William H. Macy looks through the director’s lens
William H. Macy has directed his first film in “Rudderless.” The actor, 64, likens the experience to the Normandy invasion or to being hit by a truck. He compares the logistical boondoggles of the independent film to trying to paint with a 50-foot brush while 100 people hold it.
And yet, he says, he’s hooked on directing.
“I’m going to be candid: It’s all I want to do,” he said.
That doesn’t mean giving up acting completely, he clarifies — in fact, the ever-prolific actor has four movies due out next year, along with a new season of his Showtime series, “Shameless.” But “Rudderless” is likely the beginning of a new phase for Macy — what he calls his “third act” — in which he’ll be behind the camera often.
“It was so out of my comfort zone, so out of my wheelhouse, so much work, and such intense work, that it shook up my system in a delightful way, and I haven’t felt so alive in years,” he said.
The Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning actor brings his directorial debut to Paepcke Auditorium on Saturday for a preview screening presented by Aspen Film. The film premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is tentatively slated for an October theatrical release from Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn.
Through most of his career, Macy wasn’t interested in directing. Though they’re revered as the artists of film, he couldn’t help but notice that directors spend months longer working on a film than actors do, that they put in much longer days, get paid far less and get blamed when most anything goes wrong with a production.
What drew him to get behind the camera, finally, was a curiosity about what it would feel like to tell a story with a full arc rather than just focusing on his role in a film.
“Acting by definition is tiny little bits,” he said. “We don’t worry about the world. We worry about the minutiae. You do the scene that’s in front of you, with a very limited purview. The director, on the other hand, gets to tell the whole story. He gets to tell the audience where to sit, he gets to make sure the joke is set up and the punch line lands properly, and I wanted to do it myself after letting other people do it for years and years and years.”
While he hasn’t ventured into directing movies previously, he has had a taste of big-picture creativity by directing plays and writing. He’s been co-writing screenplays, in partnership with writer-director Steven Schacter, dating back to 1995’s “Above Suspicion.”
He also has grown adept at photography since he took it up as a hobby after the first of his two daughters was born in 2000.
“I thought, ‘I can compose a shot; these are good pictures!’” he said.
Macy had been pushing another script and came close to getting it made as director but gave up after its financing fell apart, twice, at the last minute. Then “Rudderless” came along.
A musical drama, the script was written by Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter, of Oklahoma City. When it reached Macy’s desk, he said, he was intrigued by its blend of drama, humor and music.
“It’s a significant story we’re telling,” he said. “But with a lot of levity.”
He worked on the script with Robison and Twenter for more than six months and got producer Keith Kjarval on board. They took a year to get it financed and then filmed it in 25 days in April 2013, when Macy had a break from “Shameless.”
The film stars Billy Crudup as Sam, a man ravaged by the death of his son. Sam finds a box of his son’s demo tapes and lyrics, begins playing the music and finds himself in a successful rock band. The movie includes six full songs, Macy said. It co-stars Selena Gomez and Laurence Fishburne, along with Macy’s wife, the Woody Creek native Felicity Huffman.
Saturday’s screening will be followed by an on-stage conversation between Macy and Huffman, whose credits include an Oscar-nominated turn in “Transamerica” and the television show “Desperate Housewives.” Frequent Aspen visitors, they own a home near Mount Sopris. The pair have acted in numerous films together over the years.
“She’s such a wonderful actor,” Macy said. “She and Billy started their first scene, and I just sat down and watched in delight. (She) brings a passion to the project that precedes her. You can feel it. It emanates from her. … She’s only in four scenes, but she’s such a major part of it, you’d swear she’s in 12 scenes.”
Since his breakthrough role in the Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” Macy has worked with a veritable who’s-who list of the world’s greatest living filmmakers — Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights”), Rob Reiner (“Ghosts of Mississippi”), Gus Van Sant (“Psycho”), Barry Levinson (“Wag the Dog”), Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking”) and David Lynch (“Inland Empire”) among them.
But for advice on directing, he went to two fellow actors who’ve had recent success behind the camera: Eric Stoltz and Clark Gregg.
He talked to Stoltz about how to create a productive environment on his sets, for instance, and went to Gregg during what he calls “a crisis of faith” while he was shooting “Rudderless.” Gregg, best known as Agent Coulson in “The Avengers,” recently directed the well-received “Trust Me.” He and Macy are among the co-founders of New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company, where Macy has directed Gregg on-stage.
“I said, ‘Clark, you’ve got to talk me off the ledge. I think I’ve screwed up my movie!’” Macy recalled. “Clark did talk me off the ledge. His advice was, ‘You’re never beaten. There’s always a solution.’ It was lovely.”
Huffman, too, provided counsel and some well-timed, ego-deflating humor. Macy recalled his despair as he cut a particularly vexing montage for the film.
“Felicity said, ‘Oh, honey, don’t worry. The whole thing’s a cliche.’ She’s funny,” he said.
As a film actor for more than 30 years, Macy has had a front-row seat to observe how a director and crew work. Still, he said, nothing prepares you for directing but directing.
“There’s an army of people who need a leader, and you jolly well better be that leader,” he said.
On the Oklahoma set, he had to visualize how a scene would be edited while he was shooting it, and run the creative team, while also keeping track of how money was spent — no easy task on a small indie film like “Rudderless,” with a reported $5 million budget.
“The illusion is that the director sits around in jodhpurs and dark glasses, talking to the actors about moments and storytelling,” he said. “The reality is it’s the Normandy invasion. It’s less like making art and more like getting hit by a truck.”
Yet, he said, a creative logic took over after they got going.
“Once we started shooting the thing, I got this bizarre feeling that the story had already happened and we were retelling it,” he said. “It had gained such mass and reality to me that it was as if this story was real and I was just trying to remember all the details. It was a lovely experience.”
Macy is already in pre-production for his next project as a director. Set to shoot in February in Atlanta, and titled “Krystal,” it teams Macy again with producer Kjarval, along with “Dallas Buyer’s Club” producer Rachel Winter.
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