by Mya Stark
Being “discovered” is a storied tradition in the tribal memory of the film industry. Drugstore soda fountains were crowded with hopefuls in the ’40s, presenting their pretty cheeks for the same kiss of fate as Lana Turner and the mythos continues to the present, with the discovery of Uma Thurman, for example, who didn’t emerge from the sea as in her famous first role, but in a 9th Grade production of “The Crucible.”
Kevin Spacey didn’t garner his recognition that way; he doggedly pursued his fate through years of craftsmanship and intensity in the theater. “Intensity” is an accurate word to use when speaking about Spacey; whether the context is his Oscar-winning performances (“The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty”), as a producer (“The Social Network,” “Captain Phillips”), when putting internet content distributors on the map (“House of Cards”) or while being interviewed.
I think what’s fantastic is that the rules are all getting fucked. Look, we have been very successful in the entertainment industry… in building up walls to keep people out.
He’s turned that intensity full-force toward capturing the magic of “discovery” with the Jameson First Shot program—a collaboration between the actor’s Trigger Street Productions and the Irish whiskey brand—whose goal is to find new filmmakers, not only in the US but in Russia and South Africa as well, and provide them with professional crews and a luminous professional lead performer. The initial round, two years ago, featured Spacey himself. Last year it was Willem Dafoe and this year: Uma Thurman.
“I think what’s fantastic is that the rules are all getting fucked. Look, we have been very successful in the entertainment industry—not just film, the theater industry, the music industry—in building up walls to keep people out. Unless you have an agent, or you’ve got money, or you live in New York, you live in LA, you can knock on doors,” Spacey says when asked about the state of “breaking in” to the industry in a post-YouTube age.
“There’s a number of reasons why [Jameson First Shot] is an interesting idea. First of all, to be able to give an opportunity to emerging filmmakers, to be able to make a film and to be able to work with a professional crew. But secondly, when I look at, particularly, South Africa and Russia, and look at where their film industries are, they’re not where they should be. They don’t get the kind of support that they need. The money that a lot of young people have made in the last 20 years, they don’t know what to do with it. And I hope that by putting a focus on filmmakers, a focus on the film industry, that we might rattle those cages of money and get people to actually start supporting their own culture.”
It seems to have worked. Last year’s Russian winner, Anton Lanshakov, had a viral hit in his homeland with the Willem Dafoe-starring “The Smile Man,” and is shooting his first feature, a feat which put some exciting pressure on this year’s winners: American actress Jessica Valentine (“Jump!”); Russian adman Ivan Petukhov (“The Gift”) and South African actor Henco J (“The Mundane Goddess”).
Uma Thurman seems to be a perfect philosophical fit for the endeavor, noting that, “It sounded like a good thing to do, something new, and hopefully would have a good impact on three strangers somewhere in the world who hadn’t been discovered yet.” And the three first-timers couldn’t have spoken more highly about getting to work with her. When asked about the experience differential between herself and her directors, Thurman says, “Everyone is very experienced, but maybe not in the same way. All three of these individuals come from a vast amount of experience—this is the beginning of their expressing it in film. As an actor, as a person who respects writer/directors, the questions are always the same: who are you, what’s your vision, what are you trying to say? I had in-depth conversations with all three of these individuals before they won the contest, to try to find out the answers to those questions; and all of the answers were very fulfilling.”
Valentine’s reflection on working with Thurman perhaps hints at another side of the mythos of “discovery”—the power, always underlying, though sometimes hidden—to “discover” oneself. “Uma’s a great cheerleader for ‘Who gives a shit? Do what you want!’ Through this process, I realized just how often I’m waiting for permission to do what I will end up doing regardless. And I realized just how much time I was wasting, by waiting for that permission.”
The winning short films can be viewed in their entirety at the Jameson First Shot website.
Images courtesy of Jameson Irish Whiskey