The Discoverers follows washed-up history professor Lewis Birch (played by Oscar and Emmy nominated Griffin Dunne) whom takes his begrudging teenage kids, Zoe (Madeleine Martin, Californication) and Jack (Devon Graye, American Horror Story,) on a road trip to a conference in hopes of putting his career back on track. But, when Lewis’s estranged father Stanley (Emmy Award-winning Stuart Margolin) goes AWOL on a Lewis and Clark historical reenactment trek, Lewis is forced to make a family detour. The Birch family find themselves on a journey of discovery and connection as they make their own passage west.
Dunne is a longtime cineaste who anchors a seasoned cast that is particularly vital to Justin Schwarz’s film, which hinges on the exhibition of nature and the vivifying of contemporary human sentiments like self-worth and familial relations. Dunne says, “This is Justin’s first film, but there were decades and decades of experience among the cast. All the actors loved the script. It had a wonderful tone that everyone responded to, me in particular- the funny and the sad. There are moments that spoke to dysfunctions in American families now, also about ambition, lost dreams and unfulfilled lives, but it was captured in a funny, entertaining way; the reenactors of a Lewis and Clark trip was a fresh idea.”
Dunne expressed that he particularly connected with the project through his character Lewis, whom he felt had a good soul and spoke to many people approaching their 50s that have married multiple times and are experiencing changing business models. In the film Lewis is an academic who’s devoted his life to a book that’s commercially unconventional and therefore deemed unprofitable. Dunne speaks with what seems a particular affinity about the parallels between Lewis’s publishing problems and the evolution of the film industry; it’s natural for a person to reflect on how relevant they are, how fresh their work and ideas are. “The story portrayed this anxiety among people through a character that’s devoted 2,000 pages of a book to a little known historical figure for an audience that probably doesn’t have the attention span for it.”
This struggle for an audience parallels the distribution model for films this size that contain respected actors but not movie stars you can leverage to raise money. “The model is constantly changing. No one knows what the hell they’re doing; they don’t know how to get them the audience.” Alternate ends of incorporating streaming movies, direct ordering or having dual release of theater and TV have been explored, but a definitive formula hasn’t been established. Dunne says, “What I hope is that we, one, get a release, get well reviewed and get an audience. It doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. When it’s on a festival circuit, a movie goes on, but it needs closure.”
The Discoverers exhibits a strong visual point of view with an environmental mood and tone resembling that of Wes Anderson. Schwarz intendeds to showcase the beauty of nature, which he had to do, like most indies, on a tight budget. But the film doesn’t feel restricted. Dunne credits this to an exceptional production team and particularly the talents of cinematographer Chris Blauvelt whom knew how to stretch the dollars. In fact, he attributes the positive experience of making the film with reigniting his passion for acting. Since he started in the industry at 23, he’s always spread his strengths across the board; developing projects for TV, seeking scripts to direct and juggling as many balls as possible to either keep work coming in or creating it. “I was supplementing my indie filmmaking, developing, career with acting jobs, but I’ve gotten quite hungry and excited about acting again since doing this.”
The Discoverers is a spotlight film and screens Friday, April 12th at 7:30 at the Regal Hollywood 20.