Jason Cortlund Talks Saffron and Cinema: Part I

Posted by Jonathan Robbins on 3.23.2012

We caught up with Now, Forager co-directors Jason Cortlund and his Julia Halperin the day after the New Directors/New Films Opening Night. Engaged and engaging, they told us about the genesis of their film and the secret lives of mushroom hunters. Chefs and cinephiles alike will appreciate our conversation with this genuine, spirited duo. In the first installment of this two-part interview, Jason talks about Lucien, the character he both wrote and played...

How did you come to write a film about love and mushrooms?
It started with wanting to make a movie about food where the cooking wasn’t just there as some romantic, ersatz metaphor. The first draft of the story was just about Lucien—someone with a great deal of knowledge about food and cooking, but whose unwillingness to compromise his ideals prevents him from functioning in the real world.

Some key scenes came out of that draft, but the dramatic stakes were really low. We were talking about this with our friend Athina Rachel Tsangari (director of Attenberg) and she was adamant, “There must be a woman!” And she was right. So that’s how the “love” part of the story evolved.

In terms of mushrooms,  they were part of the story from the beginning. They’re just amazingly beautiful creatures that deserved a starring role in cinema. But also because it’s a big part my life. I grew up hunting, fishing, and foraging with my family. My grandfather survived a mushroom poisoning before I was born, so the lore, and the love, and the respect were all there. And when you spend five or six years working on a project like this, you better enjoy the subject matter.

What is your connection to the underground foraging economy?
Personally, I don’t forage for money—only for pleasure and my own table. I have friends in the New York Mycological Society who might sell to a restaurant or barter a free meal if they find a big patch of hen-of-the-woods or something like that. I’ve of course met other folks who do make part of their living as foragers, and the best of them do it sustainably—they care for the habitat so that it keeps producing for years to come. With foraging really trending in the last couple of years, I think it’s time for more states to start thinking about how to regulate and/or license pickers who do this for money. It needs to be taken seriously, both for the health of the woods and the safety of diners.

What is this couple's backstory, do you think? How did they meet?
Lucien and Regina grew up around each other in northern New Jersey. They’re both from Basque families, so they come from the same community. They’ve been a couple since high school. Cooking and foraging is a big part of their culture—it’s something they share and part of what’s kept them together for so long.

But after 20-odd years, people change. Attractions can ebb. Priorities and tolerances shift. When you’re caught up in the day-to-day churn of making a living, and especially when you depend on the other person to share the load, it’s not always obvious when people grow apart.

There are lots of great films about falling in love, about beginnings. We wanted to look at the end of the process.

How did you and Julia come to work together?
We met in graduate school at the University of Texas. Julia was in the production track of their Radio-TV-Film department and I was in screenwriting. I volunteered to help out on her pre-thesis film and we started dating not long after. Since we have pretty similar tastes, collaborating just made sense. We took turns producing while the other directed on a few short narratives. We programmed a film festival (Cinematexas) together for a few years. Then we decided to focus on making features as co-directors. Now, Forager was our first and we’ve already got the ball rolling developing our next. It’s a crime drama called Lumberjunkies, about two brothers who illegally cut and sell trees at night in the part of Oregon where I grew up.

At one point there is a voiceover through which we gain valuable access to Lucien's thoughts. Valuable because he is a man who does not express himself in words. Would you talk about the choice of having this (more or less) stand-alone voiceover and whether it was tempting to introduce more?
Lucien’s voiceover punctuates the story arc as a way to give an audience more access to botanical and culinary information about mushrooms and, as the story progresses, to Lucien himself. As we spend more time with him, the mycological content evolves and becomes more personal. It helps to explain his worldview.

I think Julia and I wanted to be careful with the voiceover because, at the end of the day, it’s a device. It’s kind of like saffron in paella – it needs to be there. But if you use too much, it ruins the dish.

The actress who plays the stuck-up rich lady Lucien cooks for is so wonderfully reprehensible! What was your inspiration for that character?
When you start talking about issues of class related to food, it’s complex. Cucina povera (Italian peasant cooking) was the peak of chic in Manhattan fine dining a few years ago. Or the renaissance in eating offal and other inexpensive cuts of meat over the last decade. The notion of authenticity has afforded the food of the poor or of our immigrant grandparents a lot of class mobility. And that’s kind of a perfect situation for satire.

April Garrison offered a great opportunity to inject a little humor into the story, to lighten things up, and (most importantly) to put Lucien into a new context where you can start to build some empathy for him and his values.

The title, Now, Forager, comes from a Whitman poem, yes? Are you a Whitman fan?
I like the classic American transcendentalists in general. I think the literary connection between naturalism and politics is incredibly inspiring – it’s the wellspring of American art and activism. I like Whitman, and I always find a lot in his work. But if I had to pick one big-name 19th century American transcendental poet, I tend to favor Dickinson.

What films have you watched recently that you've enjoyed? Or books that you've read...?
We saw Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) at Rotterdam and it was fascinating. I also thought A Separation was really well-crafted. You can feel empathy for each character, and I think that’s pretty exceptional. And neither of us was expecting Senna to be as much about religious ecstasy as it was about Formula One racing. We’re still talking about that film—it really stayed with us.

In terms of books, I really enjoyed Eugenia Bone’s Mycophilia – which is a contemporary cultural study of mushroom lovers. It’s a great balance of information and really astute, often hilarious character studies of all the different flavors of mushroom people.

Stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin. Now, Forager screens March 30 (FSLC) and April 1 (MoMA).

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