LOS ANGELES — Landing your first gig as a director often requires treading a bumpy road, but Massy Tadjedin began by throwing some extra stones into her own path.
First, the then-31-year-old screenwriter set out to make her directorial debut, “Last Night,” with a genre that’s become endangered in Hollywood: independent adult drama. Second, the script, her own, focused on infidelity, a well-worn subject that requires near-perfect execution. Third, she needed $7 million at a time — around the start of the global financial crisis — when funds for indie films had all but dried up.
“I think it was always a difficult film to pitch, to persuade. For the actors, for the financing. ... Especially for a first-time director,” says Tadjedin, 34, sipping her fourth cup of coffee of the morning at a Los Angeles diner. “You (create story) boards and you sell and you peddle your wares that you’ve spent so much time crafting, but it was a risk for everyone. What if I was a nut job?”
That Tadjedin succeeded in making “Last Night,” about a married couple apart for an evening and tempted to stray, is testament to more than her lack of nuttiness. Harvard-educated, tenacious, winsome — producer Nick Wechsler calls her personality “enchanting” — Tadjedin not only got her movie made, she got it made with stars Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, no less. (She cast Worthington after he shot “Avatar,” but before it hit theaters.) But it wasn’t enough to keep the film from almost stalling indefinitely.
“Last Night” was one of several films caught in the middle of Disney’s decision to dismember its specialty unit Miramax before selling it off last summer. That left the suspenseful drama in limbo for a couple years.
Thankfully for Tadjedin, her cast — which includes Eva Mendes and French actor Guillaume Canet — doesn’t seem to age. The film finally had its theatrical debut Friday, courtesy of Tribeca Films, more than two years after production wrapped. (It debuted on video-on-demand on April 20.)
“Last Night” may be Tadjedin’s directorial debut, but her time in Hollywood stretches back almost a decade. Born and raised in Yorba Linda, Calif., Tadjedin was raised on a steady diet of films her dad loved, those from John Wayne, John Ford and John Huston. She landed her first job in Hollywood working for a literary agent at CAA, and writing in the evenings. She spent a year absorbing every script she could get her hands on, then quit to try it herself. She co-wrote her first script with her brother in San Francisco, a drama called “Leo” that starred Joseph Fiennes and Elisabeth Shue.
Tadjedin was then given a chance to rewrite the thriller “The Jacket,” starring Adrien Brody and Knightley. Still naive to Hollywood’s ways, she turned in her first studio script to Warner Bros. in Microsoft Word format, not knowing that every screenwriter in town uses Final Draft software.
“The studio executive called me and said, ‘This is a Word document, you idiot,’ ” Tadjedin says, laughing. “I remember being so frustrated pressing the tab button while trying to write dialogue.”
Her journey on “Last Night” began in earnest in summer 2008 when she boarded a plane to Paris to goad her pal Knightley into signing on. The British actress was taking a break after back-to-back movies burned her out.
“She said, ‘What do you mean you’re coming to Paris?’ ” Tadjedin says, recalling Knightley’s reaction. “But I just knew. I remember waking up and thinking it’s Keira. ... I just chiseled away.”
The two were sitting at the touristy Cafe Flor on Saint Germain when Tadjedin, aided by some fruity champagne cocktails, finally wore down Knightley. “I think it took to the second Kir Royale for me to say yes,” Knightley says.
That determination also landed Tadjedin her “other woman” in Mendes. Fearing the part would lack originality, the actress was reluctant to play the co-worker who seduces Worthington’s character on a business trip.
“I would have turned it down” if I didn’t meet with Massy, says Mendes of her role as Laura, which she thought read too seductive in the script. “It was great to connect with a female director and talk about this woman and not objectify her as the other woman but give her a real true life and make her honest. ... Thank God I did.”
Wechsler was struck by Tadjedin’s confidence and intuition. He had met her years before and tried to get a few of her scripts to the screen before “Last Night” came along. “I’ve rarely seen a director with enough savvy to pull together the elements of film the way she did. She pulled the cast together, pulled the key crew together. She’s a force of nature and knows exactly what she wants. They all fell in love with her.”
Filming ended in summer 2009, but the movie sat on the shelf until Disney allowed the film’s financier, Gaumont, to take it to the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. Early this year, Tribeca and the new Miramax, now owned by Ron Tutor and Colony Capital, made a deal to release it. In the meantime, Tadjedin continued doing studio work, including a movie she’s writing for DreamWorks, and her own projects, one of which she hopes to make her next film.
The anxiety of not knowing where “Last Night” would land wore on Tadjedin for a while but she took comfort in one thing. “I’ve made my first film — the first one is always the hardest one to set up. That means I can make my second film,” she says. “There is always that solace.”