Zach Woods of ‘Silicon Valley’ brings new film to virtual Aspen Shortsfest
Will Ferrell and William Jackson Harper star in the Woods-directed ‘David’
What: ‘David’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Eventive via aspenfilm.org
When: Program Two; Streaming through April 11
How Much: $15/single program; $60/Five Program Pass; $150/Full Virtual Pass; $250/VIP Pass; $45/student pass
For his directorial debut, the actor Zach Woods — best known for playing uptight neurotics on “The Office” and “Silicon Valley” — called in some A-list actors for a two-day pre-pandemic film shoot.
The result is “David,” a 12-minute gem playing at the virtual Aspen Shortsfest through Sunday.
It stars the comic great Will Ferrell as a therapist, William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place” as his patient in crisis and the young Fred Hechinger (“News of the World”) as the therapist’s live-wire son. The patient and child, both named David, vie for Ferrell’s attention in a winning and bittersweet tragicomedy.
Woods himself is the son of a therapist, but he’s quick to point out that his relationship with his therapist dad doesn’t much resemble the one portrayed in “David.” The job itself fascinated him, however, and inspired this first work as a writer-director.
“There’s something interesting to me about how, beyond just professional responsibility, a therapist loves their patients,” Woods said in a recent phone interview. “A good therapist loves their patients, and a good father loves his child. The collision of those two things is interesting to me.”
It’s a very 2020 little movie about sad people trying to do their best, failing but doing so in some funny and absurd ways. “David” also accidentally anticipated the dizzying convergence of domestic and professional spaces that the pandemic’s stay-home periods forced on people the world over, making the bizarre comic swerves and raw-nerve emotions of the film relatable to anybody who has navigated the public health crisis.
As a first-time director, Woods said he called on his experience as an actor, attempting to treat his three-man cast with the compassion he always hopes a director will give him.
“My goal was just to be loving and curious, so that it sort of invited the best of them,” he said, “and it’s not hard to be loving and curious with those three because they’re so big-hearted and crazy and sensitive.”
Woods’ performing roots are in improv. He came up through Upright Citizens Brigade, where he met “David” co-writer Brandon Gardner, and fell into his Hollywood acting career through his stage work. He and Gardner wrote with improvisation and experimentation in mind.
Improv comics have often turned into outstanding directors — from Mike Nichols to Michael Showalter — and Woods found that filmmaking surprisingly called on many of the same skills and instincts that improv had: working collaboratively with a team and trying to discover something visceral and unique in the process.
“The things that I really feel like I carry forward are community, freedom from self-consciousness and the sort of endless hunt for some little moment that has some real immediacy and doesn’t just feel like a plan that you carried out,” Woods said.
He has a soulful take on filmmaking that would surprise anyone confusing him with the tightly wound characters he’s perfected on screen.
His acting coach, Anya Saffir, offered a bit of advice that became Woods’ driving philosophy for directing scenes and actors.
“She said, ‘Rather than being an outside eye, be an outside heart,’” Woods recalled. “To not intellectualize it, but to stay connected in a visceral and physical way to what’s actually happening.”
As he began thinking about directing as a mid-career actor, Woods also went out to breakfast at a Los Angeles diner with “Silicon Valley” showrunner Alec Berg and peppered him with questions. Berg told him to make sure everybody on the film feels appreciated and to speak up when something feels off.
“He said, ‘When you have that feeling that something about this doesn’t feel right, your instinct like mine will probably be to not say anything because you’re not a confrontational person you want people to feel good,’” he recalled. “But now it’s your job to speak up.”
“David” has had a successful virtual festival run through the pandemic, going back to its premiere at the virtual Cannes Film Festival in May 2020. Getting accepted to Cannes and finding positive receptions at festivals since — in the small and way off-Main Street world of short film — has been validating for Woods.
“There’s a reasonable presumption that if an actor starts directing, it’s probably some weird dilettante thing,” he said. “And maybe it is. But [Cannes] lent me credibility. … All of these other festivals have doing the same thing and given me access to all these audiences of people who really care about these shorts. I’m so lucky, and I feel so grateful to all of them.”
Expect to see more from Woods behind the camera. He recently finished a second short, a drama titled “Bud,” which he hopes will be on the festival circuit soon. The sophomore effort was shot during the pandemic in Los Angeles with a cast and crew of 60, produced through the gauntlet of the virus and the regime of industry rules and with a team of COVID-19 compliance officers.
“it gave me some perspective about the sort of tribulations of producing anything during this time,” he said. “It is extremely complicated and difficult, but that’s amazing.”
Woods is not giving up acting yet, but he does feel comfortable in the director’s chair.
“So much of acting is about just trying to pry your attention off of yourself and eliminate this natural self-consciousness that pops up when someone points a camera at you,” he said. “But when you’re directing it’s more like you’re just trying to create the ideal conditions for people to be their best and most exciting selves. It feels less ego-triggering in a way, which is nice.”
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