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The Talented Tenth

While so many of Hollywood’s high-paid actors spend their paychecks on the kind of luxury items the rest of the world only comes in contact with on trashy celebrity television shows, some are emptying their bank accounts and charging up their credit cards like the rest of us—making movies. A rising group of thespians are stepping behind the camera and taking a shot at directing. And their format of choice is increasingly the short film.

Just as with other budding filmmakers, the short film emerges into the actor’s consciousness as the burning desire to tell a childhood story or work out a current emotional crisis. And the bolt of necessary kick-in-the-butt inspiration from an encouraging peer contribute to 10 minutes-worth of celluloid and hopefully a nervous, exhilarating, exhausting trip to Sundance. Of course, there are just a few differences that would be impossible to ignore. Making friends work for free could mean major star power in an established actor’s film—upping the chances of that illustrious Sundance possibility, but also having a much more critical eye cast on cross-over potential.

And then there are the benefits and drawbacks unique to the creative process of actors taking on the role of director. What emerges is a slightly charmed yet, ultimately, universally challenging experience of making that first glorious short film. Many famous faces from The Lord of the Rings’s Sean Astin to Hank Azaria and Kevin Connolly, the actor most recently seen in HBO’s “Entourage,” have newly made short films. Four other actors shared their war stories with us from that concise but massive undertaking.

Illeana Douglas, known for many sharp comedic roles in both television and film, made her first short The Perfect Woman, 10 years ago and has kept going ever since. “I was working on Alive with Ethan Hawke,” Douglas says of her directing origins. “We had a lot of free time on our hands and were talking about making movies. He had just made a short and really inspired me to do it.” With Hawke’s help, Douglas quickly cast, wrote, and directed a small budget film loosely based on her dating experiences as well as her quest to become the perfect mate. The Perfect Woman played Sundance and was chosen for the closing night of The New York Film Festival that same year, opening for The Piano. The experience hooked Douglas on short films.

“I had all these ideas that wouldn’t sustain an entire film, yet I thought they were funny and tapped into things that everybody was thinking about,” Douglas says. “I come from a stand-up and sketch comedy background, and my films are like little comedy sketches where I plan out four or five really good jokes.” Douglas found short film to be her perfect outlet—she was able to play out her short comedic ideas, combining her writing, performance, and point of view, while learning to direct. “The short film is the easiest shorthand way to take a stab at trying to express yourself in a different way,” she says.

The Perfect Woman caught the attention of The Independent Film Channel, and they funded Douglas’s next short, Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier (1996). That film, a lightly sardonic, neurotic, and hilarious peek into the relationship of two actors, was based on Douglas’s own experiences trying to work in Hollywood. Supported by IFC, Douglas was able to shoot for five days and on 35mm, as opposed to the 16mm two-day shoot of her previous (and future) film. “It was a luxury,” Douglas says. Her next short Devil Talk (2003)—an amusing six-minute phone conversation between the Devil and his mother—played at Sundance and had a theatrical run opening for Errol Morris’s The Fog of War. As a result, Sundance approached Douglas about creating a retrospective of her work for them. The outcome was another short film, Supermarket, which debuted at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Supermarket, originally intended to work as a framework for Douglas’s other shorts, turned out to work on its own, following the out-of-work actress as she attempts to manage the ins and outs of a “regular” job while unable to fight the urge to perform in the aisles.

All of Douglas’s shorts have had as successful a run on the festival circuit as possible. “What helps is that I did Devil Talk last year and one year later I had another short,” she says. “Consistency is really good. A lot of these festivals like to see you do something else. They really want to support the consistent filmmaker.” Douglas also believes that the genre of short films she makes is very conducive to the festival environment. “They’re always looking for comedy shorts. I always tell people [to] make comedy shorts, don’t make dramatic ones. They’re very popular, especially if you keep them short.”

It also helps that heavy players like Jeff Goldblum and Daryl Hannah, both also short-filmmakers, appear in Supermarket. However, the star of the film, and of the pilot Douglas is currently shooting for Oxygen based on Supermarket, is Douglas herself. She has put herself in almost all of her shorts. “Who wouldn’t?” she says with a laugh. “I’m a perfectionist and because it’s comedic and I know exactly what I want, I know I will deliver exactly what I need.” Plus, as Douglas explains, when you are on your own tight budget, it is a great way to avoid actors’ fees.

Another actress-turned-director who began her short-filmmaking career at the suggestion of peers, is Guinevere Turner, who made her on-screen debut in 1994’s indie lesbian classic Go Fish, and appeared last year in Showtime’s critically acclaimed original series, “The L Word.” She had never thought of directing before being approached by the Seattle International Film Festival in 2001 to make a short film in seven days. Spare Me, about how mean teenage girls are to each other, premiered the following year at Sundance. Turner returned to Sundance again in 2003 with another highly acclaimed short film Hummer, this time made with funds from her own pocket, inspired by someone Turner dated who hummed maddeningly and incessantly. “It was a piece to make fun of myself—how I obsess over stupid details about people all the time and drive myself crazy,” Turner says.

Like Douglas, Turner likes being both on and off camera. She co-starred in Hummer, “mostly because people always warn against it so heavily, and I hate being told that I can’t do something.” To aid in the process, Turner had a trusted director friend on set who helped when she was in front of the camera. Doing both gave Turner a valuable perspective on each. “With that perspective comes a respect for how challenging and unique each role on set is,” Turner says. Now working on her third short, she feels more secure as a director, and hopes to direct a few more shorts in the future. “I still have so much to learn and it’s a safer way to make mistakes,” she says. “It’s like school for me.”

While creatively exciting, the transition from actress to director hasn’t been a necessarily easy one for her in the industry. “There’s a sense of needing to prove that you’re not just some insecure, egomaniacal yet untalented schmo who has a couple of bucks to throw around on a vanity project,” Turner says. And of course there’s also the issue of what being an attractive actress symbolizes for many people. For example, when recently driving to the studio lot where she’s editing her current short, the guard at the gate immediately assumed she was there for an audition and was confused when she explained she was there to go to the post-production house. “That makes me want to pull out my resume and just hand it to them,” she says.

Perhaps for that reason, some actors-turned-filmmakers choose not to put themselves in their directorial debut. Ralph Macchio, whose 2002 debut short film Love Thy Brother premiered at Sundance, opening for Project Greenlight’s Stolen Summer and later acquired by HBO, could have easily cast himself in his film but decided to leave himself out so as not to deflect attention from his directing aspirations. “I just thought I have to maintain full focus,” Macchio says. “I’m going to have enough to deal with the first time out. Of course if it would have completely financed the movie, I might have looked at it a different way.”

Macchio even went one step further to pull himself out of the film’s content. At the last moment he decided to delete his name from the film’s opening credits, instead only revealing the writer and the director after the film had finished. “People draw conclusions about what they think you are,” he says. “If my name was at the beginning, people would [think], ‘Now you think you’re a director. Show me what you’re going to do.’ I wanted the film to speak for itself.” The decision proved fruitful as the audience and critical response focused primarily on the film’s merit, with the director’s identity more of an afterthought.

Being Ralph Macchio, or any famous actor, is in Macchio’s words, “a double-edged sword.” But the actor believes that “when you lay down the pros and cons, there’s more on the good side.” Macchio’s acting reputation and connections lured GreeneStreet Films on board to help produce, and a top-notch cast and crew. “When they mentioned who was directing the film, it was like ‘I never met him but I grew up watching his stuff, so sure, I’ll do it.’”

Love Thy Brother does, however, completely stand on its own cinematic merits. The film is a poignant and hilarious comedy about two pre-teen brothers whose sibling rivalry is temporarily interrupted by a robbery, only to be further intensified by the event. The decision to shoot a short in the first place came out of Macchio’s long-time desire to tell this specific story, based on something that happened to him and his brother when they were kids in suburban Long Island. “I told the story to every filmmaker I’ve ever worked with, and every one of them said it was a great movie and I should do it,” he said. “Making it was a nice full circle.”

Macchio credits acting with preparing him for directing, having learned something from each filmmaking legend he has worked with as well as his time spent on sets. “Ever since I started acting in films, I was hanging around the camera truck and the camera guys asking a zillion questions,” he says. They want to share and pass down their knowledge.” For Love Thy Brother, Macchio stuck with the cinematic style of “the polished studio look” (35mm and fluid expensive camera movements) he had grown up with and that also fit his specific suburban comedy genre.

Macchio sees the experience of screening a film he wrote and directed at Sundance as another chapter in his life. “After 18 years of being recognized for The Karate Kid, to have someone grab my arm and say something about how funny my short is, was very rewarding,” he says.

Like Macchio, actress Mili Avital, who started working in the US film industry opposite Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and has had a steady flow of television and film roles ever since, had a burning desire to tell a specific story that drove her to make her first short film. I Think Myself I Am All The Time Younger, which debuted at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, follows Eva Capsouto, a Turkish-Egyptian-Jewish immigrant living in New York City helping her sons run their Tribeca restaurant for 41 years. Avital knew she wanted to capture Eva on camera ever since the actress lived with Capsouto for a few months after emigrating from her native Israel. Almost a decade later, Avital decided to finally make the film. “I was turning 30,” Avital says, “and you start thinking, ‘What’s my life about? What am I doing?’ And I saw this old lady dealing with aging in such a fascinating way that doesn’t exist anymore in this age of self-consciousness. She just lived with her aging so peacefully.”

Avital made I Think Myself I Am All The Time Younger over a period of three years. She filmed it herself with a mini-DV camera and only the light that was available to her. She invested her “pocket-budget” in editing equipment and edited the film herself in her house over a five-month period. While Avital’s small production was determined by her small budget, it allowed her an intimacy with the subject that proved vital to the heart-warming and heart-wrenching film.

Unlike so many actors that tackle directing a short film in the fictional form they are most familiar with, Avital entered the unfamiliar realm of documentary, though being an actress still helped her immensely in making the film. “It’s a movie made by an actor because it is a portrait of a character,” she says. “I wanted to capture the minutia of this woman’s life, the little things.” In finding what to film, Avital looked for the same kinds of elements in Eva that she would create for any character she might play in another film. In capturing the old woman’s cane, her funny walk, her fake teeth, Avital brought details of both strength and loneliness to the forefront of the film. Making the documentary also taught Avital a valuable lesson to use in her acting—the strength of silence. “As an actor you’re so focused on the text you have to deliver,” she says. “With Eva, it was an older woman remembering her past in silent moments that was the most interesting to watch.”

Most of all, making her first short was creatively and personally liberating for Avital. “As an actor, there is so little control over the final product,” she says. “It’s not just hurtful, but also tedious and boring. Unless you move from one lead to the next like Nicole Kidman, you have to wait until someone allows you to be creative. You can’t act for yourself. You have to sit around until someone calls you.” Avital, like many actors-turned-filmmakers, was too hungry and creative to wait. She was also driven by a great desire to look outwards, not just inwards. “Directing is a very rich experience compared to acting because there are a lot more elements to play with—music, or a close-up, or timing, or a still shot—it’s not just my emotions. With filmmaking you can express yourself in a deeper and more personal way.”

Hers was a sentiment expressed by all the actors who embraced directing the short film format. Of course, there is also Ralph Macchio’s favorite theory, he attributes to his friend, the actor Danny DeVito: “Actors become directors because the job of God is taken.”

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Kate Bernstein is a producer for VH-1 and has written about film, music, and popular
culture for a variety of magazines. She received her BA from Swarthmore College and her MA from NYU, both in cinema studies. Her short film, Ladies Room, is currently touring festivals. Kate was born in Moscow, Russia and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

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