IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Leland Orser Talks 'Morning,' Working WIth His Wife, and Making His Directorial Debut

Tuesday, 24 September 2013 17:31 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Leland Orser Talks 'Morning,' Working WIth His Wife, and Making His Directorial Debut

Leland Orser is one of those great actors that you might not recognize by name but would definitely know if you saw his face!

He’s been acting on film and television for over twenty years and raises the quality of any project he is a part of. He’s appeared on not one but three different Star Trek series including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Enterprise, as well as having guest roles on a string of beloved series like The X-Files, ER, 24, and Scandal. However, Orser is probably best known for his excellent film work in such popular movies as Seven, Independence Day, Alien Resurrection, Saving Private Ryan, The Bone Collector, Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, Runaway Jury, The Good German, Taken, and most recently Taken 2. Now, after years of being in front of the camera, Orser is putting his focus behind the camera from a new film that he directed, wrote, produced, and also stars in called Morning, which opens in select theaters on September 27th. 

Morning is based on Orser’s short film of the same name and takes a look at the life of an American couple immediately following the accidental death of their child. The movie follows the divergent paths of Mark (Orser) and Alice Munroe (played by Orser’s real life wife Jeanne Tripplehorn) as they deal with their heart-breaking grief before finally coming to grips with their shared loss. In addition to Orser and Tripplehorn, the film also stars Laura Linney (Hyde Park on Hudson), Elliott Gould (Ocean’s Eleven), Jason Ritter (The East), Kyle Chandler (Zero Dark Thirty), and Julie White (Transformers series). 

I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking to actor turned writer/director Leland Orser about his work on Morning. The accomplished actor and first time filmmaker discussed his new movie, if he’s always had desires to direct, developing the screenplay, the process of getting the movie made, his terrific cast, working with his wife Jeanne Tripplehorn, directing himself, what he’s learned over the years from the amazing group of filmmakers he’s been fortunate enough to work with as an actor, and how his acting experience helped prepare him to direct.

Here is what Leland Orser had to say about Morning:

IAR: To begin with, you’ve been acting for a long time, so is directing something that you’ve always wanted to do?

Leland Orser: No, it’s not actually. I spent a summer at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and I went out there as an actor. They hire actors to play the roles for first time filmmakers with their new projects as they develop them and bring them to life. They bring actors up and the directors are given professional actors and use us an opportunity to play out what the actual directing of their film scenario might be like. It was such a creative place and so inspiring. On my flight out of there from Utah back to Burbank, I had this story pop into my head and it forced its way to the front of my brain. I had to ask the stewardess for a bunch of cocktail napkins and I started to write it down. I wrote down fourteen pages of a short because this film started as a short. It kind of just rolled from there. I did the short, and I did the circuit of film festivals with the short to really positive reactions. I checked back in with the woman who runs the Sundance Institute and I said, "So what do I do now?" She replied, “Well, what do you want to do?” I said, "What are my options?" She said, “You have three options here. One of them is to keep doing the film circuit with short filmmakers. It’s a wonderful group of people and a nice way to socialize and fraternize with colleagues. So there’s that, to keep traveling along the country showing your film. Or you can use this as a calling card to be a director if that’s what you want to be. Do you want to be a director? So you can take this and say, look, I directed the short, I can direct a film.” Then I said "Okay, and what’s the third option?" She said, “The third option is, do you think that this story is part of a bigger story? Do you have a bigger story to tell?” I completely stopped dead in my tracks and thought, "Of course it is part of a bigger story." With any small story you have to know the bigger story that surrounds it in order to tell it what has happened before, what’s happening during, and what happens after. So that hit me and I went home and I wrote the fourteen-page short movie into a ninety-six-page script that became the film. I finished it and the rest was sort of like a train that you couldn’t stop. It just sort of happened. That’s a long way around telling you no, it was never what I intended or wanted to do. 

At that point, did you take the feature length script along with the short film to financiers and use them essentially as blueprints to help get the funding in order to make the feature film?

Orser: I showed it to my wife Jeanne Tripplehorn. I came out from the guesthouse and handed it to her one day. I said this is what I’ve been working on so will you read it? She went off and read it and came back sort of in shock. I said,"What do you think?" She said, “I think it’s really good.” I said, "What do you really think?" She said, “Let’s just put it this way, if this script was submitted to me by my agent I would do everything in my power to get this role.” So I said "Okay, that’s interesting. What are we going to do about that?" Then the conversation about whether this was something that we should possibly do together began, which was never the intention from the start. Do we dare do this together? So we talked and thought about that for a long period of time. She went to New York to do press for Big Love. While she was there she picked up the phone, called me in tears and she said, "What are we doing? Are we crazy? We’re artists, I’m surrounded by artists, and this is our calling in life. Why wouldn’t we answer the call?” At that point we decided we would do it together. I just started to go out to people around us in the business that we love and trust. The first person I went to was Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) the extraordinary cinematographer from Mexico who was a good friend of ours at the time. He said, “I’m in. I want to do this.” He gave us a window and I went to a friend of mine who became a producer of the film. I said do you want to do this? He said, “I absolutely want to do this. I’ve always wanted to do something with you and Jeanne.” He said, “Let’s find the money.” So we found the money. We found the money with Don Cheadle (Iron Man 3) attached, and Emmanuel Lubezki. Then we lost the money. It was devastating and we lost the window to use Emmanuel. He was in between films with Terrance Malick (To the Wonder) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity). I mean go fucking figure! He could only give us two months to do our movie. So everything happens for a reason. He said, I know a young woman (Paula Huidobro) from Mexico City who is an extraordinary DP and you should meet with her. We sent her the script, we had lunch and we started working on it at lunch, which was well before we went into production. From there we sent the script to Laura Linney. She was the first person, besides Jeanne and I, to come on board. She called me back and said, “Tell me where and when to be.” We then sent the script to Elliott Gould through Debra Zane, who I brought on to be the casting director and I knew from having done The Good German with Steven Soderbergh. She sent a personal letter that I wrote to Elliott Gould. Weeks later I’m at home putting my son to bed, and the phone rings. I’m like, who the hell is calling at this hour? It was 8:30pm. I answered the phone and it was Elliott Gould. What he said to me is, “Am I too late?” I said, well it’s 8:30 at night. He said, “No, am I too late to be in your movie?” It just sort of rolled like that. We were so fucking lucky.        

As an actor you’ve worked with some of the greatest directors of all-time such as Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh. Do you feel like your experiences working with them were kind of like your film school? What did you pick up from watching them work on set that you were able to apply to your own work as a director? 

Orser: Great question. You used the word film school so lets use that in this conversation. I’ve learned something different from every director I’ve worked with and I have worked with some of the greatest directors alive and of all time. How lucky is that? I’m a gun for hire. That’s all I am. I’m carnival folk. I go from project to project for a living. How lucky am I that I’ve been chosen by those people? You used the word film school and this is what Jeanne said to me. She said, “This film is your film school.” I, without knowing it, knew a lot more than I gave myself credit for. I couldn’t even count how many scripts I’ve read since I’ve been an actor and I know good ones, I know bad ones, and I know everything in between. When a script gets placed down in front of you and you read it, you want to turn the pages to find out what’s happening on the next page. You are so excited and you know that it’s a good script and something you want to do. I tried when I wrote this script to write this the way that I wanted to read scripts every day, and every year of my career. So I have learned from directors how to talk to actors. I have learned from directors how to find the truth and I’ve learned from directors how to be honest. I’ve learned from cinematographers lighting. I’ve learned from sound people how sound works simply by being a player in a different role in the world of filmmaking. I’ve learned a lot.         

As an actor yourself, do you feel like you work with actors better than some directors would because you have that experience in common? And how did your knowledge of the acting process help you as a director on the set? 

Orser: Yes, of course because I know how I want to be spoken to and I know how vulnerable it is. I know that there needs to be an unspoken language between a director and his actors. As an actor, in order to bear their inner soul, which is if you don’t, there’s nothing to watch on the big screen. If you don’t reveal the honesty, the truth and the real emotions in the context of a scene, then you’re not doing your job. So the job of a director is to make that happen and provide a safe place for actors to be able to do that. I’m aware of what the crew is doing as an actor so now I’m aware of what the crew is doing as a director. Now I’m a member of the crew, in fact I’m the leader of the crew. So I know how to speak to the crew, but in a way that they can get their job done, which will enable the actors to have the safest most truthful experience to get their job done. Everybody's working together and you can’t get pissed off at a makeup person who’s wiping blood off of your face because they have to reset it. You can’t get angry with the sound guy who is adjusting your microphone because it’s distracting you. It’s about setting up an environment where everybody can do those things together in harmony.

Did you find it challenging acting in a film that you are also directing? 

Orser: I don’t believe I would ever do it again, put myself in front of a camera in a film that I’m directing. I feel there are two different things in life. One is being an actor, which is in front of the camera, and one is being a director, which is in behind the camera. When you’re doing one you cannot do the other. You just cannot. But as you know from having seen the film, the way that it was written is in such a way that I interact with nobody except for Jeanne in one scene. I worked with a coach that I’ve worked with over the years, and we mapped out step by step my performance so I could take my director’s script, put it aside, pick up my acting script and say, "Hey, we’re doing scene 38A today. This is where I’m at emotionally, this is where I am at time wise, this is where I’m at wardrobe wise, this is how much alcohol I’ve ingested, and these are the different pills I’ve taken and how many." So that I could look at that, know it, and not have to do anything except step in front of the camera, click on that switch and do my thing. One of my best friends was my stand-in and so he would do all of my stuff first, then I would map it out with the crew, the camera, and the lighting, and then I would step in and do it. 

Both you and your wife Jeanne Tripplehorn play very broken characters in the film that are practically having nervous breakdowns on camera. Was it difficult directing and acting with your own wife, and then being able to put these characters and the work aside at the end of the day and go home together as a couple?

Orser: That’s another great question. We took an enormous risk doing this. You need to separate your professional and your personal life a lot of the time. There’s your personal life, there’s your professional life and you have to put each down in order to do the best that you can at each. You’ve got to put the phone down when you come home. You’ve got to take the time to look your son in the eye and you’ve got to be there for your family. When you go to work you’ve got to do your job. So we made a decision. We have a room above the garage behind our house and during the filming of Morning I moved in there. I did not live in the house with the family. I had meals with the family when I could, but I was so incredibly busy. Jeanne and I both made a pact, almost like a ritual, which was that on the set when one or the other would walk off the set in order to go home, it was a cleansing of that experience, a washing of the hands of that experience, and we’d never discuss the film under the roof of our house. That was our choice and our decision. We met each other every morning on the set as professionals and we met each other at the house as a family. I don’t think we could have done it if we hadn’t done that. The other huge risk that we took was working together because first of all it was my first time as a director, and it is really our first time in a major way as actors together. I have to tell you I never thought about it, and I never worried about it. I came to work on the first day and got the first shot set up featuring Jeanne, as most of the shots in the film do. The cameras started rolling, the sound was rolling, and she was there in front of the camera. It was happening and it was so natural and so right that I forgot to yell action, so it was like this is going to be okay because this fits. This is right, we’re meant to be doing this together. I had always known that Jeanne was a good actor but I didn’t know until we did this together that she’s a great actor, one of the great actors with an instrument that is unrivaled in her access to her range of acting equipment and tools emotionally. It’s extraordinary. That was a really great moment that we had. She is incredible and she transcends. She’s a director’s dream because all you have to do, if you do your homework, you do your prep, you do the pre-production, and you have your meetings, is tell her this is what we’re going to do, and if it’s not quite there you just say "You got to go deeper or you got to go shallower" or whatever it might be. It’s like tuning a guitar until you get that perfect sweet sound. You can see in scene after scene after scene she delivers.

Finally, some directors, like David Fincher, do a lot of different takes of the same scene, where other filmmakers, like Woody Allen, only do one or two. What type of director are you? Do you like shooting several different takes of the same scene or do you shoot just one or two and then move on?

Orser: We shot on 35mm film so there’s always that awareness. But directors have told me that you don’t leave until you got it. Your blood pressure starts to rise and you start to sweat when you’re going over a certain amount of takes. When you end up in the double digits of takes and you’re shooting on film, you’re fucking freaking out, but you have to do it until you get it because you can’t walk away until you’ve got it. That’s the job of a good director, knowing when you’ve got it and when to walk away. Sometimes you get it on the first take and you know it and then you do another one for the DP, or you do another one for sound, or you do another one for the actor. But with David Fincher, I can’t even tell you how many takes I did with my role in Seven. We didn’t hit triple digits, but it sure felt like it. Steven Soderbergh is just the opposite. First scene I ever did with Cate Blanchett in The Good German, I couldn’t believe it. We did a bunch of takes on me then turned the camera around on her, she did one take and he says, “Are you happy Cate?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “Good, we’re done for the day.” I’m thinking are you doing that to make me feel awful about myself? But that’s a guy who knows. He shoots and edits his own films. When the camera was on me during Morning I had people that I would talk to. I would check with three or four different people and say, "What do you think? Should we do it again?" When I felt they were satisfied, I was satisfied to move on. That could take up to two takes or it could be after seven or eight.  

Leland, thank you for your time. Congratulations on the film and I look forward to seeing whatever project you act in or direct next. 

Orser: And I'll be following you Jami. Thank you so much and I appreciate your support.  

Morning opens in select theaters on September 27th. 

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