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by Kathryn Tam
August 16th, 2011

RSVP HERE for a special FREE screening of World’s Best Dad at the Andaz Hotel Wall Street on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.

Rooftop is very excited to be hosting the world premiere of Joshua Gross’s film World’s Best Dad this Friday at the Old American Can Factory. World’s Best Dad tells the story of Miles and Matt; brothers who haven’t seen each other since their father passed away. Somehow wayward elder brother Miles convinces Matt to travel with him across the country in a star spangled truck on the premise of launching their fathers ashes into space in a makeshift rocket. While essentially a road movie, World’s Best Dad delicately depicts nuanced, fraught family relations, peppering them with just enough offbeat humor. We spoke to director Joshua Gross about the experience making the film.

Rooftop Films: Your film is sprinkled with American symbols; the truck painted with stars and stripes, the American flag stickers on the window of the hotel front desk, and let’s not forget the Civil War reenactment. Why did you decide to place so much American patriotism in your film, and what kind of “America” did you want to get across to the audience?

Joshua Gross: Actually, the whole film started with an image I had of a van with a rocket on top; once I realized it was going to be a road trip film and we would be driving cross-country to shoot, it also became about Americana, patriotism and a duty to a father figure, about the spirited bravado of a lost kid trying to honor a Dad he never connected with.  It’s also just a simple comedy about a wild brother who wants to bond with his little brother and takes him on a road trip to have some adventures. The Civil War scene was more about getting some good firepower strong enough to launch a rocket, which in our case was actually a 1/2-scale patriot missile, than any message of war or patriotism. But such unintended ironies and synchronicities hopefully end up making it all a little more resonant.  The film was scripted but a lot of the dialogue is also improvised, we really wanted to capture a genuine experience and the unexpected encounters that landmark every road trip. We designed the van, and we did some advance location scouting remotely, but most of the patriotic motifs were found along the way.  We sought out places that had a quality of individualism; Carhenge, the Giant Virgin Mary, Burning Man, all depict an America that devotes itself to wild dreams and bold visions.

RF: Miles and Matt have a unique sibling relationship in that each one seems to bring out the opposite qualities of the other. What aspects of sibling relationships do you find to be the most important?

JG: Miles, played by Charlie Ochs, and Matt have such an amazing natural chemistry together, like real brothers I think.  Actually, Matt really is my younger brother and our third and youngest brother Dean also appears in the film; but anyway, Charlie just jumped right in and became like a brother to us, it helped that we were sharing a lot of close quarters through filming; but I think their bond really comes across, the two of them play off each other really well.  On the road, people really believed they were brothers; there were certainly moments of life imitating art.  There’s a lot of brotherly rivalry: Matt’s reluctance to take tourist snapshots with Miles on their road trip, his general reluctance to even be there at all, his lack of faith in his brother’s ability to plan anything much less launch a rocket, his refusal to don the vibrant yellow rocket t-shirt that lovingly features a portrait of their old man…Matt’s a constant downer.

Of course the character Matt was written to be a more reserved, considerate counterpoint to the effervescent and reckless Miles; Matt forces Miles to slow down and think about other people while Miles forces Matt to buck convention and to broaden his perspective, to embrace flaws and the vast differences in people.  But regardless of their differences they remain tightly bonded, I guess that’s how all siblings feel, right?

RF: Throughout the film, we find the characters exploring an abandoned hotel, sitting in the burnt out shell of a church, and discussing plans in the middle of a grassy lot of abandoned cars. What sort of meaning do abandoned places have for the film, and for you specifically?

JG: A lot of it is just what we all found beautiful and interesting.  We gave ourselves two and a half weeks to drive almost cross-country and shoot a movie.  Once we planned the route we started looking for cool places to see…and some of those places ended up in the film. That said though, we obviously tried to shoot where it felt natural to the story, the destroyed church is a sacred space that has been kind of desecrated and so Miles feels more at home there and able to connect with something larger than himself, opening him up to one of his most emotional confessions to Matt.

I suppose abandonment is also a larger theme in the movie. Matt feels like Miles abandoned him and their dad when they needed him. Miles felt emotionally abandoned and estranged from them to begin with, and he’s not the sort of guy who finishes many things, at this point he feels abandonment suits him.  But it’s important to Miles that Matt believes in him; the mission to launch Dad into space is also a mission for Miles to redeem himself, to do something all the way.

RF: In the film, we discover that the father of Matt and Miles had always dreamed of being an astronaut, thus leading them on their main mission to send their father’s ashes to outer space in a model rocket. Why did you decide to make this their mission? And do you think there is something about going to outer space that is representative of a certain type of American Dream?

JG: Completely, isn’t that an archetypical American Dream? Aren’t they selling tickets to space?  It’s just such an apt symbol for our nation’s fundamental spirit; to circle the wagon and do something seemingly impossible for reasons not entirely clear or convincing. But again, I really just liked the image of a rocket on top of a van and so blasting someone’s ashes into space was a way to make a rocket central to the plot but to have a gravity to what they’re doing, there’s heart. Truthfully though, any sort of bold, ridiculous mission would’ve worked. In Mark’s review he used the word quixotic, I think that’s a great way of describing the mission. The plan is completely unbelievable and way beyond Miles’ scope, but his sincerity and determination keeps you cheering him on.  In a way it mirrored the production of the film, I don’t know what we were thinking when we set out to shoot a comedic feature in less than a month on the road, that seemed beyond our scope, but hopefully people root for it.

RF:  “World’s Best Dad” is actually one big road-trip across America. What were the best/worst moments going cross-country in a van, and what can you say about the people you have met along the way?

JG: There were mainly six of us who made World’s Best Dad and all six of us really did share that van from New York to Nevada, crouching in the backseat during road shoots and spilling out into the same cheap hotels at night that you see in the movie.  It was a grueling schedule because we needed to make 5-7 hours driving headway every day but we also needed to shoot on average a scene and a half a day, so we would often shoot until 2 or 3 am and hit the road again at 6. We would head out every morning for the next leg of the trip never knowing exactly what we would encounter and usually not even exactly sure which scenes we would shoot – we would get to a good location and find a scene that worked and shoot, so every day was like a narrative scavenger hunt.  It was awesome and I couldn’t hope to have shared that experience with a more amazing group of people.  This film is all of ours: Jen Cipperly, the Producer, Rob Neilson, the Director of Photography, Matt Gross, who not only plays Matt but wrote the script, Dean Gross, who plays The Kid and served diligently as the road trip Grip and PA, and of course, Charlie Ochs who just completely kills it as the film’s lead, Miles.  That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, for the audience to see his performance, I think he really brings Miles to life, in many ways Charlie is Miles, he really gave a lot to this role and I hope people see and appreciate that.

We were lucky enough to meet some really incredible and kind people along our travels and many of them show up as small roles in the film; strangers who were game to jump in and help shoot a scene in a movie with the small, sweaty film crew that just jumped out of this absurd flag van.  But I gotta say, the van got big props in the heartland.

RF: You decided to end the film at the Burning Man event in Nevada. Is there something about Burning Man that is important to the film in a way that the audience might not catch on to?

JG: We really admire the spirit of Burning Man, which is very embracing and artistic and inspiring, it just seemed to resonate well with the do-it-yourself spirit of World’s Best Dad and of Miles himself and of course it’s a stunning backdrop.  I guess the landscape is symbolic of their journey too, like the open road, the desert offers vast possibility and here, at their destination, all of these other people have convened and are flying their own flags and have also built their own projects, homages and dreams.  We even met a wonderful man who had sent his son’s ashes up into space; it was quite the tear-jerking, transcendent moment on set!  Of course the centerpiece of the Burning Man festival is the burning of the Man, this actual giant wooden effigy on a giant wooden tower-turned-pyre, and that hearkens back to a sort of Pagan spiritual cleansing and renewal, and of course the primal outlet of fire is central to their personal ritual, the rocket launch.

Plus, Burning Man is out in the open desert and they encourage playing with fire so it’s perfect for a rocket launch that won’t get noticed by the cops!  Once we decided we were making a movie about a rocket launch we pointed our van in that direction and this is what we ended up with. Ultimately, what I really hope is that we made a fun movie that entertains.  We had a mantra on the road: if we have fun making it, people will have fun watching it.  We had a lot of fun making it.

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2 Responses to “MEET THE FILMMAKER: JOSHUA GROSS (“WORLD’S BEST DAD”)”

  1. [...] As we creep ever closer to this Friday’s premiere of Worlds Best Dad, Rooftop Films took some time out for a Q&A with the director Josh Gross. Give it a read, and come out and see us on Friday. Check out the interview here. [...]

  2. [...] As we creep ever closer to this Friday’s premiere of Worlds Best Dad, Rooftop Films took some time out for a Q&A with the director Josh Gross. Give it a read, and come out and see us on Friday. Check out the interview here. [...]

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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