A day after he traveled home from the sound of thunderous applause at the Tribeca Film Festival, Thomas Haden Church was driving through the pouring rain outside his ranch in Texas when he called to discuss “Don McKay.” Church left knowing the darkly comic film about a janitor who rekindles a relationship with a high school sweetheart after hitting a dead end 25 years after the fact was “not going to be for everybody,” but that writer/director Jake Goldberger’s unexpectedly twisty take on why most reunions after that much time don’t work was working for the audience. Much of the credit belongs to Church, who’s long brought the pathos to his most bitingly funny performances. Church was all smiles at the film’s premiere, which as an executive producer on marked his second effort behind the camera in a creative capacity, following his directorial debut on the underseen and underappreciated 2003 pot comedy “Rolling Kansas.” As he drove through the stormy weather, I asked Church about his time on the festival circuit, as well as working with Charlie Kaufman on his equally underappreciated ’90s sitcom “Ned and Stacey.”
Were you pleased with how the festival went?
The screenings were beyond my greatest expectations. The audience was just rollicking and then stone silent at the poignant moments, but they were launched right back into the ribaldry with the story. The audience embraced it, and that’s all you can hope for, that people understand it and are compelled and they want to go for the ride and they don’t regret it when the ride’s over. They don’t regret being there.
You were working with a first-time filmmaker in now-32-year-old Jake Goldberger on “Don McKay” — could you relate from your experience directing “Rolling Kansas”?
Oh, sure. I’ll say this and it’s not false humility — going into “Don McKay,” Jake had fashioned a much better script than “Rolling Kansas” had, a more complete emotional story. [In “Kansas”] we went for overblown comedy set-pieces that we thought worked into the story, but didn’t really have anything at times to do with the narrative, which was a real thing that happened to me when I was a sophomore in college. I told the tale on Conan O’Brien and the audience went berserk that some dumbasses had stolen a bunch of pot from the government and gotten away with it — that’s when we decided to write the film. But it was always an incomplete emotional journey. We tried to make as much out of it as we could.
With “Don McKay,” Jake is a young guy, and to imagine such a complete emotional life for a man 20 years older than him, I was just absolutely enthralled by that. It took four years, give or take, from when I first read the script and met him to when we were actually shooting a film. We got to be very close and in the interim, tweaked it and sharpened it, but the story was always an emotionally complete tale, which is what every actor wants to play, no matter whether you have three scenes or 30 or 100.
Because of that long development period, had this story resonated for you more personally as the years have worn on?
It did. I’m not exaggerating — the first ten pages of the script, I knew that that guy lived inside of me. Jake and I always had a very succinct understanding of who he was. And yet it still was a tremendous challenge, probably is the most challenging thing I’ve ever tried to do. It was also at a very difficult time in my personal life. I had a relationship that was breaking up, and it fueled in a weird way the emotional isolation of the character. He’s a very lonely guy [whose] adult existence is completely defined by tragedy. That’s a very unique thing to play, but to play with restraint. You don’t have “once an act the guy is quietly sobbing” or shit like that — you never know until all of those things are revealed in the third act of the film what this undercurrent of sadness and possibly tragedy in his life is.
That ambiguity is probably what had so many people talking about it at Tribeca.
Which is great. I mean, look, it’s not going to be for everybody. There’s a suspension of disbelief throughout the movie that some people are just not going to be able to wrap their heads around. And we knew that. It’s a movie that you’ve got to be willing to go with the flight of imagination. But I’ll say this: nobody left. All three times the theaters were full and nobody left. [laughs] It may never do any business, but that’s all we can ask for at this point.