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Maggie Gyllenhaal in Jason Peroni’s ‘New Empress’Courtesy Jameson First Shot

How to get a cult icon to star in your first film

Now in its fifth year, the Jameson First Shot festival is giving first-time filmmakers the chance to make a masterpiece

Last month, Paramount Studios played host to the fifth ever Jameson First Shot film festival. The star-studded LA event – which drew names like Courtney Love, Kevin Spacey and Maggie Gyllenhaal – was set up as the ultimate Hollywood experience. However, despite its lavish surroundings, this film festival was led by a very unconventional line-up. Firstly, all of the three films featured were no more than 12 minutes long. Secondly – and most surprisingly – they had all been written and directed by first-time filmmakers.

This is the ultimate point of the Jameson First Shot (JFS) festival. Founded by Kevin Spacey and Trigger Street Productions, it describes itself as a “platform for burgeoning filmmakers who have a vision and a voice, but don’t have the benefit of an influential uncle in the movie business.” Each year, as a result, thousands of fledgling filmmakers from across the world send in a short script (no more than seven pages long), in the hopes of being selected by the organisers. The best three then get the chance to see their project come to fruition, with a major Hollywood name assuming the leading role. In the past, this has included Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, and Adam Brody.

This year, however, the roles all went to Secretary star Maggie Gyllenhaal. “I just thought, what a great way to do something generous,” she explains. “And also make something that’s good. We were joking before that if the movies had been bad I think we wouldn’t have done it – the previous movies – but I think they were really good.”

“Movie making is something that happens as a community, and if you're not open and interested and curious to what the people around you are bringing, you're totally limiting yourself” – Maggie Gyllenhaal

This year’s three winning films see Gyllenhaal adopt a wide variety of roles. In Cameron Thrower’s Beauty Markshe is hurled back to 1986 to play a door-to-door beauty saleswoman. Jason Peroni’s New Empress sees her power through a break-up. For Kat Wood’s Homeshe loses her home and sets up camp on a LA beach. “I read 20 (of the final scripts) and I think out of those 20 there were quite a few of them that were really excellent,” the actress says. “I find in the best writing, there are 50 or even infinite ways of expressing what needs to be expressed and still tell the story.”

Once the film is made, the participants get to attend a packed out premiere, before going on to use the contacts they’ve made during the production. In the case of Kat Wood – who was born and bred in Sheffield – this means getting full development funding for your first ever feature. Both Peroni and Thrower are also actively engaged in follow-up projects. 

“I feel like the most experienced and the most talented directors I've worked with are the most collaborative, without exception,” Gyllenhaal says. “The ones that are newer and more scared are often more assholes... Movie making is something that happens as a community, and if you're not open and interested and curious to what the people around you are bringing, you're totally limiting yourself. You have to be totally curious, interested, open and emotionally intelligent to take all of it in.”

Did the experience inspire her to step behind the camera? “I have to say that doing this, when I left this project, I thought I’d like to direct a short,” she adds. “I don’t feel like I would like to direct a feature at this point – maybe eventually... I wonder whether someone would give me some money.”

Learn more about the Jameson First Shot festival, or enter it yourself, on the official website here.