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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."
Jameson First Shot
Jameson Jameson First Shot

That's where the plastic bag comes in.  "Love's Routine" centers on Dafoe's character and his relationship with a (much) older woman. Out of respect for Wong's not-yet-premiered piece, I'll refrain from saying how, but Dafoe eventually finds himself wrapped in plastic and left on a curbside.

"I told him, don't worry, we've figured it out, it's going to be safe," Wong told me. "But we hadn't really figured it out." Dafoe suggested he put himself in a planking position and wrap the plastic around himself, but the shot list had already been settled on and he would have to hold himself in an uncomfortable position to get the shot right. Dafoe didn't hesitate. "I was thinking about the easiest way to do it instead of what would look the best," Wong said.  "But he was really into saying, 'This is visually the way to do it.  Let's do it right.'"

Wong's film will premiere in June in her native New York. The competition has two other winners, one from South Africa and one from Russia; each of those winners' films will premiere in their home countries as well. Wong hasn't met Spacey yet--he wasn't on set during the shoot--but his producing partner, Dana Brunetti, was.

Wong is finishing up her masters' degree at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Asia in Singapore, although the only requirement she has yet to complete is her thesis film. For now, it's in the form of a short, one that she hopes to use to explore ideas to later develop into a feature. I ask w

What will the short will be about? She looks at me with a crooked smile: "It's about a mobile stripper who drives around in a pink RV."  The script is finished, and she plans to shoot the film in the fall in Oregon, where her work on a farm a few years ago inspired her idea for the short.

And after that? "A lot of creation isn't the creation part, it's really a lot of criticism. It's really easy to want to drop out of it. You're making all this stuff but no one's watching it. But there's a passion to do that. I'm just going to keep making stuff and hope for the best. They're like little babies--you try to mold them into what you want and you send them out there and hope for the best."

When I spoke to Spacey, Brunetti and last year's U.S. winner Ben Leavitt last June, Spacey told me that he sees the Jameson competition as an opportunity for "sending the elevator back down." He credits his own mentors, first among them Jack Lemmon, with giving him the confidence to pursue a character as an actor. As for fostering a new generation of artists, he told me earnestly: "It's what we're supposed to do."

For Wong, the process was a learning experience that was both exciting and, as she puts it, "surreal," especially going from the shoe-string effort of filming the one-page shortlist screenplay to a shoot with a full production team. She met with the film's composer in LA; she oversaw the sound design mix on the Fox lot. "I was like a little kid, like, can I walk around?" She was even given her a director's chair with her name on it, which Wong never sat down in: "I thought, I don't need this!"  In addition to the trappings, though, Wong described the shoot in warm terms, particularly her work with Dafoe.  "He's just an amazing actor. Everything he gives you is great."

There was one thing, though, that Wong didn't get that much of out of the competition: Jameson. Despite its name, she only received a single bottle. In all likelihood, that will be remedied at the premiere in June.

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

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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.