Despite appearances to the contrary, John Krasinski, the rangy costar of NBC's "The Office," does not fit into the category of actors who really want to direct. Even if the movie passion project he wrote and directed, "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday night.
For Krasinski, it was the source material that prompted him to make the move behind the camera. During his senior year at Brown University, the Boston-area native took part in a staged reading of acclaimed literary fiction writer David Foster Wallace's bestselling "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," a mordant, sometimes disturbing collection of 23 short stories, some presented as interview transcripts with guys of various ages who try to justify their outrageous and often repugnant male behavior. It was a eureka moment for the future "Office" boy; without encountering Wallace's book, Krasinski says he never would have made the push to infiltrate the entertainment industry, let alone wind up as Jim Halpert, America's favorite shaggy sitcom Everyman.
"That reading was a real wake-up call to me to look at the world in a different way," he explains. "We only did one performance, and you could see the power all of the stories had together. Some are incredibly funny. Some are moving. Some are provocative, and some are incredibly brutal. You get this spectrum of a very human thing."
Realizing this creation myth for both his career and entree into America's foremost showcase for independent filmmaking might sound a little too pat -- even by Sundance standards, where serendipity, kismet and stick-to-itiveness are obligatory parts of the filmmaking fairy tale -- Krasinski catches himself. "Until then, it was just me performing with friends; it was what all the cool kids were doing. Without being overly sentimental, it was the defining moment I decided I wanted to act."
Like skiing uphill
Each January in Park City, Utah, it seems as if another actor turned director arrives, intent on expanding his cinematic résumé and maybe even finding a distributor for his first feature film foray. In recent years, the list has included "The New Adventures of Old Christine" costar Clark Gregg (" Choke," 2008), Justin Theroux ("Dedication," 2007) and Todd Field ("In the Bedroom," 2001).
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But unlike those actors, Krasinski wasn't even on the pop culture radar when he began seeking the rights to Wallace's 1999 book. After graduating from Brown, he moved to New York to attend theater school in 2001, making ends meet by waiting tables. Krasinski began lobbying Wallace's longtime literary agent Bonnie Nadell for the right to option "Brief Interviews" but was rebuffed several times. In 2002, he landed the pilot for the American adaptation of a beloved British sitcom.
"When he first called, here's this actor I had never heard of. He's going to do an American version of 'The Office'? I'd never seen the British version," recalls Nadell. "He asked to come out to L.A. and meet me. He explained how much the book meant to him and was really heartfelt and sweet. I just decided it was going to be OK. I went purely on intuition that he was going to do a good job."
Remembers Krasinski: "I said flat out, 'I want people to have a key into what changed me. I had an epiphany and want to let more people understand how impactful and important David's work is. And more people will understand it if there's a movie.' "
He began writing the script while waiting to find out if "The Office" was going to be picked up, and continued to wrestle with the material in fits and starts during the next six years. Krasinski adapted it for the screen by taking only one major liberty: He concocted a female character that does not appear in the book, an interviewer played by Julianne Nicholson ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent") with a personal motive for trying to understand the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men.
In 2005, with a shooting draft finished and the casting process already begun, Wallace, the literary phenom who also penned the groundbreaking novel "Infinite Jest," called Krasinski to give him his blessing on the project. "He said, 'What's it scripted around?' " the multi-hyphenate remembers. "I said, 'A woman doing her dissertation around feminism looking into the role of the modern man in the post-feminist era.' There was a silence. And he said, 'I never figured out how to do that, how to make them all relate together. That sounds awesome.' It was probably one of the greatest days of my life!"
From there, Krasinski started putting together financing, landing money for the project from one of his college friends. And he began casting the film, getting the commitment of a number of established actors, including Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), Timothy Hutton, Max Minghella, Will Forte ("Saturday Night Live") and Bobby Cannavale.
But what came next stunned the literary world. After a protracted battle with depression, Wallace took his own life last September. "Brief Interviews" arrives at Sundance -- one of 16 films screening in the dramatic competition -- as the only of the author's books to have successfully been adapted for the screen. "It's such a tragedy on every level," Krasinski says of Wallace's death. "That's a loss I don't think anyone can fully fathom. No one will write the way he did."
For his part, the actor (who also appears in one of the low-budget film's most emotional "interviews") says he is not committed to taking his career as a writer-director any further. Despite the fact that talent agency CAA is representing "Brief Interviews" -- on the short list for many acquisitions executives at Sundance -- for Krasinski, the endgame isn't even necessarily finding a distributor for the film; it is simply bringing the work to its widest audience yet at Sundance.
"I looked for someone to help me write it and someone to direct it, and people just didn't understand how it would be a movie," Krasinski says. "It fell to me to do it. And in my wildest dreams, Sundance would be where it ends up. This is, without a doubt, a fairy tale."