April 12, 2005 / by: Vail Film Festival
At an extra screening on Sunday morning, Tiffani (formerly Amber) Thiessen and her screenwriter and producing partner, Dean Johnson, discussed her directorial debut, the short Just Pray. Tiffani had more or less dared Dean to write the script, but revealed that she hadn't originally intended to direct it. "We actually had another director in line, financing and everything," she said. "The financing went bye-bye and the director went bye-bye. We pulled our resources together and said, okay, we'll do it on our own. I was actually going to play Corley, which I'm so glad I didn't because my friend Constance [Zimmer, from Good Morning, Miami and Joan of Arcadia] played it so much better. Everyone was like, 'You're closer to Dean more than anybody. You know the story more than anybody. You should be directing it.' I was like, 'Hey, you're right.'
"Luckily I have a very type-A personality and I'm very observant of my surroundings," she continued, speaking about her transition from in front of the cameras to behind them. "I think that's probably because I'm a woman and because I am an actress. I tend to watch what I do, and like any good actor, you constantly watch your surroundings and you listen to your fellow actors. I think that really helped me. Anytime I was on the set as an actress, I was always that girl who sat next to the camera and was like, 'What does that do? What does this do?' And for years and years I was like that, but that was just me being curious. Luckily it paid off in the long run."
Just Pray is an effecting story about a young boy in a Southern town coming to terms with how different he is from the others around him, against the backdrop of his mother's dying of cancer. It features great performances by nine-year-old Zac Gardner and the supporting cast. The film clearly shows Tiffani's talent in directing actors. Tiffani said working with such a young actor proved challenging because it required shooting lots of extra film to capture the performance. "It was a little difficult. You can only work kids for so many hours, and that was very hard. And he had a very big appetite, so he was always hungry. He was a very rambunctious kid."
Discussing Dean and his writing, Tiffani said, "There's something about Southerners. They just know the magic of telling a story. I would sit around the table with Dean's parents, and for hours I would go from belly laughing to crying in an instant."
Dean said that all writers draw on what they know and what's relevant to them, and that the trick is in piecing it all together. "You want people to feel something when you tell a story," he said, "whether they feel happy or whether they feel sad. You want people walking away from the conversation with some kernel of wisdom or some kind of impact. But I'm not imaginative. I couldn't look into the future, like Star Wars or Robots or anything like that. But I know little stories that happen to people around me, and I can repeat that in a way that has some color."
Tiffani said that her biggest surprise in moving behind the camera was discovering the power of editing. She realized just how much the editing can shape or change an actor's performance, for the better but also for the worse, and lamented the lack of recognition that editors receive.
She also noted how lucky she was to have so many talented cast and crew members who were willing to work on the film. "I had the really great gift that a lot of people, luckily enough, wanted to support me and wanted to do this project," she said. "My director of photography is an amazing DP who comes and does this little film for me because he loves the story that's being told, and he believed in me. I had that great support for the film, which not everyone has, and I thank God every day that I did have it. It was really great in that sense, but there were challenging moments."
In a lighter moment, Tiffani at one point accidentally said that she "was" an actress, before catching herself. Laughing, she changed that verb to the present tense and said she still very much wanted to act. (She actually came to Vail while on weekend break from an untitled CBS pilot she's currently wrapping.) She is, however, definitely interested in continuing to pursue directing projects.
"We have a full-length feature that we're pulling together right now," she said. With her directing talent assuredly proven by Just Pray, "now everybody's like, 'Maybe she can do it.'"