KRISTI ZEA: A Taste of Directing

Kristi Zea is one of Hollywood's top designing women. She has been the production designer on more than 24 feature films including Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob" and his recent blockbuster "The Silence of the Lambs," as well as Martin Scorsese's award-winning "GoodFellas."

Zea began her career as a photo stylist on commercials and got her big break as a costume designer on Alan Parker's musical-drama "Fame." She subsequently designed costumes for Parker's "Shoot the Moon" and "Birdy," as well as "Terms of Endearment" and "Silverado."

Zea makes her makes her directorial debut with "A Domestic Dilemma," one of the three short films comprising HBO's "Women & Men 2," premiering tonight.

Based on a short story by Carson McCullers, "A Domestic Dilemma" stars Ray Liotta and Andie MacDowell and explores a marriage that's on the rocks because of the wife's drinking problem. Demme produced "Domestic Dilemma."

Zea, 42, talked about her experiences directing "Domestic Dilemma" with Susan King.

Have you had designs on directing for a long time?

No. As a matter of fact, I wasn't prepared when Jonathan talked to me about doing this. It came as an absolute and total surprise.

He asked me to come into his office (during "Silence of the Lambs") and I thought he was unhappy about something and wanted to talk about changes. When he said to me, "I really want to produce something that you direct," I was so surprised I simply didn't believe him. I said, "Yeah. Sure, Jonathan. What else is new?"

I was completely surprised by the whole thing and continue to be.

How did Demme bring you "A Domestic Dilemma"?

Jonathan was really tied up with post-production on "Lambs" so he sent it on to me. I thought it was a far-flung idea and a long shot as far as my ability to do it. I didn't think I could do it.

But we had a couple of nice lunch meetings with the HBO people and started to get into really neat talks about the script with the writer. I started thinking, "So far this isn't too hard." So I just continued to work on it on the side because I was, at this point, pregnant with my first child and working on a film called "The Super." And then it just started to get more and more real, and the final decision was made for me to do this in April and we started to put it together and look for cast at that point.

Was it hard to lure such hot film stars as Ray Liotta and Andie MacDowell to the project?

All studios, I would imagine, have "A" lists and "B" lists of actors. I really wasn't sure what caliber we would be going to get for this. "A" actors aren't all that interested in TV; also I am not terribly well known, so I was pretty concerned about whether we would get good actors to do the film.

I thought of Ray almost immediately because I thought he would be wonderful. He certainly passed the "A" list test with HBO--I had worked with him on "GoodFellas" and he had worked with Jonathan on "Something Wild." When he said he was interested, it was a perfect kind of thing.

I didn't know Andie, but everyone kept saying Andie would be perfect for this and she would be able to draw on her own personal history--her mother was an alcoholic. So we had a chat and during the interview she said she wanted to do the part.

Since you had never directed before, how did you approach the project? Did you surround yourself with a crew with whom you were familiar?

I surrounded myself with all of my friends--people who I knew from the business who were extremely talented in their own right. A lot of them were looking to do the next step up.

Leslie Pope had been a set director and she was anxious to become a production designer, so I let her design the film and that was a good thing for her. The cinematographer was somebody who actually had been the camera operator on "Silence of the Lambs."

I had a terrific crew and they all wanted to help me out. I was real lucky.

Were you nervous directing such "A" actors as Liotta and MacDowell?

Strangely enough, that fact didn't make me nervous. After Ray agreed to work on the show, he and I had a long conversation. One of the first things out of his mouth was, "You are the director. You are the queen. You are the boss." That made me feel so great. I could make a fool of myself and he would help me. He would take me aside before a scene and say, "It would help me if you say this." It was really good.

Andie was the same way. She was open, real direct. She would say, "What do I need here?" Help me here."

We had budget constraints and no one insisted on their own trailers. They wanted to help me out. I felt a positive force through the whole production. I feel really sorry for actors and directors who are in these terrible sort of power play fights. I hope that never happens to me.

Is directing now in your blood?

Oh yeah (laughs). I mean, I didn't think I would feel that way. I just thought, "Well, I will do this and that will be that and I will go back and continue to design pictures," which I will do obviously because as a first-time director you are not handed the perfect projects because there are too many other guys out there looking also for good scripts.

Either you have to come up with something of your own or you get lucky when an actor or actress has a project and they want you to direct it. Jonathan is really my support team.

HBO has already said they would like to produce my first feature. So I feel like I passed some kind of test. It doesn't necessarily mean the film is any good, although people have said they think it is good. I feel satisfied with it.

"Women & Men 2" premieres tonight at 9 on HBO and repeats Thursday at 10 p.m.; Aug. 27 at 10 p.m. and Aug. 29 at 11 p.m.

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