Welcome to Me is the story of new millionaire, Alice. With her newfound money, she decides to create her own talk television show where she talks all about her life: past, present and even future. What makes her journey unique is that she suffers from multiple personality disorder and has recently decided not to continue to take her medicine. I was able to talk with director Shira Piven about the film Welcome to Me, working with Kristen Wiig, and the deeper meaning in the film.
Jon Espino: I have to start off by saying that I really enjoyed the film. I think your vision for the story translated very well onto film. Directing seems to come naturally, even though you come from a very influential family of actors like your parents and your brother, Jeremy Piven. What made you choose directing over acting?
Shira Piven: Well I was very serious about acting when I was about fifteen or even younger, up until about my twenties. I did have a hand in directing at my parents’ theater [Piven Theater], but I always had a feeling I would gravitate more towards directing than acting. Then, in my late twenties, I felt the need to be more involved in the whole creative process. I felt in a way that I had grown out of my acting phase, that I didn’t feel the need to do it anymore. There was a very tangible feeling that whatever I was getting out of the acting piece, I didn’t need it anymore. I did have a really strong need to have my hand in the creative piece.
JE: This film isn’t your first time directing a full length feature film either, since you directed and co-wrote an indie comedy called Fully Loaded.
SP: I did, and again, like this one, I wouldn’t call it a comedy, but definitely more so than Welcome to Me. But I have also been directing theater for years. As far as film goes, Fully Loaded was my first feature, but I had worked on many theater productions while also working on little video projects for the theater pieces I directed. I have always wanted to direct a film, although I was a little bit afraid of it. Especially since I grew up in theater, which is a very particular kind of class, and I was a little intimidated by film because of all of the working parts in making movies. When I started doing it, though, I really, really felt like I had finally found my place with film directing.
JE: Was there any difference in directing something you had a hand in writing versus bringing to life what someone else wrote?
SP: It felt very similar to me because I felt very connected to Welcome to Me, and it was really the beautiful writing of Eliot Laurence. I was very emotionally connected with the story and I helped him develop it through all the incarnations.
JE: Do you prefer one of the experiences over the other?
SP: Well, Welcome to Me was kind of an amazing and magical experience. Getting to work with Kristen Wiig and getting to work on such a brilliant script was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. In the future, actually at the moment, I am working on two screenplays with two different partners, and in the future I think I’m being more drawn to directing things I had a hand in writing. Not because of any unhappiness in work on Welcome to Me of course, but I just feel like it’s my next frontier in a way.
JE: Of course not, but there is something much more personally fulfilling being able to bring to life your own ideas and visions.
SP: In the case of Welcome to Me, I wouldn’t say that, but for the future I would have to agree.
JE: Aside from directing and writing, you have also done some acting in your husband Adam McKay’s films. In your household, I’m sure you’re used to comedy on a daily basis. Like you said earlier, Welcome to Me isn’t really a comedy, but it did have more than a few funny moments. I wouldn’t consider it a dramedy, but more like a drama that is casually sprinkled with comedy. Did you ever consider doing it as a straight drama or a straight comedy?
SP: I didn’t really consider any of that because that’s not really how I think. The script was so well-written that I pulled the tone right out of the script. I think that one of my talents from theater directing was that I was an interpreter of the material. My love of the script guided me to the tone, so I felt I had to bring out the the tone I fell present in the script. The truth is that a lot of people read that script differently. Some people said, “Oh, it feels like a long sketch,” which shocked me because I didn’t feel that way at all. Even with everyone seeing the finished product, the reactions are all wonderfully eclectic. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Oh my god, I couldn’t talk afterwards,” or when I came out of the theater, there was someone crying in the bathroom. Then there was an old family friend who was actually an agent, who I thought would just say something, “Great job!” ended up telling me how devastated she was by this movie and that it reminded her of very personal experiences that she’s had with people like Alice, trying to create their own show and have a personal breakdown while it’s happening. Then, I’ve also had people just say it was hilarious. People just had strong emotional reactions on both sides, which makes me feel that the movie is really working.
JE: I felt that even though Alice suffered from multiple personality disorder, she was still a highly relatable character in the range of emotions she felt and how she responded to certain situations. Was that your intention all along?
SP: Definitely, because that’s how I saw her. She was someone I knew and I wanted audiences to feel like they could relate because they knew an “Alice” in their own lives or they were “Alice.” She’s also not likable at times, which especially came to my attention when more commercial-minded people like distributors would come up to me and say she wasn’t likable enough. Which is weird because some of the most popular characters on TV now, on shows like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Nurse Jackie, they are unlikable characters but people love the shows.
JE: Almost like anti-heroes.
SP: Yeah, exactly like that. Personally, I think Alice is very likable, she is one of my favorite people, but sometimes you just want to yell at her and tell her, “Stop! Don’t do that!”
JE: That’s what I enjoyed about the character. All of her flaws humanized her and made her more sympathetic.
SP: Kristen and I both agree that she is very human, and that she was a full character, and Kristen approached it from a very human place. She really loved Alice and she asked more questions from Eliot to get to know Alice on a deeper level. She and I both approached it from a non-comical place, but I chose her for a reason because I wanted someone who was inherently funny, but could approach it from a dramatic point of view so that the comedy could come off kind of naturally.
JE: Was Kristen Wiig your first and only choice?
SP: Yeah, she was. We got really lucky.
JE: The entire cast was great, but above all, Kristen felt like she was perfectly cast. I can’t really picture any other actress in that role.
SP: There was sort of universal agreement on that, which is great. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role. Her sensibility, Eliot’s, and mine sort of just clicked, and it was a very exciting moment when that happened.
JE: We know that Kristen Wiig is an improv veteran, but for Welcome to Me, did she stick to the script or was she given a chance to improv some scenes?
SP: We mostly stuck to the script, but I also made sure we shot as much as we could within the limits of an indie budget and time. We did improvise, and it made a big difference in the final film. I mean, she can’t help it. Kristen is such a good improviser.
JE: Should we expect any outtakes on the DVD?
SP: I don’t know at the moment, but I hope so. I know I’d really like to see them.
JE: Were there any scenes that didn’t make the cut that you would have loved to see in the final product?
SP: Yeah, there are a lot of scenes I wish we could have included, but we have to try to tell the story in the best ways, so sometimes we have to get rid of some scenes we are in love with for the overall flow of the film. One scene in particular was where Deb [Jennifer Jason Leigh] goes into Alice’s apartment and takes pictures of it to design the set. This one was actually in an extended version that we had to create for some other country because they wouldn’t buy the film unless there was a version in existence that was 90 minutes, not counting the credits. So even with that version being out there with the extra scene, I don’t feel that’s the best version of it. I was kind of emotionally attached to this scene so I can’t really remember other ones, but there were a few. Oh, there was a scene with James Marsden where he walks out right before his character goes to confront Alice in the studio, where he as a panic attack, but we had to cut that out.
JE: I think that would have added another layer of depth to his character.
SP: I think so too, but we had to keep the story moving and keep it balanced.
JE: I have to say I did enjoy how the events in Welcome to Me may seem exaggerated to some, but actually do reflect things that have actually happened on television with real celebrities.
SP: The film does indirectly talk about this social media culture. I even feel that it is kind of direct. What’s really cool about the script is that it’s really hard to satirize or fictionalize the turn our social media world has taken, with all the reality TV shows even being fakes.
JE: Definitely. They all value sensationalism over substance. We’re all guilty of watching them. I know I’ve watched a few of them in my time. They easily become a guilty pleasure.
SP: Exactly. There is this amazing show called Married at First Sight where they show these couples in the most tender and vulnerable part of their lives all on TV. Every single part of their relationship is on TV.
JE: Do you think all that saturation desensitizes people to real emotion?
SP: I don’t know. I think it desensitizes people creatively. I think those big blockbuster movies that are always blowing up things are really desensitizing because you’re impatiently waiting for the next exciting thing to happen rather than watching a film with subtley in the story. An interesting question would be if it desensitizes us to our own emotions.
JE: As far as reality TV, we see these people break down on television on an almost daily basis and we don’t even bat an eye because it’s become so commonplace.
SP: I know, it’s true. I think it kind of plays with our narcissistic side. I’m still sort of amazed how fully people are willing to put their entire selves on TV.
JE: Yeah, they put their entire lives on television, completely unfiltered.
SP: That’s why I feel it plays with our narcissistic side. Like there is something telling us that our lives are not worthwhile unless someone is watching.
JE: So do you think Alice put herself on television to give her life validation? Or was it more that she really just wanted to make an Oprah-esque difference?
SP: That’s a great question. I think in her case, it’s a combination of the two, and I think that’s why she such an interesting character. She reflects a part of us that needs to express ourselves, and through her journey she tries to find her own expression as an artist. Alice lives alone in her apartment, so I think she does feel the need to televise herself; she wants to be seen. She also has some issues in her life that she needs to talk about, like the incident with Jordana Spangler she played on the air.
JE: You had two layers in the film because you had to film a TV show inside of the film. Was that difficult?
SP: It was tricky because it did add a whole other layer. The hardest part was doing it on an indie budget and with limited time. You have to have the show part seem almost like a different style from the film part, because even the performances on Alice’s show had to seem different.
JE: I know Welcome to Me just came out on DVD this past Tuesday, and you said you were working on two projects in the moment. Can you tell a little bit about them?
SP: I am working on a collaboration with my brother [Jeremy Piven] and co-writing an adaptation of a short story that he’s had for a while. He would play the lead and produce, but that’s all I can say about it at the moment. I also have two other adaptations, one I have a writer working on that is an adaptation of a novel, and the other is another short story adaptation that I’m working with on with Eliot, actually.
JE: Great! We’ll look forward to them!
Welcome to Me is currently for sale on DVD and Blu-ray, but it is also still available for digital download. If you need any further persuasion to see this film, check out my review for Welcome to Me.