When a plane crashes in the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan, the pilot (Chris Mulkey) is pulled from the wreckage by Mitch (Sean Astin) who has been stranded on his boat. Immediately suspicious of each other, these two strangers must overcome their differences to find a way back to shore. Together, they must fight against the harsh elements if they have any hope of making it back alive. I am a big fan of Sean Astin’s work, from his role as Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and his work in iconic films such as Goonies and Rudy to his work in series television and his commitment to small independent films. I talked to him about his latest film, The Surface, directed by Gil Cates, Jr. and written by Jeff Gendelman.
Danny Miller: I so admire the range of projects you’ve done during the past few years. What attracted you to this film?
Sean Astin: My friend, Gil Cates, Jr., the director, called me up. He said he was doing this two-character piece on Lake Michigan, and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it so I said yes. Then later I asked what it was about. (Laughs.)
I know that Gil’s dad directed your mom, Patty Duke, in that great TV movie about her life, Call Me Anna. Is that how you and Gil knew each other?
No. I would say that my mom knew Gil Cates, Sr., because they were parents whose kids played Little League together! Gil and I have been friends since then.
I know you actually shot this movie on Lake Michigan. Have you ever made a movie on the water before?
No, and the challenge of working on the water really appealed to me, I have always wanted to do that. Also, my character in this film is experiencing a very intimate kind of anguish. To me, the whole point of the movie is coming to the realization that life is worth living, no matter what challenges you may be facing. One of Samwise Gangee’s biggest lessons in Lord of the Rings is that there’s good left in the world worth fighting for even though you can lose sight of that. To me, the whole purpose of art is to affirm life and that is the mission of this film, I was so happy to be a part of it.
Mitch is in a very dark place for a good portion of this film. Is it challenging to call us those kinds of emotions?
For me, it was all in the little details, that was my entry point. Mitch was incredibly detail-oriented, this was not an impulsive act on his part. Before he goes off in the boat, for example, he overfills the bird feeder. I thought that was such a great independent film moment — he knows he’s not coming back but he doesn’t want the birds to suffer. Every little thing he did leading up to getting in that boat had to be magnified, even the way he opened the garage door and hitched the boat to the trailer. But what also helped a lot was the great script. I think any actor would tell you that when the language is right, it really helps you unlock your emotions.
It had to be a pretty difficult shoot. Were you already familiar with operating a boat?
Oh yeah, they called me “Lake Boy!” Gil said on several occasions that he couldn’t have made the movie without somebody who really “got” the boat as much as I did, that was my jam. I love the lake, I love boats, I love that particular old boat, I felt really comfortable with it.
I imagine that it’s hard not to get very close to everyone on such a shoot.
One of the things I really loved was that after working 10 to 12 hours on Lake Michigan every day, we’d come back to the hotel and spread out all of our pages, Chris and me and the director and writer, and we’d start trying to make sense of what we’d just done and what we were doing the next day. We were shooting about nine pages a day in just three and a half weeks and we’d use the time after work to really connect with those two guys. When we arrived dockside in Milwaukee every morning, we had such a sense of purpose even though it was a low-budget independent film. Like Lord of the Rings, like many of the films I’ve done, I like working on things that have an emotional heft. You want to do it right, you want to be as honest and authentic as you can possibly be.
I think it’s great that you were really out there in the water instead of shooting the movie on a soundstage.
For us, the movie wouldn’t have been worth making if we did it on a stage with a blue screen. Physically, it might have looked better, but I think there’s something lost in this post-digital future we’re making. People used to take a camera, go some place, and make a movie, and that’s what we did. We went out into the middle of one of the greatest lakes in the world and made a movie together. There’s something about that that infuses everything — the performances, the editing, the music.
With the presidential election starting to heat up, I’m missing your great podcast, Vox Populi. Any chance you’ll do a third season?
No plans for it at the moment, we just didn’t have the stomach to do more crowdfunding. But with the election season coming up, who knows? I really enjoyed doing it.
And before I go, I have to say how impressed I am with the marathons you’ve been running lately (at the age of 44!) and the Iron Man competition coming up. How do you do it?
Oh man, my Iron Man competition in Kona is on October 10th, I’ve put in countless hours training for it! I just did a 100-mile bike ride two days ago and I’m out in the open ocean with no wet suit — I’m killing it, man, I’m killing it! Just please keep your fingers crossed that I stay healthy!