FILMMAKER’S ANNUAL SURVEY OF NEW TALENT.
1 OLIVIA THIRLBY
PHOTO: CRYSTAL DUNN.
These days the movies are full of teen stars who began their careers on the small screen, moved on to a Maxim shoot and are now presumably turning their young fan base into paying ticket buyers. Many of these girls are actually solid actresses, but they haven’t been allowed to project much more than worries about the prom, boyfriends and their school’s catty cliques.
But there’s another career path open to a young actress, and it’s one newcomer Olivia Thirlby is intent on following. Like Scarlett Johannson, Christina Ricci and Chloë Sevigny before her, she’s largely looked past generic teen roles and will soon showcase her formidable acting chops and haunting screen presence in several challenging dramatic films. She’s already portrayed Nicole Carole Miller, one of the Flight 93 victims in Paul Greengrass’s United 93. Coming up is her first film role in French actor Vincent Perez’s directorial debut, The Secret, in which she plays a teenage girl whose body becomes inhabited by the spirit of her deceased mother. (“I play two people,” she says. “A teenager and a 36-year-old mom.”) And then there’s David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels, in which she co-stars alongside Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Michael Angarano in a drama about a teenager coping with the murder of his babysitter. “It goes from the sweetness of first love to the darkness of a destroyed marriage,” she says of the movie.
New York born and bred, Thirlby grew up on the Lower East Side and, while in high school, studied Shakespeare at the American Globe and acted in school plays. She was going out on commercial auditions when she went in to meet Perez and, impressing both him and producer Luc Besson, scored what she calls “her first anything.” From then on she’s been working steadily. She says she loved working with Green in “cold, cold Halifax” because “he’s all about improv. When he sees what he likes he tells you, and after that you’re free to explore the unwritten.”
Thirlby says her choice of serious roles has been “a very conscious decision.” “Acting for me is an art,” she adds. “It’s not who I am but what I do. I don’t care about how much money I’ll make as long as a film has artistic integrity and is about something.” And while she says she doesn’t “want people to look at me as a teen actress — I crave to be taken seriously” — Thirlby would like to do comedy. “I trained in Shakespeare, and that’s all comedy, even when it’s tragedy,” she says. “But you’re not going to catch me in Not Another Teen Movie 2.” — Scott Macaulay
Contact: William Choi and Peter Kiernan at Management 360: (310) 272-7000; Sara Shyn at the Osbrink Agency: (818) 760-2488
2 LINAS PHILLIPS
Linas Phillips, whose documentary Walking to Werner recently premiered at the Hot Docs Film Festival, takes the anxiety of influence seriously. In 2005, up in the air about moving to Los Angeles, Phillips looked to his cinematic hero, Werner Herzog, for an answer. “I remember Werner saying if there is a big decision in your life, it should be done on foot,” Phillips says. “So I thought I should make this film about self-discovery and make it a pilgrimage to him.” The resulting film is a lyrical experiment — part document of his three-month pedestrian adventure from Seattle to Los Angeles, part allegory of the filmmaking process and part psychological portrait of an artist in process.
In many ways the film pulls the threads (improvisation, comedy, experimentation, and good old-fashioned hardheadedness) of Phillip’s diverse life together. Raised in Massachusetts, Phillips moved to New York City to study experimental theater at New York University. After graduating in 1995, he kicked around town doing theater, alternative comedy and working with special-needs kids — all things that eventually helped him as a filmmaker. For Phillips, “some of my best theater teachers taught me to trust impulse- and instinct-related work, and I think my one talent is to go with my instincts.”
Those instincts pushed him in 2004 to leave New York and move to Cape Cod, where he taught himself to shoot and edit video by making a short documentary about his Lithuanian grandmother. In 2004, when his project with the Seattle-based 33 Fainting Spells fell apart, his friend and Spells dancer Dayna Hanson stepped up to help him make films. His first two unfinished projects — one a sweethearted reality show called Rainbow Time and the other a doc on alternative energy — became the impetus for Walking to Werner. Currently, Phillips will be acting in a film this summer, The Woman, the Kid and the Guy, and is working on a new experimental documentary entitled Great Speeches From a Dying World. — Peter Bowen
3 HAM TRAN
Not many filmmakers take on a sweeping historical drama as their first feature project, but writer-director Ham Tran was undaunted by the challenge of dramatizing the ordeals endured by refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
“The reason why I wrote Journey from the Fall is because it’s been more than 30 years, and I think it’s about time for the world to know about this story from a Vietnamese perspective,” says Tran. With an MFA from UCLA’s graduate directing program in film and television, Tran is a multidisciplinary artist who immigrated with his family to the U.S. from Vietnam via a Thai refugee camp in 1982.
Tran’s feature traces the tragedy and hope experienced by a single family torn apart by the war. As Journey opens in April 1975, Saigon is falling to the Communists. Long Nguyen persuades his mother to flee the ensuing chaos aboard a refugee boat, along with his wife and their son. Left behind, Long is soon captured and sent to a series of prison camps before word of his family’s survival and resettlement in California prompts him to attempt a perilous escape.
Tran touched on similar issues of war and family in his award-winning short The Anniversary. Shot on location in Thailand and Southern California, Journey features exceptional production value, lending it the look of a movie with twice the budget. Tran attributes much of the film’s success to his cast and crew. “It was just finding a really good creative, artistic team that had amazing talent and amazing commitment to realizing the story,” he explains.
Featured in the Spectrum section of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Journey has gone on to win competitive and audience awards on the festival circuit, and is currently seeking theatrical distribution worldwide. Meanwhile Tran is looking for a script to direct as his next project before producing more of his own screenplays. — Justin Lowe
Contact: [email protected]; (310) 345-2010
4 SO YONG KIM
The day after So Yong Kim’s directorial debut, In Between Days, premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, something interesting happened. “We were having breakfast on Main Street,” Kim says, “and a middle-aged American couple came up to us and said, ‘Thank you so much, because you brought us back to our teenage years.’ ”
It was profound praise for Kim, 37, whose film projects a tender coming-of-age story through the lens of urban immigrant life. Filmed almost entirely in Korean with non-professional actors, Days’ entrancing vérité tracks young Aimie (Jiseon Kim) and her budding, unrequited love for her best friend Tran (Taegu Andy Kang). Amy’s struggles adapting to foreign culture partially reflect those of the filmmaker, who moved to America from her native Pusan, Korea, when she was 12.
“In Between Days is a love story, so hopefully it can reach out to other people who are not Koreans and not immigrants but [who] relate to growing up,” says Kim, whose film won Sundance’s Special Jury Prize for Independent Vision. “I don’t see myself making big-statement films, because I don’t think that’s something I can do. I just try to find some sort of honesty in what I make, have that come from personal experience and try to relate that to the audience.”
But Days boasts an experimental edge as well, which viewers can trace back through a nine-year filmmaking partnership with her husband, Bradley Rust Gray (Salt, Hitch). The pair will next tackle Gray’s own love story, Jack & Diane (with Kim producing), before traveling to Korea to shoot Kim’s sophomore effort, Treeless Mountain.
“I think we have a mutual understanding with industry people that we want to keep our independence,” Kim says, laughing. “It’s not just a short-term thing we’re trying to do; it’s a lifetime commitment. I mean, we live for films. We don’t want to compromise. We wouldn’t be able to sleep.” — S.T. VanAirsdale
Contact: [email protected]
5 SCOTT Z. BURNS
Scott Burns is the first to deny that his advertising expertise — which produced huge campaigns for Major League Baseball, MTV, VH1, Coors Light, Volkswagen and “Got Milk?” — has anything to do with his success in writing, directing, or producing film. “You can be seduced by the similarities between commercials and films initially — and if you are, you will be punished by the differences in the end,” he warns. “People who make commercials frequently describe their work as ‘short movies,’ considering this high praise. Most people in movies, I think, are embarrassed if their films are described as ‘long commercials.’ They are two different crafts, and neither benefits too much when they are merged.”
But it was advertising that opened the door for Burns’s film success. He wrote and directed the campaign for the Detroit Project, a group he founded along with Arianna Huffington, Laurie David, Lawrence Bender and Ari Emmanuel to take aim at the role of oil in current U.S. foreign policy. And it was this collaboration that led to his involvement as a producer on Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth.
“I saw Al Gore’s slide show at Laurie David’s invitation along with Lawrence Bender,” Burns recalls. “We all felt that what Gore was doing needed to be chronicled, and we were able to persuade him to trust us with what he feels is his life’s work. Then we lobbied Participant to give the film a shot as a theatrical release. I tried to give Davis what I would want from a producer: a different perspective when it was asked for, the room to experiment in the editing room when he was searching and a passionate advocate for his telling of a story that people really need to hear.”
Initially, Burns segued into narrative as a writer in 1999 when he joined the staff of ABC’s Wonderland series. “The good thing about being a writer is you don’t need someone else to get you started,” he continues. “Directors and actors need a script. All you need to write is some blank paper and the discipline to sit in a chair long enough for something good to happen.”
Now he’s awaiting the fall release of PU-239 which marks his feature directorial debut (he also adapted the script from the short story by Ken Kalfus). The film stars Paddy Considine, Radha Mitchell, and Oscar Isaac and will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. The path he describes taking to achieve his film is creative and irreverent: “Five years ago I read a short story about a nuclear accident in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s sort of a dark, twisted, political cautionary tale/comic love story/buddy fable movie. I didn’t know enough about Hollywood to realize that isn’t a very popular genre. Somehow my ignorance passed for originality.”
Next year Burns has The Informant to look forward to; he scripted, Steven Soderbergh will direct, and Matt Damon will star. “And I’m finishing up a script for Marc Forster while hoping that people will like my movie enough to give me a chance to make more.”
Whether writing or directing, Burns aims high for himself, desiring to maintain the quality he’s achieved with both his commercial and film work thus far. “I want to rely on the cut more than the camera and on the story more than the star and make sure I’m directing a piece because I have something to share with the actors, the cinematographer and the rest of the crew — or else I will have nothing to share with the audience.” — Lisa Y. Garibay
Contact: [email protected]