Chris Messina Had Two Roles When Making "Alex of Venice"
Playing in Theaters
Chris Messina Had Two Roles When Making Alex of Venice
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 4/16/15)
By Danny Peary
Just as the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival is underway comes the theatrical release of a film from last year’s festival.
Chris Messina. Photo by DP
You can see Alex of Venice beginning Friday in New York. Chris Messina, a native of Newport, has been all over the place as an actor–from television’s The Mindy Project andThe Newsroom to major films like Argo, Manglehorn, Cakeand Vicky, Christina Barcelona to such TFF flicks asFairhaven and The Giant Mechanical Man–and you can see him in Alex of Venice, too, but it is also his directorial debut. And he has done a super job, particularly with his fine cast. I wrote last year: “Alex of Venice is a character piece about a workaholic environmental attorney in L.A., Alex (the exceptional Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who lives in Venice, California. When Alex’s husband George (Messina) suddenly leaves her, she is forced to pay more attention to their shy son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) and her aging actor father Roger (Don Johnson). Still neglecting her son, she enlists the help of her irresponsible, free-spirited sister Lily (Katie Nehra) around the house while she deals with the biggest case of her career and has an affair with the man she is fighting in court, Frank (Derek Luke).” This is the kind of film that slips away the day you planned to see it, so make a point of going at least a day earlier. This is a roundtable I participated in with Messina, a truly nice and humble guy, at last year’s festival. I note my questions.
Q: You’re an actor and now also a director, so you have those two perspectives. Was there ever a clash while acting in and directing this film?
Chris Messina: I had a great bunch of actors who were kind enough to do me the favor of being in my first movie, and I just tried to stay out of their way. As a director, that was maybe the best thing I did. I’ve directed plays here in New York, small theater stuff, and I’ve wanted to direct a film for a long time. I think that I have a certain way that I like to work, as an actor, and I tried to find people who like to work that way. I set up a playing field where we would work the way that I like to work. A lot of times we had two cameras running, and if a camera was on you there’d be another one on me. We’d run the duration of the card, which is about 27 minutes long. Terrible for an editor, but great to find real moments. As an actor, I don’t like when there are a lot of cuts because what the director says Cut!, somebody comes in and fixes your hair, the director gives you a note on your performance, the sound guy dresses your mike, and before you know it the headspace you were in is gone, and you gotta ramp back up. So, 27 minutes without cutting–maybe throwing out a few notes here and there, but letting it play– created a lot of honesty. I have a great actor friend, Matt Del Negro, and he did me the great favor of coming up to the set and directing me. I really trust him. When we did Argo, in which he was amazing, I loved watching him go from shooting to looking at the playback, and then adjusting himself for the next take. We didn’t have that luxury because we had 21 days and I think Argo‘s shoot was something like 80 days. When you’re doing 27-minute takes, if you’re gonna watch that whole thing back, you’re not gonna make your goal for the day. So Del Negro was there to kind of guide me as a director while I acted–if you were there on that day, you’d think he was the director.
Q: You are very busy acting, so was it hard to make your movie?
CM: I left four or three days, and I played Pacino’s son in Manglehorn, that David Gordon Green directed. That was a dream come true. Like any short ethnic actor I grew up wanting to be Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro. I do a lot of dumb things, but the number one thing was that I finished this movie, I had two weeks off, and then went back to the second season of The Mindy Project. I cut the movie pretty much in my trailer as I was shooting. It just was a naïve, foolish thing, to think that when I was done shooting that I’d have time or energy. So it was like having two full-time jobs, I will never do that again.
Danny Peary: In making Alex in Venice, was your inspiration Paul Mazursky, whose films include Alex in Wonderland?
CM: Paul Mazursky I love. But there were tons of directors that I tried to steal from. I think every shot in the movie was stolen from another movie. Good and bad movies taught me what I liked and what I didn’t like. It’s like tattoos, the films, they stay with you–they become a part of your makeup. While we were making the movie I had everybody watchHannah and Her Sisters, All the Real Girls, and Kramer vs. Kramer. I was watching Hal Ashby and Robert Altman and I would say Woody Allen and Sam Mendes were huge inspirations. Woody, as you guys all know, he casts his movies really well and then he kind of lets you go, and when I was in his movie, I never felt like I was making a movie. Sam Mendes taught me that every actor comes with a gift and it’s the director’s job to let that gift out. That really hit home, because so many times directors tried to shove me this way and shove me that way, and I thought, “Why am I here and not being used to my advantage?” What I do well, they didn’t want, so why did they want me? So I tried a place where these actors where able to bring their gifts, and let them fly.
Q: Why did you set your film in Venice, California?
CM: I love being there. Venice Beach has changed a lot but it’s like a small town, in a way. It’s very eclectic and has got a lot of interesting characters. Sometimes it reminds me of Brooklyn by the sea, or Coney Island. I had a great DP, Doug Emmett, who shot the movie and I think he really captured it.
DP: Talk about the title.
CM: That wasn’t the title of the movie when it was given to me. I think we came up with Alex of Venice way after we shot the film. I think we were untitled until then.
Q: What big changes in the script did you make?
CM: We made big changes. When the project was first brought to me, it was kind of like a collage of all these characters in Venice, and at the core was the family, and that was very interesting to me. I recognized myself in them, it reminded me of my family and loved ones. So we got rid of the outer circle of characters, and then we just centered on the family. And then myself and Justin and Katie, we came up with a new outline, went away, wrote a new script, and it was really good and a lot closer to the film. Then we brought in Jessica Goldberg who really cracked the movie open for us. She invented the Don Johnson character, and having him be in the play, The Cherry Orchard. I know her from theater; I did three of her plays.
Q: You have a lead female character who is textured and nuanced, with good qualities but a lot of flaws as a wife, mother, and human being. Was that what you wanted to write about?
CM: Yeah, but you know at times when we were writing it, for a couple of weeks, I thought it was the kid’s story. I thought it should be through her son’s eyes for a while. Then I thought it was just about two sisters. Finally it was just really clear that it was about this one woman. The writing kind of just dictated that.
DP: The opening is shot in the house, the camera going all the way thought the house. You didn’t do that that just to show off but because there was a thematic purpose to that.
CM: By taking the camera all the way through the house, I wanted to create the chaos of this house, and I wanted to show the audience how her family life is. The first act of the film was always really tricky in that you’re ten minutes into the story and there’s a break-up. It’s very difficult on how to get there. I kept watching Kramer vs. Kramer. When that movie, Meryl Streep is packing her bags. . I tried different things like that, I even tried a version in which the movie starts right after the break-up. It was very important for me, in very little time, to get to know who these people were.
DP: There are a lot of two-character scenes in the movie, which I’d imagine is scary for a first-time director–or did they make it easier?
CM: As an actor, I don’t like that because I feel like, “I gotta get this right because they’re not going to be able to cut. If she’s really good and I’m not, I’m gonna feel bad. As a filmmaker or an audience member, I like to watch things that don’t have a lot of cutting. because I then get lost in the materials and I stop seeing the film that I’m making.
Q: You have become an extremely busy actor.
CM: I’m lucky that I have that problem, and it’s not really a problem, it’s a gift. I won’t lie to you that it’s tiring, but there have been so many times that I wondered if I’d ever work again. So I’m grateful to have work. I know this business is crazy that it might not be always the case for me, so I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
Q: Was casting Don Johnson as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character’s father was your idea?
CM: Yeah. I saw him in Django, and on HBO in Eastbound and Down. And of course I watched him as a kid, on Miami Vice. I just thought he’d be perfect for the role. He comes with this iconic TV status that I thought would be great for the character, who was on a television show. I’m so happy I went with it, because he was incredibly dedicated, he took it very seriously and came incredibly prepared for the role.
Q: What about the little boy who plays your character’s son?
CM: He’s fantastic. That’s one of those lucky things with the casting director. I kept saying, I don’t want a kid actor. I kept saying, “I want to find a young River Phoenix.” And that’s hard to come by. Then Skylar walked in. He had done a lot of acting, but he didn’t have that song-and-dance kid actor thing; he’s got a real soul, his essence is beautiful. I noticed it in dailies that when I directed him, he wasn’t as good as when I just left him. The fun thing about working with Skylar, especially in the diner scene, was that I could direct him if I wanted my character to be in the scene with his character. So if I wanted him to be angry toward his father, I could just start yelling at him and provoking him rather than giving him a note as the director. I found that to be really fun. And he was so open, he would just go wherever you took him, and that was great.
DP: The movie could be categorized as ” slice of life,” because slice of life films don’t have to be about change. However, the inclusion of The Cherry Orchard into the storyline made this a film about change.
CM: One of the last things I did, I’m embarrassed to say, eight or nine years ago, was The Cherry Orchard with Jessica Chastain and Michelle Williams at the Williamstown Theater Festival. The play had a great impact on me. Chekhov is a writer that I’ve always liked working on–I think he’s phenomenal. I wanted the play to mirror what was going on in the film’s story. The characters are going through changes, some of them big, some of them small, some of them wanted, some thrust upon them. As in The Cherry Orchard, there’s a lot of change going on, and people are saying goodbye to an old life and accepting a new life. The idea was to meld the old and the new.
DP: Everybody changes for the better, actually.
CM: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s hopeful. Eventually Roger will get pretty sick, and that change will be devastating to that family, but they’ll come to a place of bravery and honesty with themselves and him and I think they’ll take care of each other the best they can. That’s what I imagine.
Q: Is George the cherry orchard in this?
CM: I never thought of it that way, that’s an interesting idea and it could be. I think all the characters are bits of the cherry orchard, but there’s no doubt George could be the entire cherry orchard.
Q: When you worked with Al Pacino, what was that like?
CM: I did Salome with him on Broadway, so I knew him a little but, but it’s like one of those – it’s corny, but one of those, pinch me, how is this happening? We did this scene where we’re screaming at each other, we’re father and son and we’re not getting along, but you can’t help but feel that’s the Godfather! But you remind yourself, “Shut up, shut up, do the scene, stay the moment.”
Q: Can you out-scream him?
CM: Nah, nobody can out-scream him. He’s scary when he screams.
DP: How is it to be back at the TriBeCa Film Festival?
CM: It’s great to be back here. I remember this festival, I lived in the city when it first started, it was massive for this place, much needed. It’s an honor to be here, it’s a real honor. You guys have seen the films, but it reads to me like it’s a great slate this year.
Q: Would you be okay with this movie getting [an internet/iTunes kind] of release?
CM: Yes, very much so. Look, I’d love it to be in a movie theater, and it was shot to be in a movie theater, but you know, I have two kids and I hardly get to the movie theater so if you can get this movie on Netflix or iTunes, or VOD, if you get it on your iPad, your iPhone, that’s not the way it was supposed to be watched, but I’d rather you see it and experience it than never see it. It’s tough.