A Struggling Surfer Gets 'A Sign' In Jim Gavin's 'Lodge 49'

Aug 13, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 10:55 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The second episode of the AMC comedy series "Lodge 49" airs tonight after "Better Call Saul." It was created by our next guest Jim Gavin. "Lodge 49" is the shabby and failing Long Beach, Calif., chapter of a fraternal organization called The Lynx, where the show's down-on-their-luck characters get away for a few hours from the pressures of their lives.

The main character, known as Dud, played by Wyatt Russell, is a young aspiring initiate hoping that the purported mysteries of the lodge might help lift him out of a particularly bad year. He used to clean pools as part of his dad's business. But his dad disappeared while body surfing and is presumed dead. The business closed down, and Dud's lost his apartment. And the family home is gone as well. His twin sister cosigned a loan for her dad's business and is feeling crushed by the $80,000 in debt she now owes the bank. Also Doug suffers from a snake bite that won't heal and must be kept dry. So he can't do the thing he loves most - surf.

"Lodge 49" is Jim Gavin's first TV show. He's also written a collection of short stories called "Middle Men." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Let's start with a clip from the show. Dud has found a LYNX ring at the beach with a metal detector. The next day, his car inexplicably runs out of gas in front of Lodge 49. He knocks on the door and meets Ernie Fontaine, played by Brent Jennings, who lets Dud in. Dud is entranced by the lodge and asks if he can join.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LODGE 49")

WYATT RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) How do I join? I'm sorry, I'm probably doing this all wrong. It's a big secret thing, isn't it?

BRENT JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Actually, no, it's not. All you have to do to join is ask. We are obligated by tradition to give anyone who's serious a chance.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Can I join?

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) OK. Well, what's your name?

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Dud.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Is that your Christian name?

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Sean - it's Sean Dudley.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Oh.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Yeah.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Ernie Fontaine.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Mr. Fontaine, it's very nice to meet you. And - oh, women can join, too.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Yeah, negroes, too.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) I - that's not...

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) I was just giving you a hard time, Dud. Come on, let's go into the office.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) OK.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) I hate to admit it, but someone asking to join is a rare event these days.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Really?

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Our membership's been declining for years. Maybe this is a good sign. We need to get younger. I'll just need your contact info.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. OK. So, like, what is it that you guys do here?

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Community services, recreational activities. Plus there's a whole philosophical component - alchemical or whatever you want to call it.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Oh.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) But mainly we just get together. Tonight's bunco night.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Well, that sounds great.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) You do understand we may not take you? For all I know, you could be some kind of deadbeat or psycho.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Definitely not a psycho, so - (laughter).

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's a scene from "Lodge 49" with Wyatt Russell and Brent Jennings. The show was created by Jim Gavin. Jim Gavin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JIM GAVIN: Hi, thanks for having me.

BRIGER: So why did you want to build a series around a lodge like the Elks club or the Masons? I mean, I think the last show that I saw that had a lodge in it was I either "The Honeymooners" or "The Flintstones."

GAVIN: Yeah. I think driving around Southern California and probably many parts of the country, you drive by these places, and they feel lost in time. They feel a bit like a relic. They're often windowless, and you can drive by them many times and then suddenly notice or ask what that building is or if it catches your eye or - for some reason. The show's set in Long Beach.

And after World War II, Long Beach was this very prosperous place, just sprawling streets full of bungalows. And it was all based on government investment in aerospace and, you know, feeding the growth of these communities. And then it was also the height of membership in these fraternal orders. The Elks of Long Beach had the largest membership in the nation at one point. And then by the late '80s they were bankrupt and closing. And this huge place they built they had to sell. And membership in these places seemed to mirror decline in - or the falling fortunes of the middle class. So that was another part of it.

But maybe the main thing was I just had this image in my head for a very long time of a young man knocking on the door of one of these places and an older man opening it. And I didn't know the meaning of it, but it seemed like a moment that had meaning of some kind. And the show in many ways is kind of just trying to figure out the mysterious resonance of that moment.

BRIGER: So when you were doing research on lodges, did you go into any? Like, did you ask, hey, can I come into your Mason lodge? I mean, they're very secretive, aren't they?

GAVIN: Yeah. I mean, some are - almost function a bit like museums around Southern California. My older sister actually belongs to the Elks in Orange, and they have a beautiful, you know, building that was - I forget when it was built, but early 20th century. And they were very kind to us. And - yeah, we went in with our production designer. And we were trying to capture both a world in our own sets that felt very familiar and modest in a certain way but also had these touches of the surreal and the weird and alchemical.

BRIGER: There's a scene at the lodge where Dud's been drinking a lot, and he's in the urinal. And he looks up, and on the tile - one of the tiles represents the card from the tarot deck called the fool. What's that image, and what does that say to the character of Dud?

GAVIN: Yeah. The image of the fool on the tarot is - it's a person standing on the edge of a cliff with one foot up in the air. There's a little dog behind him. He has I think, like, almost like a bindle stick or satchel. But he's about to step off into the abyss. And, you know, as I imagine it in my head, there's almost a smile on his face. And...

BRIGER: Like he's sort of oblivious to that fact.

GAVIN: Yeah. So the abyss awaits, but he is gladly stepping forward. Or maybe he doesn't quite know it's there. But the fool is the one willing to believe. And in this show, we're way more interested in what people believe than the things they actually believe in or the actual reality of that. And it is that eternal drive to know, to understand, to unlock some secret that is at the heart of alchemy. And I think it also drives Dud and a lot of our characters forward to try and figure out their life and see, is there a greater meaning beyond this everyday world? The seen and the unseen, I guess.

BRIGER: You've said you write your characters as fools of their worlds rather than as the heroes.

GAVIN: Yeah. I feel like there's two types of storytellers. And I mean this not in terms of, like, writing but just in life. Like, at the pub where there's someone who tells a story, and they're always the hero of their own story, and everyone around them is stupid. And then there's the storyteller who is always the fool in the story. And they don't seem to understand life and are always at the mercy of people who are smarter than them. I am definitely the second type of storyteller. And I've stumbled through life as such. And I think Dud is an expression of that on some level.

BRIGER: One of the small things I really like about the show is the depiction of a strip mall ecosystem. Dud's father's pool supply store is on this strip where there's a doughnut store, a nail salon, and this pawn shop which is called the Two-Star Pawn. It's, like, not very ambitious. And, you know, all these people are interacting with each other. Like, Dud and his father pawn stuff at the pawn shop. They take out loans because the guy's also a loan shark. Dud surfs with the daughter of the owner of the doughnut shop.

GAVIN: Yeah.

BRIGER: And it's - they go to the same church. It's this little community. It was really interesting to me.

GAVIN: Yeah. I think in just Southern California strip mall life is kind of a reality for all. I worked for a long time at a gas station. It was on a corner, and behind it there was a strip mall. And, you know, there was a doughnut shop there owned by a Vietnamese family and all these other little shops and proprietors. And you do get to know each other in this weird way. So, yeah, the strip mall where the Dudley - Dudley and Son Pool Supply is kind of a second home for Dud. And it was really fun to kind of bring out the actual humans who occupy it.

BRIGER: Yeah, 'cause, I mean, usually if you don't work in a strip mall, like, your experience with a strip mall is you drive in, you go to one store, you drive out again. Like, you don't sort of imagine it as this own environment.

GAVIN: Yeah. The show is also a lot about the relationship between Dud and his reluctant mentor Ernie, played by Brent Jennings. And in the system of the lodge, Dud is the squire to Ernie's knight. But it's also just - you know, it's an older man sort of reluctantly providing some advice for this wayward young person.

BRIGER: And you described his character Ernie as a master because he's made it through life. Is that a low bar for defining someone as a master?

GAVIN: In my world, yeah. No, yeah, just sticking around. That's it. It kind of - for me it goes back to how you define success. And I feel like I became successful as a writer the moment I was taking adult education class and just was just trying to write in a way that felt truthful. And everything after that - I mean, you can put yourself out there, but in the end it all goes back to just what you actually value.

And so success for me was - has nothing to do with any type of professional, you know, luck, which, you know, at this point I can say I've had quite a bit of. But I don't think that luck would have come if I had been chasing some sort of laurel or anything like that. It came from just sticking to the page and trying to - just trying to stick around.

I think Ernie has a bit of that. You know, he's had - he's had a full life. He was in the Navy. He's had a bunch of jobs. He's been grinding as a toilet salesman, you know? And he also just has - he has a taste for life. He's a - you know, books he's reading like "A Sense Of Wanderlust" and "Night, Air And Sea" (ph). He's a man for all seasons. Let's put it that way.

BRIGER: When I went back and watched a few of the episodes of the show, I noticed that there's just a ton of beer drinking, like, everywhere. Like, people are drinking on the golf course. People are drinking at Ernie's office. Like, people are drinking as they wake up, at the beach. And of course at the lodge, like, people are just pounding beers. What was the intent of that?

GAVIN: I don't know. It's a bit of a transcription of reality.

BRIGER: And it's like rarely was there a scene without someone without a beer in their hand.

GAVIN: Yeah. I don't know. It's just - you feel more comfortable. Like, even if you're not drinking, it's just you got something to hold onto. It's like a handrail.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jim Gavin, creator of the new AMC series "Lodge 49." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jim Gavin, creator of the new AMC series "Lodge 49." He's also an author.

BRIGER: I'd like to talk to you a little bit about your collection of short stories, "Middle Men." One of the stories is called "Elephant Doors," and it's based in part on your experience working as a production assistant for the game show "Jeopardy!" It sounds like you drove a golf cart around a lot and gave Alex Trebek - filled his refrigerator with Diet Rite, which I guess he likes. I won't to ask you to confirm any of that, but...

GAVIN: (Laughter) OK.

BRIGER: ...One of the things - Adam, your main character, is an aspiring comedian. And there's one point where he gives a stand-up routine at this comedy club called El Goof. And I'd just like to read some of the jokes that he tries to tell if you don't mind.

GAVIN: OK. Yeah. This scene is basically a total meltdown onstage. So in between each joke, just imagine just excruciating silence. So he gets up on stage and opens with this. (Reading) I finally found a self-help book that's going to unlock my potential. It's called "Mein Kampf."

There's this silence. OK, and then he keeps going. (Reading) I've got the audio book on my iPod, and it really gets me going when I'm doing hills on the elliptical. It's just nothing.

BRIGER: I'm sorry I'm laughing (laughter).

GAVIN: Then he gets a bit - starts to go a little blue here. (Reading) Do you know what I like most about pornography? The raw and explicit content.

BRIGER: Now, these are just...

GAVIN: They're not...

BRIGER: ...Patently terrible jokes. Are these your jokes? Did you tell these jokes in public?

GAVIN: I will admit the only one I think actually did was the "Mein Kampf" joke, which...

BRIGER: How did that go over?

GAVIN: It went over terrible. I just - I did - for a little bit, I was - did some open mics and discovered pretty fast that I was, yeah, meant for other things. The one thing I will say - everyone should try it at some point because it will give you such an appreciation for that art form.

BRIGER: The final story, "Middle Men," has two sections. One of them is about a young guy named Mike whose mother dies from cancer, and he doesn't know what to do with his life. And his father is a successful plumbing salesman and gets Mike a job just 'cause he doesn't know what else to do. But he's terrible at it. And so in that story there's a part where Mike remembers taking care of his mother in sort of the last few months of her life when she was dying of cancer. And you told me before we talked that this is kind of a hard passage for you to read. And I think it's a really beautiful passage, so if you don't mind, I'd just like to read it.

GAVIN: Oh, yeah, please.

BRIGER: (Reading) A year ago, when people stopped by to see his mom, they would often ask him once they had left her room what he was going to do after. It seemed like an irrelevant question, and he never had an answer. He would just walk them to the front door and return to her room. The walls were covered with family photos, a crucifix and a framed map of Ireland. In the afternoons, he opened the curtains and the glass slider, letting in the breeze and giving his mom a view of the pool.

(Reading) Twenty years ago, during one of the booms, the Costellos had put in the pool. It was their greatest triumph as a family. They probably should have saved the money to get them through the next bust, but Ellen Costello wanted her kids to have a pool. She gave her children everything she had and more heedless of cost, and Matt knew that he owed much of his happiness to his parents' willingness to live beyond their means.

(Reading) A million things about his mom should have made Matt nostalgic, but for some reason, the time he longed for most was the last couple months of her life. They rarely spoke about anything important, but they had never been closer. Her suffering was beyond words, and Matt knew that the frail, bed-bound woman in front of him was the toughest person he had ever met. He wanted to be with her again in hell, shifting her pillows, changing her TPN bags, rinsing her vomit bowls.

(Reading) Those afternoons destroyed him and would continue to destroy him every day of his life. For this, he was thankful. He needed to be destroyed. Matt liked to think that the last thing his mom saw before she died was the tranquil surface of the pool.

So you know, that's just very beautiful and obviously close to you emotionally. But I wanted to ask. What do you mean by Mike saying he needed to be destroyed?

GAVIN: That's a good question. I don't know. I think there seems to be this premium on happiness making your life better - self-help, all these things. But I think suffering is a part of life. And suffering brings a greater appreciation for what makes life meaningful and beautiful. And I think, especially with young men, you meet people in life who you can tell they've never been punched in the face. And if they just got punched in the face, they might actually be a full person at some point. And so in a larger sense, dealing with loss, some suffering, is the thing that's going to make you whole on some level. There will always be pain. But it is that thing that's going to define you. It's going to be the crucible through which you might become the person you're meant to be.

BRIGER: So like, a full person is a damaged person.

GAVIN: I believe so, yeah.

BRIGER: Did you take care of your mom while she was dying?

GAVIN: Yes. My sisters and I, we all moved back home. You know, it's something that a lot of people I know have dealt with. And, you know, it's just - it is what it is.

BRIGER: It's really hard when someone dies because, you know, the last memories you're going to have of them is of this person when they're in their weakest state.

GAVIN: Yeah.

BRIGER: And sometimes, it's - in my experience, it's hard to reach back and recover memories of them when they were healthy - probably the person you'd prefer to remember - although there seems like there's a little bit in this story how those moments that Mike had were some of the closest he had with his mother. So that's kind of conflicted.

GAVIN: Yeah, no. I think watching someone go through, you know, what my mom went through or what, you know, anyone who's had a family member suffer through something like that - it's just terrible in every way. But there are these weird, weird moments of grace and togetherness that are so intense that, you know, you may not have had those without the terrible thing that's happening.

BRIGER: Do you live near the house where you grew up?

GAVIN: No. I - well, in a way. I mean, I'm in L.A. And that house is down in Orange. So I haven't been back in like six years because it - once the bank took it, I just felt weird. So yeah, maybe someday, I'll kind of make the pilgrimage back.

BRIGER: I think, at one point, you thought you'd want to buy back the house.

GAVIN: Yeah, that's a very Dud-like sentiment, I realize. Yeah, I don't know. There's almost a "Gatsby" - I read "Gatsby." I should learn a lesson from it. But, yeah, who knows? I hope who's ever living there is happy there.

BRIGER: Well, Jim Gavin, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

GAVIN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jim Gavin is the creator of the new AMC comedy series "Lodge 49." Episode two begins tonight after "Better Call Saul." Gavin spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After a short break, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of short stories she describes as funny and raw by Kevin Wilson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET'S "A.M.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.