A couple of years ago, Kevin Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street, joined forces with Jameson on a commendable project. They accepted short film screenplay submissions from all over the world, chose the three best, and flew the winners to Los Angeles to shoot their shorts with a professional crew. They also booked them a big name actor—Spacey himself the first year, and Willem Dafoe the second. This year’s version of the competition features three excellent shorts starring The Bride herself, Uma Thurman. Spacey, Thurman and the three winning filmmakers—U.S. representative Jessica Valentine, Russian representative Ivan Petukhov, and South African representative Henco J—sat down recently to speak with us about the competition.
Paste Magazine: So, I’ve got to ask—how does it feel to get a call from Kevin Spacey saying he’s chosen your script?
Henco J: They played with us a little bit and tried to make us think we didn’t get it and weren’t allowed to enter again. I wanted to say, “Why? What did I do wrong?”
Kevin Spacey: We basically said, “You will not be able to do it next year… because you’re doing it this year!”
Henco: There was a whole lot of energy that just needed to get out of me. I just screamed.
Spacey: Yes, we remember that scream.
Ivan Petukhov: There were the same emotions, but I thought ‘This is unbelievable. This can’t be true.’ I called home and told my mom that I won.
Spacey: We told you not to tell anybody!
Paste: It’s not too late for them to pull your film, Ivan!
Petukhov: Sorry, that isn’t true. I didn’t do it. I told no one.
Jessica Valentine: The first thing out of my mouth was “Shut up!’ And then I couldn’t believe I told Kevin Spacey to shut up. I think I was just so obsessed with this thing from the moment I hit “Send” on my submission, and so much emotional energy had gone into it. There were days that I just cried, and days that I thought there was no way this would happen for me. I think shock was probably the first thing that ran through my mind.
Paste: Kevin, I love that Trigger Street and Jameson are working with directors on short films. They’re such a great training ground. Tell me what draws you to the form.
Spacey: First of all, it’s incredible exercise for a writer/director, but also for the actors and even for the crew, to be able to tell a story in seven minutes or ten minutes or twelve minutes, to have only two days to shoot it. I’ve always believed that you fill the time you have. If you have 75 days to shoot a movie, you’ll fill 75 days. If you have 35 days, you’ll fill 35. If you have two days, you’ll do it in two days.
And I also think that one of the most interesting aspects about that process is that in some ways, not having all the time in the world, and not having all the money in the world, forces everyone to be creative in ways they might not, if they did have a big budget and more days to shoot. I also think it’s incredibly important for emerging filmmakers to be able to learn their craft and to be in an environment where we did our level best to support them with a professional crew, and to trust them. It probably took them a couple of hours to realize that they were directing, and that they could direct.
And I’m very delighted that we were able to get Jameson to step up and do not just what they’ve been doing for many years, with film festivals and screenings of great classic movies, but to actually step into the arena of supporting emerging filmmakers. And we hope that maybe by putting the focus on films, particularly in places like South Africa and Russia, where the film industry is not where it should be, and the support given to emerging filmmakers is not enough, that we just might be able to rattle their cage a little bit, and get people to realize they need to support culture, and the arts, and these filmmakers in their countries.
Paste: Well, you’re definitely using your powers for good, rather than for evil.
Spacey: Thank you for that, Batman.
Paste: How has your experience of the contest this year been different?
Spacey: The big difference for me is that I’m not acting in these, so I don’t have to get up that early. But it’s been fantastic to watch the level of talent. I’m particularly grateful to Willem and to Uma, because it’s a very unusual situation to call an actor and say, “I want you to commit to these three movies. I don’t know what the parts are going to be. I don’t know who’s going to write or direct them. And I don’t know if you’re going to like any of them. But I need you to commit now so that we can announce.” That’s a big leap of faith. And it says a lot, I think, about Willem and Uma’s belief in supporting those who are coming up. And I’ve been very pleased with all the films we’ve done so far. We now have nine movies; that’s pretty great.
Paste: Filmmakers, a similar question—what did it feel like to wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and know you were going onset to direct Uma Thurman?
Henco: It’s an awe-inspiring moment because this is what we all want to do, and to be able to do it with an actress of her caliber is incredible.
Petukhov: I think, actually, it looks like something that’s happening to someone else, and I’m just watching it. I believe the moment I’ll really believe it’s all happening to me will be at the premiere. And also my friends will finally believe it.
Valentine: Since I was young, I’ve wanted to work with her. It’s kind of like winning the lottery. There are really no words to describe what it was like meeting her for the first time. It was unbelievable.
Paste: Uma, tell me about taking the leap of faith to work with three directors you had never met face to face, and wouldn’t have much time to try to create some magic.
Uma Thurman: I knew that I liked the scripts. You want to understand a director from where they write, to be able to articulate and express their vision. I had pretty excellent phone conversations with all three of these individuals, which made all the difference for me to be comfortable with wanting to work with them. I had to arm myself with the knowledge about his people, to have the faith to believe that it was going to go well. I had a good instinct about the writing, and all three of these people were the ones I thought had written the strongest pieces. So there was a good connection from the beginning.
And I guess on one hand there’s the courage to do what you think is good, and then on the other hand there’s the courage to know that you can deliver even when it’s difficult, that you can get through a bad situation. Luckily, I didn’t have to do that; I had three great experiences with three very talented directors. But there is always that unknown. There are no guarantees in life, right? So it was fun. It was a little hair-raising, but that’s what we have to live for!
Paste: It also took some faith to work with directors who weren’t well-known at all.
Thurman: You know, the truth is also, just because a director is famous, you don’t really know them, either. You know what I mean? There is somewhat of this natural selection where directors can’t maintain their success if they’re really terrible to work with, but sometimes it can happen. But a talented stranger off the street who writes a coherent script with panache and insight, which is what I’m looking for, I trust them just about as much as anyone I already do know.
Paste: What’s interesting to you about the short form?
Thurman: You don’t have to watch for very long; you know whether it’s good or bad. And I like short stories, too, and a short film is like a short story. And I like short poems, too, that I can read in a couple of minutes and remember for the rest of my life. I don’t really think that time is a measure of truth. I think it’s a heavy challenge to accomplish something memorable in the least amount of time. Trying to film any good story with a good director and good actors is just such a privilege. It’s what dreams are made of.
You can see all three winning short films at Jameson’s Youtube channel here.