Minnesota filmmaker Karl Jacob makes a splash in L.A. with "Pollywogs"

The Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) starts this Thursday, June 13; while I won't be out in Los Angeles covering the festival, there is reason for the Twin Cities film community to be interested in the festival. Minnesota-born filmmaker/actor Karl Jacob will have his directional debut, Pollywogs, competing in the Narrative Competition at LAFF, with Friday's world premiere screening already sold out. (There are tickets available for a second screening taking place on June 17.)

According to the LAFF summary of Pollywogs, "Left reeling by his latest catastrophic breakup, Dylan (Jacob) returns to Minnesota for a family reunion featuring firearms, heavy metal and unwelcome questions. Amongst the throng of relatives, he discovers Sarah (Kate Lyn Sheil), the childhood crush he hasn’t seen since her family decamped to a religious compound.  Could she prove to be the perpetually heartbroken Dylan’s salvation or will their emotional scars fall to align?  Making great use of Arone Dyer’s woozy score, Pollywogs offers an equally amusing and insightful look at directionless thirty-something’s lurching towards adulthood.  Well attuned to the dynamics of relationships be they romantic, familiar or otherwise, Jacob pens a cautionary tale about the demands you can make of both fate and someone who doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”

Jacob grew up in Hibbing and currently splits his time between New York and Minnesota; he makes plenty of references to Hibbing in Pollywogs. He moved to Minneapolis after high school to pursue a career in music and attended McNally-Smith College of Music, known back in the mid-90s as Music Tech, before finally making his way out to New York to pursue acting. One of his first acting jobs was starring in cult director Ti West’s debut feature The Roost in 2005. He also produced the 2011 feature Happy New Year—which premiered in competition at SXSW—and was Sacha Baron Cohen’s acting double in the 2012 film The Dictator.

In a recent phone interview from Los Angeles in preparation for the premiere, Jacob spoke to me about not only directing the film, but also serving as producer, screenwriter, and lead actor.

I’m not someone who keeps up with biology or zoology, but what is or are pollywogs and why is it the title of the film?

Well, a pollywog is another name for a tadpole, so are far as I can tell they are synonymous. There are a lot of things going on with this title; the obvious reason [is] growing up in Minnesota and around the lake culture. The best memories I have in my childhood were spending hours and hours wading though the muck wearing big boots looking for frogs, and in spring you’d be looking for the pollywogs to catch. Secondly, the story is about these two adults who have stunted growth emotionally as a result of their attachment to this unattainable childhood memory [...] emotionally, they are still pollywogs. So I thought it was an important metaphor for what I feel to be the thesis of the movie.  And apparently in the U.K. it means something different. One of the co-producers is British, and she said, “We may want to consider changing the title if it goes to Britain.” I think it could be some type of slang word.

There are a ton of Northern Minnesota references in the film. The fact that your character is from Hibbing and named “Dylan”—was that a conscious decision, an ode to the musician, or just an unexpected coincidence?

I think everyone from Minnesota is a fan of Dylan, one way or another. I listen to Dylan but I wouldn’t consider myself a hard core fan, nor did I really feel that was a reason why I chose the name. However, I believe his first girlfriend’s name was Sarah. [Editor's note: Though Dylan did not have a girlfriend named Sarah in his adolescence, his first wife was named Sara.] So maybe it was a sub-conscious thing that happened with naming the two leads, Dylan and Sarah. I’ve always liked the name Dylan as a kid, and at one point, I think my mom was going to name me that and it was a name I always had kicking around in my head as sort of my alter-ego (Jacob laughs), so choosing it as a first name for the lead character was a no-brainer. I guess it is interesting that it does tie together to Bob Dylan in some way. It is a first feature, so you kind of bring everything to the table but that you have been thinking about for the past 13 years, at least in my case, about making a film about the Iron Range. I have had a lot of time and to be selective about what I wanted to put on the table for the first movie.

How much of the film is autobiographical versus fiction?

The story was something the result of a breakup that I was going through when I first started writing it. The environment, the atmosphere, and the culture of the film was something I always wanted to use as a setting. I am familiar with the setting, and when I was a kid, I didn’t see a lot of movies that culturally reflected my own life [...] i.e., Minnesotans, Michagonians, Wisconsinites, and the lake-culture states. And Canadians. The story is universal and it could have been set anywhere, but the things that make it unique are the environment and the snippets of northern Minnesota culture. When you live there, you take it for granted, but when you’ve gone away and have a little perspective, like I have had the opportunity to, you start embracing those things that you don’t get to do every day, like firing rifles with your family…in a loving way.

How did you balance being the co-director, writer, producer, and lead actor?

I had a really really really supportive group of people.  Not only my family, but also everyone I chose to work with on the project. Everyone knew what they were doing and came prepared; everyone had a clearly defined role, or as much as a clearly defined role as you can with a crew of three. It was sort of driving itself at a certain point obviously, there were decisions that needed to be made and other things that need to happen in order for the story to get exposed. As far as holding it together, I could not have held it together if I didn’t have a good group of very humble people who are good at what they do. That is what made this project happen. I was really blessed to be working with a lot of great people.

Speaking of the great people you worked with, talk about the cast and how you got them involved in the film.

I worked with Larry [Mitchell], who plays Bo, on Happy New Year and [I knew him from] the New York theater scene; he was the last actor to come on board. At one point, I considered casting a Minnesotan for the part, but it wasn’t working out. Then it dawned on me it might be a good fit to have Larry in the film and I got him and Jenny [Prediger], who plays Jullie, together to improvise and he was perfect for the role. The first person I went to was Kate [Lyn Sheil], as I had her in mind as I was writing and felt she could embodied the energy that Sarah has as a character. I had seen her work and we had some mutual friends, so I gave her a call and asked if she was interested. At that point it was just an idea and a really loose story structure, but we met to talk about the character and started working on the characters together. I ran into Jenny at a screening and realized she looked a lot like my family members and thought she might be able to pull off looking like someone related to my aunt who plays her mother in the film. I think it is the only movie she has done without her glasses on, which is kind of special. She was excited about it and she got on board. We all got together in a room to have these sessions and over the course of six months, we kept improvising scenes and talked about the story points in the scene. At the same time, I’d be working on the story with a handful of trusted friends and we would bounce story ideas around and bring them back to the actors and workshop them. We really truly workshop the structure and the way we really got the story together was through all the actors. Naturalism was a goal and I wanted it to feel like you were watching this story unfold. I wanted it to feel more like a documentary you were watching than a narrative movie.

What was the biggest challenge in making Pollywogs?

The biggest challenge is getting financing. At my pitch meetings, I didn’t even have a script, I would say, “I have this great idea, do you want to fund it?” I tried to get co-producers at the beginning to work with me, but they said no, because they wanted to see a script—which makes sense and I understand wanting to do that. It was hard to convey to people that the idea I had in my head was actually translatable in a real way and that it was going to be improvised; that is a daunting thought for a producer to hear. It’s still challenging, and we still need more money. We’ve set up a donation page on our website [to help us with some added funding]. 

When will audiences in Minnesota get to see Pollywogs?

There will be a special screening in Duluth on July 2nd at the Zinema 2 Theater; it is open to the public. There are a limited number of tickets available and they are on sale on our website. [It's primarily] a cast and crew screening, but I made this film for Minnesotans at the end of the day and they are a huge audience. [I] would love for people in Duluth to come see. And I made this movie for people to watch and my family will be there. There will be a screening the Twin Cities at some point; to stay in the loop for all upcoming screenings you can sign up on the website to get on the mailing list. 

What do you hope audiences take away from Pollywogs?

I hope people learn and discover something new.

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    Jim Brunzell III's picture
    Jim Brunzell III

    Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).