Less than a year ago, Benjamin Leavitt moved to Austin, Texas. An aspiring filmmaker who had graduated from NYU in 2004 and worked in commercials and music videos, Leavitt was looking to get back into the world of narrative film, but had few connections in his new home city. Saturday night, eight months later, he attended the premiere of his new film "The Ventriloquist" at High Line Stages in New York's trendy meatpacking district. It's Leavitt's first big foray into the professional film world, and he went with Kevin Spacey, who plays the eponymous lead role in his new film. (See the film below.)
The story behind this movie sounds like a story for the movies, but it contains some decidedly non-Hollywood accents. Ben, an American, is one of three winners (the other two are from South Africa and Russia) of this year's brand-new Jameson First Shot competition, a partnership between Jameson (yes, the whiskey company) and Trigger Street Productions, the film company headed by Spacey and his producing partner, Dana Brunetti. The three winners were selected out of a pool of several hundred applicants to fly to Los Angeles and film a 10-20 minute short over two days with Spacey playing the lead role.
Fate seems to have shepherded Leavitt through the entry process, which asked for a personal biography as well as a screenplay of more than 5 pages that told "a legendary, humorous story or very tall tale," had a cast of 7 or smaller and, of course, a lead role Kevin Spacey could play. After Trigger selected him as a finalist to film a short scene for the competition (he also had to submit a reel of his previous work), but knowing nobody in Austin to collaborate with before his two-week deadline, Leavitt hit up Craigslist and received exactly three responses. He picked two to be actors in his film and, with the help of a friend who owned a camera and some sound equipment, he "forced it to happen." Leavitt chose the scene, about a son who returns to his father and has to lie about how well he's doing with his life, because he enjoyed the challenge of exploring a character who couldn't bring himself to tell the truth.
In picking Leavitt as the U.S. winner, Brunetti looked as his submission through a producer's lens: would the script be feasible to film in just two days. But in fact, he said, the personalites of the filmmakers mattered just as much, and he and the other judges looked for filmmakers that would gel with the production crew they had put together for the project. "'Don't hire assholes' is the great lesson of the movies," Spacey said.
For Spacey, the competition is part of a larger philosophy he talks about frequently that he calls "sending the elevator back down." Spacey credits his own mentor, the comic genius Jack Lemmon, with instilling in him a sense of duty to pass on the guidance and support that enabled him in his own career. His early supporters, Spacey says, among them Lemmon and directors Joe Papp and Mike Nichols, gave him permission to believe that he could make a living as an actor. "It's what we're supposed to do," he told me.
For Brunetti, the philosophy isn't a sound byte, it's a a reflection of his own trajectory in the film business. Eleven years ago, Brunetti attended the Academy Awards as Spacey's guest, having recently gotten his start in the industry as the actor's assistant. Two years ago, when Brunetti was nominated for Best Picture for producing "The Social Network" and attended the Oscars again, Spacey came as his guest.
In a world and a field where cynicism often holds sway, it's hard at first glance to understand how a project like the Jameson First Shot competition fits into the careers of a major actor and his producing partner. For Spacey though, paying it forward seems be a way of life. "The truth is," he says, "more people should do it. It changes people's lives. Why would you choose to spend your time sitting around in a kidney pool in Beverly Hills collecting residual checks? That sounds boring."
"Not really," Brunetti interjects dryly, but his money isn't where his mouth is.