"Full Grown Men" On the Road

Michael Fox April 17, 2006

After a clutch of highly regarded and very serious short films, David Munro makes his feature debut with an unexpectedly poignant comedy called “Full Grown Men.” He and his wife, producer Xandra Castleton, co-wrote the colorful tale of a 30-something guy with a family who grudgingly realizes it’s time to trade adolescence for adulthood. The San Francisco couple’s story — they shot the indie film in Florida and are busy mixing the soundtrack in time for the April 27 world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival — is already somewhat familiar to readers of the Chronicle, where their semi-regular diary entries continue to appear. We went behind the headlines at their SOMA offices.

SF360: Since this was your first feature, what was it like working with actors?

Munro: Film school did not prepare me to direct actors, and I don’t think many film schools do. It goes back to the early days of the independent boom in the ’80s. Spike [Lee] and [Jim] Jarmusch, I don’t think these guys have the reputation of being actors’ directors. I’ve always been pretty honest with myself about my blind spots, and where I need to grow. So I took [playwright] Amy Freed’s class in acting a number of times.

I’m a bit of a ham, I’m always playing, which is why I can relate to our main character Alby, who lives to play and plays to live. Alby needs to learn how to channel his gift of play into something constructive, which is really the dilemma of all artists, particularly in our market-driven, business-oriented culture. I think the reason I started a band [Joe Buck, named for a memorable movie cowboy] with film friends was to get out of our heads and into that play-space. So much of making movies is about money and logistics, and really just waiting around. You need to find ways to stay playful and spontaneous, even if it’s just goofing with friends over a bottle of wine.

Castleton: David hadn’t [directed] in a long time, and that has to do with the fact that it took us so long to finance this movie. It’s been three and a half years since we started working on it and the greater amount of that was financing and development. But David is Mr. Prepare, so he wrote endless character studies. And we had the luxury of several days of rehearsal with our key leads, Matt McGrath and Judah Friedlander. Some of the people that flew in for a day — Alan Cumming, Debbie Harry — we didn’t have it and they didn’t need it.

Munro: If we had cast the [lead] actor through an agent, and not gone through readings, I think it would have been harder on day one [of the shoot]. But we did an extensive search. We actually had the movie cast once and the actor bailed. I directed probably a hundred different actors [during auditions], which taught me more about the character and the way I wanted to go with it. By the time we got to the set, I had a pretty good idea of who I wanted this guy to be.

SF360: ‘Bullethead’ is a gorgeous short film, but I’m not sure what it’s about. How did you gravitate to the more accessible style for ‘Full Grown Men?’

Munro: My early stuff was really formal. Every frame was drawn out and [I’d tell] the actors, ‘You need to be an inch more this way.’

SF360: Sounds like Peter Greenaway.

Munro: Right. After ‘First Love, Second Planet’ I looked over at my dad and [he shakes his head]. I saw that ‘he’ll-never-have-an-IRA-in-his-life’ kind of laugh. It’s not that I wanted to make movies that my dad would like, ‘cause my dad doesn’t even go to the movies. I didn’t want to keeping making stuff where at the end I’d say, ‘You just don’t get it.’ I want to be funny. I want to have emotion in my movies. Being part of the Grotto, and knowing [novelist] Ethan Canin and [monologuist] Josh [Kornbluth], people who are consummate storytellers, that was a huge goal for me. I worked in the short form in shorts but even shorter in commercials, and to be able to do something meaningful over time — two hours, 300 pages — seemed like a great, honorable goal.

SF360.org: Shooting a comedy in Florida would seem to encourage a more eclectic look.

Munro: This was not calculated on my part, but a road movie gives you license to make something less linear. Every stop along the way is this new proscenium for a different visual. The movie also takes place with a nostalgia filter over it, because the main character pines for his childhood. And so we found a Florida that still exists — places from another time and the paint’s peeling a little bit.

Castleton: It’s a style that’s not very American, frankly. David’s directing style, and our writing, is a bit more picaresque. Kusturica’s ‘Time of the Gypsies’ is absolutely one of our favorite films. It’s absurd, it’s funny on a really simple level, and yet there’s a real sense of human pathos, and a sense of the absurdity of life, which you don’t see very much in American cinema. We have a retired mermaid in our movie, and Alan Cumming dressed up as a human G.I. Joe who’s a disgruntled theme park employee. I’m really curious to see how people are going to react.

SF360: Every filmmaker thinks publicity is great. But what’s the benefit to getting ink long before people can see your film?

Munro: The edit facility [approached us] because they had seen the diary….

Castleton: A tax attorney called us up and said, ‘I hear there’s this act down the pipeline that George Bush is going to sign that is going to be a major tax incentive.’

Munro: And it became a huge selling point for investors. When people see something in the paper, it makes it real. It wasn’t just this shadowy thing.

Castleton: Every time we did one, we’d have to do a little self-evaluation: ‘What’s the good and bad of what’s happened recently?’ That’s always a good thing.

Munro: The focus of a diary is to have some perspective on your life, and progression. Plus, [now] we’re huge in Vacaville.

SF360: [laughs] How does a couple write a script together, make a low-budget movie together and still stay on speaking terms?

Castleton: Creatively, we really connect, and that’s exciting. I can’t imagine making a movie with someone that I’m not married to.

Munro: I think we’re like Bonnie and Clyde….Sometimes I look over at the road in the distance, had Xandra been an interpreter or if I had stayed in advertising, and we had a more regulated life. At times it seems appealing — the peace of it more than anything. But from the very beginning, our relationship has been an adventure, and it seems kind of natural that we’re on the lam together.