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EXCLUSIVE Interview: Jameson First Shot U.S. Winner Shirlyn Wong Calls Working with Willem Dafoe "surreal"

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood April 19, 2013 at 12:05PM

When Shirlyn Wong received an email telling her she was one of two U.S. finalists for the 2013 Jameson First Shot competition, she was pretty happy. "I was like, great, this is second place, this is awesome!" she told me in an interview last weekend in Manhattan. The email didn't say anything about second place, but Wong--almost by instinct--wasn't about to get her hopes up. "There's so much rejection in this industry," Wong told me during our interview, "that you immediately accept rejection."
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Via Skype, Shirlyn Wong learns she is the U.S. winner of the 2013 Jameson First Shot competition from Kevin Spacey, Dana Brunetti and Carter Swan.
YouTube Via Skype, Shirlyn Wong learns she is the U.S. winner of the 2013 Jameson First Shot competition from Kevin Spacey, Dana Brunetti and Carter Swan.

When Shirlyn Wong received an email telling her she was one of two U.S. finalists for the 2013 Jameson First Shot competition, she was pretty happy.  "I was like, great, this is second place, this is awesome!" she told me in an interview last weekend in Manhattan.  The email didn't say anything about second place, but Wong--almost by instinct--wasn't about to get her hopes up.  "There's so much rejection in this industry," Wong told me during our interview, "that you immediately accept rejection."

In the Jameson competition, for Wong at least, there was no rejection to accept. Just a few weeks later, she would be in Los Angeles directing her winning short screenplay, "Love's Routine" and trying to make sure that Willem Dafoe didn't asphyxiate to death in the plastic bag in which she'd asked him to wrap himself.

The Jameson First Shot competition, now in its second year, takes up-and-coming young filmmakers and gives them a chance to direct a big-name star in a short film they've written. Sponsored by Jameson whiskey and Kevin Spacey's Trigger Street Productions, the competition asks participants to submit a script of no more than 7 pages based on one of three themes: 'legendary,' 'humorous' or 'a very tall tale.'

"I had this idea from school that I really loved," Wong said of the script she submitted to the competition. "This was its chance to get seen on a bigger scale. Not just on a student level, but as a formal production."

Along with the other shortlisters, Wong received a one-page screenplay and had 10 days to shoot it.  It was that super-short film that made her satisfied with what she thought was second place.  "I loved that film that I shot for them. I thought, 'hey, I made this successful piece for 300 dollars, sewing sandbags with a sewing machine.' I was already so ecstatic."

Wong and I sat down to talk on Sunday, after she had been in LA working on her film for a few weeks and had just returned to New York two days earlier. The entire process, she told me, moved lightning-fast: Wong shot her film over the course of two days, on March 30th and 31st.  

"You don't have time to think," Wong said of the shoot in LA. "You just need to make every decision with your gut feeling and your instincts." 

Did you like it? "It's hard.  In some ways it's good, because I think your gut feeling is always the right choice.  But it's incredibly nerve-wracking."

Of course, part of the nerves that Wong felt came from the fact that she would be directing two-time Oscar-nominee Willem Dafoe in her piece. She met him a few days before the shoot began, in a wardrobe meeting. "It's a little weird," she said, "because you've never met him and then you're seeing him put this wardrobe on that you chose." But Wong emphasizes that Dafoe--known for his dark roles and sometimes villainous characters--was light-hearted, funny and game for anything on set, making suggestions and brainstorming with Wong on how to make the piece as good as possible.

This article is related to: Kevin Spacey, Student, IN THE WORKS


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.