Actor-turned director Griffin Dunne found himself juggling both roles with mockumentary Famous, his first venture into digital film-making. John Hazelton reports on the making of the film.
New York-based independent producer Dolly Hall (High Art, The Incredible True Adventures Of Two Girls In Love) is sent a script by actress Mira Sorvino's agent. The script, a dry mock documentary about aspiring New York actors, is by Laura Kirk and Nat DeWolf, aspiring actors themselves whom Sorvino had met in her acting class.
Hall discusses the project with Sorvino, who wants to shoot the film on digital video. "At that point," Hall says, "the movie came with financing; but, as is usually the case, the financing wasn't really there."
In June, Hall joins the new digital film division of GreenStreet Films (Illuminata, Company Man). "GreenStreet was looking for its first [digital] movie and wanted to do one very quickly," she says. "Our mission is not to do 35mm movies that couldn't get financed; [the films] have to be organic to the medium. [Famous] was so simple and accessible and funny that it was perfect to do first."
Besides being suited to digital video because of its "mockumentary" form, Famous also comes with screenwriters Kirk and DeWolf attached to two of the lead roles. GreenStreet - which is planning to make four digital films a year - agrees to back the project, with Hall and Sorvino producing on a budget of under $1m.
Actor-producer-director Griffin Dunne, a childhood friend of Hall's and a tenant of the GreenStreet office building in New York, signs on to direct and play the part of the documentarian in the film. Dunne, who has previously directed studio pictures Addicted To Love and Practical Magic, relishes the idea of a change of pace: "So much time and preparation went into making my previous two movies, so I was really intrigued by the thought of doing something with digital video technology," he says. "The idea of having such a small guerrilla-type crew and of capturing moments that were very natural was really exciting for me."
The film's 18-day shoot, using a minimal crew, takes place on a variety of New York city locations. Besides capturing the dramatic scenes (many of them featuring improvised dialogue), Dunne also shoots some surprise cameo performances featuring real-life celebrities commenting on the perils of fame.
For Dunne, working at speed behind and in front of the camera turns out to be "very stimulating. My character could change the direction of the movie and I would have to deal with it as a director in the editing room. It was like I had a runaway lead actor telling me how the movie was going."
Winter 1999-spring 2000
Post-production presents the film-makers with what Hall describes as "a very steep learning curve." The film is edited on a Macintosh G4 desk-top computer using a new Final Cut Pro software program, which turns out to present a number of problems. "We were told it was absolutely up to snuff," says Hall, "and unfortunately it isn't. It's not ready for a feature film yet."
In spite of the problems, Famous is completed by late April and selected to screen at Cannes. Cassian Elwes, head of the William Morris Agency's WMA Independent division, handled foreign sales until Neil Friedman's Menemsha Entertainment acquired international rights to the film at Cannes.
Prod co/backers: GreenStreet Films. Int'l sales: Menemsha Entertainment (+1 310 712 3720). Exec prods: John Penotti, Fisher Stevens, Brad Yonover, Sidney Kimmel, Andrew Karsh. Prods: Dolly Hall, Mira Sorvino. Dir: Griffin Dunne. Scr: Laura Kirk, Nat DeWolf. Main cast: Kirk, DeWolf, Dunne, Daniel London.
Director Griffin Dunne
Griffin Dunne began his film career as an actor, appearing in such films as An American Werewolf In London, After Hours and The Big Blue. He has also been active as a co-producer, with credits including After Hours and White Palace. His recent credits as a director include Addicted To Love and Practical Magic. For his next directing job he is working on a romantic comedy set in New York for Working Title Films.