Kevin Spacey—the actor, writer, director, and crooner—is also one hell of a mentor. Just ask Benjamin Leavitt, the 29-year-old NYU graduate who submitted a script to the Jameson First Shot online film competition (hosted by Spacey's production company, Trigger Street) and beat out 700 other U.S. filmmakers to direct the two-time Academy Award-winning actor in his own short film, The Ventriloquist. (Two other winning shorts starring Spacey have already been produced in First Shot contests in South Africa and Russia.)
We got the inside scoop on the competition—and insights into the biz—from Spacey and his business partner Dana Brunetti (pictured together below) at the New York City premiere of The Ventriloquist.
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DETAILS: How many pages must you read to know that a screenplay is bad?
Kevin Spacey: I can usually tell if a script is going to be good by Page 2. In many movie [scripts], the opening of a film falls into a sort of cliché. The only other thing we wanted to avoid [in this competition] was people who brandished weapons.
Dana Brunetti: What he's specifically talking about is that somebody in a video bio pulled out a gun and said, "I like to shoot."
Kevin Spacey: [Laughs] "So you must hire me!" But also, when you're casting or putting together a production, you want to work with people who are going to be reasonable and who you're going to get along with. For me, the most important thing was to try to create an atmosphere where the filmmaker felt embraced and comfortable and not intimidated. That was one of the most satisfying things: finding myself in these three different locations and looking across the set at a young director with headphones on, talking to a cinematographer about the shot he wanted. I just thought, "How incredible is it that a few weeks ago he was in Austin with little knowledge that he might have won this competition?" And now he's with a professional crew in Los Angeles making a short film. That's exactly what you're supposed to do if you become successful—it's the mantra and the philosophy that Jack Lemmon passed down to me, which is that you send the elevator back down.
DETAILS: You've often mentioned that you hate the fact that you can't open unsolicited packages that might contain great scripts—for legal purposes. Does the same rule apply in e-mail?
Kevin Spacey: That's actually the reason triggerstreet.com started: Dana and I had been working together for 14 years, and I was frustrated by the fact that I was doing really well and being told that I can't accept a submission unless it's from an agent. I was being penalized for doing well, and I didn't want that pipeline that goes to emerging talent to be cut off. You can't come from the point of view that the big agencies have the best material all the time. You know, some of the best material that I did in my career was the stuff that got chucked over the wall from first-time directors, first-time writers, first-time producers who took chances on me when I was starting out. And even though people can make movies on their iPhone, if you don't live in L.A. or New York, or you don't have an agent, how do you get your material seen?
Dana Brunetti: I think everyone has more of an opportunity now; we live with technology and the ability to put things on YouTube and build an audience on Twitter and Facebook, and if it's good, people will find it.
Kevin Spacey: We just found out that one of our finalists in South Africa—who didn't win—decided to go make their movie anyway. They put it up online, and we were like, "That's exactly right!"
Dana Brunetti: And they tweeted it to us, and we ended up watching up the film. And normally we would have never seen that film.
DETAILS: In The Ventriloquist, your costar is a puppet. Was it hard to learn how to control the thing?
Kevin Spacey: It's complicated. People don't realize you've got four levers: one for the mouth, one for one eye (which can shut), one for another eye, and one that can shut all the eyes. And then you have to move the head as well. I spent about two weeks learning how to do it, and I literally watched Magic, the old Anthony Hopkins movie, and a couple of Twilight Zone episodes that were about puppets.
DETAILS: Had you gone through any kind of puppet training like that before?
Kevin Spacey: No. I had always been fascinated by it. If you go online and you type in "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" on YouTube, it's hysterical. It's a wonderful comedian-ventriloquist who does a great act. He's got several puppets, but Achmed is particularly hilarious.
DETAILS: Will The Ventriloquist and the two winning films from Russia and South Africa (Envelope and Spirit of a Denture) be screened at other festivals?
Dana Brunetti: Some festivals won't allow ones that have already screened online, but we're going to try to get them into as many festivals as we can.
Kevin Spacey: And the truth is, the three films are really good, and they worked out really well. When you start something like this, you never know what you're going to get. It was a little bit like when Dana and I started triggerstreet.com. We were joking that we had no idea whether or not we were just going to get wedding videos.
Dana Brunetti: And porn.
Kevin Spacey: And we did get porn. One porn video went up, but they took it down before I got to see it. And let me just say that if there was any major difference in terms of other kinds of competitions, what I would discourage, and never wanted us to do, was to expose the filmmakers. That's what I felt like the series Project Greenlight did—it exposed the filmmakers as very inexperienced and sort of created drama, but the movies they made weren't very good. It was more like exploitation for a reality show as opposed to what we want to do, which is to nurture and protect the filmmakers, so that they end up looking the best that they can possibly look. That's an important role as a producer.
Dana Brunetti: That said, we did shoot everything behind the scenes and we will be releasing it online. [Everyone laughs]
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—James Oliver Cury is the digital editorial projects manager at Details.com.