The Important Directing Trick That Chris Messina Learned From Woody Allen

The “Mindy Project” star makes his directorial debut with Tribeca fest entry “Alex of Venice,” which stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Chris Messina
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After 15 years of acting, Chris Messina last year decided that it was time to make the jump to calling the shots as a director. He had plenty of on-set experience to draw on as he began the endeavor, and it was one note he took while working with Woody Allen on “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” that played an especially important role in his approach to making “Alex of Venice.”

Woody Allen said to Rebecca Hall once in a scene, ‘Do it once happy, do it sad, and do it indifferent, because I don’t know where I’m going to be when I’m editing this,’” Messina, who premiered his feature debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, told TheWrap. “I think options are  your best friend when editing.”

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“Alex of Venice” stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an overworked environmental lawyer and mother whose husband, played by Messina, decides that he needs a break after spending a few years playing homemaker. It’s a quiet film with moments of comedy derived from authentic moments of frustration and awkwardness, which stemmed in part from Messina’s decision to max out the digital Alexa camera’s 27-minute memory card while filming so many scenes.

“It helps to find those really real moments because you are just forced to just be real when the camera is rolling for that long,” Winstead said. “Usually the tape would finish and we’d say, ‘What did we just talk about? What did we do?’ There was an improv scene in the middle of the night and I was like, this is funny but it’s never going in the movie. But it still was so helpful for our characters, and for the bond that we all needed to have, and just the natural feel that Chris was going for, just informed people.”

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By taking this approach — even if it annoys the editor, as the director joked — it allowed Messina to have plenty of options when it came to actually putting the movie together.

“As an actor, you realize by editing, and I think every actor should experience this, on film, you’re not giving a great performance, you’re rehearsing in front of the camera,” he said. “You do your work, you understand the scene and the style of your character and you try to go after what you want and all that stuff. But then it’s the director that makes your performance.

“So I think as an actor, what I learned from editing, is try a bunch of different things, and have a bunch of different options,” Messina continued. “Because there’s always that moment where [the director] is like, ‘Is there any moment where she was having fun in this scene? Because I gave her a lot of moments to not have fun. There’s this one moment where she started laughing, that’s what I need.’ You didn’t think it on the day, you were sure that she had to be mad.”

Also read: Tribeca: Patrick Stewart and Mary Elizabeth Winstead Steal the Show on Night 3

And as Winstead can attest, there were plenty of moments in which Messina captured her feeling quite angry.

“In the breakup scene, because he was doing his acting with me, but also directing me, his way of doing that was just throwing out whatever line that he thought would get the reaction out of me that he wanted,” Winstead said, laughing. “He was so mean and saying awful things. Just the most heart-breaking things — ‘You were never a good mother,’ just to see the reaction he’d get. By the third take, I was bawling, which isn’t right for the scene, but it’s good to try everything. When we finished I was like, he could make so many different movies from what we just did. Every scene, we had like a comedy version, super serious drama version, and I think with all of those things, he managed to find a certain in-between.”

Even with all that coverage, Messina said he constantly worried about whether he had all the options he would require. Editing was extra tense, too, because he began that post-production while he was returning from his summer hiatus on “The Mindy Project,” calling that scheduling snafu “the worst and dumbest thing I did” during the movie. But, it did illustrate for him how much Mindy Kaling does on that show.

“I have even more respect and admiration for her, and I feel for her, because her job is a lot harder,” he admitted. “It’s constant. For me, shooting 21 days, that’s the movie. This is 22 or 24 episodes, she’s writing and producing and starring, she’s casting, she’s editing, she’s dealing with me. I can be hard to deal with as an actor. I think it’s made me see the big picture for the better.

“You look around and you see all the different departments and you see the production design and costumes and sound and hair and the writers, and you go, it takes an army to get this made. The actors and the directors get a lot of the credit, they’re the front of the movie, and it’s great that they do, but there are so many people that make a movie.”