June 2008 | Vanessa Parise

Vanessa Parise (Writer, Director, & Producer, KISS THE BRIDE, JILL VS. THE WORLD)

By Amit Samuel

Parise.jpgAfter two years at the highly-competitive Circle in the Square Theater School in New York, Vanessa Parise had a choice: medicine or theater. To help her decide, Vanessa turned to her mentor at the American Repertory Theater, Robert Brustein. He helped Vanessa choose the career that she had secretly desired since elementary school.

Although a biology concentrator at Harvard College, Vanessa was also immersed in the arts, singing with the Opportunes and performing in many student plays. She excelled in biology, earning admission to Harvard Medical School. Before committing to medicine, though, Vanessa felt compelled to explore her passion for the theater.

Her parents cautiously supported Vanessa’s decision to defer. Though they themselves had pursued traditional careers (her father is a lawyer and mother a professor), they understood their daughter’s need to explore her artistic interests. As a sort of vocational rumspringa, Vanessa spent the summer after graduation attending theater school in New York City. She fell madly in love – in love with theater and in love with New York.

After spending several years starring in off-Broadway plays like TOP GIRLS and Edward Albee’s SEASCAPE, Vanessa was ready for a new challenge. On a visit to Los Angeles, she met with friend and Harvard alum, Marty Bowen ’91, then a junior talent agent at UTA. Marty described some of the advantages of living and working in sunny Los Angeles: the possibilities of booking TV and film gigs, jogging at El Matador Beach in Malibu, hiking in Griffith Park, and practicing yoga at Rising Lotus in Sherman Oaks. Convinced, Vanessa left New York.

Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Vanessa watched her then-boyfriend make a short film. Inspired, she decided to make her own. Her first was LO AND JO, which she wrote, directed, and starred in. The short was accepted at film festivals around the country and won numerous awards. Buoyed by the success, she embarked on producing her first feature film.

Vanessa set off to learn everything she could about filmmaking. She read screenwriting books by Syd Field, took a cinematography class, and took more acting classes, this time with Eric Morris. She watched super-producer Robert Evans’ biopic KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, which details his rise, fall, and rise again. She studied the styles of her favorite directors – Sydney Pollack, Steven Soderbergh, Edward Zwick, and Woody Allen – by listening to the scene commentary on their DVDs.

The third of five children in an extended Italian-American family, Vanessa wrote a film about what she knew best – the love and struggles shared by a colorful Italian-American family set on the coast of Rhode Island. As Vanessa drove onto set the first day of production, the unit production manager announced over the loudspeaker "the director has arrived on set.” After a moment, Vanessa realized they were talking about her -- pretty cool for a girl from R.I.

KISS THE BRIDE starred Talia Shire, Burt Young, Alyssa Milano, and Vanessa. The film was acquired by MGM after garnering a long list of awards on the festival circuit, including The Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film at the Hamptons Film Festival; Best Film at Sarasota; and Best Actress (Vanessa Parise) at Cinequest. Vanessa’s motion picture directorial debut was a success and especially impressive considering the paucity of female directors in Hollywood.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Vanessa recently completed her second feature, JACK AND JILL VS THE WORLD, starring Freddie Prinze Jr., Taryn Manning, Robert Forster, and Vanessa. It enjoyed a limited theatrical release and will premiere on television and then video next month.

To handle the demands of independent filmmaking, Vanessa has learned to be flexible and tenacious. Though the challenges are substantial, the rewards are special and immensely satisfying. Earlier this year during a visit to Massachusetts, Vanessa walked by the multiplex and there, among the big studio films, was her movie listed on the marquee.

Now after ten years in Hollywood and producing two successful feature films, Vanessa is taking the good reviews and returning to her first love: acting. Perhaps as a nod to her biology background, she should consider the role of a brilliant and beautiful scientist who follows her heart, bucks convention, overcomes the odds, and lives happily every after – in other words, pure method acting.

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