The Last Shift director Andrew Cohn has fond memories of growing up in Ann Arbor, MI, frequenting the Fleetwood Diner and watching movies at the State Theatre. “I remember seeing Pulp Fiction at the State Theatre and having my mind completely obliterated,” he says with a laugh. The Fleetwood, meanwhile, was the place Cohn and his friends gathered to talk and learn over bottomless cups of coffee. “I spent hundreds and hundreds of nights there,” he says, “smoking clove cigarettes and debating music and film and books.”

Although Cohn moved to Los Angeles after college to pursue a career as a screenwriter before moving into documentary and now narrative filmmaking, Ann Arbor remains close to his heart: “The first line of my biography purposefully still says ‘from Ann Arbor, Michigan,’” he explains, “because I’m so proud of where I’m from.”

Before his feature debut plays at the Michigan Theater as part of the Cinetopia Film Festival’s Direct From Sundance event on February 26th, Cohn spoke with us about his career, his move from documentary to fiction filmmaking, and getting directorial advice from Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne (his films include Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendents).

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into filmmaking?

I grew up in Ann Arbor, went to Eberwhite and Pioneer High School. I went to school at Eastern Michigan University, and while I was at Eastern I made friends with Davy Rothbart who had started Found Magazine. I started working at Found, and Davy is the one who gave me the confidence to pursue writing.

I graduated from Eastern and moved to Los Angeles and had some very modest success as a screenwriter, and then for the next couple years I kind of struggled to find my voice and find my place as a screenwriter. I didn’t really have the confidence or the resources to make a narrative film, but I’d always been a documentary junkie, always been in love with the form. I love the immediacy of it, being able to just grab a camera and go make something. So that’s what I did; and that’s what I did for ten years. 

Actually my first film, Medora, I directed with Davy. And that did really well. That was sort of my film school, making that movie, and it went on to win an Emmy, and after that I just took the ball and kept running. I did a film for ESPN, for their 30 For 30 series; I did a little bit of TV documentary work; and after nine or ten years of doing documentaries basically full time, living from movie to movie, I just got burned out on the doc thing. I’d always wanted to make narrative films, that’s what I wanted to do when I first got into the business, and I just said, now’s the time.

How did The Last Shift come about?

I took the next year and I wrote this feature length script. I put a lot of time into it, a lot of energy, a lot of focus. It was the only thing I worked on for a year, and I sent it out to some producer friends and got a really strong reaction. I wanted to write something that was really contained, something that I could make for cheap because I was making the transition from nonfiction to fiction. And so I wanted to write something that was small and that I could explore themes through characters, but wasn’t so ambitious that people were going to scoff and say, you’re never going to get that amount of money. 

And then it just sort of started to snowball. I sent an email to Alexander Payne, who was probably my favorite director of all time, just cold emailed him and said, “Look, my name’s Andrew, I wrote this script, I’m from the Midwest, I’m a huge fan,and I was wondering if you might take the time to read it and potentially executive produce it.”

And a couple months went by and we were still getting the script ready, trying to figure out how to find financing and thinking about actors, and I got a call from Alexander Payne. He was interested in directing it, actually, but he eventually had to take another movie; so he introduced me to a couple of his producing partners, and after that we were off and running. 

What were your reasons for setting the film in Albion, MI?

When I was promoting my film Night School they had brought me to Albion to show the movie at the theater there and then to teach for a week or two weeks, like a kind of visiting scholar. And while I was there I had a lot of downtime, and I spent that time just kind of walking around Albion, and I remember thinking to myself, You know, I would love to set a movie here someday. As I started to write The Last Shift I started with Richard Jenkins’ character and I thought this needs to take place in Albion. It seemed like a natural place to set the movie.

You’ve made a lot of films about the Midwest. Is there something about this region specifically that speaks to you?

It’s a lot of things. I’m familiar with it, you know? I know the places, I know the faces. I wear it as a badge of honor, trying to show some of the complexities of places like the Midwest where people often want to view it strictly through a political lens. So many people are trying to understand the patterns and the mentality of Midwesterners, typically through the lens of politics. But I was more interested in studying human beings and exploring human beings and letting the themes come out organically through that. So I think that’s why people have latched onto my films because they don’t have a specific agenda. They’re just rooted in truth, with complex characters that aren’t just trying to communicate one specific thing.

What was it like making The Last Shift, your first narrative feature film, coming as you did from the documentary world?

I was actually pretty surprised how well the skill set translated from documentaries. I think it was an extension of my documentary work in terms of the subject matter that I’m interested in. I’ve always been interested in just regular working class people, and the interior lives of those that maybe live on the outskirts of society. And that came from Davy, teaching me how to be open to the world and how to perceive the world, to be constantly searching and looking and absorbing the world around you. That’s what Found Magazine was all about, finding these little scraps of paper that have a story to tell, and the core of my outlook as an artist was to always be looking at people’s faces, hearing people’s conversations, and because of the environment I grew up in a lot of those were working class people. And so, in that way it’s very much an extension of my documentary work, which is just telling stories of everyday Americans struggling to survive, struggling to deal with the absurdities of life, and smaller stories that are specific but illuminate larger themes.

And how did you apply those lessons from your documentary work to filming a fiction piece?

As a director your number one job is to be a leader, understand how to communicate with your collaborators and trust your collaborators while communicating your vision, which is no different than a documentary. You have a lot more collaborators and it’s much more tense, the stakes are higher, but it’s the same language. 

Through my work in documentary I’ve sat down with so many real people, and I’ve seen real people fake it. And so just having that constant interaction with people in my documentary work it was easy for me to get on set and to watch a performance and say, I’m not buying that, or I think it needs to go in this direction, or this feels more honest to me. 

Alexander was a real mentor to me on this film. We would talk once or twice a week, and he told me at the end of the day you walk on to a set and it’s like walking onto a construction site. I mean, it’s just madness. There’s so much going on, and his advice to me was that the only thing that matters are the performances. You have to block everything out, and in the middle of this insanity is this really special thing happening between the cinematographer, the actors and the director. That little space right there is so sacred, and I think that’s why the performances are so strong.

Catch the Midwest premiere of The Last Shift and hear more from Andrew Cohn (alongside star Richard Jenkins) at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, February 26, at 8 PM.

Buy your tickets here

Thank you to Knight’s Downtown for their generous support.