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Eva Hassmann Talks Working with Willie Nelson and Peter Bogdanovich on Her Directorial Debut ‘Willie and Me’

You might not know German actress Eva Hassmann, but that’s most likely going to change. Hassmann’s directorial debut Willie and Me hits theaters and VOD on February 9 and it’s a special project. The Willie of the title is Willie Nelson, whose music inspired the film. He shows up in the movie, not just playing himself but also as a mysterious stranger who helps Eva’s character as she tries to get to Willie’s last concert in Las Vegas.

Hassmann wrote the film, with help from another legend, the late Peter Bogdanovich, who also appears in the film in his final acting performance. She spoke with us from Los Angeles.

It’s interesting for a German woman to make a classic American road movie.

Yeah, it’s my love. I think, living in Germany as a child, watching American movies, it has this romantic feeling.

Are the American movies you saw as a kid what made you want to become an actress in the first place?

Actually, no, it was an experience in a theater. I was only six years old and I was in A Doll’s House, from Henrik Ibsen. I played Nora’s daughter and that was my first time on stage. I had a line to say at the premiere, I was running on stage and I saw the audience. I was so baffled about all the people looking at me and it was like, this complete silent moment. I forget my line and [am] enjoying this silence. It was so intense. That was the best feeling ever, ’till my mother in the piece said, “Oh, do you want to play hide and seek?” Which was my line. That was the moment I decided I wanted to become an actress.

It’s quite a journey to get from there, to directing your first feature. What was it about this story? Where did the story come from? Focusing on Willie Nelson is very specific.

I was a Willie Nelson fan as a child. My mother had his tape in her car and I started listening to him. I stopped for a while and after I started again.

This story, it did something to me. It’s an authentic story in regard to childhood and what it means if we lose the connection to music. How that cuts us off from creativity. Music was a vehicle to find back this feeling for myself. This whole story came out of that, about this woman who basically has everything she needs and still her life is so empty. Something’s missing and [in order to] to break out of it, she’s inspired by Willie’s music.

Not only do you get him to play himself, but also you get him to play the mysterious Bones, which I found hilarious. How did you make that happen?

I spoke with Peter about it and then we just asked him and he agreed to play himself. Then I asked him, “What do you think about playing a double part?” The idea actually came from a book by Carlos Castañeda, who wrote a story about a student who wanted to learn about indigenous culture. In the story, it was explained to him that shamans can be in two places at the same time, so the idea was that he’s playing this medicine man who brings her to the concert and at the same time, he’s on stage.

And you got him to shave his beard too!

(Laughs) Yes! And painted his face really dark. I got so much support, I’m so thankful for both of them. Willie and Peter. Over all those years, they help me to keep going.

You mentioned Peter Bogdanovich, who was a real mentor to you. How did you meet and start working together?

I had a short film I directed and produced, Mad Lane, that was running over several festivals. One was in New York and he saw it and loved it. He asked me if I’m working on something right now and I had already finished the 20-page treatment for Willie and Me. He read it and said, “Great idea, write the script.”

I locked myself in for two months and wrote the first draft. I was still in Germany at that time. I sent him the script and he said, “Come over, let’s work on it.” I was studying film at UCLA through extension courses and working as an actress in Germany. I went back and forth a lot.

What kind of what lasting lessons do you feel you learned from working with him?

Set up and payoff. He always set something up and paid it off. But I learned so much from him. He told me, “If you want to direct, you need to start learning about screen history.” We went from silent movies, black and white movies up ’till the present of filmmaking. He gave me a lot of films to watch. And to be persistent. That’s what he taught me.

Can you describe the challenge of directing your first feature while also playing the lead?

The biggest challenge was not getting enough sleep. My head was constantly going and then there was this responsibility towards the actors. I felt some guilt where I was acting and watching them at the same time. But I had a lot of rehearsals with the actors and they were so prepared, so supportive. I think although that I’m not doing both things again, I will go more behind the camera and completely focus on the actors. Maybe I’ll play a sidekick. (Laughs)

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