This month’s choice for AWFJ’s SPOTLIGHT is director Shira Piven, sister of Entourage’s Jeremy Piven and daughter of the esteemed Chicago-based actors and instructors Byrne and Joyce Piven. Her second feature, Welcome to Me, opens on May 1. The femme-centric dramedy, starring Kristen Wiig, is about a mentally unstable woman who uses her millions in lottery winnings to buy her own TV talk show. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, with Variety calling it “startlingly inspired” and “breezily bonkers.” Read on…
BORN TO THE BIZ
Show business is in Shira Piven’s blood. Her parents met in the ‘50s and were co-founders of the Playwright’s Theatre Club (working alongside Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris and Paul Sills), which eventually spun into the Second City Repertory Company.
Born Oct. 8, 1961, she grew up in Evanston, Ill., where her mother and father’s acting workshop’s star-destined students included John and Joan Cusack, Aidan Quinn and Lily Taylor.
PROACTIVE BI-COASTAL PRODUCTION
Besides becoming an acting teacher herself – Jeremy credits his older sibling with being “the first one to really break down for me what acting was … she was very patient” – Shira launched her directorial career on stage. She founded New York’s Water Theatre Company in the ‘90s, where she adapted and directed Pilgrims, based on three short stories by Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) and produced by Mike Nichols. She has overseen more than 20 productions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Her feature directing debut, 2011’s Fully Loaded, made the festival rounds before being released by Starz. The femme-centric comedy about two single moms sharing a night on the town won the audience favorite feature award at the Palm Beach International Film Festival as well as best feature at The Rivers’ Edge International and the Carmel Art and Film festivals.
Filmmaker husband Adam McKay, who has partnered with Will Ferrell on the Anchorman movies, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, was a producer on Fully Loaded. And he and Ferrell are two of the producers behind Welcome to Me.
Shira Piven describes Fully Loaded in an interview on the Hulu Blog as being “like eavesdropping on two women just talking to each other. And it’s centered around an out-of-the-blue sexy moment that happens in a bar. But for one of the characters, it turns out to be one of those defining moments in your life when you’re ready to make a change.”
In Welcome To Me, Piven’s aim was to make people laugh but also provide some pointed commentary about mental illness and the ongoing fascination with reality TV shows. As she told The Chicago Sun-Times, “When I was making this film, things like Network, The King of Comedy and Being There were very present for me during shooting. I wanted to capture the tone and feel of those movies – especially Network – to make people think about today’s television media and how it intrudes on our lives. Welcome to Me is really about the collision of mental illness and our reality TV culture.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER:
Any filmmaker who provides the immensely talented Kristen Wiig with a chance to continue to expand her range as an actress is worth applauding. On top of that, Piven has gone above and beyond in continuing her family’s tradition of contributing to the arts.
It is also admirable how she and her husband, Adam McKay, support one another’s projects. Piven has appeared in small roles in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers. But her biggest impact on her husband’s career has been her coaching of their then 2-year-old daughter, Pearl, when she appeared as Ferrell’s foul-mouthed landlady (“I want my money, bitch!) in the 2007 Funny or Die short, The Landlord. The video stands at 82-million views and helped turn the comedy site into a popular destination spot on the Web. A sequel of sorts, Good Cop, Baby Cop, soon followed.
Says Piven of the effect on Pearl, whose older sister, Lili, has showed up in the first Anchorman (she tells Ferrell’s character, “You’re an awful man, Mr. Burgundy”) and Step Brothers, “It was pretty crazy. People approached us about having Pearl be in a Jackie Chan movie. And she was only 2.” She says they had no idea that the clip would go viral to such a degree. “But Pearl seriously gets a kind of adulation thing from friends for being in that, back when she obviously had no idea what it was all about.”
Meanwhile, Pearl’s mom might be making her much-deserved major splash soon if Welcome to Me gets the audience it deserves.