By George Riddell Editor
Photos Courtesy of Jameson First Shot
Directing your first film would be a big moment for any person. Now imagine doing it with Oscar nominee Uma Thurman playing the lead role. That was Jessica Valentine’s life this summer in Hollywood.
Valentine is the 27-year-old filmmaker from Bellingham, Washington, who was selected as the lone American winner in this year’s Jameson First Shot competition. In this, the competition’s third year, Valentine was chosen along with Henco J of South Africa and Ivan Petukhov of Russia to direct actress Uma Thurman in an original short film. Valentine’s film is entitled Jump.
The experience was “the best thing that’s happened to me,” says Valentine, who explained she was chosen because of the depth of her experience, as well as the quality of her screenplay. “I’ve done every job in filmmaking, from PA to producer—except director.”
Valentine first learned about the global competition last fall. Under the rules of the competition, in order to qualify, screenplays had to fit within one of three themes: Legendary, Comedy or Tall Tale. Valentine chose the Tall Tale theme in writing Jump, about a psychiatric patient named Wendy (Thurman) with a unique obsession.
With the knowledge that the lead character would be played by Thurman, Valentine developed a complex character for her screenplay, which she describes as “Forrest Gump meets Big Fish.” “She’s mentally disturbed, is the best way to put it,” says Valentine of the character.
Since Thurman had a major say in deciding which screenplays would be chosen in the competition, Valentine did extensive research to learn about Thurman—specifically what kind of roles she chooses. “Not a love story, that’s for sure,” says Valentine.
The multi-stage application process was rigorous, especially once she learned she had been short-listed. On a Wednesday in early February, Valentine received a call from the competition organizers to inform her that she was one of seven Americans who had made the short-list. Just 20 people in all had made it this far. She was given about a week to shoot and edit a short film, create a video bio and assemble a collection of her other work. Oh, and it was Seahawks Super Bowl week, so her usual network of friends, colleagues and supporters were, well, preoccupied. But she rallied her supportive network of about a dozen Washington film professionals and got it done.
As this year’s featured star for the First Shot competition, Thurman joins the featured actors from year one, Kevin Spacey, and year two, Willem Dafoe, as Jameson First Shot collaborators. Spacey continues to serve as the competition’s creative director, and his long-time production partner at Trigger Street Productions, Dana Brunetti, is producer of the First Shot films. All of them have become engaged in the program in order to provide unique opportunities to promising young filmmakers.
“What excites me about being involved with Jameson First Shot is that I love the idea of finding and discovering young talent,” Thurman commented. “It’s what makes the film business alive.”
Valentine made the cut as one of nine finalists. And then, in April, came the Skype call with Kevin Spacey telling her she had won. The winners were notified almost a month later than in previous years. Valentine says that by that point, the competition “had taken over my life. It was disbelief, it had been going on for so long.”
In early June, Valentine arrived in L.A. to make her film. She spent a month there, including pre-production, the shoot and post.
“I tried not to have any expectations. I also tried not to be intimidated,” she says.
Valentine worked with the film’s casting director, Chadwick Struck. “Aside from Uma,” she says, “I had almost complete control over the casting of the other roles.” She worked closely with Struck on all aspects of casting, and stressed from the beginning that she wanted to have good people in the cast, in addition to just good actors.
“I wanted him to know that this was my first time,” Valentine explains, so she didn’t end up with any on-set talent issues. In the end, she says, “all of the actors were so supportive.”
“I didn’t know a single person,” she says. “Some people thought I was a PA.” That included some of the actors, like Anthony Ray Parker (The Matrix), who didn’t make the connection when she showed up unannounced at his wardrobe fitting. “But we got along great,” says Valentine.
She also made an important connection with the other two First Shot filmmakers. Ivan Pethukov, an ad agency senior creative executive from Moscow, and Henco J, an actor and mime from Pretoria, shared the unique month-long L.A. experience with Valentine. “We’re from completely different backgrounds,” she says. “But there was a really strong camaraderie between us.”
As for directing Uma Thurman? Valentine says she learned a great deal from the actress.
“She played a really complicated character, which required a lot of research to write and had to be passed along to Uma in a very short time. It was a lot to ask of her,” she says. “We both had to learn quickly how the other person works. And I was also learning how to direct at the same time. But I could be very honest with her, and she reciprocated. It was a very positive experience.”
Valentine only met Thurman two days before filming started. “It was the coolest moment of my life,” she recalls. “When she said my name, I realized ‘Oh my God, this is actually happening.’”
Despite the fact that they had limited time together to discuss the film and Thurman’s role before production started, Valentine says the actress was generous with guidance about being young and female in Hollywood. “She gave me lots of great advice and was very supportive,” she says.
The creative process for the Jameson First Shot competition included a highly compressed post-production experience. Valentine worked with an online editor, but also did her own editing on the side, in order to keep the process moving. She shared the same post crew with the other two filmmakers, since all three projects had to be edited in a two-week period.
At the end of the nearly 10-month journey, Valentine’s exuberance is still obvious. “It was an amazing, incredible experience,” she says. “It’s changed my life.”
This year’s films were scheduled to premiere at a Jameson First Shot event in Los Angeles during late July.
George Riddell is Executive Editor of Media Inc magazine and media-inc.com. He is President-Producer/Director at BigHouse Production LLC. In addition, he serves on the board of directors of the American Advertising Federation in Washington DC and is the national chairman of the American Advertising Awards committee.