Jim Gavin (Lodge 49) :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Magic lurks around the corners in AMC’s Lodge 49, a late-summer blur of Pynchionian mystery, beach bum charm, and golden hour SoCal haze. Written and created by Jim Gavin, author of the bleakly funny 2013 short story collection Middle Menthe series follows Wyatt Russell as Sean “Dud” Dudley, a surfer whose life has been turned over following the disappearance of his father and a snakebite that’s left him unable to get in the water. Dud spends most of his time sneaking into his dad’s former pool supply store, getting loaded in the apartment he’s been evicted from, and watching crap TV with his sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), until he finds himself drawn to the mysterious Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx, a fraternal organization he’s inducted into by Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings), a down on his luck plumbing salesman.

From there, things get increasingly surreal. It all adds up to one of the year’s most bewitching summer watches, a sly and funny showcase for evocative sounds, fantastic acting, and esotericism. Gavin sat down with AD to discuss the show’s genesis, alchemical world-building, sonic palette, and the influence of Thomas Pynchon.

Aquarium Drunkard: One of the first things that appealed to me about Lodge 49 was how your version of California isn’t an idealized or shined-up version of the place. It’s all strip malls, chain restaurants, and pawn shops. Did you grow up in Long Beach? Were you drawing on familiar environs for the show?

Jim Gavin: Absolutely. I was born in Long Beach and spent a lot of time there as a kid. I mostly grew up in the city of Orange. The milieu of Long Beach and the parts of Orange County I know well, Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, the central part of the county—in the dumbest way possible, I write what I know. I know strip malls, gas stations, drive-thrus; I have a lousy imagination. I’m just trying to present [Long Beach] in a neutral way. I feel like for someone like Dud, he looks at Long Beach like Paris in the ’20s. This is where he wants to be. He’s not looking past it. I think one of his qualities as a character is his ability to appreciate, and see some sort of beauty, in the conurbation of Southern California.

AD: Dud is open to magic, essentially. Like his friend Ernie and sister Liz, he’s stuck in a rut, but he has an openness to the universe. Is that something you share with him?

Jim Gavin: I would say Dud has a stronger capacity to find magic than I do. I’m more on the Ernie end of the spectrum, maybe not as far along as Liz. I think what I share with Dud is how in the midst of a difficult time, on the most basic level, I’ve always been able to enjoy a burrito. The small mercies mean more to Dud than they do to other people. He’s been robbed of a simple but satisfying life. I think it’s easy to read him as a slacker, but he had a job, a vocation. He’s living in the wake of a catastrophe, but he had a purpose. Hopefully, the joy and heartache of watching him is seeing his inner optimist at odds with the desperate circumstances he finds himself in.

AD: The tone of the show is a very particular one. It doesn’t dip into magical realism overtly (or at least not often) but magic or enlightenment always seems to be on the periphery of these characters’ lives.

Jim Gavin: As someone who’s pretty clear-eyed, I’ve had moments in my life that are unexplainable. Sometimes it’s merely a coincidence that chills you to the bone, but it’s weird how fast we move past those things and don’t think about them. Dud is someone who doesn’t get passed them. They are meaningful to him.

AD: Dud finds himself drawn to the concept of alchemy.

Jim Gavin: Alchemy is kind of the organizing principle for our show. Historically, one can look at it all these different ways. You can look at it as the most cynical human enterprise, a realm for charlatans to fool others. Or you could believe in it as this ancient hidden science that’s been lost, that can actually accomplish the impossible. Then there’s the other way you could look at it, as a philosophy, a higher art, about transformation and vision. We’re always in the middle of all those things. It’s a lens to view everything through. It’s an inexhaustible metaphor.

AD: The show’s Twitter feed is peppered with all this esoteric miscellany, stuff about the self-described immortal politician Leonard “Live Forever” Jones, the dualists, Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit mystic. Are you highlighting specific inspirations with that account?

Jim Gavin: We have a library in our writers’ room and we definitely rifle through. Most Twitter feeds, you know exactly what you’re going to get, but ours, you don’t know what you’re going to read. It’s kind of like the high and low and everything in between. We’ll have some very formal sounding bit of 14th-century alchemical lore; we’ll also have a really pithy quote from Kurt Heasley of the Lilys.

AD: Did you ever consider joining a real fraternal organization, or entertain the idea of doing that?

Jim Gavin: No, but I’ve always been obsessed driving by old Masonic lodges in Southern California, Elks lodges, Odd Fellows, Fraternal Order of Eagles. They just have this quality of a relic. They’re almost invisible, but once you start noticing them, you can’t help but wonder what goes on inside. The buried histories of alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, I’ve always loved that stuff. My sister belongs to the Elks in Orange. They have a beautiful, crazy old building. Three-stories, with lots of nooks and crannies and stairways. It’s great. You feel like you’re in a special place in that particular building.

But once I knew I was going to write it, I didn’t want to be the guy who joins a place to research. I wanted my imagination to do the work. That said, our production designer, Mike Shaw, who’s just a genius, we did visit the Elks in Orange, and Masonic lodges of Long Beach. A lot of my intuitions, along with Peter Ocko’s, our showrunner, were confirmed. A lot of Masons have told us we got something right. We’re doing something different and creating our own world but our goal was to capture both the surreal, strange aspects of these places, along with the very human and mundane aspects. We want to live in both worlds.

AD: Do most of these places have private taverns like on the show?

Jim Gavin: A lot of them do. Almost all the Elks do. The one in Orange, you can get a Guinness and a vodka tonic for like $7. It’s great.

AD: I’m ready to sign up just for the private bar.

Jim Gavin: The Elks are more social. The Masons are a strange, occult society, but its actual members are regular, normal people. It’s great. That kind of intersection, between a guy who sells toilets by day, and later, in the tavern, he’s a “Luminous Knight.” That’s magic to me on some level.

AD: The music is absolutely integral to this show. Did you have a concept in mind of how you heard Lodge 49?

Jim Gavin: Yeah, I did. I’m a big music geek. I was a DJ for a few years at KXLU out here in the ’90s. I have a penchant for obscure psychedelia and garage. I wanted the show to sound light and dark, that kind of hazy psych, that starts with a band like Love to stuff happening now, like White Fence, where there’s a nighttime sound to it, which I associate with one of my favorite bands of all time, Broadcast. A lot of stuff I love, I’d been introduced to by Thomas Patterson, an old friend of mine who’s lived in LA, London, and New York. He’s a music journalist, but his handle on music history, the entire vernacular of psych, garage, ’60s soul and jazz,  his level of knowledge and detail, is kind of unsurpassed in my mind. He’d never really done TV before, but Peter and I were like, “This is the guy.” I think the proof is in the pudding. So we had Tom, and then Andrew Carroll, our composer. He sent us some stuff and we loved it. It just sounded like the show. He submitted a theme for the title sequence, and we knew that was the one. I think it all adds up to the sound of the show.

AD: How does Thomas Pynchon fit in? The “49” in Lodge 49 references The Crying of Lot 49, right?

Jim Gavin: I’m a huge Pynchon fan. For me, it’s a loving homage. It’s set in the type of world Pynchon gave us, characters discovering unseen orders of things. I am happy to wear that influence on our sleeve. I think we’re doing something different, [but] he’s in the best, most classical sense, a comic writer, and our world is a first and foremost a comic universe. A lot of influences went into it, but the 49, it’s kind of like a bat-signal to a certain type of reader. words/j woodbury

Recommended Listening: Broadcast :: The OST Radio Show / Air-Date – January, 2011

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