‘Gonzo Girl’ Helmer Patricia Arquette Leads Wave of Actors Turned First-Time Directors

Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Patricia Arquette was cast in her latest, most challenging role by an unlikely group: her colleagues.

“For many years, the crews I worked with were always saying, ‘You should direct,’” Arquette says of helming her first feature, the Toronto world premiere “Gonzo Girl.” “Or actors in a scene would say, ‘Was that good? Should I ask for another take? Do you think there’s anything I should try?’ You get to a point where you’ve learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of how filmmaking works, and a lot of directors just aren’t as familiar with the process of acting as an actor is.”

The star, who’ll be feted with TIFF’s Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award on Sept. 10, is far from alone. It’s hard to remember a season when so many notable actors have stepped behind the camera for the first time.

In Toronto, five world premiere sales titles boast actor-turned-director debuts: Arquette’s coming-of-age tale “Gonzo Girl,” based on the semi-autobiographical novel from writer Hunter S. Thompson’s young assistant; Chris Pine’s comedy “Poolman,” starring Pine as a pool cleaner who uncovers a “Chinatown”-style conspiracy; Kristin Scott Thomas’ drama “North Star,” featuring Thomas as the mother of three sisters (Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller and Emily Beecham) with romance issues; Anna Kendrick’s serial killer study “Woman of the Hour,” with Kendrick as an actor who meets the film’s deadly protagonist on “The Dating Game”; and Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk’s slasher movie spoof “Hell of a Summer.”

Not to be outdone, the Venice Film Festival has first features from six actors: Jack Huston’s boxing drama “Day of the Fight,” Micaela Ramazzotti’s Italian drama “Felicità,” Anaïs Tellenne’s French romantic drama “The Dreamer,” Adrien Beau’s French vampire tale “The Vourdalak,” Lee Hong-Chi’s Chinese ex-con portrait “Love Is a Gun” and co-director Afef Ben Mahmoud’s international mystery “Backstage.”

Why is this explosion happening now? One likely reason: in a theatrical space dominated by comic book and videogame adaptations, directing lets actors capitalize on their fame to get original, challenging work financed, bring passion projects to life, take more control of their career or just improve upon the type of genre films they want to see. “Our number one conversation was how annoying it is to see new teen movies, and how badly our age group is represented,” “Summer” co-helmer Finn Wolfhard told Variety. “And we’re like, ‘Why don’t we just do it?’” Pandemic-inspired soul searching among actors has probably added fuel to the fire. Some may have also been inspired by the success of stars like Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood and Ron Howard, many of whom have garnered Oscars for their efforts behind the camera.

“Kristin Scott Thomas has said that ‘North Star,’ was loosely based on her childhood memories, and I read that Finn Wolfhard has been considering directing since he was ten years old on movie sets,” notes TIFF director of festival programming and cinematheque Robyn Citizen. “Of course, there have always been actors making the transition into directing since early cinema. [Given the] number of major shifts in the film industry during and since the pandemic, the opportunity to have more control over the projects you are working on and explore another aspect of creativity must be incredibly attractive.”

Most of these new directors star in their films, and while some develop projects to give themselves better roles to play, that’s not always their motivation. “I didn’t decide to star in [“Gonzo Girl”’”],” Arquette says. “It was kind of a prerequisite of financing, which is usually the case for actors.”

Arquette was initially offered the role of the writer’s manager, which she plays in the current version, more than five years ago. “It was a very different script then, and it just didn’t feel like the right fit. But I gave them a bunch of notes and thoughts that I had.” Well after she helmed two episodes of her hit NBC series “Medium” in 2009, “I guess my agent [told the producers that] I was interested in directing something, so they came back and offered it to me as a director.” She also became a producer. “The script went through a lot of iterations, and it took many years to get financing, available actors, that whole wild dance to the finish line.”

Once Willem Dafoe came aboard as the Thompson-esque character and “Daisy Jones & the Six” star Camila Morrone was cast as his assistant, “we only had three weeks of prep, and I think 21 days of shooting. It was pretty hairy,” Arquette recalls. “It was kind of a personal challenge to myself — and a commitment I made to the actors — that I would always protect their performance and that my [editing] decisions would be for performance. I trusted my instincts on acting and the moments that I felt were real. I always saw it as an acting piece, and an homage to this 1970s world [of the main character] and a coming-of-age movie from the ‘90s, kind of this mix between the two. It’s more of a drama, but it’s also a wild, fun ride.”

The film is set in 1992, as the young assistant tries to get the celeb writer to finish his manuscript, and it allowed Arquette — who rose to stardom at the time — to examine that era. “[I explored] what it was like to be around celebrities in the nineties as a young woman,” she says. “What is a young woman’s beauty through the eyes of other people? What was that as a currency? And what is beauty when you’re the new, beautiful person and the last beautiful one gets displaced?”

She shared other similarities with Morrone’s character, who’s seen with a “Daughters of Alcoholics” book before heading to the writer’s home. “I was more of an observer of that wild behavior and lack of boundaries” in the ‘90s than a participant, Arquette says. “I was always fiercely guarding my innocence, pretty prudish and uptight. [But] I was also comfortable with bringing people in my life — probably because my father was an alcoholic — who were out of control.

“Nowadays we’ve been making movies that are really obvious: ‘We’re going to tell you what to think [and] what everyone thinks about this.’ There’s no nuance, which I feel older movies had,” she adds. But in her film, “there’s this thread about dependency and codependency, how they’re both very destructive, how boundaries start getting blurred and then crossed. What are your choices when you’re not aware of your low self-esteem?”

The star was partly inspired by her sister Rosanna Arquette’s directing debut, “Searching for Debra Winger,” a doc about older actresses in Hollywood. “I can’t say that directing — this sounds terrible — was my dream. And I don’t know if that’s because I grew up at a time where I [almost] never worked with women directors. I didn’t see them. [When I was] a mom at twenty years old and having to hustle my ass off to feed another person, doors were opening, I was getting [acting] jobs and didn’t feel like I had the luxury to go to film school . . . [But] people like Geena Davis have done a lot of work to open the door for women directors. I feel like I’m only here today because people have pushed for that, and want to see things through a female gaze.”

The first-time directors in TIFF and Venice’s official slates aren’t alone. In the Toronto market, CAA, Range Media and FilmNation have a private work-in-progress screening of “Better Things” star Pamela Adlon’s pregnancy comedy “Babes.” Highland Film Group is shopping “Game Night” actor Billy Magnussen’s survival thriller “The Ridge” And the fest has sophomore directing efforts from Viggo Mortensen (“The Dead Don’t Hurt”) and Michael Keaton (“Knox Goes Away”), while Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” follow-up “Maestro” plays Venice, the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest.

AGC Studios chairman Stuart Ford, who is selling “Poolman” and “Hour” with CAA, sees it as a big advantage. “When you have a major acting talent deciding to stick their neck out and make a career leap into directing, you can usually be assured that they’re going to be hugely committed partners and work their socks off promoting it. [With others,] none of those things are a given.”

There’s just one wrench in the works: AGC’s films and “North Star” don’t have SAG-AFTRA interim agreements, keeping actor/directors and their casts from promotion. But Arquette, Wolfhard and Bryk’s films do, giving them a boost of celeb publicity. (Since the U.K.-born Huston doesn’t act in “Fight,” he’s able to promote it.)

Actor/directors have a leg up in casting pals who know they’ll understand what an actor needs. Arquette appeared in Sean Penn’s 1991 helming debut “The Indian Runner,” and he returned the favor with a hilarious cameo in “Gonzo.” Huston cast “Day of the Fight” with his “Boardwalk Empire” co-stars Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi, “Outlander” co-star Ron Perlman and “Irishman” castmate Joe Pesci, who also became an executive producer. “We always called Joe the ‘White Whale,’ because getting him was like hooking in Moby Dick. Now he only does a film every five to 10 years,” Huston laughs. He wrote Pesci’s mostly silent but powerful role as a father with dementia, and Pitt’s boxing champ part, with each actor in mind.

And just as Arquette’s actor siblings Rosanna and David made the leap to directing, Huston’s legendary grandfather John Huston, father Tony Huston, aunt Anjelica Huston and uncle Danny Huston each acted before their directing debuts. “I count my family as my greatest influence,” he says. “They’ve inspired me every day of my life, and I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world. Because I was able to experience not only my immediate family, who are currently working in the industry, but able to watch many beautiful and brilliant films that my grandfather and great-grandfather [actor Walter Huston] made.

“Of course it’s intimidating, but it’s more a fire within to sort of be worthy,” he adds. “I talk to my aunt and uncle about it, and it feels more like passing the baton than having to fill shoes, because it all comes from a place of love and just wanting to create.”

The tradition may continue: he cast his 7-year-old son Cypress Huston as the young version of Pitt’s lead character. “That means five generations going back almost a hundred years on screen. The first day my son was on set, it brought tears to my eyes. I saw him take to it like a duck to water.”

But Huston went outside of his family for inspiration, loosely basing his screenplay and stark black-and-white cinematography on Stanley Kubrick’s 1951 boxing doc short, also titled “Day of the Fight.”

“I was not in any way wanting to rush into the director’s chair, or writer’s chair for that matter. But when lightning strikes, you feel it in your gut,” he says. “I knew that I had to make this movie, and never had such an overwhelming sense of purpose. I was lucky enough to be on a movie set for most of my life, and I think that was a lovely apprenticeship into this world.”

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