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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview with Actor/Producer/Director Jeff Grace @ NVFF

Interview with Actor/Producer/Director Jeff Grace @ NVFF

Actor/Producer/Director Jeff Grace began his entertainment career on the stage at Improv/Olympic in Chicago, Illinois. After moving to LA, he wrote for IFC's The Henry Rollins Show then later went on to make performance appearances on major TV series Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, Silicon Valley, Narcos and more. As producer, he his titles include: The Scenesters (2009), It's A Disaster (2012), Mothers & Daughters (2016) and Folk Hero & Funny Guy (2016), which was his directorial debut. Jeff recently appeared as a jury member at the 8th annual Napa Valley Film Festival.


You're an actor, director, writer and producer and you own a production company. Is it difficult to be creative and own a business at the same time?

JEFF: For the most part the production company (First Dog Films) I work with supports what I'm doing as a writer and director because I'm searching for new scripts, meeting with new writers whose work I dig, and sometimes supporting projects of other filmmakers whose careers I want to help further along. For the last year or two I’ve mostly been focused on projects that I can direct. Acting, fortunately, has a lot of down time. So even if I'm shooting on set (like Narcos earlier this year) there's enough time to keep on top of projects, get new script drafts done, developing a new treatment, etc. It's really the auditioning of acting that is the more disruptive to a creative process and takes up the most time, because it's usually so last minute. Very often you’ll be told that you have to prep a nine-page scene for an audition with producers the next morning. That kind of blows up an entire night. I now try to write from 7am - 9am every day at the very least. This way, if everything else goes sideways in my day, I got those pages done. I look at the Duplass Brothers (Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass) as a good model. I feel like their work as producers, directors and writers supports what they do as actors, and vice-versa. Particularly as a director, I love keeping a foot in the acting world, because I get to see some of the best directors in the world work on bigger budgets. I think it's really important to be exposed to the craft of the highest levels. And without acting, I wouldn't have that access to watch the best in the business work at the highest level.


Can you tell us about your latest work in the upcoming episodes of Narcos Mexico?

JEFF: Those episodes just dropped last week (although, sadly, my scene in episode eight got cut… which might be best for my Mother’s sake because it was pretty gruesome.)  I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s based on the true life story of Alberto Radelat, an American who’s trip to Guadalajara eventually brought America’s “War on Drugs” to Mexico at a time when the Mexican drug cartels were switching from marijuana to cocaine (the DEA was coming down hard on coke at that time due to the crack violence of the early 80s.)  We shot in Mexico City, and it was one of the best experiences I've had working as an actor working in television. I got to work with director Alonso Ruizpalacios who’s best known for his films Güeros and Museo (which just won a bunch of awards at Berlin and played at Toronto, New York, etc.) Alonso was one of the most collaborative directors I’ve worked with on an episodic series. As an actor, it felt more like an intimate indie feature. However, at the same time, that show has huge action sequences that had to be shot in half the time they would have on a film. He’s a genius. We shot our entire action sequence in half night of shooting. Again, that’s the nice thing about keeping a foot in the acting side of things, I get to see how the best directors work and steal of few of their best tricks along the way. Fun fact, Tenoch Huerta, who plays the terrifying Rafa on Narcos starred in Alonso’s film Gueros. Tenoch is such a commanding screen presence and a talented actor. I think this season of the show is going do big things for his career. The lead writer/producers Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato and Doug Miro also had to write the shows in English and Spanish, so that’s got to add a whole other level of complexity most shows don’t have to deal with. It’s a well-oiled machine down there in Mexico city. They’ve really built something special with that show… not just in terms of the content but the working environment. One positive development in this new streaming era is that Netflix really trusts their creatives to do their thing.


Is it difficult to make indie films among today's majors Netflix, Amazon, etc.?

JEFF: I think streaming is a double edged sword. With all this amazing content available - - mostly in episodic form - - it’s gotten more difficult than ever to get eyeballs on good independent film if they don’t get acquired by one of the major streaming platforms. But that said, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Hulu, etc. are providing more opportunities than ever for independent writer-directors like myself to get into long form storytelling in television (or as the cool kids say, “streaming.”). When I started about ten years ago, no one was tapping indie film directors to make television series. My friend Marja Ryan, just went from having her film 6 Balloons premiering at SXSW in March, to being tapped as the showrunner of the new L Word. So some doors are closing, but others have opened.... But, yes, it is more difficult than ever for a small independent film to get meaningful eyeballs, particularly in theaters. Today you're lucky if you get a ten-city “day and date” release in theaters. I really like what Ted Hope is doing at Amazon. He’s a former indie filmmaker with superb taste who’s heading up Amazon’s motion picture side of things. He’s an amazing advocate for the theatrical experience, so I pray he can continue to be a sturdy rudder guiding the streaming business towards a peaceful cohabitation with theatrical. To me, a successful theatrical run only builds up demand for the eventual streaming release. With such a glut of content out there, I think theatrical is one of the few ways to break through the clutter.


Has the industry changed significantly since you began working in it? If so, for better or worse in your opinion?

JEFF: Digital changes everything. It was the independent film boom of the 90s where I really became a fan of cinema. Films like Dazed and Confused, Swingers, Raising Arizona, Run Lola Run, Blair Witch, and obviously Pulp Fiction, where the films that had me at the local arthouse theater week after week. What I didn’t know at the time, was that it was really the huge profit margins on DVDs that made the studios so keen to put out these more artistically driven films. These were directors making films outside of the studio system and I guess that's the first time I became conscious of the difference between independent and studio films, not just as a genre but as a business model. Back then, if you got to film into a major Film Festival like Sundance or Tribeca, you could have a career making independent films. I'm not sure that is a viable pathway anymore. You see the next generation of independent filmmakers like the Duplass Brothers, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, or Jason Reitman, and doing more work in television than film, which isn't a bad thing. In many ways, television allows for much more nuanced and sophisticated storytelling that isn't economically viable anymore in cinema. I'm in the process of watching The Crown right now, and they're doing things with storytelling that film just can't get into in a two-hour format. Mad Men, where I got my start as an actor, goes to head-to-head with the best films. Girls is the reason I cast Alex Karpovsky. The boundaries between film and television have all but fallen for all except the Leo Dicaprio's of the world… but hell, now that I think of it, he started on Growing Pains.


You recently attended NVFF. What was your experience there?

JEFF: I owe the Napa Valley Film Festival a good deal, because my film Folk Hero & Funny Guy secure distribution after we won “Best Ensemble Cast” at the festival. We premiered at Tribeca earlier in the year, but our path to distribution was a slow burn of almost twenty supportive film festivals until we got a deal. NVFF does so much to support filmmakers. When I was there with Folk Hero we did a 5-day filmmaker retreat at the Meadowood Resorts. Despite happening the day after Trump was elected, it was an amazing experience and I keep in touch with many of those filmmakers. While festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and South by Southwest, are still the top festivals to premiere at, I think Napa Valley Film Festival is in a league of its own in term of this world class cross-pollination of films, wine and food. Marc and Brenda Lhormer have built something really special with that festival. The work the staff and volunteers put into it really has created a one of a kind, first class experience. I hope to go back in the years to come!


Can you tell us what you're working on next?

JEFF: I’m shooting a film next year, called Birdie, which stars an amazing young actor, Jaeden Lieberher (he was the lead in the recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s IT.)  We are still in casting on that. On the television side, I just finished two original pilots for Fox. One is called Hwood which I wrote with Anna Margaret Hollyman and the other is LDR, which I collaborated on with Kylie Condon. The amazing Amey Rene has been scouring the earth finding us an amazing young cast for LDR, Hwood looks to be starting up in the New Year. They are ideas I developed with Jan Livingston and David Worthen, who have been amazing to work with. Jan (who’s also just made her short film debut as a writer/director) and I started our creative careers together back in the early 90s at Chicago ad agency, Leo Burnett, and has been hugely supportive of my career. Fox is currently merging with Disney, so things are definitely a bit up in the air, but I hope they find a happy home within the new shared company… perhaps we’ll have to work in Deadpool and Kylo Ren when the merger is complete.


Interview by Vanessa McMahon


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