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June 26, 2018

An Actor’s Director

From child star to director, Melissa Joan Hart is finding her voice on the other side of the camera.

Ny MaGee

Melissa Joan Hart has pushed herself past her roles as Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Clarissa from Clarissa Explains it All and Mel from Melissa & Joey, to direct some of the most family friendly entertainment.

As a double threat actress/director, the Connecticut native has been producing content through her production company Hartbreak Films for quite some time and more recently moved into a directing role.

Having earned her DGA card while working on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Hart has since directed a handful of short films as well as a Christmas film that released at the end of last year. She also helmed the reboot of the cult classic, The Watcher in the Woods. This reimagining aired on Lifetime last October and starred Academy Award-winning actress Anjelica Huston. 

More recently, Hart directed an episode of ABC's hit series The Goldbergs, an experience she described as "A new adventure for me and something new to learn. It felt like I was 20-years-old and starting all over again."

Which do you find most therapeutic; directing a feature film or directing a half hour sitcom for television?

I find directing much more creatively fulfilling. I think that acting, you're putting your small part on and someone else has the final say. The editor or the director use you how they want to use you. When you're directing, however, you visualize the script or work the space with blocking or finding locations. You're making your vision come alive, and for me, that's much more fulfilling.

Directing is much more of a mental challenge so I get exhausted from directing. After Watcher in the Woods, I was like, "I just want to go say someone else's lines, have someone do my make-up and walk on set and be funny."

So I went and did a Christmas movie right away and when I was done with the Christmas movie I was like, "Now I want to be the boss again." So I love going back and forth. I love being able to be silly and make people laugh and being dressed up and in character but I also then love to be the one that's putting together the visual. Directing is a tough task. My ultimate dream would be to have a sitcom but then direct two movies a year.

Speaking of Watcher in the Woods, talk about its impact on your childhood and why you were compelled to remake it.

When my mother and I first started our production company Hartbreak Films, she was my manager at the time and fielding a lot of projects for me and we didn't want to abandon the fanbase I built on Clarissa. So we had a deal with Disney and that was one of the movies that me and my sisters and my brother would binge watch. I knew the movie inside and out.

When we decided to reboot it, my mom wanted me to star in it as the teenager. However, 17 years went by when we finally got the rights and I was too old to play Jan and we decided that I should direct it.

So we brought in Angelica Huston, which was amazing and it was so fun to be able to re-create that project. When we filmed it, I did all the prep without watching the movie again. A few days before we started production, I sat down with my 10-year-old and watched the original movie again. It was so interesting to watch it again and see how it would affect a 10-year-old. Even years later it, it actually still had the same effect on that age group.

How challenging has it been to transition between acting and directing?

I got my DGA card on Sabrina. I learned to direct from directing myself. It was complicated and I had to really think about how I was going to handle being in front of the camera and behind the camera and setting shots and doing wardrobe changes and just making sure the set ran smoothly and I didn't hold anyone up on either end. Doing shot lists at night but also learning my lines. That was the way I entered my directing career.

When Sabrina ended I really wanted to showcase my storytelling. So I found a script that was much more in the tone of the things I wanted to do as far as storytelling goes and I did this short film called Mute. Financed it myself with a friend and I shot the whole thing at my mom's house. Garry Marshall made a cameo in it 'cause he had given me so much advice on how to direct.

Basically, his advice was: 'Make sure you tell the story. It's that simple.' It was nice to keep that in mind and I always take that little gem with me.

Now, I finally have the time to dedicate to not being in front of the camera and only being behind the camera. So it's nice to be able to just focus on the creative and focus on the shots and focus on the performances. And being an actor myself, I think of myself as an actor's director. I feel like I can really work closely with the actors. It's nice to be on the other side of things and help explain a vision and work collaboratively with the actors.

How does being an actor influence the way you work with talent?

A lot of the legwork should be done in the casting. You should also cast someone you feel really embodies the part. When you have someone like Angelica Huston on set, you're not going to tell her what her backstory is or motivation, she's got that handled.

So really, it's just a matter of letting them feel that they're in a safe space to be able to explore and play and letting them have a take the way they want to do it and doing a take the way I want to do it and then finding something in between. I really hope on the next film I do that I have the time and the budget to really focus on performances. I would love to do more playing around on set with actors.

In terms of your directing style, do you have a special way of guaranteeing you always get the best out of people?

I started paying attention during my first show, Clarissa Explains It All on Nickelodeon. I watched the directors and they were basically editing while they shot. So I would look at their scripts and see how their notes were in their scripts and I kinda learned to direct like that.

It's almost like live television, where they're snapping up in the booth and they're changing cameras. It taught me to think ahead as an editor, even though post is not my strongest suit, but I shoot it like I imagine it being edited. I try to make sure that things are already done in camera the way they'd be cut together. I make sure we get the performance to the point where we need it and that it ties together with what comes next and keep building on that.

When you hear about the #MeToo Movement and Hollywood's diversity conversation and actresses wanting more substantial roles, do these hot topics influence the type of work you want to put out through Hartbreak Films?

We have always done female-driven stories and put females first, and I've always been the lead on everything we've done. But now it's fun to be the director and the producer. I'm meeting with a female cinematographer, which is really rare. I really hope with the invention of the iPhone and selfies and filters that more women will come to cinematography.

In Wales for Watcher in the Woods, we were able to have a very female-heavy camera crew, even though our DP was a male. So it's fun to be able to find these talented women and give them opportunities. We look more in the crew area for that but we are lucky that we've always had female-driven stories.

One of the gems in my career that I'm really proud of is, I was a huge fan of Shirley Temple growing up and I had the opportunity to meet her because I wanted to do her life story and she wouldn't allow anyone to do her life story. But she trusted me and my mother.

I think because her and her mother had such a close relationship and she was worried about what someone might do with her mother, try to make her an evil stage mom. So when she saw my mother and I, and she met with us at her home, she gave us the rights to her life story. That was one of the most thrilling days of my life when I got to meet her and got her blessing to do her movie.

We produced her movie down in Australia and did a nationwide scout search for the actress. My only heartbreak is that I didn't direct it. At the time, I was still knee-deep in Sabrina so it would have been a really big undertaking.

With projects like Sabrina and Clarissa, you've created these pop culture gems that your kids can enjoy and one day share with their children. Talk about the legacy you'd like to leave behind for your kids.

That's where Hartbreak Films came from. We wanted it to be family-friendly. We wanted it to be like the old-school television way of being able to sit down with your children and watch a show. It's very much family entertainment.

I know I'm very blessed to have played not only three leading ladies on television but three title characters. I see the blessing in that and I know I'm very lucky. But ultimately, my legacy with my kids I'd like to be more like, "She was loving. She was giving." Something on more of a personal level than a professional level.

Professionally, I'm so satisfied with what I've done and where I've been and I know I couldn't ask for more and I'm really excited about this next wave in my career.

I directed an episode of The Goldbergs that aired in February, and it was so exciting to be on someone else's set in their fifth season. When I was acting in a show on a fifth season, I did not like directors coming in and telling me about my character or trying to find new locations that haven't been used because it's all been used. It's all be done before. But it was really exciting to do The Goldbergs because they were very warm and welcoming.

It's a different kind of show. Adam Goldberg has a specific vision for his show. It's very specialized and specific. There are certain rules I had to follow and learn and I got so pumped up about doing it. It was such a new adventure for me and something new to learn. It felt like I was 20-years-old and starting all over again. So that was thrilling for me to do and I'm already booked to do a few next year.

Given the increasing costs of tuition and the decreasing costs of filmmaking in this digital age that we're living, does it make more sense to spend money on making a movie rather than studying filmmaking?

I went to NYU. I didn't go to film school and now, at 42, I'm kinda wishing I had because everyone knows in this business that you're not always going to get what you want. So I was always looking for a fallback. If I didn't make it as an actress, where would I be? What would I do?

I was always looking for another career and so I went to school for 7 years, never graduated college but I certainly tried. I explored everything from sociology to the golden age of East European directors to child psychology, but I did not want to go to film school. Now I'm like, "Why did I avoid that?"

As a director now, the thing that I'm still struggling to learn is lighting, lenses, filters. That's where my education is going now, more behind the camera. I understand blocking. I understand performances. I understand all the dialogue and the shorthand on set. But learning more about the cameras and the lighting is where I'm focusing now. Maybe I'll go back to film school next year. That would actually be really fun.

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