Chris Eigeman plays teacher Lionel Herkabe

Chris Eigeman plays teacher Lionel Herkabe

Chris Eigeman attends the Hamptons Film Festival - Gurney's Inn, 290 old Montauk Highway East Hampton, NY United States, October 19, 2007. He was there to promote a movie he wrote, directed and produced, 'Turn the River'.

River to the Hamptons

Reeler Interview: Actor-director Chris Eigeman on his upcoming fest premiere and finding Famke Janssen's inner pool shark

By S.T. VanAirsdale

First things first: Yes, Famke Janssen shoots her own pool in Turn the River. Chris Eigeman insisted on it. Premiering Friday at the 15th annual Hamptons International Film Festival, Eigeman's directing debut stars the Dutch siren as Kailey, an insomniac card shark and pool hustler playing for increasingly high stakes in the New York gambling underground. The top prize: The means to recover her son from his dad, an abusive lapsed Catholic overwhelmed by the push-pull of fatherhood and faith. Pool-hall proprietor Quinette (Rip Torn) squints curmudgeonly over the action, backing Kailey's games and maintaining the nexus of furtive correspondence between her and her boy.

Not coincidentally, Turn the River reflects its maker's instinctive tastes for high-rolling. A veteran actor perhaps best known for his wiseacre turns in the films of Whit Stillman and last year's miserably underappreciated The Treatment (also co-starring Janssen), Eigeman balances ambitious family drama and obsessive character study with an affectless poker face of his own. The most he concedes is a generosity to his cast -- Janssen in particular, whose ever-expanding talents earn an unprecedented showcase here. The Reeler caught up with Eigeman this week on his way to River's Hamptons bow.

THE REELER: Your writing and directing debut premieres in a few days at the Hamptons Film Festival. How are your nerves right about now?

CHRIS EIGEMAN: Either because of an ironclad sense of denial on one hand or a genuine peace with the world on the other, I'm not very nervous about very much. I think I'm just excited to have people see it. Showing it sort of becomes its own reward at some point. Having said that, the over-under of me showing up at the first screening with vomit on my shoes is reasonably high. You just don't know.

R: And with this being a gambling film, are you encouraging viewers to make bets on whether on not that happens?

CE: I am never shy about placing bets. I will throw rock-paper-scissors over anything.

R: You play poker and you've played pool for years. Yet you also back away from attributing much of this story to autobiography. Are there specific elements of your life that do overlap?

CE:There's almost no autobiography in it except in the broadest of strokes. My folks were divorced; I did play pool with my dad, who was in the seminary before he was my Dad. But there was no child abuse or any of that. My mother was no modern-day gunslinger or pool player. All of that is made up. All writing is autobiography on some level, but this really is just a stepping-off point. And even that is just in the roughest of senses.

R: What else inspired the story, and how long did it take to find?

CE: I think I probably worked on it for about a month, and I had the whole thing kind of in my mind. Then I put it down and went and acted in The Treatment with Famke. When that was over I came back to it and realized I was really writing it for Famke. She has a lot of those qualities; she has a strength to her and a confident swagger about her, but also a very apparent vulnerability or even delicacy about her. Once that was all in place, I spent about two months writing it. I sat with it for a little while, rehearsed it in my living room with friends to make sure it could play. I knew it would be done on a real small budget -- that was the goal, at least -- so I wanted every possible kink worked out before we even got into pre-production so I could worry about everything else.

R: It's probably my own fault, but Famke's performance in The Treatment was a total revelation to me. How did your own impression of her reputation and her work change over the making of that film?

CE: I'd seen her in other films like Rounders, Love and Sex, even The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, where she has a small part. It's this weird thing: Actors who are predominantly known for doing big-budget greens-screen pictures can get short-shrifted a bit, which is deeply unfair. Somehow people think you have to act less, but the reality is that you have to act as much if not more to pull that off. Having had to deal with green screen only a few times in my career, I find it incredibly difficult. So I always knew Famke was that good.

R: Did you ever think that Famke was too beautiful to portray this kind of vice-addled, world-weary, inveterate gambler?

CE: This is a great case of being able to have our cake and eat it too. She's not unaware that is a tool in her bag; it's one of her talents when she's in a pool game or at a card table. But we talked about this a lot. Every pool shot she takes, she has to make. We couldn't double her at all. And she was really comfortable with dirtying up; letting her hair fall wherever it falls and not romancing herself up too much. It's a real act of trust in me and the film on her part to say: "OK -- it's all right if I'm a little gritty in this. It's all right." I was grateful for that.

R: It seems like several of the principals in this film -- Famke, obviously, and certainly Rip Torn -- are playing against type in a way.

CE: That was the only way we were going to get this picture done.

R: Why?

CE: I think if you're asking somebody to do a movie for no money up front, then you should offer them a part that will be fun for them to play -- not a part they've done before. Those are the parts they make money doing. This should be purely for the love of acting in it. Rip frequently is cast a very authoritative, heavy, even menacing character at times. So I thought, "I wonder if he'd like to play the father figure for this entire picture." It's like if you ask me to do a movie as an actor, and I'm cracking wise and doing a thing that I've done before. I'm happy to do that, but you have to pay me. I won't do it for free. But if you cast me as the drug-addled drummer in a band, I will absolutely do that for free. It's all premised on this idea that actors like to act. And to me, that's what independent film is about -- why it's so important and liberating. You get actors who love what they're doing, do it really well and let them swing for the fences. Otherwise it's just casting.

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