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How Tim Busfield & Melissa Gilbert’s Passion For Theater Led To The Film 'Guest Artist'

Jeff Daniels in his new film Guest Artist

Jeff Daniels is most famous for his acting work in movies, but the stage has long been his passion. In fact, he founded the Purple Rose Theater Company in his home state of Michigan. Back in the early 2000s, Daniels commissioned Pulitzer-winning playwright Lanford Wilson to create a new piece for his company.

What was an auspicious project got off to a rough start when Daniels went to pick up Wilson from the train station —  Wilson was drunk and hadn't written a word of the play he was commissioned to write. The incident itself became a play written by Daniels which has now been adapted as the film Guest Artist. The film premieres tomorrow at the Beloit International Film Festival, and two of its three showings are already sold out.


Guest Artist is produced and directed by Timothy Busfield and co-produced by his wife, Melissa Gilbert. Busfield notes that he, Gilbert and Daniels were all incredibly frustrated with the state of modern theater — from the lack of playwrights, to a lack of new productions and the plethora of shows that were simply remakes of films. 

"The frustration in keeping playwrights in the American theater and what does it take to keep the theater alive ... it's such an important medium, and, yet, it seems to be disappearing," Busfield says.

The stark contrast between "show business" and "show art" led the three actors and longtime friends to create their own production company — Grand River Productions. Guest Artist is its debut film and Busfield believes their company will create better opportunities for them to move people.

"The conversation eventually came around to, 'Jeff has this huge catalog of plays he's written, let's start with one of those,' " explains Gilbert. "We're gonna do the film the way we want to do it in our own Grand River, mom and pop way. We're gonna make a quality film based on quality material at a reasonable budget. That was our goal."

Busfield notes that it was very important to Daniels to keep the theater element on screen to help spread the love for theater in a feature film environment. This was accomplished not only through staying true to Daniel's script, but in the actor's rehearsal structure, the crew participating in a run-through, and taping 39 pages (the standard is four or five pages) at a time to keep a continuous momentum.

"It took [the crew] on the ride, they were the audience," says Gilbert. "They knew what they were making this film for and what reason they had for being there and what the ultimate goal was: to have the audiences feel what they felt at the end of rehearsal."

Busfield says that he can't recall even one time that Daniels' asked for lines during the seven day process of taping the film.

"Here you get a chance to see the author and a great actor present his material ... He knew every word inside and out, and that is extremely rare," he says.

Busfield reveals some of the deeper meaning behind this project involves not apologizing for the work they do as artists.

"If there's too many devices for a broad appeal, you often lose the core of your theme because you're so wrapped up in making sure that they don't get bored that you're not able to say anything," he notes. "A very important theme in the movie, a very important theme to us as artists [is] to be able to share what real life is actually like to people so they can relate."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.