One of Chris Eigeman’s favorite performances in his directorial debut, “Turn the River,” comes from an actor who has all of three lines and plays a pimply faced donut shop employee who tells his potential customers that he already drank the coffee. It’s the kind of droll one-liner that one could easily imagine rolling off Eigeman’s tongue during his heyday as the quick-witted star of Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming” and Whit Stillman’s trilogy of “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco.” But “Turn the River” isn’t the intellectual yukfest one might expect from an actor with a reputation for snark and smarts, but rather the heartfelt character study of Kailey (Famke Janssen), a mother forced to give up her son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), who attempts to raise enough money through hustling at pool and poker to steal him away from his father. It’s an ill-conceived plan, to be sure, and Eigeman doesn’t pull any punches in its execution, nor does he shortchange any of the group of fine character actors he’s assembled, including friends like Matt Ross (“Big Love”) and Marin Hinkle (“Once and Again”) or veterans Rip Torn and Lois Smith. Eigeman recently sat down to talk about his first film as a writer/director, how pool scenes are like sex scenes, and the moment when he realized he was no poolhall hustler himself.
How did “Turn the River” come about?
I’d written a few little pieces of it, a couple of scenes here and there. I did a job with Famke as an actor called “The Treatment,” and as she and I were working together, it was a really good experience. I’d never known [Famke] before she has a great cowboy spirit about her, both in her life and in her work. There’s a fearlessness about her. After that film finished, I went back to writing [“Turn the River”]. I wrote one of the bench scenes between the mother and the son, and it was incredibly evident I was writing for Famke there’s something very defining about her, and it became a real path through the woods, having that as a sort of lodestone.
The interesting thing to me about the film was that it seemed more interested in the characters than the story it was telling. Were you conscious of that?
I’m a Jesuit when it comes to structure, but I really think that structure is defined by character. Everything serves that master. People will ask me “Why did Kailey do this?” I always wanted that if I turned the film off halfway through, the audience’s reaction would be “Well, I really loved Kailey and I really loved Gulley and I really loved Kailey and Gulley together, but I think this is a terrible plan of hers.” And that was something that propelled me through.
Did you feel like this was the right time in your career to direct your first film?
I don’t think there’s ever a great time, but a lot of this was born out of the fact that when I was just starting out, working with directors like Whit [Stillman] and Noah Baumbach, those scripts were bulletproof. Those were great scripts, and I got incredibly spoiled by that because as you go down the road in all sorts of mediums, you aren’t going to have those great scripts all the time. So I set about trying to write as well as I could, and that would be defined by every actor in the movie being able to do good work and to have fun.
This is a little bit of a technical question, but I remember listening to the commentary on “The Hustler” DVD and they were talking about how hard it was to shoot the pool scenes. Was that a challenge for you?
Oh. My. God. Are you kidding? It was truly fucking terrifying. There are a number of films out there with pool, but the two biggies are “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money,” [and] it’s interesting, you think of “The Hustler” as being wall-to-wall pool, but actually there isn’t that much. There’s a lot at the top and there’s a little at the bottom and that’s about it. There’s a huge middle section. I knew that wasn’t going to work for us because that can take an incredibly long time. The other way is “Color of Money” and we could’t do [that] because we just couldn’t afford it. Scorsese shot every possible point of view on that pool table, [with] those huge, long tracking shots with Tom Cruise singing “Werewolves of London” in synch to the music and sinking three shots. We didn’t have the support structure to try and pull something like that off, so we found a third way which was very controlled and very loose.
The controlled was we built maybe 20 or 30 pool shots we took pictures of them, put them in a notebook and named them: Ann, Betty, whatever…all the way down. So we had these shots, and the last shot that Famke makes Zelda and we knew that was the shot that we would end all the pool with. Famke got good enough and John [Juback, who plays Duncan, the pool czar of the picture] is good enough that we could just let them play. We’d shoot 360 degrees and let them go.
I was always interested in how much I had to show. It can get really uninteresting watching balls fall into pockets it’s a lot like sex scenes, here [what’s] going is infinitely less interesting than [the expressions on] people’s faces.
This might be my naÃ¯ve view of the films you were making with Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, but this one had a similar feel of “let’s get together and make a movie in New York,” which it seems fewer films have these days. Has that changed over time?
It has absolutely changed and I genuinely miss it. I worked very hard to bring these people together [on this film] and to try to form a tribe for at least a little while. To me, I look back on Whit’s films, on Noah’s, on “Kicking and Screaming,” [and] not only is that a movie I really like, but the experience of making it was so enjoyable. I never wanted to just be an actor for hire that’s actually why I liked doing television a lot. Doing a year on “Gilmore Girls” was fun because I liked the tribe [aspect] of it. It’s like extreme sports at this budget level, you’re either going to cling to each other with affection and hope for salvation or you’re going to knife each other. Somebody’s going to get poked in the eye. In this case, it was the former, which is great if my next shoot is half as enjoyable as this one was, I will die a happy man.
This film has already surprised some people because of the kinds of characters you played as an actor. What have you made of the expectations that people have of you and the reception this film has received?
Look, if you’re an actor and the first movie you do, you’re wearing a cummerbund and cracking wise in a NoÃ«l Coward template, that is what people are going to assume and you can’t blame them. But yeah, I know. All the pool stuff came about because when I got out of college, I was shooting a lot of pool and thought I was good. I came to New York, and when I wasn’t parking cars to make money, I was shooting pool and getting my ass handed to me by people who were smarter, better players and very crafty about taking money out of my pocket. I still play, but I won’t play for money anymore. It’s important to know, if you’re in the land of gambling, what you’re good at. [laughs]
This was during the time of New York City when there were some great poolhalls that are gone now you could easily spend a day shooting pool against people who were kind of famous. There was a poolhall called Chelsea Billiards which isn’t there anymore, but it was the last great room in Manhattan and I lost to this one guy so many times [it] drove me crazy. He was incredibly good, but I didn’t realize how good until I was out a lot of money and it turns out it’s this guy named Kid Delicious, and he just wrote a book about what it is to be a pool hustler. That’s where all that came from.
Are you planning to go back to acting any time soon?
I think basically I am an actor. Sometimes I’m an actor who’s writing and sometimes an actor who’s directing, but I think if I’m forced to fill out a form for my tax return, actor is the first thing I write down. I try not to fill out forms, but when I do, actor is what I write down.
[Photos: Famke Janssen in “Turn the River”; writer/director Chris Eigeman – Screen Media Films , 2007]
“Turn the River”opens in New York on May 9 and in Los Angeles on May 16.