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EXCLUSIVE Interview: Jameson First Shot U.S. Winner Shirlyn Wong Calls Working with Willem Dafoe “surreal”

EXCLUSIVE Interview: Jameson First Shot U.S. Winner Shirlyn Wong Calls Working with Willem Dafoe "surreal"

When Shirlyn Wong received an email telling her she was one of two U.S. finalists for the 2013 Jameson First Shot competition, she was pretty happy.  “I was like, great, this is second place, this is awesome!” she told me in an interview last weekend in Manhattan.  The email didn’t say anything about second place, but Wong–almost by instinct–wasn’t about to get her hopes up.  “There’s so much rejection in this industry,” Wong told me during our interview, “that you immediately accept rejection.”

In the Jameson competition, for Wong at least, there was no rejection to accept. Just a few weeks later, she would be in Los Angeles directing her winning short screenplay, “Love’s Routine” and trying to make sure that Willem Dafoe didn’t asphyxiate to death in the plastic bag in which she’d asked him to wrap himself.

The Jameson First Shot competition, now in its second year, takes up-and-coming young filmmakers and gives them a chance to direct a big-name star in a short film they’ve written. Sponsored by Jameson whiskey and Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street Productions, the competition asks participants to submit a script of no more than 7 pages based on one of three themes: ‘legendary,’ ‘humorous’ or ‘a very tall tale.’

“I had this idea from school that I really loved,” Wong said of the script she submitted to the competition. “This was its chance to get seen on a bigger scale. Not just on a student level, but as a formal production.”

Along with the other shortlisters, Wong received a one-page screenplay and had 10 days to shoot it.  It was that super-short film that made her satisfied with what she thought was second place.  “I loved that film that I shot for them. I thought, ‘hey, I made this successful piece for 300 dollars, sewing sandbags with a sewing machine.’ I was already so ecstatic.”

Wong and I sat down to talk on Sunday, after she had been in LA working on her film for a few weeks and had just returned to New York two days earlier. The entire process, she told me, moved lightning-fast: Wong shot her film over the course of two days, on March 30th and 31st.  

“You don’t have time to think,” Wong said of the shoot in LA. “You just need to make every decision with your gut feeling and your instincts.” 

Did you like it? “It’s hard.  In some ways it’s good, because I think your gut feeling is always the right choice.  But it’s incredibly nerve-wracking.”

Of course, part of the nerves that Wong felt came from the fact that she would be directing two-time Oscar-nominee Willem Dafoe in her piece. She met him a few days before the shoot began, in a wardrobe meeting. “It’s a little weird,” she said, “because you’ve never met him and then you’re seeing him put this wardrobe on that you chose.” But Wong emphasizes that Dafoe–known for his dark roles and sometimes villainous characters–was light-hearted, funny and game for anything on set, making suggestions and brainstorming with Wong on how to make the piece as good as possible.

That’s where the plastic bag comes in.  “Love’s Routine” centers on Dafoe’s character and his relationship with a (much) older woman. Out of respect for Wong’s not-yet-premiered piece, I’ll refrain from saying how, but Dafoe eventually finds himself wrapped in plastic and left on a curbside.

“I told him, don’t worry, we’ve figured it out, it’s going to be safe,” Wong told me. “But we hadn’t really figured it out.” Dafoe suggested he put himself in a planking position and wrap the plastic around himself, but the shot list had already been settled on and he would have to hold himself in an uncomfortable position to get the shot right. Dafoe didn’t hesitate. “I was thinking about the easiest way to do it instead of what would look the best,” Wong said.  “But he was really into saying, ‘This is visually the way to do it.  Let’s do it right.'”

Wong’s film will premiere in June in her native New York. The competition has two other winners, one from South Africa and one from Russia; each of those winners’ films will premiere in their home countries as well. Wong hasn’t met Spacey yet–he wasn’t on set during the shoot–but his producing partner, Dana Brunetti, was.

Wong is finishing up her masters’ degree at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Asia in Singapore, although the only requirement she has yet to complete is her thesis film. For now, it’s in the form of a short, one that she hopes to use to explore ideas to later develop into a feature. I ask w

What will the short will be about? She looks at me with a crooked smile: “It’s about a mobile stripper who drives around in a pink RV.”  The script is finished, and she plans to shoot the film in the fall in Oregon, where her work on a farm a few years ago inspired her idea for the short.

And after that? “A lot of creation isn’t the creation part, it’s really a lot of criticism. It’s really easy to want to drop out of it. You’re making all this stuff but no one’s watching it. But there’s a passion to do that. I’m just going to keep making stuff and hope for the best. They’re like little babies–you try to mold them into what you want and you send them out there and hope for the best.”

When I spoke to Spacey, Brunetti and last year’s U.S. winner Ben Leavitt last June, Spacey told me that he sees the Jameson competition as an opportunity for “sending the elevator back down.” He credits his own mentors, first among them Jack Lemmon, with giving him the confidence to pursue a character as an actor. As for fostering a new generation of artists, he told me earnestly: “It’s what we’re supposed to do.”

For Wong, the process was a learning experience that was both exciting and, as she puts it, “surreal,” especially going from the shoe-string effort of filming the one-page shortlist screenplay to a shoot with a full production team. She met with the film’s composer in LA; she oversaw the sound design mix on the Fox lot. “I was like a little kid, like, can I walk around?” She was even given her a director’s chair with her name on it, which Wong never sat down in: “I thought, I don’t need this!”  In addition to the trappings, though, Wong described the shoot in warm terms, particularly her work with Dafoe.  “He’s just an amazing actor. Everything he gives you is great.”

There was one thing, though, that Wong didn’t get that much of out of the competition: Jameson. Despite its name, she only received a single bottle. In all likelihood, that will be remedied at the premiere in June.

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