Sundance 2014: Men of a certain age travel, party in ‘Land Ho!’

Could this year’s Sundance “it” girl be a male, seventysomething physician from Kentucky? It could happen once audiences spend some time with Earl Lynn Nelson, one of the stars of the travelogue comedy “Land Ho!”

The film premieres Sunday as part of the Next section at Sundance. It was written and directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, who have made a splash on the festival circuit with such individual efforts as “Passenger Pigeons” and “Cold Weather,” and both filmmakers are showing their work at Sundance for the first time.

“Land Ho!” follows two retirement-age former brothers-in-law as they take a spontaneous trip together to Iceland. They see the sights, drink, eat, smoke pot, hang out with younger women and drive each other a little batty. Actor Paul Eenhoorn received positive notices last year for his turn in the Next film “This Is Martin Bonner,” and here he plays straight man to the oddball charisma of Nelson, a non-actor who is a real-life doctor and Stephens’ cousin once-removed.

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The film itself started as something of an in-between knockabout, as Stephens and Katz each had bigger projects they were struggling to put in motion. Last January, Stephens texted Katz a short idea — “What if we took Earl Lynn to Iceland?” — and things moved forward from there. The production would spend about 5 1/2 weeks in Iceland, shooting in 3 1/2 weeks and wrapping in mid-October before a whirlwind post-production.

“I just thought we could use this as sort of an exercise, something fun to do and something creative to do in the meantime,” said Stephens, 29, on the phone from her home in West Virginia. “And then it kind of took on a life of its own and became a more real, bigger thing as it came together.”

“It started as a little idea and grew into ‘Land Ho!’ ” added Katz, 32, from Los Angeles. “The directive throughout was to be adventurous, and by virtue of it not initially being a main project we were able to take some risks and try some things out. We just wanted to make something fun, create something fun.”

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The film functions both as a travelogue of some of the spectacular natural sights on Iceland, which Stephens called “an amazing otherworldly place,” but also as an unexpected buddy comedy and story of men of a certain age coming to terms with where they are in their lives. While Stephens and Katz wrote a script to provide the story with structure, they allowed Nelson and Eenhoorn input. The film becomes a surprisingly knowing, touchingly bittersweet look at how people continue evolving as they age.

“A lot of it had to do with these two guys in particular,” said Katz. “It’s just interesting to make a movie about people that are different from you. To write for them but also to find out what they’re thinking about. The reflections in the film on how to live life to the fullest is not only relevant to people that age, it’s relevant to everyone, and that’s what these guys are trying to figure out.”

Filmmaker David Gordon Green is an executive producer on “Land Ho!” and was at Sundance last year with his own “Prince Avalanche” — by coincidence a remake of an Icelandic film. (Green also has producer credits this year on the Kristen Stewart film “Camp X-Ray” and the short “Person to Person.”) Green first met Katz and Stephens a few years back when he returned to the North Carolina film school from which he is a graduate and they were then attending.

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Aware of Nelson from Stephens’ previous films, Green rearranged production on an episode of the television show “Eastbound and Down” so that Nelson could have a small role. Here he stepped in to assist the production of ‘Land Ho!’ however he could.

“Wearing an executive producer hat, you have to look at the overall package,” said Green.” A more sophisticated, industry-worthy producer would ask who’s your star talent and who’s your hit filmmaker and where’s your Cracker Jack script. And I was like, if Earl Lynne is in it, I want to watch it. That crazy dude is so fun.”


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Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus