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“Go After Mary Elizabeth Winstead:” Chris Messina on his Directorial Debut

Chris Messina has been an actor in movies like Vicky Christina Barcelona, Away We Go and Argo, and TV shows like The Newsroom and The Mindy Project. The first movie he directed, Alex of Venice, opens in theaters this weekend and he was in L.A. last week to talk about it.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Alex, a woman whose husband (Messina) leaves her. She’s balancing her job, her son and her father (Don Johnson), an actor rehearsing Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and manifesting early signs of Alzheimer’s. Alex’s sister Lily (co-writer Katie Nehra) comes to visit and help. You can see Alex of Venice in theaters or VOD starting Friday, April 17.

Nuke the Fridge: Has directing been on your radar for a long time?

Chris Messina: Yeah, yeah, I directed in the theater. I directed a couple of really small black box stuff, a couple productions and I enjoyed myself. I think I reached a point with my acting that I’ve found a way that I like to work. I had a little bit of a hard time finding people that wanted to work in that way, so I said I’ll do it myself and set up the platform so me and a group of actors can play in that arena.

Nuke: What was it like being on the set when you weren’t acting?

Chris Messina: It’s great. The least fun I had on my movie was acting. That was the hardest part, I think, was the acting. I had a great group of actors. They were very open and kind. They would try anything. We set up a precedent where nobody really said no and just said, “Yes, let’s try that, let’s try this.” If you give good actors their wings, they often fly.

Nuke: Was Alex of Venice a script that Katie Nehra wrote because it was a role she wanted to play and wasn’t getting offered?

Chris Messina: It might’ve been. She was interested in writing and she’s interested in acting. I think the combination of “let me write a script and write myself a part that I would like to play,” I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing it. I think it was probably a combo platter for her.

Nuke: Had you known Katie before you saw her script?

Chris Messina: I knew her a little bit in New York from the Labyrinth Theater Company, Phil Hoffman’s theater company. I’d seen her do a play there and really liked her in it. Then we bumped into each other in Los Angeles and for whatever reason, she had the crazy idea that I should direct this and play George. It was really her doing. I had done a film with Electric City, 28 Hotel Rooms, and they produced Half Nelson and Blue Valentine. They heard that I wanted to direct so they, along with Katie, said, “Come on, direct this movie” and here we are.

Nuke: Which play did you see her in?

Chris Messina: It was a Shanley play, Sailor’s Song.

Nuke: Did Don Johnson actually know Chekhov by heart?

Chris Messina: I don’t know if he knew it beforehand, but he knew a lot of it when we were there. I mean, he’s studied a lot of theater and he’s a great actor and he cares. He came in and had done a lot of work on it. He was very inspiring to the cast and crew. Everybody wanted to follow his lead.

Nuke: What were some shots that you just had to get?

Chris Messina: For some reason, it’s a little shot in the movie, but Katie’s character and the boy are riding their bicycles. I wanted to do that. I grew up riding bicycles all the time so I really wanted that in the movies. I wanted the sun out, the beautiful L.A. westside west coast sunset. And that alleyway shot, I wanted that. Some of the oners we did, through the house at the top of the film. Stuff like that, I was ripping off my favorite directors and trying to steal from them. You never do it as good as them but you try. It comes out your own way. You try your best to copy of them.

Nuke: Was mounting the camera on the back of the car while they drove through Venice one of those shots?

Chris Messina: I don’t think we did that. I think we stole that and we literally opened up the door of a van and said, “Drive closer to the car.” I think it was something like that.

Nuke: We hear how Los Angeles has become inhospitable to filmmakers. Is Venice part of L.A. proper and do they have exceptions for indie films?

Chris Messina: We were told it would be kind of not doable to make the movie in Venice and the people there wouldn’t want it, and it’d be too expensive. It was quite the opposite. They were very giving, very open arms to us. We shot it all in Venice, a little bit in Santa Monica, a couple places here and there. Some of the locations were right on the cusp of Venice and Santa Monica but most of it was Venice. I couldn’t imagine making the movie not in Venice because there was a point where we were like, “Maybe the house will be in the valley and you won’t know it’s in the valley.” But when you’re out the house, you could smell the ocean. It was nice. It does something to you as an actor.

Nuke: So you found a house in Venice. Was it a family that had rented out to films before?

Chris Messina: They had. They had done it before, TV shows. So they were hip to it and cool about it.

Nuke: Did Mary come ready to go as Alex?

Chris Messina: Oh yeah, she’s a badass. Super kind, super talented. If anybody reading this article is a director, go after Mary Elizabeth Winstead. That should be the title of the article. “Go After Mary Elizabeth Winstead.” With full force. She’s an amazing actress, and to boot just a sensational woman.

Nuke: Have there been things that directors told you that you never quite understood, and now you understand why they say that?

Chris Messina: Yeah, definitely. There’s an understanding now and I’m more lenient on directors because of my experience directing. I’m a very vocal actor, for better or for worse. “What about this and what about that? Should we try this? Don’t you think we should try that?” That’s cool. I think everyone should have a voice in the project but now after my movie, I let directors direct more.

Nuke: So you’ve cut back on that a little?

Chris Messina: Well, I’m still vocal but it’s their movie, or it’s their TV show, or it’s their episode. I’m just a part of it as an actor. Just like the actor wants to act, the director wants to direct. So it’s a little bit like let the director direct. Let the actor act. Open up a dialogue for sure. That’s the fun, the collaboration.

Nuke: Did you borrow any specific tricks from any of the director’s you’ve worked with?

Chris Messina: Oh yeah. Well, Woody Allen just casts it right and he told me, “If you cast it right, you just let the actors go. You move them right or left.” In one scene he said to Rebecca Hall, “Do it happy, indifferent and sad. Do one happy, do one indifferent, do one sad because I don’t know where I’m going to be when I’m cutting this scene, where I want your character to be.” I thought oh yeah, you need choices. That’s why there’s film in the camera or a card.

Nuke: Was there a scene in Alex of Venice you did three ways?

Chris Messina: We didn’t do necessarily the three ways, but every scene we would try many ways, so we might have done more than three. We were exhausting for an editor, and we’d do silent takes too. I met with Coppola and he was very cool. He told me to do silent takes so when you’re cutting, I can cut to you doing that right there.

Nuke: Do you have the bug to direct more now?

Chris Messina: Yes, definitely. I can’t wait to do it again. I have a couple projects but they’re just in early stages of scripts, so we’ll see when but I can’t wait to do it again.

Nuke: Are you doing more Mindy Project?

Chris Messina: We just finished the third season and now we’re waiting to hear what lies ahead for the show. Maybe sometime in May they’ll have some more answers on another season.

Nuke: You must have been to lots of film festivals as an actor. Was taking Alex of Venice to Tribeca as a director different?

Chris Messina: Yeah, you know, there’s more responsibility. As an actor, you can go, “Well, if you don’t like the movie, it’s not my fault.” You can blame it but when you’re the director, it’s a little bit of a lonely job because there’s only one director. So if you like the movie, you can get the love and if you don’t like the movie, you can blame it on me. So yeah, it was scary. It’s a lot of responsibility. All these actors take a risk on you, and not just the actors. The crew and everybody. They go, “Well, he talked about Cassavetes and he talked about Robert Altman and he played me that cool song that he’s going to put in the movie and he showed me the lookbook. It seems like he’s got okay ideas and taste.” Then to do it is another thing. So then you have to sit down and show the movie and you go, “I hope you like it.” You’re nervous. I hope you like what I did with your performance and your work. It’s stressful, but it’s a cool job.

Nuke: Was that you talking about Cassavetes and Altman?

Chris Messina: Oh, every first time director does that. They’ve done it to me as an actor, like, “I love Hal Ashby and I think we’re going to do this shot…” I did the same thing. “It’s going to look like this and sound like…” You’re just trying to get people into the head of the movie. You’re trying to go, “This is the style, this is what I want to do, this is what I want to say.” Sure, I can play you a piece of music and you’d be like, “That’s beautiful. The movie’s going to be cool.” But you need a lot more than a piece of music to make a movie work.