This year marks Chris Messina’s fourth participation in the Tribeca Film Festival. The veteran character actor of a million beloved things—from The Mindy Project to Argo—has been here before with Fairhaven, Giant Mechanical Man, and Monogamy.
However, this year is particularly special, because he is debuting the world premiere of his first directorial feature, Alex of Venice. As a smart, sad, and surprisingly honest depiction of a family in crisis when workaholic Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sees her family life implode after husband George (Messina) steps out, the movie has proven to be one of the festival’s most popular entrees. Still, when we sat own with him the morning after its first well-received screening, Messina remained as humbled and appreciative about this latest opportunity as he has with all of them. Here is our discussion about which filmmakers influence him personally, where he sees the future of independent cinema going, and why he cast Don Johnson in his movie.
Could you talk about [directing] after being a successful actor?
Chris Messina: I wanted to direct for a long time, because I directed plays here in New York, small black box theatre stuff, and I have a certain way that I like to work as an actor, and I try to find people who want to work that way. Sometimes you find them, but often you don’t. So, I wanted to set a playing field where we would work the way that I like to work. A lot of times we’d have two cameras running, and if we had one on you, there’d be one on me. And we’d run the duration [of the digital camera’s card], which is about 27 minutes long. Terrible for an editor, but great to find real moments.
And I don’t like to cut a lot as an actor. What happens is you cut, and then someone comes in and fixes your hair, and the director gives you a note, and then the sound guy adjusts your mic, and before you know it, the headspace that you’re in is gone and you’re out of the scene. Then, you have to ramp back up. So for 27 minutes of not cutting [while] throwing out a few notes here and there, it let them play and create a lot of honest moments.
Is it hard to balance being both an actor and director in this? Did those two perspectives ever clash?
I had the luxury of having my friend, and he’s an actor, Matt Delnegro, he did me the great favor of coming onto the set to direct me. I really trust him. When we did Argo, I loved watching Affleck. He’s amazing, and the movie is terrific. But I would watch him go from shooting to the monitors, the playbook, and then he would adjust himself and us accordingly. We didn’t have that luxury because we were 21 days, and I think Argo was 80-something days. When you’re doing 27-minute takes, you’re not going to make your day. So Matt Delnegro was there to guide me as a director.
As you’re so heavily invested in The Mindy Project is it difficult to sign onto a project and say “I believe in this project, and these are the days out of my schedule to make it?”
It doesn’t—I was lucky this season when I left for three days to play [Al] Pacino’s son in this film, Manglehorn that David Gordon Green directed. I was lucky to get out for that, [because] it was a dream come true. I grew up like maybe any short ethnic actor, or maybe any actor, wanting to be Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro or Dustin Hoffman. So to work with Pacino as his son was awesome. But the dumbest thing I did by far, and I’ve done a lot of dumb things, was that I finished this movie, had two weeks off, and went back to the second season of The Mindy Project, and then cut [Alex of Venice] pretty much in my trailer as I was shooting. It was just a naïve, foolish thing to think when I was done shooting that I’d have time or energy. It was like having two full-time jobs. I would never do that again.
Is there any director that inspired you to compose the atmosphere of Alex of Venice?
Well, there’s tons of directors I tried to, didn’t accomplish, but tried to steal from. When we were making the movie, I had everybody watch Hannah and Her Sisters, All the Real Girls, and Kramer vs. Kramer. I think every shot in the movie is stolen from another movie and then not done properly, but stolen. For this particular film, Hal Ashby or Robert Altman were things that I was watching.
Why Venice Beach?
I love Venice. It’s very eclectic. It’s changed a lot, but it’s like a small town in a way, and it’s got a lot of interesting characters to me. And the place, I love being there. Sometimes it reminds me—it’s very different, so don’t get mad at me for saying this—but it reminds me of Brooklyn by the sea sometimes. Or Coney Island. So, I felt like it was a great character that I wanted to bring into the film. I have a great DP, Doug Emmett, who shot the movie, and I think he really captured it.
Did you know there was another Alex in the festival?
I didn’t! You know that wasn’t the title of the movie when it was given to me, the script. I think we came up with Alex of Venice certainly way after we shot the film. We were untitled.
What big changes to the script did you make when the project was brought to you?
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. At the core of the collage was a family and that was very interesting to me. I recognized myself in them; they reminded me of my loved ones. So, we got rid of the outer-circle of that collage, which was a lot of characters, and we just centered on the family. Then myself and Justin [Shilton] and Katie [Nehra], we came up with a new outline, they went away and wrote a new script, and it was really good and a lot closer to the film. And then we brought in Jessica Goldberg who really cracked the movie open for us. She invented the Don Johnson character and the play, The Cherry Orchard. She wrote a lot of plays, and that’s how I know her. I did three of her plays.
To have such a textured, nuanced woman as the heart of a movie, did that go into your decision at all?
Yeah. At times when we were writing it for a couple of weeks there, I thought it was the kid’s story. I thought it should be through his eyes. Then for a while I thought it was my character’s story, and then I thought it was just about two sisters, and then it was just really clear it was hers. It was about this woman. The writing kind of just dictated that.
You talked about the films that influenced Alex of Venice, but were there specific filmmakers you worked with that you borrowed from or who influenced your directorial debut?
Absolutely. They all, good and bad, taught me what I liked and what I didn’t like. It’s like tattoos, the films and the projects, because they stay with you, and they become a part of your make-up. I would say Woody Allen and Sam Mendes were huge inspirations. You know Woody, as we all know, he casts his movies really well and then he kind of lets you go. When I was in that movie, I never felt like I was making a movie. With Sam Mendes, he said something that I quote constantly. He told me that every actor comes with a gift, and it’s the director’s job to let that gift out.
To me, that really hit home. So many times, I’ve been in things where directors are trying to shove me this way and shove me that way, but I felt like “why am I here? I’m not being used to my advantage. What I do, they don’t want, so why do they want me here?” So, I tried to set up a place where these actors were able to bring their gifts and to let them fly.
Many of the scenes in this film are set-up as a two-shot [a wide or medium framing of two actors]. Why did you make that choice?
I like it. As an actor, I don’t like that, because it feels like when the camera’s on—if I put a camera on the two of you and that’s all it’s going to be, and I know, as an actor, that “I’ve got to get this right. They’re not going to be able to cut. So, if she’s really good and I’m not, I’m going to feel bad.” As a filmmaker, or moreso as an audience member, I like to watch things that don’t have a lot of cutting, because I then get lost in the material and I stop seeing all the filmmaking. So, I felt like this story lends itself to that kind of stuff. And I definitely ripped that stuff off from Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh. He does it a lot. He’ll have a wide shot for a really long time and then one close-up, and he’s out of the scene.
Katie said Don Johnson was your idea. It was so good to see him be able to really act.
I saw him in Django and he’s on that show on HBO, Eastbound & Down, and I thought he was great on both those things, 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 icon TV status that I thought would be right for Roger, who was on a television show. And I’m so happy that I went with him, because he was incredibly dedicated and he took it very seriously, and came incredibly prepared for the role. I think he was incredible.
You said that you wanted to make a “slice of life” movie, but the inclusion of The Cherry Orchard, it turned the movie into one about change. Could you talk about that?
One of the last plays I did was, I’m embarrassed to say, was about eight or nine years ago, and it was The Cherry Orchard with Jessica Chastain and Michelle Williams at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The play had a great impact on me. Chekhov is a writer that I’ve always loved working on, and I think he is phenomenal. It was Jessica Goldberg who brought that play into the mix, but yes, I wanted the play to mirror what was going on in the story. These people in this movie are going through changes, some of them are big and some of them are small. Some of them are changes that they want and some are being thrust upon them. As in The Cherry Orchard, there is a lot of change going on. People are saying goodbye to an old life and accepting a new life. That was kind of the idea of melding those two.
Everyone changes for the better in your movie, actually.
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s hopeful. Eventually, I imagine Roger, Don Johnson’s character, will get pretty sick, and that change will be even more devastating to that family. But I think they’ll come to a place of bravery and honesty with themselves and him, and they’ll take care of each other to the best they can. That’s what I imagine.
Is George the cherry orchard in this?
That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way, but he could be. Yeah, he could be. I always thought they were all bits of the cherry orchard, but there’s no doubt George could be the cherry orchard.
So when you worked Al Pacino, what was that like?
It was great. I did Salome with him on Broadway, so I knew him a little bit, but yeah that is one of those—it’s corny, but—“pinch me, how is this happening?” moments. You’re doing the scene with him, and we’re screaming at each other because we’re father and son, and we’re not getting along, but you can’t help to go “that’s the Godfather!” Then you go, “Shut up, shut up. Do the scene. Stay in the moment!” [Laughs]
Can you out-scream Al Pacino?
Nah, nobody can out-scream Al Pacino. [Laughs] He’s scary when he screams.
Would you be okay with this movie getting [a video-on-demand] release?
Yes, very much so. Look, I’d love it to be in a movie theater, because it was shot to be in a movie theater. But I love movies and I have two kids, and I hardly get to the movie theater, I’m sad to say. So, if you can get this movie on Netflix or iTunes, or onDemand, or on your iPad, or on your iPhone, that’s not the way it was supposed to be watched, but I’d rather you see it and experience it. It’s tough. You know it’s Iron Man or what else? This movie is not going to last in the movie theater. Those movies I was talking about in the ‘70s, they could roll out and they could live. This will come out in a short period of time in a movie theater and most people will—the movies [I’ve acted in that previously came to the Tribeca Film Festival like] Giant Mechanical Man, nobody saw it in the theater. It went away. Now, people constantly say, “You know, I was on Netflix, I searched around, and I would hit on Giant Mechanical Man, and I really liked it!” So, if that’s the way it has to go, that would be great.
Does that make you worried?
No, it doesn’t make me worried. It’s just a new day.