Interview: Shira Piven, Director of “Welcome to Me” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, October 17th, 2019  

Shira Piven, Director of “Welcome to Me”

Filmmaker’s Second Feature Stars Kristen Wiig and Linda Cardellini

May 01, 2015 Web Exclusive
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In Welcome to Me, Kristen Wiig stars as Alice Klieg, a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder who hasn’t turned off her television set in over a decade. Save for her longstanding friendship with childhood bestie, Gina (Linda Cardellini), and regular sessions with her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins), Alice lives like a shut-in, choosing to stay home and re-watch taped episodes of Oprah until she’s memorized them word-for-word. When she wins an $86 million dollar lottery, she uses that windfall to finance her own cable show named “Welcome to Me,” where she broadcasts her personal hang-ups and childhood traumas to an increasingly-engaged audience. 

Welcome to Me is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. This black comedy's fantastic ensemble alsio includes James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Joan Cusack, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Director Shira Piven sat down to talk with us about the movie’s development, balancing comedy with drama, and her own creative upbringing.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: The broadest part of your background is actually in theatre. Do you find your directing style changes when you’re switching between stage and film?

Shira Piven: I think definitely, first of all. There are certain carry-overs. The kind of theatre I would direct was very ensemble-oriented, and very movement-oriented, but within that, the acting, and the sincerity of the acting, and the depth of the acting was very important to me. So that carries over to film. People would say, “Oh, your style of theatre is so visual.” And you know movies are a very visual medium, so I feel like I’m working in only a slightly different medium, doing film. There are more working parts to film, and it’s trickier, and it takes over your life for a longer period of time, but the creative process is so similar.

Welcome to Me’s screenwriter, Eliot Laurence—you have a creative relationship with him that goes back some time. Can you tell me how it began? I believe I’ve read that you'd instructed him in improv.

Yeah. I actually was living in New York, and I had a theatre company and I also taught my own, strange brand of improvisation. He walked in to my class one day, and he’d never taken an acting class before. He was so striking right away. He took it for a while, and we started working together. And then he starting working with a very good friend of mine, and they became a kind of comedy duo together. My husband, [Anchorman and Step Brothers director] Adam McKay, produced their show for a while and, I think, was trying to get them a TV gig. They eventually, as a team, wrote for The Big Gay Sketch Show together.

I heard through my friend, Stephanie, who was his partner, that they were writing movies together. But I’d never read any of Eliot’s screenplays, and it’s such a different skill. And then a friend of ours—a mutual friend—said to me, “Hey, Eliot wrote this amazing screenplay, and you should read it. It’s called Welcome to Me.” And I read it, and I fell in love with it. 

What about the screenplay made you so instantly smitten with it?

It’s hard to explain how I felt about this, because I’m sure people work on projects and they say, “Oh, I love the project!”—but you usually work on projects because you love them. But, something about Eliot’s script was so good. At the time, I think he was kind of an undiscovered talent. There’s something about when a writer has that spark, and they have an original voice, that’s so exciting. I felt like I could hear that original voice, and I loved the material.

And the character of Alice was so exciting. I was always think of Annie Hall, just as being that kind of iconic, fantastically interesting, odd, rich female character that we don’t really get to see that often. I think Alice is one of those characters.

It was originally written as a TV pilot, I believe?

Yes. So our mutual friend actually said, “You should read this pilot that Eliot wrote.” Sometimes I leave that out of the story because it’s not that important. He wrote this story that was fantastic. I think he wanted it to be the kind of pilot for a show that would be on HBO or Showtime; kind of a more interesting cable show. I read it and I said, “I can really see this as a movie. And I really want to direct it. Would you consider re-writing this as a screenplay?” And he said yes. At the time I didn’t even know if I was advising him to do the right thing. I just really felt like it was a movie, and I wanted to work with him. And it was not that big of a leap from that original pilot to this screenplay.

It’s a comedy that deals with some very heavy and dramatic subject matter. How did you approach balancing the two, so that the comedy and the drama didn’t rub up against each other the wrong way?

I think that’s something that I’m good at. It’s connected with my background. My parents were my first acting teachers: I grew up in their theatre and as I got older, I studied theatre in a lot of different places. But they were my roots. They came from a method acting background, but then discovered the world of improvisation through Paul Sills and Viola Spolin. Viola Spolin originated the Theater Games, and was kind of the grandmother of improvisation, in a way. And so I grew up having this really kind of rare combination of training in theatre. From a young age, I was doing Shakespeare and I was doing improv. [Laughs] And so this material made sense to me. It kind of demanded a loose, improvisational, comic sensibility, and a dramatic sensibility. It was all in the script, and I felt we just had to bring it out and cast the right people.

Speaking of casting, Kristen Wiig was a good choice for the character. Was she someone you had initially imagined for the part, or had you seen her in something that led you to believe she was right for it? She’s done dramatic roles recently, but probably hadn’t by the time you were starting work on this.

When she did Bridesmaids, it was so exciting. It was so good. She was really funny as a sketch actress, and she had smaller roles in other things, but when I saw her in Bridesmaids it just made me really happy. That was way before I ever read Welcome to Me, but she was just so touching, and very real. She was a real person up on screen, and she was very funny at the same time.

It’s really hard to imagine anyone else doing it. Lots of people have said that, but for me, I felt I needed an actress in that role who was inherently comic—who just lived in a comic space—but also had depth to her. And a sadness, and ability to do drama. Kristen definitely showed all of that in Bridesmaids. Something about her definitely needed to begin in a comic space, just to be able to play that role. Not because she had to be funny or do funny jokes, but because there’s something odd about Alice and slightly heightened about the character. I felt Kristen was perfect. 

The ensemble you surround her with is great. Linda Cardellini, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Cusack—how did you go about filling in the rest of your cast?

They’re just good actors, and we got very lucky. I’ve worked with Tim Robbins before, and with Joan Cusack, in theatre. I’d never worked with Linda before but she’s great, and I love watching her in things. Same with James Marsden and Wes Bentley. We got lucky because I was fairly new as a director, but with the combination of the script and Kristen, people were like, “Oh, this is something I want to do! I’ll make it work in my life.”

There’s the show-within-the-film. Did you find yourself watching a lot of daytime TV to prepare yourself for directing those segments?

Well, my husband, Adam, wrote for Saturday Night Live for several years, so with his job—and with the movies he does, like Anchorman and Talladega Nights—he kind of has to be immersed in pop culture. I’m kind of the opposite, but I feel like through him I’ve gotten this pop culture education, and I’m so fascinated. We would watch all kinds of reality TV shows together—we still do—like Naked and Afraid, which is fantastic. [Laughs]

I feel the research came naturally in my life, because we were doing it already. And now my kids are watching reality TV shows too, occasionally—we don’t let them watch a lot of TV, I have to say—but one of the shows, after the fact, that my 10-year-old watches, is called Dance Moms. The woman who runs the dance studio—I swear to you, in this last season she has this kind of nervous breakdown during the course of the show, and it made me think of Alice. Because this lady, she’s a dance teacher and choreographer, and she runs this dance studio which is being televised. On some level, she has to want to be doing this, but there’s a part of her that cannot handle it. And the part of her that can’t handle it is freaking out and falling apart. And that’s part of the reason I fell in love with this script: because it just hit a nerve. With all of this stuff we watch on TV: we watch people self-destruct, and we can’t turn it off. It’s kind of terrible, but we also get to sort of study human nature. I think if we don’t watch too much of it, and we watch it with the right kind of critical eye, it can be okay. But it’s certainly kind of scary.

One of my many favorite lines in the movie is when we James Marsden’s character is talking to his lawyer, and she asks what the heck he is doing. He just says to her, “She wants to be televised.” I feel like with Facebook, with Twitter, and with the millions of TV channels at our fingertips, that’s kind of our mantra lately.

You mention your family, which brings me to my next question. I recently rewatched “The Landlord.” [The 2007 viral video directed by Adam McKay featured Will Ferrell verbally sparring with a foul-mouthed toddler, played by Piven and McKay's daughter, Pearl.] There’s a moment when the little girl is stumbling away with her beer, and she says “Come on, mommy.” Were you there, coaching her?

That’s me. I was there. [Laughs]

Would you mind giving me some background for that video, from a mother’s point of view? I’m expecting my first child—a daughter—in a few months, and I’m looking forward to having that sort of fun with her. You have to love having such a creative family.

Oh, gosh. Having a creative family is fantastic. That’s kind of what I know, because I came from a family that is very creative, and my current family is very creative. In similar, but really different ways.

Adam made “The Landlord” totally on a lark. Pearl used to repeat things, and he thought it would be funny to have a baby able to repeat—he was like, “If she can repeat things, she can repeat crazy things.” And he had this idea of this baby landlady. He did it for fun, and I was there just helping out that day. The fact that it became a viral video—it was not what we were looking for. He actually said he would not have done it if he’d known that would happen. But it was definitely fun to make! [Laughs]

***

Welcome to Me is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alchemy. For more information about the film, check out its website



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