Tribeca: Chris Messina Talks 'Grueling' Juggle of Directing 'Alex of Venice' and Filming 'Mindy Project'
Messina's Fox co-stars Mindy Kaling and Ed Weeks attended the premiere of his directorial debut, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Don Johnson and Derek Luke.
Chris Messina makes his directorial debut with Alex of Venice, a film that follows the gradual unraveling of a woman’s life after her husband suddenly leaves her with their ten-year-old son and her aging father – a slice-of-life story that triggered the similar stress levels Messina experienced while acting and directing the movie and filming The Mindy Project.
“That was maybe the dumbest thing – it was grueling, and I would never do that again,” Messina told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s premiere on Friday at the SVA Theatre, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. “I’d be on set at Mindy during the day and then editing at night, and constantly on the phone during breaks.”
After working with Fairhaven’s Tom O’Brien and 28 Hotel Rooms’ Matt Ross, Messina subject his cast to 23-minute takes, much of which was improv. “I like working that way – there’s something about when you cut and you have to reset. Sometimes it’s great and ultimately necessary, but I get into a groove and I don’t want to stop,” said Messina. Alex of Venice co-writer and actress Katie Nehra recalled that to improve, Messina “would say, ‘Do it like you’re talking to your boyfriend,’ or to ‘Nicholson’ it, which is like a troublemaker,” and Derek Luke added of the freeform takes, “It’s like hanging out with your friends on a Friday night, and you say anything and everything. To me, it gives your character room to marinate.”
Messina’s Mindy Project co-stars Mindy Kaling and Ed Weeks also attended the premiere, and New Girl’s Max Greenfield – who recently guest-starred on Mindy – posed with fans outside the theatre before the screening.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead came to the title role in tears, she told THR. “It read to me so relatable and honest, heartbreaking but funny and real. There’s a lot of truth that was brought to it. I cried through the whole script – even the funny parts. I just connected to it so much!”
Don Johnson admitted he wasn’t initially won over to play Alex’s father, an ailing but aspiring actor eyeing a role in an Anton Chekhov play. “Chris wouldn’t leave me alone – he came up to my house in North Los Angeles and I wasn’t really looking to work, soI dragged him to my boys’ basketball game and made him watch, and he feigned interest,” Johnson humorously told the audience during a post-screening Q&A. Besides being intrigued by Messina’s “infectious” passion, “the material resonated with me because it had different tempos and rhythms. I have the luxury of pretty much doing what I want to do, and when I find something where I don’t know what’s going to happen in the first ten or twelve pages, I’m pretty excited. And then, the opportunity to even do a little bit of Chekhov!”
The Q&A revealed that the film originally featured a handful of other characters how were trimmed to focus more on the family unit, and that Winstead threw up while filming a dance scene, which Messina originally read as a “ruckus” but then evolved into a slow-motion sequence set to an ethereal score. (Nehra noted she gave Winstead a few drinks beforehand.) Also, Messina revealed that he never eyed an onscreen role in his own directorial debut.
“I thought there were a lot of other actors who could’ve done a better job – I struggled with it, I wanted to direct,” he said of also playing Alex’s frustrated stay-at-home husband, George. “I was scared to do both, to be honest with you, but I wanted to do it to learn what it’d be like. Maybe two weeks out, I was trying to convince Jamie [Patricof, producer] to hire somebody else!” But Nehra and co-writer Justin Shilton (who also collaborated with Jessica Goldberg on the script) hoped for Messina for the role years ago. “He was our only George,” said Shilton.
Messina wanted to debut as a filmmaker with a character-driven feature that depicted a relatable slice of life, he said, especially in regards to the film’s "messy" ending. “Every day, there’s an event that happens in your life that changes it and the direction you’re going, but it’s not always some grand thing, you just have to deal with it and move forward,” said Patricof of the gradual story movement, and Nehra noted, “In movies, they make such a big thing about some moments, where it’s almost more tragic or more sad when it just happens, and you realize it just happened. It can be more detrimental to you.”