Like many (if not most) moviemakers before her, Shana Feste—writer-director of The Greatest and the forthcoming Country Strong—relied heavily on diligent networking to launch her career. The big difference in Feste’s case is that she went about the business of making contacts while minding babies. Babies, that is, with parents in the right places.
A 34-year-old Los Angeles native, Feste earned a master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Texas, then opted to pursue advanced studies at the American Film Institute. To pay her way, she says, “I went to work as a nanny for people who were in the entertainment business, so that I could get any information I could, even while I was watching their kids. I love children, so it was an easy gig.
“But it’s really funny—in L.A., they tend to specialize. There are nanny agencies that just serve actors, there are nanny agencies that serve people in the music industry and there are agencies that serve writers and directors. It’s very strange. And you work your way up. First, you might work for a C-level actor and then you work for a B-level actor. When you get to the top of your game, you’re working for A-list actors and movie producers and people like that.
“It’s a very bizarre chain. By the time I got to AFI, I was working for Courtney Love; that’s who I worked my way up to. When I graduated from AFI, I took a job with Richard Lovett, who was president of CAA. So for two years—after I had two master’s degrees and had started writing—I was changing bottles of salad dressing that had expired in his closet. The worst assistant job you could imagine.”
It was only after Feste quit for another job—yes, another nanny gig—that she asked Lovett to help her shop around her script for The Greatest, a sensitively observed, emotionally potent drama about a family coping with the devastating loss of a beloved son in an auto mishap. “I was really naive while I was writing that,” she says, “because I thought it was a commercial project. Because I love family-driven dramas, I thought all the world loves family-driven dramas.”
As it turned out, Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon—two fortuitously bankable stars—loved the script.
With Carey Mulligan (fresh off her Oscar-nominated performance in An Education) and Johnny Simmons rounding out the cast, The Greatest premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. “But the night before I left for Sundance,” Feste laughs, “I was working as a nanny. And the day I came back from Sundance, I was working as a nanny.”
Feste was employed by Tobey Maguire—caring for his daughter, Ruby—while writing Country Strong. “Ruby was sitting in my lap while I wrote the story,” recalls Feste.
Feste says she “never tried to blur the lines with her employment,” and showed Maguire her work-in-progress only at his request. He liked what he read and agreed to co-produce the project as a filmed-in-Nashville musical drama starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a fading country music artist and real-life country superstar Tim McGraw as her manager-husband.
With Country Strong set for a December 22nd release, and a third film in the pre-production stages, Feste has begun to think seriously about her long-term employment prospects.
“There are days when I don’t think there could be a harder job than filmmaking,” she says. “But I love it. Every time I’m kind of beat down to the worst degree, there’s something in the back of my mind that pops up as an idea. Then I start obsessing over that idea, to the point where I’m driving to the store and I have to pull over so I can start writing lines of dialogue. Then I take those scraps of paper and type them into a scene. Then I start thinking about another scene. Then I find myself thinking, ‘Shit. I’m working on another movie.’
“So if the stories keep coming along like this, I hope I can keep doing this for the rest of my life.”
If she can’t, well, she has other talents to fall back on. MM