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Interview with Shana Feste -- Writer and Director of The Greatest

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When I first read about The Greatest at last year's Sundance I knew it was something I wanted to see. It has Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan and the "it" girl of that year's festival Carey Mulligan.

The Greatest is the story of how a family reconnects after the loss of a child. It is a meditation on grief. Susan Sarandon is a pro at these types of flicks, but I also found Pierce Brosnan's performance very moving. These types of films -- the family film -- especially one imbued with such sadness are hard to get done so it is a testament to first time writer and director Shana Feste that we are even seeing this film at all. And if you wondering whether Carey Mulligan was a one hit wonder in An Education, this will help prove that she is going to have a long, successful and diverse career.

Shana Feste answered some questions about the film for Women & Hollywood.

Women & Hollywood: This is your first writing and directing effort. How you you able to
secure such a stellar cast?

Shana Feste: The financing would only be triggered if we secured A-list talent so we were determined to get actors attention. Pierce and Susan were always dreams of ours but totally unrealistic dreams - we were a low-budget film with a first time director - not really an actor magnet. With the help of CAA we got the script to Pierce's producing partner Beau St. Clair and she convinced Pierce to read the script. Susan read it at
about the same time (through her agents at ICM) and they both responded to the roles and wanted to work together. I met with them and pleaded my case very passionately and they said yes. It was pretty amazing and a testament to them as artists because not many actors at their level would take such a big risk on a first time director.

We got really lucky with Carey - at the time we were casting she was not well known - she had just finished "An Education" but we hadn't seen it - we had only spoken with one of the producers who said she was brilliant. We saw a lot of girls for this role - girls with a lot more experience than Carey - but no one could touch her as an actress. She is truly gifted and we were lucky enough to get her at a time when she would have us!

W&H: Not many people are drawn to family dramas especially ones that focus on grief. What made you want to tell this type of story?

SF: I'm pretty odd in that I am drawn to family dramas, I guess. I love watching them -- writing them -- making them. I think as a writer you have to prepare yourself for a really solitary experience and the characters you write are going to be your only company so you better like them. I loved writing these characters and without sounding totally
nuts - they became my friends and I wanted to take care of them - to see them through this heartbreaking journey. The most important thing in a family drama is character so the genre seems like a natural fit for me.

I think as a writer you also set out to fix the problems within your own family and this was an opportunity to show a family that stays connected during a very difficult time.

W&H: Did you always have it in mind that you were going to direct the film? Was that a hard sell to investors?

SF: I did always know and say that I would direct this film. That's the advantage to writing your own material - you can attach yourself to your script and no one can take it away from you. It's why I will always try and write my own material. I also prepared a large visual scrapbook inspired by Bruce Block's book on visual storytelling which I showed to the investors and producers. It had photographs of all of my ideas on tone, camera movement, color, space and lines. It gave them confidence in me as a filmmaker.

W&H: Some of the strongest moments in the film are the silent ones- how hard was it to keep those moments in?

SF: It was difficult. There is one shot in the film that lasts for over two minutes and we never cut away from it. I met a bit of resistance to it for sure but I was very steadfast in my reasons for wanting it in the film. For me the actors body language alone set up their broken family dynamic - it was also some of Pierce's best work. I pushed really hard for that shot to stay in the film and it was a risk. As a first time director it's hard to make passionate cases for things when you really have no idea if it will work or not - you're just going off your gut. I'm just thankful my producers supported me and let me keep it in the movie. I've been studying directing with Judith Weston and we did a wonderful exercise in her class where we had actors perform one of our scenes without using dialogue - it was very surprising to see how much could be accomplished with just looks and how tempting it is as a writer to overwrite scenes.

W&H: How bizarre must it have been to have your film get into Sundance the year that your star Carey Mulligan became the "it" girl of the festival. Did it help your film?

SF: I think Carey helped our film tremendously. It was incredibly gratifying to watch people fall in love with her at Sundance. She so deserves it. We went into Sundance with two movie stars and came out with three which was wonderful.

W&H: It's been over a year since the film debuted at Sundance. Talk a bit about how you sold the film and the decision to release it now.

SF: We were lucky enough to multiple offers at Sundance and we decided to go with Senator because of Mark Urman's incredible passion for the film. Senator went out of business a few months later which was heartbreaking, but luckily, Mark formed a new company, Paladin, and we kept the film with him. The ironic thing is that even at Sundance we wanted to release "The Greatest" in March or April. We felt that the fall was too congested and if we waited until after "An Education" was released we could capitalize on Carey's incredible performance and budding success.

W&H: Do you think that Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar win will open up more opportunities for female directors?

SF: I hope so. I think part of the reason it took me so long to publicly call myself a director was because I didn't have many female directors as role models. When I was in high school Steven Spielberg , James Cameron and Spike Lee were the household names. Hopefully now Kathryn Bigelow will be one and young girls will start calling themselves directors a lot sooner than I did. Because that's half the battle.

W&H: What are you doing next?

SF
: I just finished shooting a drama about country music starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund in Nashville. It will be released in the fall of this year by Sony Screengems.

W&H: What advice do you have for female directors?

SF: I think the smartest thing I did was to work with other women. I've only worked with women producers and it has always been an amazing experience. So my advice to the women reading this would be to work with and support other women!