From Teen Witch to Hitchcock? Melissa Joan Hart Directs a Darkly Funny Short Film

You’re a filmmaker now! What was the inspiration or spark that got you on that track?
Hart: “I have always been told in everything I’ve ever acted in, ‘When are you going to direct?’ I guess that’s because I’m kind of bossy on the set. On Clarissa, I had directors showing me how to make shot lists and they’d let me call the shots sometimes. I’d go up to the booth, and since it was video, I’d get to do all the snapping and cutting to this or that camera and all that sort of stuff. It was fun and I enjoyed it. Then I did the movie Drive Me Crazy for Fox back and I remember the director saying, ‘When you direct, I want to be an extra in it.’ About a year later they let me have a shot at Sabrina and of course I called everyone that had said that to me and asked, ‘Do you want to come and be an extra?’ But then I got to direct a bunch of episodes of Sabrina–big ones like the hundredth episode, a couple of season finales and the Halloween show, which was our big one. So I got a good idea about it and I got to do other TV shows and single camera film and multi-camera video, live audience stuff. I really got to like it, but it’s a hard little hobby to keep up. So I had some friends that we’re going to the AFI school last year and doing short films, and I decided I wanted to do that. I found a producer who found me a script I just adored–and I went from there. I’ve been working on it since November of last year and it has just become a passion project. Everything from the casting to the schedule was done pretty much the first day that I read the script. I just knew how I wanted it done and I don’t know, it just became this thing that drove me.”

Tell me about the film itself – what’s the storyline of Mute
Hart: “It’s dark. It takes place at a wedding and you find out that the younger sister wants revenge on the older sister because she’s deaf and mute from a car accident she thinks the older sister caused. The whole wedding she’s doing things like kicking the bouquet in her face and tripping her on the dance floor when she does her dance, and things like that.”

What director or directors have most influenced your own style?
Hart: “Gosh, you know, when I read a script I think of so many different things. I just read a script recently to possibly direct and there are just so many different movies, and you can think of so many different shots and so many different things from different people. I watched a lot of gangster movies: Godfather. Goodfellas. Wedding scenes from those in particular because they are beautiful and elegant, but they also sort of have an eerie feel to them. I watched a French movie I think someone is redoing here in English called Read My Lip, which is about a deaf girl. So that gave me a lot of ideas in terms of sound design and whatnot. Probably overall–and I didn’t do this intentionally–but probably Quentin Tarantino is a big influence. I mean, I didn’t watch any of his movies to prepare for this, but those are the ones that I really relate to, like Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. It’s just how they can have that ironic comedy, and at the same time there is blood and guts and brains splattered in cars. I think that Kill Bill is just an amazing movie and I watched that a lot last year. So I’m sure that that had something to do with what I did here.”

What did you find to be the most challenging part of directing, and what did you take to right away?

Hart: “Well, I had recently become pregnant when I first started directing–so the hard part for me was just sort of keeping my stomach about me while I was on set. But I would say the most challenging was…all of it. We tried to do it for a very small budget, but luckily I had some of my friends in this town, who are some of the best crew members you could find anywhere, and they took off from big features and big shows to come and help us. Our makeup artists is from Nip/Tuck and was nominated for two Emmys last weekend, and some of our grips worked on Titanic and huge movies. They came through to help me out. It was kind of a challenge to try and get people to work for free. I felt really guilty to ask people to work for free or help me out in certain areas. I mean, we were really lucky in that we got some amazing people to work for us. Casting was tricky. I really wanted my sister in it, but people were frowning on that. As it turns out, that’s a fight I’m glad I fought because that was one that mattered to me and I think that it made the movie that much better, that my sister got to play the part because I couldn’t image anyone else doing it. Things like that, really pulling it together, getting the crew, getting the cast, making the days work.”

Was it tricky directing your sister? Did she have an easy time taking orders from the older sibling?

Hart: “Well, luckily, we’ve worked together a lot, acting-wise. I’m 10 years older and she thinks she’s more mature than me, but she’s not. Before we started shooting it was tricky. We’d get into a fight and she’d say, ‘Find someone else to do it. I’m not doing it.’ That little teenage attitude came out. But when it came down to shooting, she was a little uncomfortable because there was a makeout scene with a guy that was a little older than her. She was a little uncomfortable with that, but once we got onto the set she was a complete pro. If she had a problem she would quietly pull me aside and tell me that she was uncomfortable, but she just went for it. She did everything I asked her to do. She pulled out an amazing performance on her own. All the actors…everyone says, ‘Wow. You really got amazing performances out of them.’ I just feel like I cast it right. I knew who I wanted in this and I picked the right actors to play the parts. I didn’t have to do a lot of directing. I would just remind them at the beginning of the scene what came before and after, and just tell them to ‘go’ and they would just go. Emily Deschanel and Bill O’Neal are just such pros and Garry Marshal was in it for just a second. So I had an amazing cast and so that was the easy part.”

Garry’s a pretty accomplished director himself–did he offer you any advice?
Hart: “No. [laughs] He actually didn’t, though it was nerve-wracking having him there. He just walked on the set and played the priest who was marrying them at the wedding. He had one line, but it was going to be overdubbed by my sister’s voice. So he said his line and he went home. He was just more excited about the fact that I was pregnant, I think.”

How do you plan on prioritizing your acting and directing careers? Are you now more interested in staying behind the camera?

Hart: “I am. I just feel like it’s tough. Depending on what happens with this short, it’s a tough career to pursue head on, and I do miss acting. I miss making people laugh right now. So I’m going to look for something to do for pilot season this year, but I would like to try and direct a bit for a while. I’d like to go the way of like a Ron Howard. So I’m definitely going to pursue it and keep it up and I’m getting a good response so far and so hopefully it’ll pan out. But then again, I really do just miss the life of a sitcom, but hopefully I can get to do that again soon.”

If you could pick any actor you’d like to direct, who would it be?
Hart: “That’s funny. I’ve never been asked that. I’ve only been asked what director I’d like to work with. Gosh. There are so many. It’s hard to say. If I had my choice of anyone that would actually work with me probably Johnny Depp. He’s just so great, and can make any role so much fun and bring any role to life in such a way that it’s amazing to watch him.”

Is there anyone you’d be intimidated to work with? Like “How could I direct…?”
Hart: “Oh, gosh. Probably any of the A-list people, and probably someone British would scare me more like Emma Thompson or someone like that, and someone who has directed before too.”

And away from work, everything else is great with you?
Hart: “Yeah. I’m just getting ready to have a baby.”

What’s been the most surprising thing about your impending motherhood?
Hart: “I just didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable. I thought that it would be such a natural, warm, fuzzy, feminine feeling. It just doesn’t feel very natural when something is kicking you from the inside and squirming around and my back hurts and it’s hard to sleep and I still have another three months to go.”

Any weird cravings?
Hart: “I have been having such a sweet tooth. I normally only want to eat salty stuff, and I can deal with just pretzels or soy crips, healthier versions of things. Right now I’m just like cookies and ice cream. Anything sweet. In the beginning it was just candy and I never eat candy. I was going crazy on the Willy Wonka sweet tarts. I would just sit in bed and pop sweet tarts in the beginning. I had to stop that, but I think that I actually outgrew that and think that I got sick of them, or I got sick on them.”