AFM 2012: Renee Zellweger on Her Directorial Debut '4 1/2 Minutes' (Q&A)

Rene Zellweger Cipriani Wall Street - P 2012
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Rene Zellweger Cipriani Wall Street - P 2012

The Oscar-winning actress will direct, produce and star in the film, set in the New York stand-up comedy scene.

Oscar winning actress Renee Zellweger is about to firm up her resume as a multihyphenate as the star gears up to direct, produce and star in 4 ½ Minutes, a comedy set in the stand-up comedy world of New York City.

Zellweger will direct herself opposite Johnny Knoxville in the tale of Jimmy Bennett (Knoxville), a commitment-phobic, train-wreck comedian whose life is falling apart when he takes a job looking after the genius son of single mom P.J. Andersen (Zellweger).

The movie is written by Anthony Tambakis (Warrior) and based on the life and comedy of real-life stand-up Dov Davidoff, who Tambakis created the story with.

The film is produced by PalmStar’s Kevin Frakes, Zellweger and Tambakis through the trio's All Together Now banner and Merced’s Raj Brinder Singh will executive produce.

Merced Media Capital and PalmStar Media Capital bankroll the film which is scheduled to shoot in NYC in February 2013. K5 International is selling the project internationally during AFM.

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Zellweger talked to The Hollywood Reporter about picking the project for her directorial debut, asking the writer if she could be in the film and warning men not to take good looking dates to Davidoff's show.?

The Hollywood Reporter: Why have you chosen a movie set in the world of stand up to mark your directorial debut?
Renee Zellweger: The script. The story is set in the epicenter of the NYC comedy scene, and is one of the most authentic representations of that world that I've experienced, but it's a story about family dynamics, and emotionally stunted people who finally have to assume responsibility for their circumstances and make the difficult choices necessary to become fully realized as adults. It's about the long road back to who you were supposed to be before life, bad decisions, etc. intervened. There's something emotionally resonant about the prospect of finding a proper life path long after your contemporaries have moved on.

THR: What drew you to Anthony Tambakis' script?

Zellweger: Anthony sent the script to me last year, asking thoughts and whether I'd partner with him to produce it. I'm such a fan of his writing...from Warrior to Sunny and 68, to his novel and work on Cinnamon Girl, he has an ability to capture worlds with remarkable compassion, humor and intimacy and the truth of his characters' humanity is felt in every line.  I'm a sucker for stories about unexpected complicated human dynamics told simply and truthfully in unique environments. In the tradition of great storytellers, Anthony's characters resonate, and what they experience can be felt. For an actor, it's the highest fruit on the tree. I asked him if he'd consider my producing and playing PJ. By the new year, the effort to get the film financed had fizzled. I couldn't get the script out of my head, but we didn't have a director and weren't making any headway. During a work session for Cinnamon Girl in early 2012, I brought up 4 1/2 Minutes again, Anthony suggested I direct, and it all started rolling from there.

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THR: Are you familiar with the work and life of Dov Davidoff?

Zellweger: Dov's a pal and one of my favorite people. He's wildly intelligent, and an original. I guess you'd assume that, knowing his adolescence inspired 4 1/2. Some folks say he's the current best in the game. I've done a lot of Saturday night research at the Laugh Factory and am inclined to agree. Have you seen him live? Don't bring a pretty date.

THR: As an actress adept at playing comedic characters to great effect, do you hope to bring a light touch to directing what promises to be the darker side of the stand up world?

Zellweger: [Laughs.] The "darker side of the stand up world!" You do know Dov! The characters are in transition and face personal crisis, but the script is funny. The players are naturally funny. I'm just going to do my best to stay out of the way, and try to capture the magic of what they do.

THR: Do you have a personal take on stand-up from past experiences?

Zellweger: Comedians are fearless, voluntarily facing aggressive ridicule and rejection constantly. I've always thought they're the great observers and commentators of cultural trends. They predict what the rest of us will be talking about; what we'll cooperatively find funny, what will become topical; where the compass of conventional wisdom will point next. If a joke or catch phrase makes it into a television commercial or high school hallways, you can assume it's been stale in the circuit for a couple of years. Comedians begin the conversation.

THR: The project has European partners. After working in the U.K. on several projects in your career do you enjoy any European sensibilities when it comes to work?

Zellweger: The team is the same, the cooperative effort is the same, the experience is pretty much the same...but the tea is pretty notably better at craft services over there.

THR: What desire was greatest for you on this project – to direct in or to star in it?

Zellweger: My involvement began with really simple hopes; the story never left my head, and I just wanted to see 4 1/2 Minutes made. Everyone recognizes in the industry's current climate, it's becoming increasingly rare that beautifully written, heartfelt, human stories are making it to the screen, and there are fewer opportunities for actors to have rich, properly rewarding experiences as storytellers. I wanted to figure out how to get this special project off the ground, and the rest evolved as the process rolled along.

THR: How are you finding the responsibility of also being a producer on the project?

Zellweger: Between the shows, and the film, I've been learning so much. I never fully understood before that there aren't really any guidelines; the job's just not stopping when it seems everyone has said "no." I love the partnerships you form and the chess game of finding a way to make all the necessary pieces come together simultaneously. It's wrangling cats at times, but when you  believe in what motivates the efforts, it comes really naturally and every baby step forward is a tremendous triumph. It's a lot of fun.

THR: Are you going to give yourself a hard time if the shoot runs over?

Zellweger: Ha! We can't run over! Running over when you've got 22 days and a nickel means losing scenes, and we've already killed our darlings! No matter, I'm sure to find plenty else to give myself a hard time about.

THR: Are you looking forward to working with and starring opposite Jonny Knoxville?

Zellweger: It's the most I've looked forward to a summer since high school. We gave a lot of thought to this character, and the idea of Johnny in the role seemed undeniably ideal. The part asks more of him as an actor than any previous undertaking, and he's surely up to the challenge. Johnny's going to surprise a lot of people. He's got a reputation as a generous co-star, on and off camera, and he's so excited to get started with the heavy prep work and is ready for the journey. He fits right in with this band-of-thieves effort. It might just be a little fun. Might just be.