'Welcome to Me' puts a new Piven in spotlight

Shira Piven, director of "Welcome to Me."

"Oh, and I want to come in on a swan boat."

Such a great line. And it encapsulates Kristen Wiig's intense, childlike character at the center of the new indie "Welcome to Me" — so much so that Wiig-and-swan is the poster image. She plays Alice, a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and uses the money to launch an Oprah-esque vanity talk show.


There will be no interviews, she decides. No topics in the traditional sense. As she writes a check for $15 million — to the silent astonishment of her production team, played by James Marsden, Wes Bentley and Joan Cusack — she informs them the show will be entirely about Alice. "You know, just what I love, my hopes, my dreams, what I like to eat, who I think is a (expletive), my spirituality, me …

"Oh, and I want to come in on a swan boat."


Directed by Evanston native Shira Piven, the film is a funny, unsettling, strange and beguiling thing to behold. It neither makes fun of Alice, nor does it treat her story like a very special episode of a sitcom of its own making. Written by Eliot Laurence, it is almost unclassifiable, but the subtext is clear: Alice's talk show comes across as something like the inevitable outcome of this navel-gazing era of selfies and Facebook posts about what you ate for breakfast.

"That, to me, is where the heart of the movie is," Piven said by phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, the director and Second City alum Adam McKay, and their two children.

"It's so overboard in our culture right now, that it's already a self-parody — which makes it harder to make fiction about it. And that's why I think the script was so powerful. It created a fictional world that tells us about our real world in a really cool and poignant way."

Piven comes to the Music Box Friday for a screening of the film and a post-show Q&A along with Cusack, who has been a friend since childhood. The film, which is Piven's second feature, seems likely to establish a reputation beyond her affiliations as the daughter of Piven Theatre founders Joyce and Byrne Piven, sister of actor Jeremy Piven, wife of "Anchorman" director McKay.

In 2012 I wrote about her first film, a wonderfully loopy snapshot of female bonding called "Fully Loaded," which is more or less a road movie that confines itself to a few square miles of Los Angeles, buoyed by a sensibility that brings to mind everything from a down-market version of "Sex and the City" to the sloppy, bawdy camaraderie of "Absolutely Fabulous." ("Fully Loaded" is streamable via Google Play and Amazon.)

On that project, McKay had initially told his wife, "Go write the screenplay, I'll help you produce it."

Piven, speaking to me in 2012: "And we kind of thought, 'Oh, that means his company (Gary Sanchez Productions, which McKay, a former "Saturday Night Live" head writer, founded with Will Ferrell) will produce it.' And it really didn't mean that at all, because his company didn't do small films. It wasn't part of their wheelhouse."

Which is why, a couple years later when Piven found her next project, she initially sought other producers for "Welcome to Me."


"But finally, my husband, who hadn't read it but heard about it through a friend of his, he said, 'You know, I'd like to read that screenplay that Eliot wrote.' And he was the person we were looking for; he completely flipped for the script.

"And later he told me that if I hadn't brought it to him with me attached as the director, he would have wanted to direct it himself."

That's the complete opposite of your "Fully Loaded" experience, I pointed out.

"Yep. That's kind of how we operate, I realized," she said.

Ferrell is a producer on the film as well, but Piven was quick to mention another producer, Jessica Elbaum.

McKay and Ferrell are the boldface names, but it was heartening to hear Piven talk about a woman who was just as instrumental in getting the film made. Especially when you consider that last week, LA Weekly ran a piece titled "How Hollywood Keeps Out Women," which included an anecdote from "Brokeback Mountain" producer and co-writer Diana Ossana, who talked about feeling invisible when the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2005.


George Clooney, she said, "walked right up to (director Ang Lee) and shook his hand and congratulated him," ignoring Ossana entirely.

I asked Piven about her own experiences. Does it sometimes feel like filmmaking is a boys club? She took a moment to consider her words. After working through some thoughts, she said:

"In my experience, I guess I do feel that when there is a bit of an extra pressure as a female director to engender confidence, because you have to work with a lot of different teams of people and you want to be able to be yourself, but you want people to feel confident that you can do this.

"Tim Robbins (who plays Alice's therapist in the film) gave me good advice at one point. He was like, 'Don't be afraid to say "I don't know."' And sometimes as a woman I feel like I am a little afraid to say that."

That makes sense, I said, because you don't want uncertainty to be interpreted as weakness.

"No, you really don't. And honestly, the creative process is full of uncertainty. You have to be able to embrace the uncertainty to some extent, while at the same time not making people feel uneasy that you're completely lost. But I definitely feel pressure to make people feel comfortable with my leadership skills."


Piven, though, is clear on the type of comedy that suits her skills. It tends to be a little more idiosyncratic. "The comedy I'm able to do always comes out of something very personal and truthful," she said. "I can't do broad comedy." Which means you won't see her making an "Anchorman"-type movie.

"No! I wouldn't know how to do that. Adam's gift is so specific, and I think he has a very unique brand of comedy. But something like that is so far from what I know how to do.

"When we were trying to find financing and people would read the script, they would go, 'Oh, this seems very much like an enlarged sketch.' And Kristen and I would look at each other like, 'We never felt that way.' The script felt to us like this was a real person in a really specific world, and sometimes the things she does are absurd and funny. She's just guileless. She doesn't have filters and she doesn't seem to have regrets or second thoughts. She just does things."

She is also deeply literal-minded. "Say 'I'm a winner' at any time," an automated prompt instructs when Alice calls in to the lottery to claim her money. "I'm a winner at any time," she says.

Audiences will likely have two simultaneous responses to Wiig's character, and I liken it to those moments when you're out in the world and you spot someone acting strange or off-putting. You don't want to engage, so there's an instinct to wall yourself off from it. But there is also something about this person that is so out of the ordinary that a primal instinct to look takes over. Your brain is thinking, "What's going on here?" You're trying to piece it together.

"Yeah, there's a level of uncomfortableness that I think is inherent in this movie," Piven said. "I know exactly what you mean. It's hard to watch, but you want to keep watching."


Piven will be joined at Friday's screening by her mother, Joyce, who has a small role in the film. Was that an interesting dynamic, directing her mom? "You know, we have worked together so much over the years that it wasn't. I directed my dad a lot, onstage. It didn't feel strange because we've done it before."

As for her friendship with Cusack, the two have known each other for some 40-odd years. I asked how they first met.

"We were 8 or 9, I think. My mom met her older sister, Ann Cusack, when taking Jeremy to the bus for day camp. Ann was this wonderfully gregarious child and sort of befriended Jeremy. And then my mom met their mother, and then our families became friends. Shortly after, my parents started their theater and (the Cusacks) Ann, Joan and John and Jeremy and me, we were all in their theater."

It is a company that remains a part of the Chicago theater landscape. (A production of Sarah Ruhl and Todd Almond's "Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical" runs through June 7. See Chris Jones' review here.)

As kids, she said, "we would do commercial parodies and skits and fake 'Saturday Night Live' routines at family parties, just for fun. We were just kids in my parents' theater."

"Welcome to Me" begins a weeklong run at the Music Box, with a 7 p.m. Friday screening that includes a post-show Q&A with Shira Piven, and actors Joan Cusack and Joyce Piven. Go to


Not your usual

The 22nd Chicago Underground Film Festival kicks off Wednesday with a screening of "Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between a Criminal and a Whore" from the Filipino filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz, who shot the film over a 24-hour period in various locations in the city of Manila, including a bar, a rooftop and his own home. Here is the fest's description:

"Somewhere in Manila, a crime boss rules with an iron fist. He uses religion and violence to stay in power. What superstition and razzle-dazzle can't accomplish, his goons can. To his most loyal henchman he assigns the task of guarding his woman, who is headstrong and impulsive, and often gets into trouble."

The fest continues through May 17 at the Logan Theater. For a full lineup of films go to

Development deal

Weekend Watch


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South Side native Jimmy Pardo, Conan O'Brien's warm-up comic on the TBS talk show, has signed a development deal with Conaco, O'Brien's production company with Warner Bros. Pardo will develop both scripted and unscripted TV shows under the deal. I profiled Pardo in 2012: "Of course I want my own show," he said at the time, mentioning a pilot for Comedy Central that did not get picked up. "But I'm still working on things. My dream would be to have a show on TBS after 'Conan.'" Pardo is also host of the podcast "Never Not Funny" at



Silent films are screened with live music at Block Cinema's annual Sonic Celluloid event featuring "musicians performing live with their own original compositions or improvised scores to silent and experimental films of their choosing." This year's bands include Eartheater, M. Sage and Nicholas Szczepanik.

Szczepanik said "it took weeks for me to decide which films to use."  He eventually settled on animation, "considering how big an influence cartoons were on me as a kid."  The films he will score include 1977's "The Sand Castle," filmmaker Co Hoedeman's Oscar-winning stop-motion animated short that literally renders all of its characters and sets from sand. Szczepanik is paring the music "according to the 'texture' of each film, and then primarily focused on the mood I wanted to create while composing.  The music I make is minimalist in approach, often using samples.  It is my hope that the audience will find themselves mesmerized, and thus interpret the films differently than they may have, had they watched the films with their originals scores."

8 p.m. Friday at Northwestern University's Block Cinema. Go to

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