It was Halloween in New York the night that Maggie Kiley stepped behind the camera for her first day of shooting her debut feature “Brightest Star.”
“We had to shoot at the Strand Bookstore before it opened,” says Kiley of the evening that would begin navigating through masked revelers on the way to set and end at four a.m. at the literary landmark just near Union Square. “I remember saying, going down there to start work that night, ‘Wow, if I can get through this, I can get through any of it.”
As the final film attests, Kiley got by just fine and if there hadn’t been such a defining moment for the filmmaker, “Brightest Star” might not have been as insightful as it is in telling the story of a nameless twentysomething (Chris Lowell), who goes simply by the name of “The Boy” in the film’s credits and whose recent breakup with a woman (Rose McIver) he envisioned spending the rest of his days with sets off a wave of personal introspection for his personal and professional life, which grow more intertwined when his new girlfriend Lita (Jessica Szohr) suggests he works for her father (Clark Gregg). While the Boy sways wildly between jobs, partners and other commitments that he can’t continue to put off, the depiction of the rocky transition from aimless college grad to a responsible adult is handled with the delicacy and levity of someone who has undergone a life change of their own.
In Kiley’s case, that change was actually moving from in front of the camera as an actress to behind it as a director and shortly before the film opens in theaters and becomes available on video-on-demand, she spoke about her own personal and professional transitions in making “Brightest Star,” how working with a cast that includes Clark Gregg and Allison Janney boosted her confidence and why there would be no sympathy for anyone who ruined a take on her shoot.
How did you get interested in directing?
I still adore acting. The last movie I did was “All Good Things,” which was Andrew Jarecki’s movie with Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling, as an actress. And I remember just starting to have these experiences on set where I would sit around and not do anything, for lack of a better way of saying it, and I just started looking at everything from the other side, thinking about how they were setting up shots. It really started to intrigue me. And I asked to direct a little short film for someone I knew a few years ago and just the experience of directing that film, it was almost like a whole section of my brain came alive that I didn’t completely know was there. Then I went to AFI and did this amazing little directing program for women. That’s really what solidified it for me as my new path.
You actually adapted “Brightest Star” from a short you made called “Some Boys Don’t Leave.” Was it natural to adapt it into something longer or did it just seem like the thing to do as your first feature?
I never made the short with the intention of making it a feature, which I think helped because if you’re just focusing on a short as a complete event, it makes the most sense. We had a great run on the festival circuit with that short and it was amazing to see how this breakup story resonated with so many different audiences. We played in my hometown in Rochester, New York and most of the audience was over 60 and it was like the best house we had. It was so interesting to see how, no matter where you are in your life, everyone can remember or connect to that first major dumping. That experience brought us to think maybe there is a bigger story here and then it was more of an investigation going in and breathing more life into it to see what the other story was going to be.
When making a film that dealt with the ways men and women handle relationships, was it helpful to write it with a man to get those dueling perspectives in the film?
That’s a great point. Yeah, I could never write those Mets jokes, first of all. [laughs] That’s like…I give [co-writer Matthew Mullen] all that credit. Obviously, for me, it’s hugely important. I don’t feel as a female filmmaker I’m only going to tell stories of women. I’m really excited that my first film is told from the point of view of a man, but it is important for me that any female that comes onto screen is really fully realized and three-dimensional and unique in a way and I love that the film has three great women. But absolutely, Matthew could bring a perspective or an understanding of the Boy. When he’s confronted by Lita, I’m of course really sensing what Lita’s going through, but he’s also really clear on what the Boy is experiencing at that time, so it was a really wonderful collaboration. He’s a great, great guy. We wrote it long distance for the most part and I was really proud of what we came up with.
One of the interesting realizations I had watching the film was when you discover that when you see the first meet-cute between the Boy and Rose McIver’s Charlotte in an astronomy class, the Boy’s more enduring relationship may come from the class. How did that come about as a structural element of the film?
We liked the idea that there was a class that [the Boy] really dug, but he completely didn’t get and it seemed to really make sense that it was the study of the thing furthest outside of himself because so much of what the Boy is encountering in the film is looking beyond to get the sign of what’s meant to happen next as opposed to figuring it out from inside. As the themes of it just grew deeper and bigger, the more the film found its way.
I understand you were pregnant just before shooting. Was it interesting to make this film about someone who’s having trouble committing to a particular direction in their life after going through such a big life change yourself?
What’s funny is I feel like his moment of being rendered immobile and not knowing what to do next is something everybody has throughout their lives. I’m past my twenties at this point and I still find these times of looking for something or someone or some job to make it all make sense for me. But yeah, I gave birth to my son and we shot the movie two months afterwards, so my son was very much a part of the process of this film and that was just a really wonderful part of the job. I was able to bring him to set and I think it made everybody step up their game a little bit because he wasn’t ruining any takes, so nobody else could. [laughs]
There’s a spirit of optimism here that you don’t normally find in stories like this since if someone is in over their head in New York, it’s usually the city that’s to blame. Here the odds aren’t stacked against him as much as he’s stacking them against himself. Was that conscious decision or just something I picked up on?
I think it’s a combination of both. I always wanted there to be hope and you said it really well that it is that thing where everything around him really is okay and even though the breakup is so hard, it’s really not the one he’s meant to necessarily be with. I lived in New York in my twenties and I didn’t experience a cynical New York so much. Maybe that was just my naiveté or big dreams, so it made sense for me to present this city and that world in that way.
The city seemed like an important element, though, since you decided to shoot in all the boroughs but one.
We did. The only one we didn’t do was Staten Island and I’m surprised there wasn’t some something we had to go there for. We also shot it on 35mm, so I can’t believe we did it, but I’m very proud of the film.
Your cinematographer Chayse Irwin literally brought some really interesting angles to the mix. What was it like to work with him?
Chayse is a really quite an artist. We had worked together on the short and even though the subject matter seemed on the surface like a coming-of-age romantic story, something that maybe had been done a million times before visually, we wanted to mine much deeper, greater depths of the interior life of what this guy was going through. That’s how a lot of that composition came to be. Chayse works incredibly well with natural light.
Is working with actors an exciting part of the job, having that background yourself?
I love that part of it. I feel the most comfortable in those conversations because I know what they’re experiencing. I wouldn’t say the easiest, but collaborating with actors the part that I feel the most at home with. It’s great too because I get to work with my friends or people who I’ve known or looked up to for years. My next film, I wrote a part for Bill Macy and it sounds like he can come and do it. That’s such a thrill for me to get to write characters for people who I know are so incredible at what they do.
It doesn’t look like it, but I imagine there were limited resources since this was your first feature and yet you’ve got an incredible supporting cast with people like Clark Gregg and Allison Janney. Obviously having a strong script was a factor, but is this a situation where you’re calling in favors?
On a movie like this, especially a first feature, people obviously respond to the material in some way, but I think they’re really getting onboard because they believe in your vision and you as a filmmaker. Everybody understands the value of having some recognizable faces in your supporting cast or in your main cast, but I wouldn’t want anybody to come in just as a favor. I really think they’re coming on because they see the potential in you and that hopefully in 10 years or five years, she’s going to give me a super-awesome job.
Clark I’ve known for a long time and he liked the part. He was in New York doing a play and it was a great fit for him. Allison really liked the part also and she had worked with Chris [Lowell] on “The Help,” so I think they come in because they believe in what’s happening. That just affirms your choices in making the movie the way you’re making it, so it’s really quite wonderful.
“Brightest Star” opens on January 31st at NoHo 7 in North Hollywood and the Quad Cinema in New York and will play across the country in the weeks to follow. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here. It will also be available on demand.