INTERVIEW: Cumming and Leigh Celebrate Their
"Anniversary Party"

by Jessica Hundley

(indieWIRE/ 06.08.01) -- When Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh met during the Broadway production of "Cabaret," they knew they
had more in common than just their shared passion for acting.

"We had a similar view of the world and of the
industry," says Cumming, "as well as the same sense of
humor." They two also shared a mutual desire to write
and direct. With that as their goal, Cumming and Leigh
set out to create a project that would integrate
elements of not only their own life, but that of their
friends as well.

Two years later, the fruits of their mutual labor can
be seen in the digitally shot ensemble piece "The
Anniversary Party
," an unapologetic examination of one
night (the 6th anniversary celebration) in a young
couples' precarious marriage. Back together after a
year hiatus, Joe and Sally (Leigh and Cumming) are in
the midst of a stubborn reconciliatory attempt, trying
their best to save their relationship, the fragility
of which becomes more and more apparent as the evening

Created by Leigh and Cumming to highlight the talents
of their many acting friends, "The Anniversary Party"
boasts a formidable cast. John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline,
Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey and Jennifer Beals all
make appearances. Funny, poignant and thoughtful, "The
Anniversary Party" is an undoubtedly solid debut.
Cumming and Leigh, donning the numerous hats of
director, actor, writer and producer, seem to have
found that each one is a near perfect fit. They spoke
with Jessica Hundley in Los Angeles about
improvisation, relationships and digital video.

indieWIRE: How much did you give the actors room to improvise, considering that the parts were written for the specific actors, or was it entirely scripted'

"I do think it's a good thing as a director to ask the
cast to contribute something; they're not often asked
that and it seems to bring something to the project if
they're involved."

Alan Cumming: It was entirely scripted, there was no
improvisation at all. We did think at one point that
we were going to make it like that, but the schedule
just didn't allow for it. The only scene that wasn't
completely scripted was the toast scene. We gave them
a few weeks to think up a toast to make to us and we
wanted the actors to come to that scene fresh. It was
like homework; they went off and it was quite late in
the shoot when we shot that scene and I think it
brought a nice element to it. I think they were
nervous and embarrassed in the same sort of way you
would be in that situation. But it wasn't improvised
either; it was practiced. I do think it's a good thing
as a director to ask the cast to contribute something;
they're not often asked that and it seems to bring
something to the project if they're involved.

All the parts were written for the particular actor,
some of them not far removed from themselves, so we
were actually quite lazy. But I think there was a
richness that the actors brought to the characters
because of that. It's nice to write for people that
you know and people who have very strong
personalities, because you give them a character and
you know they're really going to flesh them out when
they arrive on set.

iW: I think that the film does a god job at exploring how difficult it really is to have a successful relationship, particularly with those stresses of career and insecurity.

Jennifer Jason Leigh: That's really what the movie is
basically about and we don't tie everything up and let
you go home with a simple ending. You honestly don't
know what will happen to the characters, if they'll
stay together or not. We examined many marriages in a
very closely observed way and you get the sense that
all these marriages are flawed, but in some way, they
sustain. Everyone's been in a relationship where
they've said incredibly cruel, wounding things and
still remained together. Relationships are just hard;
they're hard work. And only a best friend would reveal
the horrifying way in which they perceive your life.

iW: What was the impetus for this project' What made you decide to work together on something like this?

Cumming: Well, the impetus was our friendship and how
we wanted to do something together. We had worked
together in "Cabaret," but our characters hardly ever
interacted there. We wanted to do something together
after that and Jennifer had done "The King is Alive"
in Africa and she had come back very excited about how
quickly and cheaply you could make a film now with DV.
We wanted to do something with our friends. That was
how it came about. We have very similar tastes, so a
lot of the time it was just us riffing off each other.
When something felt good, we'd write it down. In the
later stages, one of us would do a polish then fax it.
We talked a lot on the telephone. But before that it
was always together.

iW: And was it the same thing when you were directing? Was it easy to delineate who did what?

Cumming: Again, it was very easy. I storyboarded the
whole thing and we were incredibly prepared to the
point of being anal. And it was good that we were,
because there are so many things you have to take on
when you're both making a film and acting in it. We
were so far ahead of most films because most of the
actors were already friends. That helped in the actor
to actor and the director to actor relationships. So
it was very easy. We would talk after every take. No
decision was ever made without discussion.

iW: What in your acting experience do you think
prepared you for directing something like this?

"I'm not waving the flag of digital video. I think it
can look really ugly and we worked very, very hard to
make sure it didn't."

Cumming: It certainly made me aware of what actors
need and of when actors overstep their roles. It's a
fine line of getting them to do what you want without
wasting anyone's time. I think we made an environment
where everyone felt secure and supported. It was very
egalitarian set where no one was treated any better
than anyone else. Everyone was treated very well, the
crew included. We made everyone wear name labels the
first few days so that everyone would know everyone
else's names. Just simple things like that made a real
difference to the atmosphere of the set. We did this
to remind ourselves why we were doing this job in the
first place. And I think that was the case with
everyone else.

iW: Tell me a little about the ecstasy scene.

Cumming: It was used as a device to get the plot to
take a turn. The party is very controlled and sedate,
then suddenly this drug is on hand. And people have to
first of all take a leap to decide to take the drug
and with this particular drug people tend to lose
their inhibitions, to say things they wouldn't
normally say. Their defenses go down in so many ways.
It's a drug that makes people feel good and they still
are able to communicate; they don't fall to the ground
and see goldfish swimming through their fingers. I've
never had any drug that did that, actually. If there's
one thing I hate, its bad drug acting in films. So we
had to talk about what the effects were and do a
little research. We had an ecstasy symposium, so to

iW: Alan, you've directed some things for the BBC
which were on 35mm; how did you enjoy the process working with digital instead?

Cumming: It has many good things and many bad things.
I'm not waving the flag of digital video. I think it
can look really ugly and we worked very, very hard to
make sure it didn't. Our DP (John Bailey) was great
and we tested everything: cameras and transfer houses.
There's a sort of language of video that we tried to
avoid; we just shot it like a film, with the movement
and the excitement of the film. We were very spare
with camera movement. The great thing about it is that
it's cheap and you can work much faster and it's much
less intrusive. Each take on film is very tense; it
costs so much. On video everyone is very relaxed. I
think it worked quite well with this script. I don't
think it works with every script but with this one I
think it worked quite well.

Leigh: It was problematic in parts, but I think in the
end it worked out really well. We used a new Hi-Def DV
camera. We had a total of 4 cameras and in almost all
the scenes we used at least two cameras and for a few
of the scenes we used all four. The camera we used had
just come out, so there were glitches and it was
definitely tricky, but we had an amazing
cinematographer and we did so many tests. I was really
involved in the editing as well. We edited on an Avid
and I was there everyday, ten hours a day. I'm the
tech geek of the pair. I really enjoyed learning about
all the equipment and trying to make the film as
beautiful as possible.

iW: Do you think summer audiences are ready for an intimate film like this?

Leigh: I certainly hope so. I think we're certainly
starved for it. I think the pure escapism of
blockbuster summer films is great and valid and what
we equate with the summer months. But then I think you
become sort of hungry for something smart and funny
and human and something that you can relate to in a
more personal way. And although this movie has a lot
of "movie" things about it, it's really much deeper
than that. It's becomes much more universal. And then
you have the neighbors, who were in many ways
represented the audience. People make assumptions
about celebrity and about lifestyles and
self-reflection and how real you can be and objective
you can be. And we play upon that.