Martin Donovan has unveiled his directorial debut Collaborator as a world premiere in competition at Karlovy Vary.

In a KVIFF Masterclass hosted by Screen Editor Mike Goodridge, Donovan said he had long harboured the desire to write and direct. “For the act of directing, it was a long haul for me to feel confident and qualified and competent enough to do it.”

He already says he would like to direct again and is working on some screenplays now. “I would love to [direct again]. It took my whole life to get this one done, so I don’t know how long it will take for the next,” he said with a laugh.

The dark comedy – also written by Donovan — follows Robert, a famous but now struggling playwright (played by Donovan) , who is taken hostage by an ex con neighbour (David Morse) whose life has been impacted by America’s wars. The cast also includes Olivia Williams, Eileen Ryan and Katherine Helmond. 

Donovan said the themes of the project include collaboration, people’s relationship to the state, conflicting world views, the nature of critical thinking, as well as being wounded in love.

New York indie stalwart Ted Hope serves as executive producer, while Pascal Vaguelsy, Julien Favre and Luca Matrundola’s Dviant Films produced.

The $2m film only got off the ground thanks to his longtime friend Hope, who he met working on Hal Hartley’s Trust in 1990 and stayed in touch.  At Hope’s encouragement, Donovan started writing the script in 2003 but said the finanancing process for the Canadian-US project had been quite harrowing, and had nearly fallen apart almost twice as the shoot approached.

Donovan noted that the pressure for him to cast bankable known names was immense, and it’s thanks to Hope that he was able to star in the film himself and land his first choices of Morse and Williams. “The pressure to cast names even in a mini-budgeted film is ridiculous. I was shocked,” Donovan said. “How often do you have a producer [like Hope] to say, ‘Don’t go with a big name, you play the role’…Ted’s objective was to help me make this film I want to make. He opened all the doors.“

Donovan worked on several films with Hartley (starting with Trust) and has also acted in films including The Opposite Of Sex,The United States Of Leland, Insomnia, Portrait Of A Lady and A Haunting In Connecticut. His other recent credits include the TV show Weeds.

Donovan paid tribute to Hartley for teaching him a lot about acting. “As an actor, I learned after Trust that it’s about dance, it’s about movement. It’s not about acting. That was very liberating. I learned how much you don’t need to do as an actor. It’s about grace.”

The switch to directing was challenging but rewarding, he said. “An actor’s job is extremely difficult, but the to-do list is short.” Keeping his actors empowered to do their best work was a big goal – “I really wanted to help the actors but I was terrified of saying the wrong thing. One reason I wanted to direct is that I love actors. I just fall in love with people who risk their souls like that.”

eOne Films International handles international sales on Collaborator.