Making the Most of the Filmmaking Lottery – Jessica Valentine Gets Her “First Shot”

In just a few days Jessica Valentine will get a chance to call all the shots. She is one of three winning writer/directors in the 2014 Jameson First Shot Short Film Competition. Her lead actor – Uma Thurman.

Photo by Erik F. Simkins.

Photo by Erik F. Simkins.

Valentine is a resident of Bellingham, Washington and has been working in film for about a decade, but she’s also a visual artist with paintings, sculptures, and jewelry in local galleries. She’s lent her skills to a number of films as a makeup artist, including a position doing special effects make up on Washington incentive film Eden, directed by Megan Griffiths. Jessica has a broad skill set, as building a career in the film industry often requires. She acts and produces. She’s done locations and production coordinating, and often partners with her husband, filmmaker Richard Valentine, to produce narrative and industrial projects. But it is her writing that led her to Uma.

Jessica is currently in Los Angeles directing JUMP!, the screenplay that earned her a spot in the director’s chair. After massive success in 2012 and 2013, Jameson First Shot continues to gain momentum this year. Founded by Kevin Spacey, the competition offers three writer/directors the opportunity for their “first shot” in the film industry. Winners have a short film produced by Jameson and Trigger Street Productions (House of Cards, Captain Phillips, The Social Network) and direct an A-list actor in the lead role. The 2012 films starred Spacey, 2013 was Willem Dafoe, and this year Thurman takes the lead.

The competition offers a ton of international exposure. There are press interviews, behind the scenes videos, and the films work the festival circuit. Three winners are selected each year, one each from the U.S., Russia, and South Africa. After production wraps, Jameson will share Jessica’s short online where it will potentially garner millions of views like the films of previous winners, one of which made the shortlist for the Oscars.

Jessica and Richard Valentine screening their film The Taken at the Oklahoma Horror Film Festival.

The Valentines screen their film The Taken at the Oklahoma Horror Film Festival.

This month, Valentine and the other winners are busy with pre-production in Hollywood. Principal photography for JUMP! takes place June 19 and 20 and post-production directly after. All three films premiere in Los Angeles on July 26 and Trigger Street has assembled a seasoned crew to work with each filmmaker. Many of these crew members have been with the competition for years and are well versed in how to best support the vision of the burgeoning writer/director in charge.

Valentine has also been working with a casting director to select supporting actors for the film and she couldn’t be more thrilled with the options laid out. “The casting director encouraged me to audition better-known actors and we’ve assembled this amazing group of talent for Uma to work with. I can’t believe this is my cast.”

The 2014 competition asked for scripts in one of three categories – Legendary, Humorous, and Very Tall Tale. JUMP! fit into the realm of very tall tale. The story takes place during a 48 hour observation at a psych ward, where Jack meets Wendy, a young woman with a unique obsession. “It’s real life, but there is a whimsy and larger than life feeling to it,” says Valentine. The journey to her “first shot” has larger than life qualities too. Jessica is very candid about her life-long struggles with dyslexia. “I did poorly in reading in school and actually still to this day. Therefore writing always seemed out of reach,” she says.

Valentine on set in Washington. Photo by Marc Dewey.

Valentine on set in Washington. Photo by Marc Dewey.

Still, there was no shortage of ideas, and as she became more involved in film, she found herself helping other writers to fix scripts and develop storylines. She also receives a lot of encouragement from her husband, who she regularly works with on screenplays. Last summer Valentine dove in and decided to write a feature. After positive feedback from trusted sources she realized “I might be good at this.” Then a notice about Jameson First Shot landed in her inbox. “Someone signed me up for an email list that I had been ignoring, but for some reason I opened the one about the competition.” She felt compelled to enter.

Valentine knew that Thurman would play the lead, but would also help to judge the screenplays. So she did a lot of research, both on Thurman’s filmography, but also interviews the actor had done on the type of roles she chooses and why. “I wanted to give her a different role, something she hadn’t done before, which is incredibly difficult since Uma is so diverse. Oh, and a storyline with no romance!” jokes Jessica. Once Valentine got inside the motivations of her star, she focused on developing a notable story with a really meaty and challenging role designed to grab her lead’s attention. The plan worked.

Photo by Richard Valentine.

Photo by Richard Valentine.

“Of course I’m nervous,” confides Valentine, “but I also feel like I won the filmmaking lottery.” She describes herself as producer-minded, but admits this competition feels somewhat alien because it provides so much more access and support than she is used to. Valentine is free to focus on her vision. “Maybe it’s because of the dyslexia,” Jessica says, “but I am an extremely visual person, so I already know what this film will look like. That gives me confidence.” It’s freeing, but simultaneously complicated – she’s a new director, giving instructions to an experienced crew, a very talented supporting cast, and a legendary lead actor.

Valentine has an exciting break in front of her, but she’s also focused on what comes next in terms of her career and her return to Bellingham. She’s completely aware of the doors this opportunity could open and has a couple of feature films and a television series in mind for the near future. Valentine wants to pursue a career as a director and her goal is to find representation. “Presently, Trigger Street is one of the top companies in Hollywood,” she says proudly. “But as I’ve always said, any opportunity is only what you make of it. I’ve been working hard for a long time and I hope to be taken seriously now.”

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Washington Filmworks congratulates Jessica Valentine on her tremendous accomplishment. Watch her reaction as Kevin Spacey and First Shot producers tell her she’s a 2014 finalist. We can’t wait to see the finished film and find out what project she will take on next.

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