By my count, there are 10 movies by actor-turned-directors at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Ten. The majority, including Chris Pine’s “Poolman” and Anna Kendrick’s “Woman of the Hour,” are debuts.
I don’t know how many actors choose to be filmmakers at any given moment; “what I really want to do is direct” is a cliché for a reason. But that still seems like a lot. And it is particularly noteworthy right now in Hollywood, when the strikes by the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, and the Writers Guild of America have revealed how much disparity there can be in pay and in the ownership of one’s work. Not to mention the willingness of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to make a deal with the Directors Guild of America but not the other creatives.
“Actors directing films isn’t unusual,” said Cameron Bailey, the chief executive of the Toronto festival, “but we saw a larger number this year and invited several, before we got news of the strike.” Besides the Kendrick and Pine movies, actors making directorial debuts included Patricia Arquette (“Gonzo Girl”), Kristin Scott Thomas (“North Star”), Kasia Smutniak (“Walls”) and Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk (“Hell of a Summer”).
Directing confers control, which confers power, which confers stability, right? At the very least, if you’re directing, you’re not left hanging around.
“Everyone is hanging around,” Stacey Sher, one of the “Poolman” producers, told me. “You’re hanging around to get financing. You’re hanging around to get distribution. You’re hanging around to hope that you get a date that connects. You’re hanging around to hope that you get lucky and your campaign clicks and that you’re in the zeitgeist. You’re hanging around hoping that the press likes your movie.” Sher has been producing films for more than 30 years, among them actor-director feature debuts like “Reality Bites” (Ben Stiller) and “Garden State” (Zach Braff).
In “Poolman,” for which he also served as a producer and co-screenwriter, Pine plays a Lebowski-style free spirit who ministers a decrepit apartment-complex pool by day and disrupts local council meetings by night. As a director, Pine, who has been acting for two decades, suddenly found himself answering questions about everything around the clock. Sher recalled him telling her, “‘I understand how easy I had it before, just being able to go back and study my lines and prepare and stay in character.’”
Though Pine had planned to publicize “Poolman” at Toronto, his support of the strike precluded his attendance because SAG-AFTRA forbids promotions during the labor action. On opening night, Sher presented the film solo, stating: “It is a different premiere and Q. and A. then we had hoped for, but there was never a second where Chris was going to do anything but stand with SAG and the W.G.A.”
Pine was returning the favor. He “knew what he wanted and what he wanted was to build a team that could support him in achieving what his goals were cinematically,” Sher said. Patty Jenkins, who had directed the actor in the “Wonder Woman” franchise, was a “Poolman” producer from the start (Ian Gotler was also a producer). Jenkins acted as “directing doula,” available for technical checks and gut checks, Sher said. Pine also worked with the “Wonder Woman” films’ cinematographer, Matthew Jensen. Directing granted him the power to surround himself with people — the kind who are currently striking — who could make his new job easier.
“Poolman” was a low-budget film in which almost half of the 22 days was spent shooting in a motel where beds were removed to make way for makeshift offices and dressing rooms, adding to the camaraderie. “I think if you just want the job for control, you’re not going to do a very good job,” Sher said of directing. “The best filmmakers I’ve ever worked with are the most collaborative.”
“Woman of the Hour” was an exercise in combining the right people in what Miri Yoon — one of several producers on the project along with Kendrick — likened to a kind of “math” problem. Kendrick, who was initially attached only to star, “really drove us over the line,” said Yoon, who recently worked on another major actor-director feature, “Don’t Worry Darling” from Olivia Wilde. It was the way Kendrick interpreted the Black List script by Ian McDonald — a quasi-biopic about the 1970s serial killer Rodney Alcala told through the eyes of women who crossed his path, including a “Dating Game” contestant (Kendrick) — that convinced everyone she should helm.
“We’re like, well, what are we doing?” Yoon said. “Why do we even bother going through this whole dog-and-pony show trying to figure out who else can do this movie? Let’s just go.” From that moment, it went fast — about six weeks after Kendrick was tapped to direct, the crew was in prep for a 24-day shoot — and it went hard, with a Vancouver winter standing in for a Los Angeles summer. Despite all of this, the first-time filmmaker was very deliberate, Yoon said: “There’s nothing arbitrary about Anna Kendrick.”
I suggested that Kendrick’s preparation might be due to the fact that she’s a woman in the director’s chair, with all the prejudices that entails. Yoon gestured that I had hit it on the nose. While almost half the actor-director films at Toronto are by women, everyone knows by now the challenges female filmmakers face behind the camera. As actress Eva Longoria recently told Variety upon the release of “Flamin’ Hot,” her feature directing debut, “I get one at-bat, one chance, work twice as hard, twice as fast, twice as cheap.”
No doubt aware of this calculus, Kendrick herself announced she was “heartbroken” at not being able to attend the Toronto festival for the premiere because of SAG-AFTRA rules. While some independent films have secured interim agreements if they agree to union demands, this year’s festival has seen few American filmmakers and actors doing promotion. Despite that, “Woman of the Hour” still landed the first major sale of the festival in a reported $11 million deal with Netflix.
Considering that the stability of Hollywood itself is in question, it is hard to determine whether directing confers more security than having to hang around waiting for an acting job. Neither of the producers I spoke to were able to give a definitive answer, with Yoon saying the industry was still finding its footing in “a landscape that is going through a seismic change.”
Bailey, the Toronto festival chief, surmised that the lack of work around the Covid lockdowns led to an abundance of actors directing, an attempt to claim agency over their careers. “I suspect some of these actors used the opportunity of the pandemic disruption to get more personal projects made.” Indeed both Pine and Kendrick have said separately that the pandemic led them to change the way they thought about their work.
Yoon did, however, agree that while producing seems to be more about business ownership, directing seems to be more about artistic ownership. She elaborated, “The film’s end result is the sum of many, many, many parts, and the fact that you get to participate in all of those parts, which, as an actor, you don’t necessarily do.”
Still, Sher said she thought the reason anyone, including an actor, directs is incredibly personal. “I remember a filmmaker friend of mine said every filmmaker directs for a different value,” Sher explained. “For some people, it’s reality; for some people, it’s about precision, some people performance, some people it’s technical, some aesthetic pleasure. And the more people that are doing it, the more people also realize that it’s an option that they may never have thought that they had.”