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Kevin Spacey, Benjamin Leavitt and Dana Brunetti On Their Short Film, The Ventriloquist

The Ventriloquist.jpgOn Saturday night, I drank more Jameson than on any St. Patrick's Day in recent memory. The occasion was the premiere of young Austin filmmaker Benjamin Leavitt's short, The Ventriloquist, at Highline Stages. Leavitt, the U.S. winner of the Jameson First Shot film competition, presented by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti's Trigger Street Productions, not only has the distinction of beating out all the other American filmmaker hopefuls who submitted but he had the rare opportunity to direct Spacey. In Leavitt's film, completed in just two and a half days, Spacey stars as a lonely ventriloquist (is there any other kind?) who relies on his dummy, the sharp-tongued Mr. Higgins, to engage with the world. (See the short but powerful flick embedded below.) 

Before the screening and a Q&A in which Spacey talked about his admiration for mentor Jack Lemmon, who always encouraged him to "send the elevator back down" to help nurture fresh talent, I caught up with the Spacey, Leavitt and Brunetti at the Bowery Hotel. After back-to-back interviews, and I suspect a few Jameson and sodas, the three chatted with me about the importance of short filmmaking and the hand-eye coordination challenges of mastering a puppet.

Kevin and Dana, you had so many different submissions to wade through. What was it about Ben's that you were drawn to?

Kevin Spacey:
One thousand dollars in the envelope.

Dana Brunetti: As a producer I always look at the story first; if it keeps my attention and it's something I want to continue reading.

(Leavitt and Spacey both start laughing.)

See what I deal with? These guys are drinking too much Jameson, so I'll just get into it. With the constraints of this contest, I wanted to look and make sure that it was efficient; not too many locations, not too many cast, no cars blowing up, no car chases and no idiots like this laughing. It's a good thing you won this already, [Benjamin.] Then we narrowed it down and got a director's bio to get a bit of their demeanor and a read to see if they'd gel with the crew. Clearly Ben did since he's drinking with us and acting like an asshole. Then we had them shoot a scene, just to make sure they had a handle on the camera and could tell a story.

(More laughs as Spacey nuzzles the hotel room's teddy bear in Leavitt's neck)

Would you fucking knock it off? This is the worst interview ever.

You guys are just sick of interviews at this point...

KS: No, we're just having a very good time.

DB: Then, this dumbass [Spacey] and I discussed intently and determined which film would be best for him as an actor and us as a production. It was a difficult process. We actually got quite a few we were seriously contemplating.

KS: I was looking as an actor of all the selections that I had to choose from. What did I think were the best three very distinct parts to play, and more importantly, give directors roles they could actually direct me in, where there was something to really do and I wasn't showing up as a cameo.

Screen shot 2012-06-05 at 4.07.36 PM.png

Above: Kevin Spacey, Benjamin Leavitt and Dana Brunetti

Now Ben, obviously working with these guys has had to transform your career. Can you try and describe what the process has been like for you?

Benjamin Leavitt: It was a surreal, incredible experience.

DB: Like right now?

BL: Like right now. Pretty surreal. Not many people my age and in this stage in my career get to direct a movie with Kevin Spacey. But the support was beyond what I expected. There was very little pressure. I made a really good movie despite these guys.

Kevin and Dana, what did you learn from being a part of The Ventriloquist?

KS: I learned how to do puppetry and I spent two weeks with Kenny, who is called Mr. Higgins in the movie. It was incredible. I had never done that before but I was always fascinated. It was complicated because I had never really known what was inside of them but there are four levers you need to know how to deal with. The eyes are separate units; you can blink one or both. I was partly fascinated by that and went and watched Anthony Hopkins's Magic, where he played a ventriloquist and a few Twilight Zone episodes, with Cliff Robertson in one. There was just something about what the script was about, what the story was about, that I thought really gave the opportunity for [Ben] to make a great film.

DB: I think I learned a lot in the last five minutes. Going back to the process. To take this project and to never have really met the filmmaker except for a few interviews on Skype, and not really develop the script and then have them come in and hit the ground running into a process that's so condensed and so fast and have the product come out so well is impressive.

 KS: There's something to be said about not having all the money in the world. It forces people to be creative. There's something great about only having two days to shoot.

Short film contests seem to be popping up more and more lately.

DB: It's all because of technology and the YouTube generation. Everybody can make a short film and it's an amazing opportunity in a lot of ways if you have talent. It also results in a lot of crap. The key is being able to filter. The majority of stuff online is crap, but what floats to the top is good and has talent behind it.

Ben, do you feel that your job becomes more challenging with such a cluttered landscape?

There's a lot more stuff out there but if you have a good story people will be drawn to it. More distribution is a good thing but you still have to work your ass off and hustle.

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