First-time director Feste, with the cast of her debut film "The Greatest."
Sometimes you have to take 10 steps backward in order to move one giant step forward. That’s exactly what writer/director Shana Feste did with her directorial debut, The Greatest, a story that combines grief, pain, love and reveals the emotional suffering of a couple who tragically looses their teenage son in a car crash. The film, which stars Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan, screened in the dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Feste shares with The Independent the secret to her success as a first-time director and how she was able to land a star-studded cast and crew.
Though her story does seem very Cinderella-esque, transitioning from nanny to director, it was not an overnight transformation but rather a little bit of luck coupled with perseverance. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I have the same job that I’ve had since I was 15 years old. When am I going to throw in the towel? When am I going to say, enough is enough?’ I’m glad that I never gave into that temptation because finally, The Greatest was my seventh script and people really responded to it. I think the one thing that I did to make that transition was literally just becoming a better writer,” Feste said.
Not only did she mature as a writer, Feste finally realized that producing was not her passion and that directing was really where she needed to be. After finishing the producing program at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles, she instantly took a hands-on directing course with author Judith Weston. “I would take her class every Tuesday night and direct a new scene from my movie,” Feste said. “By the time that I had got on set to shoot The Greatest, I’d already directed 16 scenes from the movie, which definitely helped me because I knew the characters in a much deeper way. Judith was an incredible teacher for anyone who is trying to learn the craft of directing.”
Other than AFI’s strenuous curriculum and classes with Weston, she also taught herself a few directing techniques from watching her favorite classic movies. “When I found out that I was going to direct this movie, I wanted to learn more about coverage. I would watch scenes from my favorite movies and take pictures of the scenes that I paused so that I could see how much coverage they did and where they’d put the camera,” confessed Feste. “I kind of just learned to do that on my own.”
With an emotionally moving script and some newly acquired directing skills, Feste was ready to gather the team that would get her project off the ground. She is proud to say that it took less than a year to get the film produced. On her first script Love Easy, the prolonged process of looking for a suitable cast and searching for financial backers over five years became stressful and mentally challenging. Due to continuous disappointment with Love Easy, Feste decided to go back to the drawing board and create another body of work to keep multiple projects circulating. That’s when The Greatest was born. Feste said, “I think that the most important thing for a writer/director is to always have more than one project. If you only have one project, life is either incredible or terrible depending on the status of your project.”
Within months of finishing the script, Feste had confirmed a superb crew to make her film come to life; producer, Lynette Howell (Half Nelson, The Passage) of Silverwood Films; producer, Beau St. Clair (The Thomas Crown Affair, Laws of Attraction) of Irish Dreamtime and cinematographer, John Bailey (He’s Just Not That Into You, Must Love Dogs). To top it all off, Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon were selected as the leading roles. Not only was Brosnan a part of the main cast; he came on board as an executive producer through his company Irish Dreamtime. “It was a combination of a lot of things that made [the film] work. I definitely think that it was the material. I felt like they [Brosnan and Sarandon] were both very passionate about the material. They are very rare actors. Most actors would never even work with a first-time director and most actors or agents wouldn’t even read the script. But Pierce and Susan are truly passionate actors that if they are moved by material, they’ll take risks with their careers. They’re incredibility brave,” Feste said.
In addition, the humble yet fearless director confessed that she really did not write the main characters with a celebrity presence in mind. “I already knew in a way that [Brosnan and Sarandon] were kindred spirits. When they got on set, they were everything that I wanted them to be. So it made the process a lot easier. There was no ego; they were totally collaborative, incredibly generous, and never made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing,” Feste admitted. Although, she was pushed to go after A-list talent to secure financing, she’s really glad that she was aggressive enough to land an all-star cast. “I felt like I had the absolute right cast. I felt like it was a really exciting cast. I was so excited to work with Carey Mulligan as well. People are calling her the next ‘It’ girl, whatever that means.”
Feste could breathe again after reassuring herself that the cast was set. But now, it was time to shoot and direct. “Sometimes, we would shoot eight to nine pages per day. It was incredibly fast and hard. It was tough,” Feste recalled. The film was shot in 25 days, with a no re-shoots allowed since there was no room in the budget to do it. Feste remembers the staff’s dedication to making sure that this project was produced within the budget and in a timely manner.
“I think the hardest part was learning as I went, because there was so much that I didn’t know and you tend to rely more on other people when you’re unsure of something. The best part about it, you get to collaborate with some really incredible, more experienced wonderful people. But the danger in that is sometimes you start to doubt your own instincts and it’s easier to doubt your own instincts,” she said. Yet, Feste had a very strong support system while making this movie, which ranged from her producers to the agents representing the talent.
That same support system came in handy as Feste entered the dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival. “Sundance was incredible. It was like the scariest moment of my life,” said Feste. The Greatest was up against 11 other dramas; three which were directed by women as well. “It was kind of scary, thrilling and really emotional. But the best thing about screening at Sundance is the audience. They were so kind, so lovely, and so supportive.”
And the lucky streak caught Feste once more as her movie was picked up for a distribution deal with Senator. The film is slotted to be shown on the silver screen by March 2010.
Feste has proven that momentum, hard work, and the right contacts certainly pays off in the end. She also knows what is essential to attract the most renowned actor for an independent film. She understands that any filmmaker can get A-list talent for a project, however, the right formula is key and here are five tips that Feste believes will help:
• Write Good Roles
• Find The Right Producer (that has cast relationships)
• Get Strong Agent Support
• Have A Passion For Your Own Material
• Write a First-Class Script — “The script that you call, The One”
“I think that for all of the people that might be reading this, the best advice that I can give is, keep writing. I followed that advice and it somehow got me where I am today,” said Feste.
The Sundance Film 2009 website: http://festival.sundance.org/2009/film_events/films/greatest