By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Ubiquitous actor Chris Messina (“Argo,” “The Mindy Project”) steps behind the camera for his feature film directorial debut with the heartwarming drama “Alex of Venice.”
The Long Island native says directing a film seemed a logical next step from acting. He’d also directed plays in the past.
“I enjoyed that stuff,” he says by phone. “I’d talked about directing a movie for a while.”
He reconnected with Samantha Houseman, Lynette Howell and Louise Runge, who produced “28 Hotel Rooms,” an independent film in which he starred a few years ago. They showed him a script by Katie Nehra and Justin Shilton about a group of people living in the bohemian Southern California beach community of Venice.
Messina, 40, says he particularly liked the storyline in their script about a family in crisis.
“We kind of went back to the drawing board and came up with new outlines and then they re-wrote it,” he says. “That draft was closer to how the story is now. We brought in another writer, Jessica Goldberg, who kind of cracked it open for us.”
The result is “Alex of Venice,” which tells the story of a hardworking young environmental attorney, whose frustrated surfer/artist husband one day walks out, leaving her to care for their young son and her aging father. Soon afterward, Alex’s estranged sister (played by co-screenwriter Nehra) shows up to help out. Alex has to learn to cope with being a newly single mom responsible not only for her shy, troubled son, but her dad, a onetime TV actor who may be suffering from early stages of dementia and her free-spirited sister. Uncertain whether her husband will return, she isn’t quite sure whether and how to move on emotionally.
“Alex of Venice” boasts an eclectic cast including Mary Elizabeth Winstead (“Live Free or Die Hard,” “Smashed”), who plays the title character, Don Johnson (“Miami Vice”), who plays her crotchety father and Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher”), as a land developer who is on the opposite side of a legal case Alex is fighting but whom she also is attracted to.
Messina has a small part in the family drama as Alex’s estranged husband, George, who abandons his family because he feels unappreciated and unfulfilled. It’s a far cry from his role as dapper Dr. Danny Castellano on Fox’s “The Mindy Project.”
He spoke about making his directorial debut, casting a ’80s TV icon and what’s ahead.
Q: Can you talk about casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character in this?
Messina: She’s amazing. How lucky am I as a first-time filmmaker to have an actor with that capacity? Her talent is awesome. She came in to read. I was a fan of hers from “Smashed.” She was just incredible. I knew right away that I had to have her do it. On top of the talent, she’s super-kind, nice and a real leader on the movie, so it was super-cool to have her.
Q: Can you talk about casting Don Johnson as an aging actor with early stages of dementia who is having trouble memorizing his lines for a Chekov play?
Messina: I wanted an iconic TV actor to play the part, and I always was a fan of his, so he was, by far, the first choice. At first, he didn’t want to do it. So I said to him, “Don, with this disease, you can be 50 years old and be in great shape.” I wanted it to be a surprise to the character, the other characters in the film, and to the audience.
As for dementia, you don’t have to be decrepit to get it. That was something I was kind of going for. We all think it’s an old people’s disease, but it’s not. I didn’t want to open the movie (with a grandfather) that is really old. I wanted the character to audition for “The Cherry Orchard” thinking he is auditioning for the leading man, and then the (theater director) tells him, “Why don’t you consider auditioning for the old servant?”
Q: Were the parallels between the play and your movie’s family’s struggles intentional?
Messina: That happened in editing.
Q: Did you remember him from “Miami Vice?”
Messina: Yes. It was nerve-wracking working with Don Johnson. He’s an icon and a really cool guy. He’s been a celebrity for so long. And he’s a really great actor. I saw him in “Django Unchained,” and thought, “This guy is terrific,” and he isn’t being used appropriately and enough. So it was exciting getting to work with him on this. Seeing him today again, I thought to myself, “How lucky was I to work with him as well as Mary (Elizabeth Winstead) on my movie.” I feel lucky that they were willing to take a risk with me—a first time filmmaker.
Q: Did you cut out some of your scenes as George so you could focus more in directing?
Messina: The great thing about directing yourself is that you can cut yourself out when it’s not working. There wasn’t a lot more, but George was always kind of like the Meryl Streep character in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Mary is the Dustin Hoffman character. I didn’t feel like the audience needed to know anything more about him in terms of what was doing (throughout most of the film). He was getting his head straight somewhere and trying to figure out what he wanted. The important thing was to (have the film focus) on Alex, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner, who plays the son) and the family. I kind of like that there’s a sense of someone missing, and not knowing what they’re doing because that’s what Alex is going through.
Q: You manage to capture a beautiful side of Venice with its canals and the colorful street life. Does that community hold a special place for you?
Messina: Yes. I don’t live too far away from there and I love going there. I’m originally an East Coast guy, and it reminds me a little bit of Brooklyn by the sea. It’s great for people watching. I like the vibe. I love the light. I just feel at home there. I always have. I have friends who live there. So it was important to me to have Venice as almost another character in the film. I have a great (director of photography), Doug Emmett, who has previously shot a lot of movies I’d acted in, and I wanted him to do this. I knew he would capture Venice in that light, with the alleyways and the sun flares. I wanted that desperately.
Q: Where are the marshes that Alex is trying to protect because you have a shot with Alex working in what appears to be a high-rise building at one point, which I don’t believe they have in Venice? Is it supposed to be a community nearby?
Messina: That was shot at a college library and it is supposed to show her doing research (for the big environmental case) she’s working on. We shot the scenes at the marsh about 30 minutes (from Venice). We included that shot because I didn’t feel like we showed enough scenes of her working. We shot the movie in 21 days. I got a great note from Derek Cienfrance, who directed “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” who said, “There are a lot of shots of (Alex) wandering around the marsh and thinking, and she seems to have too much free time on her hands.” He was dead right. So we went out and shot her working more. It was a quick fix. At that point, we already had broken down the office set, and we couldn’t get the space back, so we had to invent something else.
Q: The joy of independent filmmaking, right?
Messina: Yeah. So we had her in a library. We knew we had this big court scene coming up in the story, so we had to see her working on papers.
Q: What’s next for you?
Messina: I’m going to do a movie in May called “Good Humor,” with Abigail Spencer. I also have a bunch of projects that I’m in different stages of directing. Some are far away and some are getting closer.
Q: Do you plan to do more directing?
Messina: I definitely want to direct again. I like having a voice; it’s really important to me. Sometimes, as an actor on some of the things I’ve done I don’t really have a voice, and that’s hard for me. I like to collaborate and I like actors, and everyone on the set to feel a part of it. So I’ll continue to make my own stuff if only to have a voice.
Q: You’re still working on “The Mindy Project,” right?
Messina: We’re done with the season and we’re just waiting to see if we’re going to be picked up for another one.
Q: You did a film called “Geezer” with Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, right?
Messina: Yeah, it’s being cut right now. I have a small part in which I play his brother. I did a film (in 2012) called “The Giant Mechanical Man,” with the same director (Lee Kirk). I think Billie is going to be great in the movie; he was great when I was there (on set). I’ve also got a movie with Al Pacino coming out called “Manglehorn.” It comes out in June. David Gordon Green directed it. It’ll be really cool.