25th Jun2013

Interview: Kevin Spacey, Willem Dafoe & Jameson First Shot winners

by Catherina Gioino

The Jameson First Shot competition is an annual competition that allows for emerging filmmakers to get their work made and get a break into the industry. With numerous submissions, Shirlyn Wong was the United States finalist, along with Russian finalist Anton Lanshakov for his short The Smile Man, and South African finalist Hanneke Schutte for her short of Saving Norman. The three were in attendance, along with Kevin Spacey, Dana Brunetti and Willem Dafoe at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn to celebrate the US final…

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What led you to make this competition?

Kevin Spacey: Well this time I didn’t act in the films but I was very grateful and gratified that Willem was willing to jump off a building with me because normally when you go to an actor like Willem, you have a script and you have a director. And in this case, I said, ‘Well there’s three movies, but we don’t have any scripts and there’s three directors but we don’t know who they’re going to be, so would you say yes so we can announce you’ll star in this?’ And he said yes, so getting him to do it was fun but the real thrill was to have these nights. We were in South Africa a couple weeks ago and then Russia- Moscow on Saturday night. And to see these filmmakers to be able to not only be able to show their film but to have their family; that for me is just a thrill. The whole reason I wanted to do this in the first place is because I wouldn’t have a career without first time writers and directors and producers who believed in me and gave me that chance when I was starting out.  This whole thing stems out from when I was 13 years old and I did a workshop with Jack Lemmon who was one of the greatest actors of all time. And then I ended up meeting him and getting the chance to work with him professionally. That’s when I got this brilliant philosophy that he passed down to me and then I made it my own, which was ‘If you’ve done well in the business you wanted to do well in, then it’s your obligation to send the elevator back down.’ And I always thought that was a great way of putting it, and this is a large part of that, because when I look at her [Wong], I know that I was that kid and it means a lot to me.

What were the highlights of shooting each one?

Willem Dafoe: It’s hard to say. All I can say is that each one was very different. Each director was very different so I found that it had to do with what the director was like. It had to do with their personal stories and one of the highlights was just working with the people that were very enthusiastic and it was something that they wanted to do. It was very sweet.

From a producer’s prospective, what was it about Shirlyn’s script that stood out from the rest?

Dana Brunetti: When we look at every script, they all get narrowed down to the filtration process. With me personally, I look at it as a story first, the same way we look at a feature film. And then, because of how limited this competition is, we shoot it all in two days so we have to look at it from a production stand point whether or not it’s contained or not and we can pull it off in that amount of time. So it has to pass that creative ‘Do we like it?’ stage in order to go into ‘Can we actually make it in those confines?’ Then we have the filmmakers choose a scene just to make sure that they are confident with directing and making a film. And to make sure that they are also not crazy- we’ve gotten a few crazies. So all that combined together and she ended up becoming a winner. We also had a process where we ended up talking to the casting directors, production managers and others and that’s when we turn it over to Kevin and Willem.

Spacey: There’s a lot of Skype calls that go back and forth for a while as we sort of vet.  Then finally we do a Skype call with the finalist that they think it’s just more questions but actually it’s just a set up where I’m hiding in the corner and then I jump out and say they’ve won.

Brunetti: We won’t be able to do that next year since we already did that two years in a row. If we call anyone, they’re going to think they won.

How did you get the story?

Shirlyn Wong: It actually came from a three hour debate I had with one of my friends and I told him that I only wanted friends that were robots. I said, ‘Because they know everything about you, they’re the perfect companion,’ and I just thought what would happen ten years from now, twenty years from now, and it just sort of snowballed into this film.

How did you convince Willem when there were no scripts, no directors, no anything?

Spacey: I’m fortunate to know Willem for a very long time. We were just reminiscing about that we first met in 1982 when I was in Washington D.C. at the Academy Center doing my very first pre-Broadway tryout of a play that I would do- my first Broadway play was a production of Ghosts with Liv Ullmann. And Willem was at the same theater doing a production from The Wilster Group which is an extraordinary theater that he founded. We met then and I only literally just found a poster of those two productions that you were up-side down in yours and I’m not in mine. And so we met then and over the years we seen each other and we’ve known each other. Then a few years ago I moved to London where I directed a commercial in London that had a great number of well known actors- Judi Dench, Ewan McGregor- and I asked Willem if he would want to do one of these things. So we had this great experience doing that. And because he’s a theater rat in addition to the fact that he is well known for film, he’s been such a dedicated theater rat because The Wilster Group is such a kind of brilliant production company that’s done so many extraordinary kinds of plays that’s morphed things and done so many styles. I thought if there was anyone who would get a vision of what this is about and take that leap of faith with me, they might be willing.

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For Anton and Hanneke, what were your own experiences of the premiere of your film?

Anton Lanshakov: It was pretty much quick. Very professional and very fun and exciting . I really enjoyed it and I really enjoyed seeing Willem’s fake smile for days.

Hanneke Schutte: I think it’s exactly what Shirlyn said that you start out thinking about before but then you realize it’s actually an exciting experience. It’s a great cast and it’s an experience I’ll appreciate forever.

What drew you to each of the different roles?

Dafoe: Well as Kevin said, I was committed before I could even see them. I was part of the selection process so I had a stake in the people that we selected. In the process, they shortlisted some people before they came to me and then when we had the final conversations, we all unanimously and very quickly chose the people we wanted to work with. The script as well as the bios and the director’s previous work all came into play and I felt like I knew something about them. You have to understand, we rehearsed for one day, shoot for two days, and then the next day, we’d rehearse for one day, shoot for another two days and then the next day, we’d rehearse the next film. So in like the 12 days, we went through different personalities and different ways of working, and different characters-it was fun for me. It was very well supported as far as the production and I enjoyed working with the directors.

What does winning this mean for you and where do you go from here?

Wong: For me, when Dana picked me up from the airport, I told him, ‘You know, it’s really hard in this industry. It’s 90% rejection.’ He said, ‘No, it’s 99% rejection.’ There were a lot of times when I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it and I should go do something practical with my life.’ And I think this really gave me the confidence to keep going and to have a stride. In terms of the future, I’m working on my thesis film, and the story is about a mobile stripper who drives around in a pink RV to small American towns to fulfill a dying man’s wish.

Spacey: Staring Willem Dafoe!

Dafoe: As the stripper or the old man? Or both?

This competition gives up and coming directors a real break to get into the industry. What advice would you give each of the winners as they move on?

Spacey: I think it’s true about what you just said about how sometimes you just need a little bit of confidence or a little bit of boost. Sometimes someone in a particular position could say just the right amount of words to you and you can have an experience you never expected to have. But I think as long as emerging filmmakers write from their heart if they’re a writer, or if they’re a director then they learn so much about the value of collaboration and the value of realizing that every single person on a film brings something into the equation. That greatness can come from anywhere. And if you’re open to that, then you can trigger a career that lasts a life time. Most of those that start to do well and start to believe that they’re Martin Scorsese, hire a lawyer and begin to live in a way that is isolating. One of the things that Dana and I, when we started Triggerstreet a long time ago, one of the things that I tried to believe in, in my own life, is that I’ve often watched that the more successful people become, the more famous they become, the bigger the houses and the hills get, the bigger fences and the walls get. The very things that an artist should stay connected with and the fucking shit in life you have to deal with, the harder it is to get through it. Just don’t ever get too far away from what she’s feeling tonight, because that’s an incredible feeling.

Is there anything new coming up for next year’s competition?

Spacey: We can tell you but then we’d have to kill you.

Brunetti: We’re doing the same thing but only with a different actor. Sorry Will.

Dafoe: I’m too busy anyway.

Spacey: That’s right. You’re going to be playing a stripper aren’t you?

Brunetti: But yeah, we’re doing it next year, details to follow.

Spacey: It will essentially be the same ways we’ve done over the past two years and there may be some differences next year, but again, we can’t really talk about them. Yet I think it’s great that people would like another bite out of the apple so. . .

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