Jason Perini on turning down Top of the Lake to direct Maggie Gyllenhaal
Earlier this year, just before actor Jason Perini submitted a script to the Jameson First Shot competition, he sat down and wrote a letter to his wife.
"I wrote a little document that I printed out and gave to her, saying I was going to consider quitting this whole [acting] thing in January 2018 because I was just getting tired of things," Perini told IF.
A week after that, the father of three auditioned for a role in the second season of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake – and booked it.
Unfortunately that plum gig clashed with the dates for First Shot, and Perini decided to pull out.
The annual competition is fronted by Kevin Spacey's Trigger Street, and grants three filmmakers the opportunity to make a short – this year starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Perini was convinced to defer flagging his lack of availability by his agent Sophie Jermyn, who collaborated on a reveal you can watch above, in which Vespas drove past the actor toting posters for his film.
"When I first saw my name I thought, now I have to call my agent and say this happened. My heart actually sank because I knew the scheduling would tear me apart."
Perini eventually opted to turn down Top of the Lake, a decision complicated by the arrival of Perini's third child, only four weeks old at the time.
"I think I did make the right decision in the end I had three days to pack and then get on the plane. So it was a quick turnaround, and I was in LA for a month. So three days notice to spend a month in LA away from three kids."
Key crew had been locked in by the time he got there.
“Once they'd read my script and I'd been chosen, the ball started rolling. When I got there I jumped on, because the machine was already moving pretty fast. One big hurdle was that choosing locations for my shoot became really complicated."
Perini's first duty in LA was to audition actors for the male lead to play opposite Gyllenhaal. He settled on veteran day-player Adam Kulbersh.
"As soon as he did his read I thought: you are it. I had to have a shortlist of five to send to Maggie, and I basically said: please choose my guy. And she said: great."
Perini's fellow winners hailed from Sheffield and LA respectively, and shot their shorts first.
"The three films shot back to back. The first shot for two days, then a day off, then two days and so on. Mine was the third. And I met Maggie on the second day of the first shoot."
"Then the day before my shoot, she invited me to her house with Adam, and we rehearsed and chatted through the script. We read it through twice and just chatted about the story."
"That's also when I noticed a bunch of changes that I needed to make in my script. Both for budget and scheduling reasons, but also to help the story along. I found myself changing things on the fly which was also a good lesson. The producers had let me know we would need to tweak some things in my script and Adam and Maggie were so helpful in working through the script with me.”
"In the script originally there were two Chinese restaurants, a diner, an Italian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a kids carnival and a couple of streets. And we did actual shoot all those things, we just cheated them quite a bit."
The director describes his lead actress as "really friendly and approachable and happy to chat. She said, I saw your video and your accent made me laugh."
Perini's main influence was Todd Solondz's Happiness, particularly its opening scene, a two-shot in which a couple break up at a restaurant.
"My film's about how much you should try to change or alter yourself for another person in a romantic relationship. Maggie gets broken up with in the first scene. In the middle of the film there's a marriage proposal. Then the end of the film is them going their separate ways. Set in two different Chinese restaurants."
Perini also namechecks Paul Thomas Anderson, particularly Punch Drunk Love, as well as Wes Anderson, "for his dialogue".
"My film is super deadpan, and I wanted the opening scene to feel like we were walking through mud. A lot of the actors we got in to audition sped through the scene. I had to say, okay, I want you to play the scene again, and if you think it's going too slow, I want you to slow it down even more."
The director describes feeling "comfortable and at ease about the whole process" all through pre – right up until he arrived on set and felt like throwing up.
"I must have been hiding it, and then five minutes before it was all about to happen, part of me thought: I can't do this. It was a weird two minutes. All the anxiety I'd had over two weeks condensed into two minutes."
Once the nerves settled and the two-day shoot began, Perini spent most of his time with his DP.
"I spent more time thinking about where the camera was going to be than Maggie's motivation, because she did that anyway – she didn't need me to direct her at all. There was some stuff that we had different ideas on, that we got to chat through, but she brought it on every single take. She and Adam never dropped a line."
According to the filmmaker, the whole process "was like lying in a hammock".
"I was relying on the crew's creativity and their work because I'd told everyone what I wanted and then on the day they just made that happen. I did realise I hadn't allowed myself to sit down for the first day and the first half of the second day. So when I sat down I thought, ah, I now feel comfortable, but then you've got four hours left and it's over."
After two and a half weeks of prep and two days of shooting, Perini started cutting with editor Martin Pensa (Dallas Buyers Club).
"I spent two days with him there, then I came home and he continued to send me stuff. When I left we sent the cut out."
So what was Perini's reaction to the first cut?
"I'm aware of the first cut blues, because I've made two other short films and I hated both of them when I first saw them, and it was no different with this one. I watched it and I felt a big sinking feeling."
When notes came in two weeks later, they were straightforward.
Gyllenhaal and Dana Brunetti, Spacey's producing partner, had only two requests: swap a moment in a scene that was a little clunky, and take some time out of the film.
The short now runs nine minutes and four seconds, and will debut later this month on Paramount's lot, with Perini flying over to attend the screening.
After that the films go on Jameson's site and on Vimeo, though Perini is hoping to push for festival play.
"I learnt a lot about directing and filmmaking and Hollywood, but it was far from a real experience of being a director. I was treated so well and had so much support that I know wouldn’t be the normal way things would play.”
The Paramount screening will be heavily attended by Trigger Street personnel, and Perini says they've encouraged him to send scripts their way. Given that Spacey and Brunetti have just become studio moguls, that would seem like an encouraging prospect.
Before he flies over at the end of this month, Perini will bid adieu to Sydney by showing that you can have your cake and eat it: doing a couple of days on Top of the Lake, in a smaller role than the one originally floated.