In Seattle director Taylor Guterson’s first feature film, the heartfelt comedy Old Goats, three men seek meaning and change in their golden years. These three vital, curious, and passionate elderly characters challenge stereotypes about life after age 60 or so. The three leading actors, Bob Burkholder, David VanderWal, and Britton Crosley, play versions of themselves in this tale based on Guterson’s original script, which grew from the actual personalities of the leads.
In the film, randy Bob writes his memoirs about his wilderness adventures, service in World War II, and numerous romantic liaisons between visits with his current paramour. Britt, a bachelor, lives on a squalid boat and tries to find a soulmate on the Internet after wimping out of a planned voyage across the Pacific. And the youngest of the trio, recently retired banker Dave, evades his domineering wife and joins in antics with Bob and Britt.
The low, low budget film (under $5,000) was an audience favorite and recognized as the Best of the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival. Reviewer Eric Kohn wrote, “Guterson has crafted an entirely solid, witty and poignant look at the impact of the aging process on three men in desperate search of self-improvement.” Kohn added, “Old Goats drifts from scene to scene with a gentle reverence for its leads.”
Filmmaker Guterson, age 30, is a native of the Seattle area, and the son of acclaimed novelist David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars, The Other). He graduated from the University of Washington film program and worked as a producer on commercial videos and as a production assistant on feature films. His short film Good Morning won a SIFF award in 2003. He and his business partner, Jonathan Boyer, now run the Seattle-based Elliott Bay Productions, a company that makes commercial and educational films.
Guterson recently talked about his career and Old Goats from his home in the Seattle area.
Lindley: Did you want to make movies when you were a boy?
Guterson: I didn’t think I wanted to make movies until I was about 15 or 16. I had a VHS camcorder and played around with it a lot. My brother and friends would do a lot of bad action with guns and drugs and convertible cars. Obviously it was completely different than what I’m doing now, but I thought it was fun. I didn’t edit with a computer. It was VHS, so I had to edit as I went, and think ahead to the next scene as I shot.
Lindley: Do you remember the movies you liked as a child?
Guterson: The movies I liked were all action movies: Wesley Snipes and Van Damm movies, like Passenger 57. I liked The Karate Kid, and I used to take karate. And Die Hard, Under Siege. Now I watch those and they’re kind of funny, but I used to really be into those movies. When you’re younger, they seemed so real, but you watch them now and they seem so fake and bad.
Lindley: Your dad, of course, is a prominent novelist. Did you want to write?
Guterson: No, I never wanted to be a writer. I was never good at it. In fact, I am a horrible speller. I write screenplays, but they wouldn’t be typically associated with screenplays. They’re sort of crude notes with some dialog, but they don’t read like a screenplay. They’re directions to myself.
Lindley: Did shooting with your video camera as a teen draw you to your career?
Guterson: No. The thing that really got me interested was visiting the set of Snow Falling on Cedars when I was 15 or 16. That was a lot of fun for me. We visited three or four times. The director, Scott Hicks, and the producer, Kathleen Kennedy, were so nice to us. They let us hang out behind the camera and watch what was going on, which is very rare for filmmakers at that level.
I probably enjoyed it for the wrong reasons. I liked the spectacle of it all — it was so big and so cool — and I didn’t get into the art of it so much then. I wasn’t aware of the cinematography as much then, but the director of photography was Robert Richardson — one of the premiere directors of photography — and he was nominated for an Academy Award for that film.
We met Max von Sydow and he was so nice, as was everybody, which is counter to much of my experience on bigger productions.
Lindley: Did you go to film school after high school?
Guterson: I did go to Montana State, which had a film school of sorts, but I didn’t like that and quit fairly quickly. I ended up at the University of Washington and had a focus on cinema, but there was no training, nothing technical. You take classes on film and talk about it, but it wasn’t film school.
Lindley: Where did you get your practical film experience?
Guterson: That was all self-taught. I was first using consumer grade camcorders and then a Macintosh [computer] with free iMovie. I never had any training and just played around and learned it.
Lindley: What kind of projects did you work on before Old Goats?
Guterson: I started to make money at industrial-corporate-non-profit videos, mainly promotional marketing videos. And then I worked as a production assistant. And the last two years, I’ve been producing and directing commercial videos. I worked at Washington Mutual for two years at a studio there producing and directing corporate videos. I also tried to make movies on the side. I spent six months in New York as a production assistant. And I was a production assistant on another Scott Hicks movie, No Reservations, with Catherine Zeta Jones. I made the call sheet that gave direction at the end of each day for the next, but that direction is constantly in flux [and] you talk with each department head and try to put together something that can be relevant for the following day.
Lindley: Is Old Goats your first movie?
Guterson: It’s my first feature film. I did quite a few short films [such as] competition films where you make a film in 48 hours. My short films were seen in film festivals and competitions, [but] Old Goats is the first serious effort.
Lindley: Who are film directors you consider your influences?
Guterson: There are certain directors I really like, but don’t aspire to be like. Old Goats is an unusual film. The only director that influenced me directly, I’d say, was Alexander Payne [who directed] Sideways, About Schmidt, Election, Citizen Ruth. He’s the only director who had a direct influence on Old Goats, mostly because his films deal with ordinary people and they’re simple stories. And I like the way he shoots his films in a very simple, non-pretentious style. I think he pokes fun at film.
Lindley: How would you describe Old Goats for someone who hasn’t seen it?
Guterson: It’s a blend of fiction and reality, even though I don’t claim it’s based on a true story. That said, there’s a lot of real life in it, primarily with Bob Burkholder’s character. The three men in it don’t have character names on purpose, but use their real names. In many ways, it’s about them. It’s not about what their lives are really like, but it’s more about their personality and their character.
There are three different stories. The three of them more or less try to change things about themselves, and they aren’t too successful in that, and circle back to where they were at the beginning.
Lindley: So the story grew out of the lives of the actors?
Guterson: Yes, it did a lot. Especially with Bob. Ninety percent of Bob is real: his book of memoirs, the historical photos, his ways with women, are all real. Even when he reads at the end, that was from his book, his memoirs. He’s the closest to who he is in real life.
The other two aren’t as close, but there are a lot of similarities. Dave was retiring from Boeing as an executive there while we were shooting. He’s a well-off guy, as in the movie, and he was searching for what to do.
Britt is probably the least close to his character, but he acted in it much the same way he acts in real life.
I knew I was going to cast the three of them before I wrote it. And I knew enough about their lives that I could incorporate that into the script. I knew them all in different ways. Bob and Britt both live on Bainbridge and knew of each other, and they are part of some of the same social groups, but they didn’t know each other real well. After this film, they’re all good friends.
Lindley: In developing the story, did your three actors collaborate with you?
Guterson: They didn’t collaborate. There was a script that was scene for scene, basically what you see in the movie, although a lot of scenes were cut. They collaborated in the sense that they had ideas. They were all over the map, and they didn’t understand the story or what I was trying to do until we finished. And I filmed completely out of sequence.
Lindley: Are they professional actors?
Guterson: No. They’re just regular guys. I didn’t work with actors, and on this next project I don’t want to work with actors.
Lindley: You did a great job of directing these non-actors.
Guterson: They deserve a lot of credit for that. They have the ability to be spontaneous, to not get nervous. They’re not self-conscious. They can be themselves, and that’s why it all feels very natural.
I wrote a script with bullet points and loose dialog—and they conveyed the content quite well. They would memorize a sequence of messaging and then use their own words, which is what I wanted because the words they used and how they phrased them were things I’d never think up. I wanted to tap into their personalities, and that’s what added comedy. For example, the scene where Britt tries to say the word narcissistic, and Bob says he can’t hear. Bob really can’t hear, so that’s not acting. That’s really happening.
Lindley: So there was a lot of ad libbing?
Guterson: Yes. Certainly there was. Some scenes were closer to the script and some were completely made up on the spot.
The difficult part for me is that we did takes over and over, and I had to decide which takes to use. And when cutting a sequence, there’s no continuity of messaging between takes or cuts, so that was tough to do.
Lindley: You edited the film yourself. Did you consider an outside editor?
Guterson: There was no one else who would have had the patience to do it. And I don’t know of anybody I would trust to do it. There are plenty of talented editors but, unless you were there, you wouldn’t have got it. And besides, I didn’t have any money to pay anyone, and couldn’t ask anyone to sift through all this craziness for free. So I cut it myself. And I was my own DP [director of photography] and framed all the shots. I’ll do that on the next one too.
Lindley: How much did the film cost?
Guterson: It didn’t cost a whole lot the way we shot it. I only had one other guy work with me — my business partner Jonathan Boyer. We shot for 54 days and had other help just for two, with the party scenes with all the extras. We produced the whole film for under five thousand dollars.
Lindley: That’s amazing. It’s on film isn’t it?
Guterson: It’s HD video. I used an unusual camera system to make it look like film. A cinematographer could catch it, but for an average viewer, it can pan off as film. We shot on DVC PRO HD and it looks like film.
Lindley: We’re any of the other actors professionals? They’re very convincing.
Guterson: The woman who plays Britt’s love interest online is Benita Spaadecker, a bank teller. I met her when I was doing some banking and I liked her personality. She was super warm and friendly. I came back a few days later and told her about the project. She agreed to do it, and she did a really good job.
Lindley: It must have been a fun project for you?
Guterson: It was a lot of fun, but it was really challenging too. There are times when I had to create the motivation to keep going. With every one of those scenes, there was so much that was hard about putting them together: Getting the extras, finding locations, scheduling people. All those logistics. It’s like being a wedding planner. That can drive you insane.
When we filmed that hunting scene it was real cold. Getting those guys out there at first light, getting those decoys set. Those things are hard for just two people [to manage]. I enjoyed it and it was fun, but it was difficult fun.
Lindley: Was it filmed on Bainbridge?
Guterson: Most of it was filmed on Bainbridge. We filmed in a few other spots, like the golf sequence was in Carnation. We shot a little bit in West Seattle and in Eastern Washington.
Lindley: Your film humanized these old guys. They are vital and still have an erotic life. It goes against stereotypes of old people we see in films.
Guterson: Yes. I’ve heard that from reviewers as well. People say it’s something they haven’t seen before, and it shows elderly people in a light they’re not accustomed to.
Lindley: How was it to be part of the Seattle International Film Festival?
Guterson: That was a goal. I wanted to get into SIFF. I was optimistic that I would, but it’s difficult. They don’t take a lot of feature length films, especially local films, and there are a lot of people submitting. The fact that we got in was a way of validating the project. Then getting the Best of SIFF was really cool. We had very good audience feedback and people generally liked the film.
Lindley: And you’re working on another film now?
Guterson: Yes. I’ve finished a screenplay and plan to start shooting this fall. I’m using the three old goats again, but a different story.
Lindley: A sequel?
Guterson: I don’t want to repeat myself. This hopefully will feel and be a lot different, but features those three guys.