Actor Chris Messina makes his directing debut with “Alex of Venice,” in which he also stars. The story centers on a workaholic attorney, Alex (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is forced to reinvent her life after her husband (Chris Messina) suddenly leaves. Faced with the dilemma of beginning again, Alex discovers both a vulnerability and inner strength she had not yet tapped, all while trying to hold together her broken family.
I recently sat down with Chris at The Seattle International Film Festival, where “Alex of Venice” screened to a full house.
CJ Meoli (CJ): Are you looking for projects that you will act in and direct?
Chris Messina (CM): Yeah, I played a small role in this and kind of hemmed and hawed and I was so nervous to direct. I did it and I’m glad I did, because I’d one day like to direct myself in something with a bigger part.
CJ: Did you follow the Ben Affleck rule of giving yourself more takes?
CM: I did give myself more takes. You know, Affleck had a bit of a bigger budget on “Argo,” he would go back and watch the playback and I think he had about 80-something days to make the movie. I had 20 days. So I had a buddy of mine, Matt Del Negro and he came and he was on set all the time directing me when I was acting which was my personal playback. I really trusted him and he guided me. If you came to the set on those days, you’d think he was the director.
CJ: How important was it for you to have those people by your side during the making of this movie?
CM: It was huge. I mean, I imagine it be huge on any movie, but for the first time and having 0 knowledge (directing) and hadn’t really done it yet, it was important to have great producers like Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell, and a great DP like Doug Emmett to everywhere from sound to costume to lighting and production design. The team can carry you and guide you and ultimately it was really important.
CM: The story of “Alex of Venice” has characters dealing, grappling with the loss of identity. And I’d love for you to share about that, about identity and the film, and you as an actor, director and writer.
CM: The movie has a great deal to do with change and how some of us choose change and then how sometimes change is thrust upon us and how painful it can be, but ultimately how beautiful change and it’s inevitability are. The movie kind of mirrors the Chekhov play, “The Cherry Orchard,” which is all about change. I have like everybody else seen big and small, good and bad changes in my life and they always, even the real painful ones, always made me stronger and a better person. The process through the change is what was interesting to me. The film is very much a slice of life, so it’s just like a moment in this woman’s change. It’s kind of impossible to depict it. You know, it’d be a 5 part mini-series, so it’s just a moment. I think if you watched the movie with that kind of knowing that it’s really just a slice and you might really enjoy the film. If you’re looking for some big fireworks or “Iron Man” to come out or something, then you probably won’t like it.
CJ: Are these stories that you want to continue to tell? “Slice of life” stories as a director?
CM: Yeah! I grew up, I love the 70’s films you know the character driven films of Cassavetes and Lumet and Coppola, Scorsese, Robert Altman. I like people. That’s why I wanted to become an actor. It’s harder to find movies about people. There’s a lot of big plots and big things, which is fun and I think important too, but I find myself having a harder time finding those movies. So I just wanted to make one. I don’t think I was incredibly successful but it was the goal. It was the goal. The goal was to try to put a mirror up to the audience and say, “Do you recognize any of these people? Do they remind you of your family and your friends and if so, this is how we are as human beings.”
CJ: What was your experience with Don Johnson on this film?
CM: Yeah I had to beg him to do this because he doesn’t need to work. He wasn’t going to make any money on this movie and he’s just at a place in his life where he doesn’t need to do anything he doesn’t want to do, but he was my first choice for the role. I wanted an iconic television actor and I always thought he was a great actor. I was a big fan of “Miami Vice” as a kid and I thought he was great in “Django Unchained” and “Eastbound & Down” and I thought this was something that he’d never done before. He came in so prepared, he was a real leader and he took it very seriously and worked really hard. I think it was a great opportunity for him because I’d never seen him do anything like this. He’s incredibly vulnerable and strong and weak he plays an actor who’s out of work who auditions for a part in “The Cherry Orchard” for the role of Lopakhin, at a very small theater.
CJ: Had you ever directed theater? What got you wanting to direct a film?
CM: I directed small black box stuff. Really, really small. I think I learned a lot by directing my friends audition tapes. My friends would always come to me and you know I did the same to them. When you’re helping me make this audition tape and you’re working with them and you’re trying to get something out of them, I really enjoyed it and it was like training for directing. Obviously it is very different because your camera angle is pretty basic and there’s no real lighting, and you know there’s nobody screaming at you that you have 20 more minutes in this location and you gotta get it and get out. It helped me with actors. As an actor I know what I like and what I respond to. That’s where it came from. I’ve gotten to work with great directors that I’ve tried to steal from and then I’ve gotten to work with bad directors, but they were great because they kind of taught me what I didn’t like or didn’t want to do. So the combination of all of them really made me the director that I was on this film.