"It's a dog-and-pony show, but if you're a filmmaker, you have to love it," says Mary Stuart Masterson. "The audience is eager to see something out of the ordinary, a whole bunch of different kinds of films other than Hollywood fare. If you're a filmmaker, you want to be around people who are hungry to see the sort of movie you've made.
"There's a film festival in every town, now. They're good business because the audience is out there." And how else is a veteran actress, world famous for her work in films from Fried Green Tomatoes and Benny & Joon to Immediate Family, going to get attention for her directing debut so that a studio wants to distribute it? She hopes soon to nail down the deal to put her indie project in theaters this fall.
Meanwhile, she travels with the movie, a very personal project about a small town, a family with unfinished "mom" issues and a terminally ill teenager, Georgia, who wants to experience love before her illness confines her to a wheelchair.
"I've always been drawn to characters like Georgia, people who reach for more than what little life is giving them," Masterson says. "That's heroic, in a very real and small-town kind of way. I love the small-town movie.
Her most popular films, Benny & Joon and Fried Green Tomatoes, back that up. Watching The Cake Eaters, it's easy to imagine Masterson herself playing the lonely teen suffering from Friedreich's AtaxiaÖ, a rare genetic neuro-degenerative disease that, from its onset, often in the teen years, takes away motor skills and slowly kills those who suffer from it. She has extensively researched the illness and cast Kristen Stewart, who since has come to fame for her work in Into the Wild, as Georgia.
"It's a good part, that's for sure," Masterson, now 41, says. "That first scene we shot with her, when she's making her way down a hallway near the end of the film, I had tears coming down my face after I yelled 'Cut.' I looked over at my brother [actor-turned-producer Peter Masterson] and he had tears, too! That was a great moment, to know that we'd picked the right girl."
Other great moments? She got to direct screen legends Bruce Dern and Elizabeth Ashley and make the movie near her home in upstate New York. Bad moments? They endured a record-rainy summer during the shoot, delays that gave her time to consider why a successful actress would want to direct in the first place. She's been acting since childhood. Her father, also named Peter, became a director as she grew up. Masterson says she learned from him that "the process, preparing the film, working with the actors, is more interesting than the finished product."
And contrary to the belief that actors become directors because they want "control," that's not why she did it. Helen Hunt, the actress-turned director (her When She Found Me is also in the Florida Film Festival) agrees. "It's about caring enough about a story to make sure it gets to the screen the way you see it," says Hunt, also a onetime child actress and also the daughter of a film director.
"You get to conduct the finest musicians in an orchestra," Masterson says. "You surround yourself with the best people and make a million choices that add up to a unified vision. It suits me better than anything I've ever done."
Not that she's ready to stop acting. But the occasional trip to the stage or TV role may be where she turns up mostly these days.
"If I could get a role as good as Benny & Joon, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I've had some great roles, but now those, for whatever reason, are not there for me. So I have to be happy doing other things."
Like directing. After more than 30 years as a screen actress, she was happy to do something that made her feel like a newcomer.
"This business, when you think you've arrived, you've just begun. You're always humbled by the task. And grateful to have a task."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun