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Shana Fest, “The Greatest”: Triumph, Tragedy, and Honest Emotion

Shana Fest, "The Greatest": Triumph, Tragedy, and Honest Emotion

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: “The death of their teenage son, Bennett, in a car crash is almost too much for the Brewer family to bear, not just because his was a life of such promise but also because the impact of his death unleashes the turmoil that was just beneath the surface of their lives. His mother becomes obsessed and can’t let go; his father, in turn, can’t face it at all; and his brother’s secondary status is magnified and entrenched. And when Bennett’s girlfriend appears, the family must come to grips with circumstances that complicate their loss even further.”

The Greatest
Dramatic Competition
Director: Shana Feste
Screenwriter: Shana Feste
Executive Producers: Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Kaufman, Doug Dey, Ron Hartenbaum, Douglas Kuber, Myles Nestel
Producers: Lynette Howell, Beau St. Clair
Cinematographer: John Bailey
Editor: Cara Silverman
Production Designer: Judy Rhee
Music: Christophe Beck
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Carey Mulligan, Johnny Simmons, Aaron Johnson, Michael Shannon
U.S.A., 2008, 98 mins., color

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Shana Feste and I was born and raised in Los Angeles where I live now. I recently watched an HBO special on Chris Rock and he spoke about how fortunate he felt to have a career as opposed to the struggles that came with working a job. I’ve been working jobs for the past 12 years – everything from working as a nanny in Los Angeles to selling Persian rugs and now I finally feel like I’m coming closer to finding my career. And I feel really lucky about that. I still don’t have the guts to tell people I’m a director when they ask what I do but maybe that will change soon.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I wanted to make movies because they were such an influential part of my childhood. After my parents got a divorce I would spend weekends with my father and he would let me and my sister pick out as many movies as we could carry home from the rental house. It usually meant we watched about twenty movies a weekend together including the films my father would pick out which usually were not child friendly. So a typical weekend would include watching “The Godfather”, “Pippi Longstocking”, “Poltergeist” and “Porkies”; I still remember that exciting feeling I would get when we walked into the rental house and how much fun I had with my Dad and sister when we would watch five movies in a row.

I’ve also kept a journal since I was a teenager and was pretty intense about recording everything that I felt. It’s funny to read now because everything was so dramatic and I felt everything so deeply. That could have been where it started. I’ve always written and I really do get attached to the characters I write – so much so that I feel like they will only be protected in my hands – which led to a desire to direct.

How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?

I attended AFI as a Producer and had also attended UT Austin for an MA in Screenwriting. I really loved being in school – even after I graduated I found ways to participate in seminars and filmmaking classes. I applied to every program – every weekend retreat – anything that kept me in a learning environment I was game for. A friend finally said, “ENOUGH”, when I told him about my latest acceptance into a writing program. But I love the academic world- it was a place where I could learn about filmmaking in a safe space and it gave me the confidence to feel more prepared after I graduated.

“The Greatest” director Shana Fest. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How or what prompted the idea for “The Greatest” and how did it evolve?

I knew I had to write great roles if I was going to attach myself as a director to my script. Grief is such an interesting emotion – it takes you to such strange, wonderful, heartbreaking places – I knew that if I was going to write roles that would attract actors grief would be a good subject to explore. So I did quite a bit of research and was very inspired by the stories I heard from parents that had lost a child. There was enough material to write five screenplays. I was incredibly moved by the film “Ordinary People,” and wanted to tell a story about the death of a child in an equally truthful, inspiring way.

I also wanted to bring a family together after such a devastating event. I like to test myself as a writer and writing a movie about a couple that gets a divorce after losing a child seemed too easy. I knew how to write that. I wanted to really challenge myself and portray a family that is galvanized by a tragedy and ultimately becomes closer.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

The biggest challenge was the casting process. Our financiers would only finance the movie if we got a certain number from foreign sales based on our cast. This meant I had to find two A-list actors to star in my movie which is not easy for a first-time director. We spent a very long time waiting for agents and actors to read it. But once it got into Susan and Pierce’s hands the process came very quickly.

What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?

My favorite films are films that make you laugh and cry: “Terms of Endearment”, “Coming Home”, “Harold and Maude”, “Kramer vs. Kramer”. Hal Ashby is one of my favorite filmmakers. Most of my creative influences come from life experiences that I have had – being close to really funny and sad people. Remembering terrible fights that I have been in – what it felt like when I was especially lonely or sad myself. I find watching people in my own life enough to inspire me creatively.

How do you define success as a filmmaker and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Success as a filmmaker for me means being able to watch my movie start to finish and feel like I wouldn’t do anything differently. My personal goal as a filmmaker is to feel this way about a film I write and direct.

What are your future projects?

I just finished a musical drama that takes place in the world of country music. I’m excited about that one.

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