Is The Greatest Director Shana Feste the Next Female Filmmaker You Need to Know?
It's hard to call a director prolific when her first film hasn't even been released yet, but Shana Feste makes a good case for it. Feste wrote and directed The Greatest (out this Friday in limited release), which stars Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, and Carey Mulligan in the story of a family who's lost their teenage son. That film premiered at Sundance in 2009, and in the interim, Feste has already wrapped her next movie Love Don't Let Me Down, a country musical with Gwyneth Paltrow and Tron Legacy's Garrett Hedlund. When Feste tells you that her intention is to make a film every year, Woody Allen-style, it's not hard to believe she'll do it.
The young talent sat down with Movieline last week to discuss her speed vis-a-vis other woman filmmakers, the family story that inspired The Greatest, and the karaoke audition that landed up-and-comer Hedlund a role in her next film.
You've already shot your next film, Love Don't Let Me Down. I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but it's refreshing to talk to a female writer/director who doesn't take years off in between projects.
I know. Look at Kimberly Pierce, or Lisa Cholodenko. Nicole Holofcener is fairly prolific, but I wish we were seeing more from all of them. I kind of had it in my head that if I didn't go to Sundance with another script, it would be a big mistake. I know that you don't get many moments like that in your career, and I was fortunate to have a moment at Sundance where if I had more material, I knew I should have it by then. Even while we were shooting The Greatest, I was writing Love Don't Let Me Down, and the minute we finished, I had that script. I immediately started casting. I'm in the editing room right now and I'm finishing my next script, making sure that I have it. It's so difficult to get a movie made and I love making movies. I want to make one every year. I feel so lucky that I've gotten to direct movies, but I think it's in part because I've been so relentless about writing my own material. I won't be able to make dramas if I don't write them.
Part of the genesis for The Greatest came from your childhood. You learned that your father had a child who had died before you were born. What was that dynamic like?
My father told me when I was six years old, and he told me only once, as we were driving to L.A. from Texas on a road trip. Even then as a little girl, you feel this energy from your parents, and I felt, "OK, this isn't something I'm supposed to talk about." He didn't really want to talk about it, which made it even more fascinating, like a family secret. My sister and I knew how difficult it was for him and we didn't press, and it was never spoken about in our family. This movie for me was really a way to talk about grief, to explore it and study it and write about it and talk to other parents who have lost children. I think it definitely gave me insights into my father. There are a lot of different ways to grieve, and that's how he's grieving.
The film is set up so that all the moments with the late son play as flashbacks, but you've said that was an editing room decision. What was it like to take your entire first act and sprinkle it into the rest of the movie when that isn't something you'd planned on doing?
It was one of those scary moments you have as a writer/director, when something works so beautifully on the page -- and it really did, that was one thing that everyone reading the script would say: "We love that we thought were were seeing this movie but then it turned into this movie. That was such a cool thing that on page 20 he dies, and it's a totally different movie." I'd gotten so used to hearing that and I loved that device as well, so when we got into the editing room and I saw the assembly, I thought, "This is gonna be really great," and it just didn't work. It was the scariest moment as a filmmaker, because you're like, "This is a big part of the movie that doesn't work. How can I fix this?"
With my editor, we came up with the solution to scatter those moments throughout the film, but we didn't shoot it that way. We didn't shoot it like, "Now she goes into this memory," so we had to literally look for pieces all through the film where you could get into something like that. Once we did get it to a place where it worked, it was like the last piece to the puzzle, like, "Ah yes. This was the answer." I definitely had to abandon the writer in me and not be precious with my material. It's always hard when you have to cut out your favorite line or a joke you're really proud of and you're like, "Man! Isn't there any way we can keep it?" That was one of the biggest lessons I learned.
It feels like every year, there's one film that gets all the pre-Sundance buzz, and in 2009, it was yours. After you had things like a New York Times article touting the movie before it had been seen by the public, did it make you nervous?
Oh, for sure. You feel like, "Oh God, do we have a target on our back now?" [Former festival director] Geoff Gilmore gave us a really lovely description, and I was like, "This is great, everyone's talking about our movie. And [producer Lynette Howell] was like, "It's actually a little bit nerve-wracking, because everyone has their expectations and sometimes there can be a target on your back there." I have to say, though, my movie was different than most of the movies at Sundance. It did have stars and the way we shot it was very traditional, and it looks like more a studio film. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing.
The film got bought and then the distribution fell apart as you were setting up your next film. How could you concentrate?
It was definitely hard. The kind of funny thing is that even at Sundance when we were talking with Senator, who had originally bought the film, they had said that the best time to put this movie out was March . And we were thinking, "March of next year? That's too long, how will we wait?" But there was so much Oscar buzz for Carey out of Sundance that they said, "We have two movie stars in the movie now, and we might have three if we wait until after An Education comes out." That was always kind of the plan, to put it out this late, so I was never panicking like, "Oh, my movie was supposed to come out months ago."
And now Carey is an Oscar-nominated actress, Johnny Simmons has been in Jennifer's Body and will be in Scott Pilgrim, and Aaron Johnson is the lead in Kick-Ass. Do you feel pride of ownership that you cast these people when they were unknowns?
Yeah, I had some good instincts! [Laughs] That's probably the coolest thing, to see all of them go on and excel. I believe in all of them so much.
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