Griffin Dunne hits the trail with ‘Discoverers’

May 15, 2014

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It’s been a while since someone offered Griffin Dunne the chance to be the star of a movie. Or at least one that he wanted to star in.

So when Justin Schwarz approached him with “The Discoverers,” Dunne was ready to say yes – and is glad he did.

“I haven’t carried a picture in quite a long time,” Dunne, 58, says in a telephone interview. “So to have a part sort of resonate with me is great. I mean, here’s a story of a middle-aged guy with teen-age kids, in an ever-changing business. Let’s say I had a lot to work with.

“Plus the character was really funny, and a little tragic. That’s always the best kind of comedy.”

In “The Discoverers,” Dunne plays Lewis Birch, a historian whose long-gestating book on one member of the Lewis & Clark trek to the Pacific Ocean has all but ruined his life. He’s teaching at a small community college, is divorced and lives in a hovel. He’s finally finished the book – whose page count is in the mid-four figures – and is headed for a history conference to promote the book. Then life intervenes.

Specifically, his mother dies – and his father (Stuart Margolin), a Lewis & Clark re-enactor, seems to have lost himself in his reenactment character. So Lewis (who was named for explorer Meriwether Lewis) takes his teen-age kids on the trek with his father, living in the woods in the style of the pioneers.

Which led, Dunne notes, to some not-so-dissimilar experiences when shooting on location in Pennsylvania (which stands in for Idaho).

“The definition of low-budget gets lower and lower,” Dunne says with a laugh. “This one was breathtakingly low – very close to the ground, with a very small, young crew. We all had apartments in a strip mall that I believe Willy Loman killed himself in.

“But the people in this were so great. I’ve known Stuart Margolin forever, and David Rasche. And I loved the kids who were playing my kids. So I had both generations: a bunch of people I’ve known a long time and some kids who were fun to hang out with.”

Dunne, the son of writer-producer Dominick Dunne, has spent as much time behind the camera as in front of it, as both a producer and a director. Still, he started out with the dream of being an actor.

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“That was my hope – just to be an actor – and I was so principled that I was only going to do theater,” he says with a laugh. “Neither of those things happened.

“Part of it was that I had such terrible dyslexia that I couldn’t audition well. So I wasn’t doing much acting the first few years.”

Instead, he teamed up with actor friends Amy Robinson (who played Harvey Keitel’s girlfriend in “Mean Streets”) and Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer in “Animal House”) to produce a film of their own. They optioned the rights to the Ann Beattie novel, “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” and set out to produce a film version.

“We were so naïve that we thought we could get the money for the movie and cast ourselves in the starring parts,” he recalls. “Incredibly, we did get the money. But we cast other people in the main roles and took small parts for ourselves.

“But my part got a lot of attention – and that kicked off my acting career. So I was a producer-actor from the beginning.”

The role that put him on the map was the wise-cracking second banana in John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” who is killed by the werewolf and returns as a jokey (and mangled) corpse. He also starred in one of Martin Scorsese’s only comedies, “After Hours,” which he also produced. The film didn’t do much upon release, but has developed a reputation over the years for its wild, shaggy story-telling of one man’s bizarre odyssey in what were (in 1985) the wastelands of Manhattan’s SoHo.

“People who see that movie for the first time now – it still blows their mind,” Dunne says. “The spirit of it – it’s become like an adjective to describe a certain kind of experience. That’s the ultimate compliment.”

Dunne continues to seek out projects to produce and act in, recently pitching a show for himself to a cable network. He also continues to direct, helming several episodes of “The Good Wife,” as well as films such as “Fierce People” and “The Accidental Husband.”

After 40-plus years in the business, the advice he would give the younger version of himself, given the opportunity, is “to say yes more often. Many things come your way as a young person, when you’ve really got nothing to lose or gain. But you have a narrow idea of how you want your career to be and so you miss out on some experiences. But with each job, you learn something new.

“For example, I said no to ‘The Fly,’ David Cronenberg’s classic horror film. He’s a brilliant director and Jeff Goldblum was brilliant in it. But I was so burned out from spending time in the makeup chair during ‘American Werewolf’ that I turned it down when it was offered, because it would have required too much time in the makeup chair. And that’s just not a good enough reason.”

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