Michele Civetta has certainly gotten the hang of transitioning from shorts to feature films since making his debut in the 2020 thriller Agony for Gravitas Ventures. For his next project, The Gateway, the writer and director chose a crime thriller about a social worker (Shea Whigham) assigned to the care of the daughter (Taegen Burns) of a single mother (Olivia Munn) and intervenes when the dad returns from prison and lures them into a life of crime. I spoke to Civetta about what intrigued him about the project, how the cast came together, and some of the stunts of the film.
“The Gateway was a script that my producer had actually acquired along the way, and he basically asked me to come in and rewrite it,” Civetta said. “I tried to infuse it and carried it into more of like in the underwater tapestry. So it was an attempt to really just infuse a lot more ideas, different types of characters to all kind of synthesizers and meet in the city that we created the film.” While the original script came from Alex Felix Bendaña, the director admitted he reworked the bulk of it with Andrew Levitas. When it came to casting, he already had the Gaslit star in mind.
“For my money, [Shea’s] the ultimate inside actor’s actor,” Civetta said. “So he lent a lot of validity in terms of the tonality and what kind of a piece was going to be in the sense that, if he gets involved, it seems like he’s somebody who people understand both his integrity and also that it’s going to be something that’s going to be coming from the gut. So from there, Olivia hopped on, and we were super excited just because you see the whole cosmology of the piece starting to come together.” When it came to casting Marcus, he had a two-time Oscar nominee in mind. “I wrote a part for Bruce Dern, specifically for him, and then from there, we were lucky enough to get Frank [Grillo] involved as well,” Civetta said. “Frank was not in the original script. So I wrote that character from top to bottom. It was really central and just really seeing through this type of universe. Just then, all the characters were important in terms of how they balance. So we’re super lucky to get Taryn [Manning] involved and Mark Boone Junior, and Keith David, who is also an old school favorite of mine from my childhood, and is a great, great actor.”
One such sequence stuck out in Civetta’s mind when it came to The Gateway’s intense stunt work. “I’ve had a couple of accidents, unfortunately, on set before even dealing with the top-tier stunt people,” he said. “So I get nervous for that kind of stuff because we were shooting, specifically the ending with the car stuff. I was a little precarious. I was worried only because we had this great stunt guy who’s done tons of shows, and we were originally going to have a character who’s played by my friend Alex Wraith pinned against a car where he can break both his legs on screen. As we were preparing for the stunt, director Curtis Lyons told me, ‘Last time we did this, there are three ways you can achieve this: You can create a vivisection out of the car. You dig someone in and let them stand in the Ford. Otherwise, there’s another one which involves pulleys that kind of catapult the car into a sort of speed.’ He said, ‘The last time we did this didn’t go exactly as planned.’ ‘So, what do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘Well, the car came in at six miles an hour rather than five, and it actually legitimately broke the guy’s leg. So I said, ‘Well, we’re not going do it that way.’ So, you always have to improvise for that kind of stuff. Safety obviously comes first. You don’t want to have a Doctor Zhivago scenario.
Civetta feels he’s come a long way since he started in 2006 with his first short Parachute, Friendly Fire. “When I started, I always honed in on visual elements as a director,” he said. “So I used the camera a lot more to tell stories, setting the stage and many components. I always think that the hardest thing to really calibrate as a filmmaker is you have to have the technical awareness, but also performance is everything moving. So I believe a lot of actors are a little intimidated by the process of directing actors, much less, you know, really great ones. I like to believe that now I’m at a point I’d like to call when I get off-script, so I’m not hiding behind camera moves or what’s on the written page. But you become expressive and knowledgeable to actually understand what you’re doing with everybody at synthesis at the time of shooting. I think that’s really what I’ve been most excited about in this movie, to be honest.” Lionsgate’s The Gateway is currently in select theaters, AppleTV+, and anywhere you can rent films. It comes out on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7th.