Vanessa Parise is an actress. She's also a writer. And a director. And a producer. She did everything for her first short film, "Lo and Jo," and she did it again for her first feature film, "Kiss the Bride," which won Best Feature Film at the Hamptons and Sarasota film festivals, as well as the Audience Award for Best Film at Rhode Island. It took three years to get that film to where it could see the light of day, and there were times when Parise says it was downright dejecting. But now that "Kiss the Bride" has played to appreciative audiences and was recently released on DVD on the MGM label, the "high" of seeing it all come together has her jazzed enough to do it all over again. Now Parise is working on a second feature film, "Dick and Jane versus the World," which she'll begin shooting in and around Los Angeles in April, 2005. The Harvard grad—in bio, not film—is also developing a scripted improv show for TV with the band Incubus and a show for Reveille Entertainment based on the best-seller, "Why Men Love Bitches." DVD Town managed to catch her during a break in her busy schedule to ask what pointers she'd have for would-be filmmakers.
Plath: Independent films are really generating a lot of excitement, and not just from appreciative viewers. Suddenly, it seems, even people who have no apparent qualifications and no idea of how to make an independent film are becoming inspired enough to tackle a film that may or may not lead to discovery. It's almost like gold fever. You just returned from Sundance. Did you notice anything like that in the air?
Parise: At Sundance there was definitely some kind of fever (laughs). I think it used to be more about new filmmakers who were just excited to make a film. Now, it's turned into something much bigger. I'm not sure if it's better, but it certainly is a fever. That's a good description. I've gone for the last seven years and watched it grow exponentially, and this year it was just unbelievable. It's very exciting, because there are so many talented people there, and now there so many musicians too. It's great, but I don't know if it's really about people trying to make their first film anymore.
Plath: For all the aspiring filmmakers out there—and as a writer who loves movies, I'm including myself here—could you walk us through a step-by-step guide on what it takes to make an independent film, using "Kiss the Bride" as an example?
Parise: I think the first question would be, what do you want to do with the film when you're finished with it? If you just want to have the experience of making a film and then going to some festivals with it and learning, then that's one thing. It's a different thing if you want to try to get your first movie out there—either on television or in the theaters, or both—and then on DVD.
Plath: Let's assume the latter.
Parise: Okay, well, then the first thing would be . . . do you already have a script, or do we have to go through writing the script?
Plath: You're the one-person show, here.
Parise: (Laughs) Well, you said you were a writer, so I don't know if I should assume you have a script or not, yet.
Plath: Let's just assume that everyone is going to be so damned cheap, if they're going to attempt a first film, that they're either going to use a friend who's written a script, or write it themselves. Is that always the first step?
Parise: Yeah. You have to find a script that you love, or write one. You need a script that you have a large amount of passion for, because it's going to be a long haul, and you're going to spend a lot of time and energy getting these words to come to life.
Plath: Then it's probably no accident that "Kiss the Bride" featured you in a middle-daughter role in Westerly, Rhode Island. Apparently that material is near and dear to your heart?
Parise: Yeah, definitely. The middle child part, I never really felt that much like a middle child. I don't have a typical middle child syndrome. I have more of an oldest child syndrome, where I want to do everything, lead everything.
Plath: Controlling . . . .
Parise: (Laughs) Yeah, a little bit, but I'm working on that, though. But certainly the family thing is something I really do . . . which is actually what I'd relate to step one, in finding a script that you feel passionately about or have some deep connection to, especially if you're writing it, is to write something that you know, deeply. That's how I came upon writing about this subject, because when I was setting out to write a script, I'd made a short film—which also, I would recommend doing, because it's the exact same experience but in a much abbreviated form. It took me, start to finish, five months to make my short film, whereas it's taken me four years to do the feature.
Plath: The press sheet says your degree was in biology. Are you self-taught as a as a screenwriter and filmmaker?
Parise: Actually, I was acting since I was young, and I went to Circle in the Square Theater School after Harvard. I went to acting school, but I didn't ever go to film school. So yeah, that's why I would recommend doing a short film, because I really learned so much making my short. I thought that I wanted to be a director and I wanted to try it, and I got everything for free, so there wasn't the financial risk, and I just had the opportunity to go through all the steps and see if I liked it as much as I thought I would . . . and I liked it more.
Plath: It's funny, but every time we talk, Step One keeps backing up just a little bit (laughs).
Parise: (Laughs) That was the pre-Step One. Make a short film, then write a script or find one that you really care about, and THEN, I think the next important thing, as you're getting financing, is to get some name actors in your movie if you ever want it to see the light of day. So the business part of it is getting the biggest name actors who you think are right for the roles, of course.
Plath: And are they ripe to do these roles?
Parise: Ahh, some of them are, and some of them aren't. You have to find the ones who are, and the bigger the name, the harder they are to get to. They have more people between you and them, sort of like barricades. Usually, once you get to the actor, if you have a good, hopefully great piece of material, the actors will want to do the roles. Every actor gets in it originally because they love acting and they want to challenge themselves, especially if they're doing something different. In getting a name actor, I would say go to someone who wouldn't ordinarily get the opportunity to play that kind of role—that's your angle, that they're going to have an opportunity to do something different, and most actors respond to that and want to do it. They make a lot of money doing the studio movies, so they're willing to do the art-house movies for little or no money.
Plath: Your short film, "Lo and Jo"—could we talk a little bit about that as a starting point? You said you learned a lot from it, and advised making a short film as a first step. How did you go about doing that? What was the inspiration there, and how did you pull it off? And what did you learn?
Parise: Well, I acted in a lot of short films and some independent films too, when I was right out of theater school.
Plath: "Short" meaning roughly 20 to 40 minutes?
Parise: No, I would say a short is anywhere between five and 30, but usually closer to 10. Actually, on that note, if people are making a short film, they should try to make it under 10 minutes, because then at the film festivals it's placed before features, rather than in a category of shorts, and that way more people see it. Anyway, I just moved to Los Angeles and my boyfriend at the time was working at a film company, and he started bringing home all of these short films of guys that they were thinking about hiring to direct their features. And I watched a few of them and thought, well, I feel like I could do better than this. I certainly know how to direct actors and act, and I had been on enough sets to know that it wasn't completely beyond my reach, and I just felt like I could do it. So I started making phone calls and asking around, who had made a short film, had conversations with people who had made short films, got some direction, made some more phone calls—every phone call I asked if people couldn't help me if they knew someone who could—and I just kept asking and asking questions. I learned that you needed to hire the keys in each department—key camera person, key production designer, key lighting specialist—and just learned as I went. And because I was getting favors from everyone, it didn't cost me anything, so I didn't have the financial duress.
That being said, it took a lot of work and commitment. The six months that I was working on it, I was working on it pretty much full time. If you're willing to ask questions and not pretend like you know, interesting people tend to help, and everybody has a different reason even for doing that. Like my cinematographer. My cinematographer was amazing, but he had done mostly commercials, and he wanted to start doing films—that's the reason he did it—and then he brought his entire crew beneath him, so that was my camera department. Each person had a reason like that, why they wanted to be involved. Maybe they were between films, and they liked to work, it was fun, and then they bring their people underneath them.
And the cast of that, I was in it, my brother was in it, and I used some of my actor friends. It didn't matter so much for that that I had names.
Plath: It sounds like filling the acting positions for a short is really the easiest part.
Parise: Yeah. It's really easy, because it's a day or two. You can get most anybody to do that. But the key is that I'm in Los Angeles, so I'm surrounded by all these people. If someone isn't available, you can switch out and have someone else. If you're doing it somewhere else in the country, I think it's a little more difficult. But you could come to Los Angeles and do it for a certain amount of time.
Plath: Six months (laughs).
Parise: Yeah. I didn't know anybody, so anybody could do exactly what I did.
Plath: What was some of the advice you got from people you phoned, as a clueless would-be director?
Parise: Most people actually started by saying that I should find a producer. But I couldn't find a producer. It's hard. Producing, you get a lot of no's all day long. People are saying, "No, you can't do that, no that's too expensive, no you can't get that for free." And then after 20 no's you get a yes. And the producers I was meeting were like, No, you have to spend $25,000, and you have to pay people . . . and so finally I said, no, I don't have to do that. So I ended up producing it. I didn't take the first piece of advice, but other than that, people would say, "I have a great cinematographer who's in-between jobs right now," or "I know this agent who represents production designers, so you could talk to him." And Kodak gives free film—both Kodak and Fuji give free film to support new filmmakers—and Panavision, who had the best cameras, they loan cameras to new filmmakers. We ended up using them on weekends. But by word of mouth, you start learning all these things. For a feature film we use a loaner from Panavision—they keep them in tip-top shape and they're amazing, and that's where everybody goes.
Plath: And that's why you have to go to L.A.
Parise: Yeah. Seriously, all of this is just at your disposal, once you tap into it and ask enough questions.
Plath: Well, having done this Step One and learned enough from your first short film, and having written an expanded script, which was Step Two, Step Three was . . .
Parise: Getting name actors.
Plath: And how did you go about getting the cast for "Kiss the Bride"? What about the "Godfather" alums?
Parise: (Laughs) They actually came later. I started with Alyssa. Alyssa Milano was originally playing the Danni character [the bride]. And so I'd gone to her first, because I thought she was right for it, and I thought she didn't do a lot of movies and so maybe she'd be interested in doing this. So I just called her agent, and at first they were like, No no no, you have to make her an offer, and you have to give her a lot of money, but I relentlessly kept saying "Please, just pass on the script to her." I didn't really know that they had, and I got a phone call saying, Oh, Alyssa loves the project and she wants to meet with you. But at the same time I was going to other people for the other roles. I just picked people I thought were right, called their agents, and tried to find people who knew their agents or who knew them—some other way of talking through their agents, which of course you have to do too, just to get someone to pay attention to it. And then I met with Alyssa, and she was like, Yeah, I'd love to do it, and it just started building.
With Talia and Burt, Burt actually got in touch with me. Somehow they had heard about it. His agent called me and said, "Burt's looking to do something about family, and obviously he loves Italian-themed movies, and he wants to talk to you." He was in New York, and so we had a phone conversation. I just had a lovely conversation with him, and decided to hire him. And Talia, I had approached her manager because I've always loved Talia, and "The Godfather" movies are among my very favorite. And I remember, for some reason, when Talia told me she wanted to do the movie, I started crying, I was so excited (laughs). I love her. And she said, "Oh, honey, you don't have to cry." And I said, "I'm so excited," and she said, "Oh, of course." And then, you know, everybody came to rehearsal and to the set and were just so warm and generous. Several people put their salaries, which were not very big, back into the budget, and Talia came bearing cases of Coppola wine. Everybody was just so into the project. Lots of generous energy. It was an amazing experience.
Plath: Next step, after getting the cast?
Parise: At the same time I had to do the financing. That was awful (laughs). I started just cold-calling all of the foreign sales companies. There are lists in the Hollywood Reporter of foreign sales companies, so I just started calling them, seeing who might be interested in doing this. By then I had like a name or two. I went through three or four different rounds of financing where people were financing it, and then it fell through. Like somebody had said they were financing it, and then we went up to Newfoundland. We were in pre-production in Newfoundland, Canada, and half of the financing fell through. So we came back. Then we went to New York, and started again. And then it turned out that the guy was forging documents from the bank (laughs). Everything you could possibly imagine . . . . So I came back and I was like, I don't know how much longer I can take this, people not being honest with me. And that's why I ended up making it for half-a-million dollars. We were supposed to make it for four million, then three million. After three or four rounds of that, I just said, you know, I have to make this movie now. I have to be creative. I can't just keep jumping through hoops and not have the experience of making a movie. So I just said, "We're shooting six weeks from today." And my producing partner, who is Jordan Gartner, (laughs), he was like, "How are you gonna do that?" (laughs) and I'm like, "We're doin' it."
I raised half of the money, and Jordan and I found a company that said they would match whatever we raised, and they actually came through with that and matched the $250,000 that I raised, and putting in a little more afterwards for P&A [promotion and advertising], and we made it! So the financing would be the same time as casting.
Plath: And yet the film has a really slick, commercial look to it. It doesn't look like a film shot on the cheap. Was that all luck, or what?
Parise: Thank you, that's what I was going for. It was a lot of preparation. I was very prepared, and I would talk with my cinematographer and crew people about exactly what we were doing every day. And then, again, I'm very good at begging. I would beg favors from the camera house and the lighting house and got extra things to make jibs—I don't want to get into all the technical terms—and all the things that you can do with them. You could shoot overhead, or you can shoot from the sun to make it look bigger and more commercial. And the lighting is really key to making it look commercial, shooting on 35mm is key, and I just made sure we did all that.
Plath: What is toughest for a relatively new filmmaker, shooting interiors or exteriors?
Parise: Assuming that your weather is okay, I think they're the same. The only thing is that you can control the light more inside, so you don't have the rush of the sun moving, and the time constraints.
Plath: The exterior shots of the area in "Kiss the Bride" were very striking.
Parise: Thank you. Yeah, my home town is very beautiful, which I didn't realize so much growing up there, but after leaving, it's like, Wow, it's really, really . . . .
Parise: It really is. It's amazing going back there and seeing it with a different perspective. Anyway, so then you shoot the film, and then the next step (after you cut it, of course) is getting it into festivals. So we started submitting to festivals and we got great response and we won some festivals, and I believed we'd just sell it once we, you know . . . . Then we had distributors give a screening here, and 1500 people came, and everybody loved it, were clapping and screaming, we got a couple of offers and then we were like shuttling it around to all the studios, and everybody was so excited—AHHHHH!, you know, that kind of energy—and then nothing came through. So this is after three years. (Sigh). I thought, Oh my god, now I have more work to do. What the decision ended up being was, do I sell it to a smaller distributor and have it come out in theaters, but then once it comes out in theaters you can't sell it as a television premier, so you don't make as much money. You actually lose money, because you're putting money into it for advertising. And something like 95 percent of independent films don't make any money at the theater.
And so I called somebody. Actually, my parents said, "We heard this guy from Harvard works at MGM," so I tracked down his name and I called him and he made us an offer for a television premier which was a very decent offer, and so I just kind of negotiated that with him. But this was like a year after going to festivals. So we ended up making good money from that, and THAT was a year ago, so I guess I'm onto almost year five. Because then it came out as a Lifetime premier and then I had to try to figure out how to get the word out and do press for that, because we didn't have the money to pay for publicity. Now again, with the DVD coming out, MGM is doing some, but I'm trying to help too—just word of mouth or grassroots spread-the-word, because it's hard to get the word out on a film that's not a huge studio movie. So the last step, after selling it, would be doing the publicity for it.
Plath: It sounds exhausting, and yet you're going to do it all over again—writing, directing, producing, and starring in "Dick and Jane versus the World."
Parise: (Laughs) Well, it's exhausting, but really amazingly fulfilling. The only part that was not fun for me was the financing. And for six months it was fun going to festivals, but then it got, Okay (sigh), I really have to sell this movie. So the financial parts are much more challenging for me, but other than that, all the creative stuff was absolutely amazing, and I would never want to do anything else. (Laughs) At least that's how I feel today.
Plath: You said you learned a lot from your short, and I'm assuming you learned as much from making a feature film.
Parise: I just feel like I continue to learn about all the different aspects of it, whether it's putting together the financing, or the creative parts—writing, and how to use the camera and what the camera can do, and what the different lenses can do, and what lighting can do, and what your options are and how you shoot it—there's so much to learn all the time, which is what I love about it.
Plath: Did you shoot in-sequence, or out-of-sequence?
Plath: And is that totally a result of budgetary considerations? Is that a producer's decision?
Parise: Well, you really have to schedule everything, if it's at the same location, all at once, because you have trucks and trucks of equipment that you're moving to that location, and you don't want to have to keep moving it back and forth. You lose time. Everything's about time. You have to be the most efficient, time-wise, if you want to shoot everything on-location. It also depends on the availability of the location, the availability of the actors, and then just keeping it one location at a time.
Plath: I guess I was curious about the whole learning process—as you were going, if you felt yourself changing the way you approached things because of learning as you go. Did that happen?
Parise: Oh, yeah. On every level. I was gaining confidence directing actors, so I was learning to trust myself there. I was, like I said, learning so much about the equipment and the technical side, in addition to what I'd learned on my short and from being in other people's films. I was learning more what my options were, and just the lingo of how to say things, what things were called, and it just makes everything more efficient still. And yeah, different possibilities of how to place people—spatial kind of questions and ideas, different things you can do with the camera.
Plath: In watching "Kiss the Bride," it struck me that you had an awful lot of characters to introduce in the first act. It was complicated, and for me, all those introductions slowed things down a little bit. But I felt the film really picked up momentum as it moved past that first act and started careening toward the end with a lot of energy. I just wondered if you saw it the same way, or if you saw it a different way?
Parise: No, I actually agree. I mean, it was a struggle, actually, the first act, trying to get everybody introduced and not take too much time and try to make it interesting but not confusing. That was one of the hardest things. And even, like, in the edit room, trying to figure out if there's a different way of doing it, you know, that was a struggle. And then, once you get to know each character, then you become more involved and it can move more easily. I'm still not sure. We came up with the best way that we could, but it was definitely a struggle.
Plath: So what did your parents finally think of this—you who never went on to become a doctor after that biology degree?
Parise: Well, they're so incredibly supportive and wonderful. My mom is even helping me do publicity now, because I'm trying to put together my next film, and I'm trying to do these interviews, and she's very good at being persuasive too, so she's been helping with that. My parents are amazing. Yes, they have been and continue to be a little concerned, because they don't think it's a very stable lifestyle as it would be if I were a doctor, but they get it. They're creative, so they get it. They actually quit their jobs and renovate homes. They understand how it is.
Plath: So you come by your personality honestly.
Parise: Yes, exactly. It was, I guess, a natural outcome of my upbringing.