And [Paul’s] approach is completely different. I think it’s interesting. It reads as part of their different personality types. Their different approaches to their performances end up feeling like different people’s approaches to life.”

Just don’t ask Nelson about the significance of the fact that both men are in their 70s in the film. “I take offense to that, lady,” he admonished. “What’s happened to us also happens to every age group. You have a person who dies. You get fired from your job, you get divorced, you have financial problem. Hell, I’m 71 years old and I’m not ashamed of that, but their ideas are much more than two old farts having to be put out to pasture.”

If you think Land Ho! sounds somewhat similar to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, you’re not alone. Stephens counts it as an inspiration and has even considered (half seriously) a sequel to reunite the characters. “We had an idea that it would be fun to go to Hawaii,” she said.

Stephens had to miss the Sundance premiere of Winterbottom’s sequel A Trip to Italy because she had a screening of her own film to attend. “That’s my number one movie that I want to see. I was on the verge of – kind of joking — but honest tears. I wanted to see Steve Coogan so bad,” she laughed. “We could combine Land Ho! and The Trip. We thought it would be funny if the Hawaii movie was like a Muppet movie and there were like 100 Hollywood cameos.”

Nelson sat there for a moment, and finally jumped in: “Who’s Steve Coogan?”

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