Film Features

Interview: Kendall Goldberg of WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD


This article previously appeared on Crossfader

Writer, director, and producer Kendall Goldberg is getting ready to debut her first feature at the Sarasota Film Festival on April 16th. WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD follows Jeff (Jon Heder), the manager of a bowling alley, who discovers the owner’s plans to sell, and has to pull both himself and the business out of the gutter. It’s been a long process, and Crossfader sat down with Kendall to talk about it.

Sam: First question has gotta be, why bowling?

Kendall: Uh, well, it’s a great question considering I’m the worst bowler I know of, considering how much time I spend in bowling alleys *laughs*! I don’t know, sometimes ideas come to me based on locations. The first movie I ever made with my friend Frances, I told her, “I want to make a movie in a laundromat.” So that’s what we did. I wanted to make a movie in a bowling alley, so that’s where it started.

Sam: Other than location what were some of your biggest inspirations for the film?

Kendall: I’m all over the board with this one. When the idea came to me it sort of hit me like a bag of bricks. Once it hit me, I didn’t stop running when I got the idea. There were definitely references along the way, but I would say the biggest influence that comes to mind is the Coen Brothers. Not necessarily THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but with the obvious exception of bowling and a dream sequence—so in a way it [was]. Their movies are a strong mix of genres, I don’t want to do just a horror or straight comedy. I like doing a mix, dramedy or a subgenre you might say. Overall, the Coen Brothers were a good reference for me, and we shot it similarly. Nico (the cinematographer) and I worked on how we were going to shoot it a lot. We referenced a lot of indies. Specifically, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, THE ONE I LOVE, THE SKELETON TWINS, relatively smaller budget films.

Sam: On that note, in regards to the overall process of creating and developing the film, you’re a relatively young director, but most people don’t realize that you didn’t get here easily. Can you talk about the process of how the film came to be?

Kendall: If I’m being completely honest, some of the process is kind of a blur because it’s been quite a while. I’m pretty sure it’s been five years since I started working on it, and that time will continue to grow since I’m not finished, which is all part of the process of course. There was just such a large period of time where I didn’t know what I was doing with it, sort of that “fake it until you make it” mentality. I would drive to LA and take all these meetings and maybe two out of the 100 meetings that I took ended up leading to something. It was all the thought of this is what I’m supposed to do and this is what’s supposed to happen. I sort of just went with it, and this is the cheesy advice that people always give to you, but don’t take no for an answer! I have been working on this film every single day for the past five years in some capacity. You know, everything I went through, all the hard work, all the festivals, etc. As each year went by I changed and the script changed, so last year I felt like couldn’t wait any longer to do it or it would be a completely different movie, for better or worse. But I couldn’t be more proud of the project and the people who helped me. There weren’t any deadlines, you just have to want it to happen.

Jeff playing “Wizzing Winkys,” a game he built at Winky’s World

Sam: So going back a few years, you premiered a short film version of WHEN JEFF at the Sarasota film festival, and now you’re taking it back full circle with premiering your feature there on April 16th. How important was it to start small and go big?

Kendall: Great question. So the short was never intended to be made. People always say, make a short so you can prove to investors what you can do. But that wasn’t the intention. Each summer would go by and I thought “I have to do something to stay productive!” So two years went by at the start of the process and I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll do it’ *laughs*. My writing partner, Rachel Borgo, and I thought, “Let’s create the short with a beginning, middle, and end so we can submit the film to festivals,” that’s how we’re going to meet people, etc. And both directly and indirectly it ended up being exactly what we needed to make our feature the following year. Yes, it premiered at Sarasota, and we’re really excited to bring the feature back there. It’s a coming home story of sorts. Not only did it help us meet the people we needed to meet, secure financing and a production company, but it helped me as a writer and director. We realized what wasn’t working, what was sounding cheesy, we cut and added scenes. It’s definitely a story that deserves to be a feature, but also, this is the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s a blueprint for what the feature can be. When I was done with the short I had a huge amount of takeaways since a lot of my cast was the same for the feature.

Sam: Very poetic that you’re coming back to Sarasota.

Kendall: Definitely!

Sam: So, along the lines of blending genre conventions, your actors like Jim O’Heir, Jon Heder, and Candi Milo have a comedic past but show a more dramatic side in the film. Likewise, the film balances both comedic and dramatic elements. What was your process in balancing this tone?

Kendall: Pretty much every actor on set had a huge personality in the best possible way, and everyone brought something personal and unique to the film. I mean, everyone was having so much fun on set and there were a lot of funny moments. Jon is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, same with Steve (Berg), everybody! And they were constantly making me laugh, but when we went for a take, there weren’t many outwardly funny moments in the movie. To be honest, I set the tone that we could joke around and have fun on set, but they’re incredible actors and can turn it on and off incredibly quickly. We did a lot of prep beforehand, Jon and I, almost three years ago at this point.

Jeff and Frank (Steve Berg) in Winky’s World

Sam: So how did your relationship with Jon start?

Kendall: I met Jon through the auditioning process. We did initial auditions three years ago. This was when I thought I knew what it would take to make this movie and I was wrong. I did not know and I did not have the means necessary. I kept in touch with Jon, and really liked him for the part. I think, if I remember correctly, we Skyped. I said, “We love you for this role but we just don’t have the money for this movie right now.” And he said something like, “Yeah, just let me know.” So I told him we would keep in touch and luckily he is the coolest guy, since I’m sure he’s heard this a lot from independent films that never go through. We got lunch a couple times, and when it came time for the short, I had all the other actors signed on. I said, “Hey Jon, we’re gonna do the short, we can fly you out to Chicago and we can put you up for a couple days, will you come do it?” And he said, “Yeah, absolutely!” So we had a lot of fun there. So the short was really important in establishing the relationship between the cast and I. Afterwards, I could call Jon, text him, and the trust was there, the respect was there, and that friendship was there. I didn’t even have to think about it on the feature because it was like two friends making a movie. Now I’d love to do a film where he’s hilarious, but I think he was the dramatic rock of this film.

Sam: Yeah, he was definitely more straight up dramatic in this and it was nice to see him flex his acting muscles in a different way.

Kendall: Yeah, and he’s a super technical actor. He understands everything, I mean, he went to BYU film school. So he understands blocking really well, camera placement, etc. That helped me, this being my first feature. He learned a lot from me and I learned a lot from him. Throughout the film he would ask me questions about why I would choose this lens, why we were putting the camera over here. So he would inquire a lot and the more he would inquire the more interested in it I could tell he was. He brought a lot to the film and taught me a lot.

Sam: That’s great, I mean it’s all a collaboration.

Kendall: Yeah, definitely.

Sam: So, bringing it back to the beginning again, are you planning on taking a break after five years or are you transitioning to something right now?

Kendall: Great question *laughs*. Well, I’m not planning to take a break, I’m actually currently writing my next three features. Define break.

Sam: Are you able to rest *laughs*?

Kendall: Um, yeah! For me, work is resting in a way. I mean I’d love to be on set tomorrow, but obviously that would be rushing it. They say it’s hard to make your first feature and it’s even harder to make your second. I really hope that’s not true. I’m really hoping that I can break some boundaries there and bridge that gap because I want to be making my second feature within the next few years.

Jeff and Stanford (Brendan Meyer) arguing at Winky’s World

Sam: Well, as far as not rushing it, it sounds like something you’ve learned over the past five years is, you can’t rush it, and maybe you shouldn’t?

Kendall: Yeah, it’s going to come in due time. Everything happens for a reason and I firmly believe that. And this happened at the perfect timing. Every single summer I complained to my mentor . . .

Sam: Who’s that?

Kendall: Roy Finch, professor from Chapman University—he’s great—and I would say, “What am I going to do?” He would tell me, “Deep breaths, it’s not meant to happen this summer, do something else this summer.” And every summer, he would say “It’s not meant to happen” when it didn’t happen and he was right. And then it happened immediately after I graduated and it worked perfectly. I don’t know how I would have done it while I was still in school.

Sam: Gotta have faith. So, where and when can we see WHEN JEFF?

Kendall: Like I mentioned, we’re world premiering in Sarasota on April 16th. Then we’ll be going to Newport Beach Film Festival on April 27th. After that we’ll be at IFF Boston on April 30th—another place we screened our short and is awesome to come back to. Then we’ll be at Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas, which is a first but I’ve heard great things about—created by actress Geena Davis. That’s May 2nd and May 3rd. A couple others after that. Hopefully you’ll see it on some screens big and small near you soon. Keep your eyes out. Keep your ears out. Keep your noses out.

Sam: Will do. Thank you very much!

Kendall: Thank you!

You can see WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD at 9 pm April 16 at the Regal Hollywood 11 Cinemas, Auditorium 4 in Sarasota. Q&A to follow. Tickets available at

Instagram/Twitter: @whenJeffmovie

Facebook: /WhenJeffMovie

Sam Wall
Sam started watching movies because he wasn't allowed to watch TV. Now he makes movies because his education hasn't allowed him to do anything else.

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