‘Necessity,’ fulfillment of an old ambition led Peter Riegert to direct after 35-year acting career

Peter Riegert comes to town Dec. 14, not as the famous actor he is, but as co-writer, director/producer of “King of the Corner,” his first indie feature.

It will be screened at 5:30 at the AMC River East theatre, followed by Q&A with Riegert and his cinematographer, Mauricio Rubinstein (“Casa De Los Babys”). Kodak sponsors as a promotion for its new Super 16 250D daylight stock, utilized in the Riegert feature.

He shares with ReelChicago’s Ruth L Ratny the path traveled from the decision to direct a full-blown feature four years after directing an Oscar-nominated short.

REELCHICAGO What motivated you to become a director at after hugely successful 35-year acting career?
PETER RIEGERT. Necessity. You get older and you’re at the mercy of the business dynamics. The parts haven’t been as interesting or coming in as often as before. I said four years ago if I didn’t start to direct then, I wouldn’t do it. I must say, I’ve fallen in love again, with directing, and I’m as excited as when I started out as an actor 35 years ago.

REELCHICAGO. What were some of the obstacles you encountered when you started shooting “By Courier?” an O.Henry short story?
RIEGERT. We had a budget of around $20,000. I planned to shoot two days in Rhinebeck, New York. We were rained out the first day and I hadn’t planned on coverage. I rewrote the opening, and shot it in a day.

REELCHICAGO And what did you do to stretch your budget?
RIEGERT. I traded my conducting a couple of acting classes at the School of Visual Arts for an Avid so I could edit. I paid everyone $100. I didn’t want anyone to feel they were doing me a favor.

REELCHICAGO. How did you decided “King of the Corner,” also adapted from a short story, was the one you wanted to tell for your feature debut?
RIEGERT. Gerald Shapiro wrote a book called “Bad Jews and Other Stories.” We didn’t know each other when a mutual friend suggested he send me a copy of his book. I read it and loved it. I called Gerald and asked if he’d like to write a screenplay. I said, “I’d love to work with you.”

REELCHICAGO. How was collaborating with another writer?
RIEGERT. Gerald was fantastic and had a great imagination. When you’re sympatico, working together is a pleasure. We made the movie two years to the day (in 2003)after we started working on the screenplay.

REELCHICAGO. You said a screenwriter constantly rewrites.
RIEGERT. Once you have a script, to get the money you have to rewrite, then it’s altered by actors, and it endlessly evolves.

REELCHICAGO. Now we come to the business of indie filmmaking. What was your budget?
RIEGERT. It was $400,000 to shoot and $150,000 to the first print. I found a couple of people who were willing to get involved in the financing. Everyone worked for scale, by the way. We didn’t have trailers, too expensive at $400 a day, but we made sure everyone was comfortable.

REELCHICAGO. What was your shooting schedule?
RIEGERT. We shot for 20 days in and around New York, spent a day in Philadelphia, a day in New Jersey and four days in Phoenix.

Our producer, Lemore Syvan, an independent New York filmmaker, really knows to make movies. And we had the wonderful cinematographer Mauricio Rubinstein working with us.

REELCHICAGO. Any surprises for you as the director?
RIEGERT. I found how sympathetic I was to the way movies are made. I felt I had the skills to make the short. Working with the cast on “King of the Corner,” I knew what I was looking for and I wanted to make a movie that I’d like to go see.

REELCHICAGO. Most of your cast are New Yorkers. Did you call them up personally and ask them to be in your movie?
RIEGERT. Everybody I asked said yes, but not as a favor to me. I wanted them to feel they were in the movie for themselves. It’s not healthy to ask for favors, a foolish way to go. We created a company that where everyone would share 25% in case anything good happens as a way to protect the cast and crew. They all understood the risks of making an independent film.

REELCHICAGO. What are you doing about distribution?
RIEGERT. We’ll release it ourselves, between mid-March and April 1 and take it out into the country for six to eight months. Will we get a return on investment? I hope so, but we’ll have to wait and see.

REELCHICAGO. Will your transition to directing will mean less emphasis on acting?
RIEGERT. That remains to be seen. Directing doesn’t mean I have to replace what I’ve done as an actor. Directing enables me to be active without waiting for the next acting job. Even the big stars have their own production company in a constant search for good material. I’m no different than the others.

REELCHICAGO. Any advice for aspiring indie filmmakers?
RIEGERT. I’ve said it many times before: Talent has value so don’t take it lightly. You have to figure out a way to survive and persevere. And you have to get lucky?and I don’t mean that glibly. Be ruthlessly honest with where you are, and remember the definition of success constantly evolves. Opportunity is always in front of us. You have to recognize it and be brave enough to take advantage of it.