A Journey Into The Haiku Tunnel: A Conversation with Josh and Jacob Kornbluth
by Rich Rosell
Haiku Tunnel is the debut independent film by brothers Josh and Jacob Kornbluth. It is a comic story of an office temp, played by Josh Kornbluth, who needs to mail seventeen very important letters, but somehow just can't find the time.
digitallyOBSESSED.com recently talked with Josh and Jacob about their latest film, its origins, and the general rigors of independent filmmaking.
dOc: What are the origins of the film Haiku Tunnel?
Josh: It started originally as a monologue that was based on my actual job, or sort of a conglomeration of jobs that I had done as a temp, and sometimes a perm, in San Francisco. I did a one man show called Haiku Tunnel based on it. Then it was optioned by Miramax, and I was hired to write it and star in it, but then it never got made, and went into turnaround and then I gave up. Jacob said "No, let's make movies. We'll start with this one." That's the very short version.
dOc: How much does the finished film differ from the stage version? Is it essentially the same?
Josh: The storyline is essentially the same, but there's 17 letters instead of 85. In the original monologue there were 85, but we just thought that 85 letters would look like too many letters if you actually looked at it. In a monologue it was cool to say 85, though. I think the biggest difference was that we wanted it to feel like a film, not just feel sort of stagebound. I think one of the things that changed in making it into a film is that it has more of a social aspect to it, with the other actors playing the other secretaries. The parts of the other characters are bigger in the movie than they were in the monologue, generally. The actors, being actors—unlike me—brought their own stuff to it and that really opened it up, too, I think.
Jacob: There's something, which is tough to say or describe if you haven't seen the monologue, but in the monologue a lot of the comedy comes not from actually what's happening, but from the interpretation of it by the main character. So a lot of it comes from the wordplay of this one guy standing on stage. It was actually pretty challenging to turn that into a film and make it have the same spirit and soul as the monologue. You have to take a lot of these things that are funny because one guy on stage is describing what it's like to look at a stack of letters, or to almost mail them, or to be in the office with his boss, or any number of things, and make that world feel—when you actually see it—funny. That was a real challenge.
Josh: We realized that it may not be intrinsically interesting to sit in a movie theater and watch a pile or stack of unmailed letters, in and of itself.
dOc: On paper, I can imagine that.
Jacob: That was a tough pitch.
Josh: And you can understand why all the studios didn't jump at it.
dOc: What did the pitch meeting, for what you guys call a "secretarial/thriller/comedy," sound like?
Josh: We tried to emphasize the pizza that we were serving, and the wine! The things we didn't really want to emphasize are the amount of action in the film, or the number of big stars in the film: the two big things that we would kind of like to shy away from in the pitch meeting for investors.
dOc: How much say-so did you have over the actual casting? The supporting players were great.
Josh: Almost all. We had two ringers from L.A., one of them the great Harry Shearer. He had seen me perform the monologue, and very graciously offered to be in the film. When we made it, he flew up, and we all posed for pictures with him.
dOc: Was it hard to get him in the bondage outfit?
Josh: No, actually he wore that coming off the plane. I wasn't involved with the fittings. [The casting] was almost all local people, and Jacob and I had a wonderful casting director, but we were in control of every single aspect of the film. Every single decision ultimately was ours.
Jacob: It's kind of interesting, because you hear all the time about independent films, and how they're made. This was actually completely independent. We had the opportunity, thanks to very nice investors, to sort of succeed or fail on our own merits, and that was great. It was a sort of an ideal independent film situation in that way, and in the more difficult way because we had no movie stars in it. Because we had such liberties, generally you have all the liberties in the world because no one is going to see it. We got really lucky.
dOc: You mention in the commentary track on the disc that you hadn't attended film school. How were you actually able to get the film made, aside from having the monologue as a basis? How were you able to get as much control as you say you had over the project?
Jacob: There's probably two levels. We knew how to [do it because] I worked on film sets. After I got out of college, of course, I figured out what I wanted to study and then it was too late. I didn't have enough money to go to film school. It's just a really expensive thing to do. So I started working on sets as a production assistant, and then worked my way up to an assistant director, and sort of considered that I paid for film school for myself. I was figuring out how to make films. After doing it for some years, and watching directors do it, and moving up, becoming a producer and assistant director, I really had the sense that I could do it at that point, that I had figured it out. That was a huge hurdle that I had that confidence to tell Josh that if we made films together, there's lots of stuff we don't know, but there's nothing that's insurmountable. You can figure it out. And we've seen lots of movies, too.
Josh: We've watched lots of movies, and we've read lots of reviews of movies. It seemed like just another aspect of the process, actually making it.
dOc: Do you two split the duties down the middle, or do you each have your area of expertise? Or is it a group effort?
Josh: Jake mostly directed. I did, obviously, most of the acting of the part of Josh Kornbluth. It was based on my monologue, and I did, I think, the bulk of the writing. But, in all aspects of it, including also the producing, I think we collaborated all the time.
Jacob: It was pretty collaborative, but we each brought our own strengths to it. One of the things that was specific to this project, but helped us work together was the fact that there was a really strong sense of understanding the material, and what we liked about it, what was funny about it, what worked, etc. When you're deciding how do to a scene in a film, and you want to find out where the center of the scene is, what's funny about it, that was something that we just understood. Josh came at it from the perspective of having performed it as a one-man show; I came from the perspective of having more of the sort of film background. He had a sense of what made the story work, and I had a sense of what made the story work, and it just all went into a pot. I think, basically, because we were working together, and because it was an independent film, we each did absolutely everything in our power. Sometimes it was taking out the trash and sometimes making incredibly intense directorial decisions. It was pretty collaborative. I think it's a better film because we worked on it together on all these levels, than it would have been otherwise.
dOc: Going forward, are you planning on doing projects together, or do you anticipate branching off to do separate projects?
Josh: Both. I think we're looking forward to working together, and also, from my perspective as the older brother looking at Jacob. Jacob's really so gifted as a filmmaker that I know he has plenty that he can do and is going to do on his own. I'll help out when I can, or if needed. And then we can do something together. The center of where I've been living, and the stuff I've been doing, has been in theater, and continues to be. I love film. I'd like to do more, but I don't think first in terms of film, and Jacob does.
Jacob: I think we'll continue making projects together. I'd love to write other things, and direct other things, and Josh wants to perform in other people's movies. I think the center of what I'm interested in doing is working together and collaborating on stuff. I feel like we've learned a lot together on making Haiku Tunnel, and I feel like stuff gets better if we work together than it does if I work separately.
dOc: I really enjoyed hearing The Pixies over the opening credits, as well as They Might Be Giants and Television. Was that a collaborative effort between you two to pick the music? What's the significance of those songs, if anything? Other than being great rock songs.
Josh: We love them. There's a particular period of my life in the 80s, and I guess starting in the 70s with Talking Heads '77, through a certain point in the 80s when there was Talking Heads, Pixies, Pere Ubu, Television, The Clash. It was quite a time. I played oboe as a kid, so I turned to the classical side too. And the folk side; there was a lot of folk-singing in the house when we grew up. That music was real important to me, and also represented to me a period of time when I went, personally, from being a journalist and copy editor to sort of wandering the streets of Boston at the time, and the streets of San Francisco.
dOc: That should be a TV show.
Josh: Yes, but it needs two guys...
Trying to put it together that whole time working as a temp, and all that time listening on my Walkman to tapes of these bands.
Jacob: It's also that those songs all represent for a me a particular type of guy. It's a particular type of person who's intense, who's listening to The Pixies and Television. It's people I know. I know lots of them. It's a sensibility of "I'm cooler than I look" type of thing. There's something in there. That's the right music. Whatever that is, it felt like just the right thing.
dOc: Did you have any kind of licensing issues? I've never heard a good licensing story.
Josh: One of the things we were very fortunate to get was Isaac Hayes covering Lay, Lady, Lay. We've heard a lot of nice things since the film came out theatrically, but one of the nicest was that Isaac Hayes had seen the film. We think on videotape. He'd seen the film and loved it. Just imagining Isaac Hayes. I imagine him sitting on a couch. A really nice couch. Maybe a white couch.
dOc: In a chain link shirt?
Josh: Yeah, something like that. Going, Hey, baby. This is a good movie! He was pleased that his song was in it. It's Isaac Hayes, man.
Jacob: That was cool. I'm almost afraid to open up the can of worms in talking about how difficult it was to clear the music.
Josh: It's just so hard.
Jacob: It was THE thing.
Josh: We really wanted this music. It was really important. We had a wonderful husband and wife team who were our music supervisors: Jamie Lincoln Kitman and his wife Marjorie Galen. Jamie is the manager of They Might Be Giants, so that made that connection relatively easy.
Jacob: You see all of these independent films, and you wonder why they don't have good music in them, and now I completely understand.
Josh: That's why it's like featuring all music by The Squishy Eels, because they're from that family. I think Land of 1,000 Sparks was one of their best.
dOc: Growing up, what were the influences that drove you to be able to create something like Haiku Tunnel?
Jacob: Josh can answer in a second, because a lot of the story comes from his take on when he was a temp. For me, the thing that really got me, I was drifting along sort of aimlessly, doing nothing, and then I saw a Mike Leigh film. It was called Life is Sweet, a film from the early '90s, and I thought, My god, you can do something like that, and in film. Up until then I had never really seen an art film before, and this was pretty late in life. That really was a big influence on me, and that wasn't necessarily comic.
dOc: But a cinematic influence, nonetheless.
Josh: For me, there's so many. I don't see my style as anything like these people, but just in terms of what influenced me and made me excited about seeing comedy and seeing comedic films. Woody Allen, of course. Mel Brooks, of course. Richard Pryor's concert films, for me, were really a powerful thing. Mike Leigh, like Jake, was really big for me, as well. Peter Sellers, in terms of just actual pure laughter kind of stuff. It really just comes from everywhere. The musical sensibility of Jonathan Richman. The humor of Grace Paley really appeals to me. They're just things I really enjoy, and how they make their way in, I don't know. Certainly I wouldn't have thought of going into being a monologuist in the first place if I hadn't seen Spalding Gray. He was really the main influence, but I think my voice is very different than his. But he's the one who totally inspired me to go into performing.
dOc: Inevitably, since the field of well-known monologuists isn't exceptionally large, how do you like the comparisons to someone like Spalding Gray?
Josh: I love it.
dOc: I know he gave you a nice blurb on the back of your book, Red Diaper Baby.
Josh: I'm very proud of it. In one of the early things that came out, someone said a mix between Spalding Gray, Andy Kaufman and Woody Allen. I'm like: OK, I can die now.
dOc: That's a nice trilogy.
Josh: It's an honor. I mean that literally. It's an honor to be compared to someone like Spalding Gray.
dOc: [In Haiku Tunnel,] you do a great pupa imitation.
Josh: Thank you. I think my pupa is very convincing.
dOc: Was it tough to get in character for that?
Josh: Much like DeNiro, I really have to go into a character. When we had this pupa scene, I actually had to go through the whole chrysalis process the night before so that I could be ready. That's just the way I work. I think people want to see the truth up there on the screen.
Jacob: You couldn't talk to him that day.
Josh: I was digesting bits of leaves. It was a weird thing.
dOc: So you get the movie made, and it's done, and it went on the filmfest circuit—like Sundance, correct?
Josh: No. We just went to Sundance. It was picked up there.
dOc: How was the reaction at Sundance?
Josh: Thank god, it was great.
Jacob: It was pretty overwhelmingly positive.
dOc: Was that a little nerve-wracking?
Josh: No, it was more than a little nerve-wracking, actually. It was incredibly f***ing hard to go through.
Jacob: I think it was probably the most nerve-wracking experience of my life. I think that's pretty true.
Josh: Right now, I'm mentally balancing my first sexual experience and that, to see whether I agree that it was also the most nerve-wracking experience for me. No wait, it was at the same time. So, no.
Jacob: The story I guess... it's weird. Sometimes people have heard it, or heard some version of it. We had the reels with us on the plane. We had made this film completely outside the Hollywood system. We carried it into Sundance. We had never seen it from beginning to end, as a film. We had seen each reel individually, but we had never seen it all together. It's in front of an audience, and our careers are riding on it, and it's never been in front of an audience. We had never made a film. In Josh's case, he was used to being on stage, instead of sitting passively. I remember trying to talk to my legs and to tell them to relax, because it wasn't helping that I was sitting so still. I was trying to hit my legs and make them relax, because I was like, This isn't helping. It was incredibly well-received.
Josh: Aside from the pressures that Jacob mentioned, there really was very little pressure.
dOc: How did that compare to when the film opened theatrically? It opened in San Francisco, right?
Josh: It opened in San Francisco on September 11th. So, it was a weird day to open, because it really wasn't the most important thing that happened on that day. Or was going to happen, because we cancelled it. It was that element, the coincidence of having this shattering, world-historic, tragic event happening the same week as we opened in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. It made it this incredibly surreal thing, where it was something we worked on so hard, and yet compared to what else was going on in the rest of the world it was so insignificant. Yet it was still significant to us. We felt queasy talking about it or pushing it, because there was other stuff to deal with. The fact of that coincidence so complicated the emotional experience of opening it that I really can't evaluate it, like how it would have been had it been a regular opening.
Jacob: One of us said, or we said to each other,"I knew that this would be a week I would never forget for the rest of my life, I just didn't know why." It was just heavy. It was a heavy time. At the same time, separate of the scenario in which that happened, it was still something, from my perspective, that it made it. You have this sense that you worked so hard and so long on something. We made an independent film, and the odds are so incredibly stacked against you. The fact that it was playing in these movie theaters where I had sat and watched movies, was pretty amazing. It was pretty great. It was difficult to go through what we went through with the opening, but it was also pretty gratifying that we had a made a film we were proud of, and it was up. It was great.
dOc: Now that you've had a chance to look back on it, is there anything in the final version of the film that you wish you could have changed, added, tweaked?
Josh: I've thought about it. I'll probably have a better time trying to evaluate it by watching it on DVD, because of being able to pause it. For me, I know [what] we surmounted to do it. We made all of these choices, and how difficult some of them were. My feeling really is, like Jake was saying just now, this general sense of amazement that it came out how it did. It came out in the spirit that we wanted it to be in. For me, that was really the goal, personally, not to speak for Jake, but for him, too. If it had come out, and it wasn't ours, if it didn't belong to us, or didn't feel like us, even if it was better, it would have bummed me out.
Jacob: That was kind of the overall reaction. We made an incredible amount of mistakes, and there was an incredible amount of things I wish we could have done differently. But the main thing I can take away from it is that I think that the film has our voice in it. It has what I would call the right vibe. It feels like the story we were trying to make, and that's the thing, that if it wasn't there, would have broken my heart. So that's good, that it is there.
dOc: How did you like recording the audio commentary for the DVD?
Josh: Actually, I haven't heard it, so I don't know if they used all of it. We really just did it in one take. We watched the film, talked, said thanks to the guys, and then went to In-And-Out Burger.
dOc:What about the deleted scenes on the DVD?
Jacob: Which we had to fight for, actually.
dOc: To get them out, or get them on?
Josh: When we buy DVDs, we like having deleted scenes on them, and stuff like that, so we said we want that.
dOc: Are you big DVD buffs?
Jacob: I sort of am, but Josh is.
Josh: I really am. We both have Powerbooks that have DVD drives. I love hearing commentaries. I love deleted scenes. I just love getting all those different angles, aside just the technical superiority over video. You can get, sometimes in the best packages—when people have resources—you can get a lot of the filmmaker's personality in the packaging of the disc and that's just an extra experience that is unprecedented, and I think is fantastic.
dOc: What's next on the cinematic horizon for you guys? What's the next project?
Josh: Jake has written a script called The Best Thief in the World. He's going to direct it, and hopefully, make it soon. You can talk about it Jake, it's your story.
Jacob: It's a drama, set in New York City. We've had sort of a loose agreement or thought that we would alternate autobiographies or fictionalized autobiographies, and so this one would be based on mine, and that's the next step: The Best Thief in the World.
dOc: And what about you, Josh?
Josh: I'm working with a San Francisco mime troupe, a political-comedy-guerilla theater, which I've always loved since I was a kid. I got a grant to collaborate with them on a show for this summer that they do in a park in San Francisco. That's what I'm working on now. The Sundance Channel seems to want to broadcast a film concert of me performing my monologue, Red Diaper Baby. We did it once very quick and nasty, with a few cameras, but I'm hoping to do kind of a "Swimming to Joshbodia" kind of deal. With an incredibly small budget. But to have a really nice filmed record of me doing what I've been doing full-time for the last 12 years. That's something I hope to do around May Day.