Vanessa Parise is an actress, writer and director. When asked to direct the new romantic comedy The Wedding Chapel starring Shelley Long, she knew her writing skills would come in hand. Script sat down with Parise to discuss how she uses her writer’s mindset to work with actors from behind the camera.
Script: How did you come on board with this project?
Vanessa Parise: My agent set up a meeting for me with the production company in Los Angeles after they had responded well to my films. And I was lucky enough to get to shoot in beautiful Vancouver!
Script: How do you go about putting your stamp as director on the script? Do you get involved with the writing process?
Vanessa Parise: My forte is telling stories about strong, sensitive women in high stakes situations, balanced with comedy. The more personal, the better. With each project, I do my best to express something about which I feel passionately. Something I want to share with the world.
I get very involved in the writing/rewriting. First, we look at the characters to push them as far as possible to their own unique extremes. Next, we look at each scene to see that it is necessary either to move the story forward or to develop the characters in some meaningful way. Once we have that in place, I like to brainstorm comedic situations and moments. And finally, a dialogue pass so each character has a specific, refined voice.
Script: Do you have a particular style of shooting that you employed here?
Vanessa Parise: Stylistically, I like to keep the actors active and the camera moving, with lots of foreground and depth of field. For this movie, the primary love story was flashing back and forth between the past when the couple fell in love and the present 35 years later, so I used 5D cameras to saturate the memories, giving them a full, rich look… to evoke that (unparalleled!) feeling of falling in love.
Script: Since you are a very experienced writer yourself, do you find it’s easier for you to convey ideas? Is it important to have a locked script early, or do you leave some things to work out on set?
Vanessa Parise: Well thanks! Yes, I’m very aware of structure and characters, and I have an easy shorthand with writers. I start with big-picture thoughts and refrain from page notes until we get that right. When I give my input, I find it’s most helpful if I explain what I’m going for and let the writers creatively work out the how/why. In terms of timing, it's important to get a locked script as early as possible or the crew gets confused as to what they’re prepping, and time (our most coveted commodity) is wasted. Once we’re filming, there isn’t time for major changes. I’m extremely organized, and I do leave some time allotted for small changes, as long as I can still wrap on time and on budget. I won’t do major revisions on set, but I like suggesting dialogue changes and alternative jokes.
Script: How do you manage the actors' changes? When they suggest new dialog, character changes or scene changes, walk us through that process?
Vanessa Parise: I welcome input from actors. If it's a big character change, it has to happen during prep. For example, on The Wedding Chapel, we had a read-through and afterward we all sat around the table and spitballed ideas. I felt we needed more romance between the mother (played by Shelley Long) and her love interest, so I added the picnic and tandem bicycle scenes to the script. Once we’re in production, I like to do the scenes as written first, and then to try dialogue changes and some improv (Thank you, Second City!)
Script: What did you expect from the writer on set?
Vanessa Parise: Since we were shooting on location, we weren’t fortunate enough to have the writers on set for this production. I really like having them there, as they have so many great ideas to contribute.
Script: You have directed three features and a short film, a web series, and now you are doing television too. Kudos! How is it being a female director different/more challenging in Hollywood where the town is mostly run by men?
Vanessa Parise: Thanks! I'm still so surprised that the numbers of women are so low. The DGA only has about 13% female directors, with women only helming 5% of feature films and 15% of episodic TV shows. And I think there is approximately one female character for every three male characters in family screenplays. I’m not sure why. For a while I was working outside the system producing and directing independent films. Now that I’m working in the studio system, I will be curious to see. I definitely support other women in our field, and I look forward to changing those numbers together!
Script: What's your favorite part about the writing/directing process?
Vanessa Parise: I love the overall collaboration. Getting to work with a group of professionals who are all experts in their own fields, bringing to life what started as a seed of an idea. I also really enjoy working with actors – the process of discovering what works for each actor to create the safest place for them to do their best work. And most of all, I enjoy making the set a positive, supportive place for all (cast and crew alike).
Script: What else are you working on? What's next for you in the writing/directing department? I know you are also doing television now, as most of our best writer/directors are. Can you talk more about that as well?
Vanessa Parise: I begin prep on Monday for another movie, which will wrap just in time for TV selling season. I sold a spec comedy to ABC Family and a pitch to ABC Studios last year, and I’m excited to jump in again. It’s fun! So far, I’m working on an hour comedy/drama spec and a couple of half hour pitches that I’m really excited about.
Script: How can writers work better with directors?
Vanessa Parise: I think working with a director is similar to working with a producer. I’d say hear the notes you’re given but know that there are many ways to execute the same result. So, feel free to find what works best for you and the story you are trying to tell. And don't get too attached to anything. The process is in constant flux depending on shifting needs/availabilities/you name it, so nothing can be precious.
Script: What's your advice to aspiring screenwriters? Advice in general?
Vanessa Parise: Write something you know, like really really know. And that you love. Also, know the marketplace – where you are hoping to sell the pitch or script.
In terms of general advice, keep writing and writing and writing. What is it, 10,000 hours that is supposed to make you an expert at anything? So get writing, and persevere!
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