NEW YORK—”I like old shoes on a stage,” said Shira Piven, sister of Jeremy Piven (who plays Ari Gold on HBO’s comedy TV series “Entourage”), when she directed me in an Off-Off Broadway play called “Pilgrims.”
Small world. Some 12 years later, we would meet again at Soho’s Crosby Street Hotel in New York to discuss her first Hollywood film, “Welcome to Me.”
Serious stage directors like Piven know things like the haunting atmosphere created when audiences quietly meditate on the abject wistfulness of a 1940s pair of beat-up wingtips, lying on an empty stage.
Piven comes from Chicago theater royalty.
Both her father and mother were theater directors. Her husband, Adam McKay, is a former “Saturday Night Live” director now a Hollywood director. Her brother’s a movie star. The theater-art gene was passed along successfully.
Shira’s first feature film tells the story of a veterinary technician with a borderline personality disorder (Kristen Wiig, formerly of “SNL”) who wins the lottery for $86 million and self-finances her own show on a down-and-out local shopping channel because she wants to be Oprah.
It’s social commentary on our collective American reality-TV and selfie-infested mindset, and how, hypothetically, if we were to put a borderline crazy person on TV and let her go off her meds, America would enjoy watching the train wreck of it all.
Fan clubs would form, intellectuals would murmur “brilliant,” university students would seek her out for thesis interviews and speak to her “postmodernist” whatever-ness. They’d check her Twitter followings (enormous), and so on. But ultimately, America would be guffawing at a disturbed person’s need for attention.
Piven said she was lucky enough to get a good script, which then attracted good people. It’s an A-list cast of Hollywood talent for one’s first time behind the camera: Wiig, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Tim Robbins, and Joan Cusack, among others.
“Welcome to Me” has a sort of Monty Python effect. When seen in the theater it’s definitely funny, although maybe amusing is more apt, but when one thinks of specific lines post-viewing, the comedic aftershock tremors intensify. Piven admitted she and her writer would text specific lines back and forth, due to their stand-alone joke quality.
Example: (spoken by “Alice” on her reality TV show) “They thought I had this virus that only cats get, but it turned out to just be Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
Also, during a cutaway to the frazzled control booth, while “Alice” bakes a meatloaf-cake live, on air, and eats it: the show’s producer (Marsden), sweating bullets, says, “She’s going to do that for an hour??!” His nail-biting assistant (Cusack) replies, “Not an hour, but, you know … it’ll be, like, a good five minutes.”
Alice’s $86 million can buy a lot of dead air-time.
Piven related that many people find the film disturbing, in a thought-provoking way, because they feel they already know someone like Alice.
Alice is maybe a little bit like us sometimes. As Piven says, “The movie, to me, isn’t funny unless she’s real.” Serious situations are separated from high comedy by razor-thin margins.
Piven said her husband “lives and breathes” comedy. “I think of myself as so different from him, but this film, although it breaks genre, if you had to classify it, it’s a comedy. My comic sensibility comes out of the humanity of the moment and whatever absurdity is inherent in the situation. But Adam is just wired to be funny.”
When asked about possible collaborations with her heavy-hitter husband Adam and brother Jeremy, in the film world, she replied that she and her brother, in fact, have a project in the works.
From Stage to Movie Set
On making the transition from stage to film directing, Piven didn’t feel initially that film directing was something she would like. She always knew she wanted to make movies, and felt intimidated by all the working pieces, but she ended up loving almost every aspect of it. Working with actors, of course, but also being in the editing room because it’s almost like painting.
Stage-directing is scarier, she says, because in film you can make a million mistakes on set, but you can fix it later. In theater, you have to get it all right—at the same time.
But she feels the creative process is very similar. “When I’m in the groove with film, I feel like I’m using all the skills I’ve ever learned in theater. And then there’s all these new skills you have to learn too.”
During “Pilgrims,” Shira pulled strings for all her up-and-comer cast of struggling actors to be in “Saturday Night Live” mini-movies. There’s a former “Pilgrims” cast member in “Welcome to Me” right now.
Piven takes care of her own.