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Shira Piven returns to be honored by Women in Film Chicago

Shira Piven, the actress, writer and filmmaker who is a member of Our Town’s famous Piven acting and theatrical family, will be among the honorees at the 6 p.m. Wednesday gala at the Museum of Broadcast Communications for Women in Film Chicago. Also being honored Wednesday will be fellow filmmakers Susan Credle, Erin Sarofsky and Christina Varotsis.

Shira is not only the daughter of Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop founders Joyce and the late Byrne Piven, and the sister of actor Jeremy Piven, but has also been married since 1996 to comedy powerhouse Adam McKay, an alum of Chicago’s iO Theatre and “Saturday Night Live,” whose partnership with Will Ferrell has given us such hit films as the “Anchorman” movies, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Step Brothers.”

We spoke recently about the second feature film she directed, “Welcome to Me,” starring Kristen Wiig, James Marsden, Linda Cardellini and Wes Bentley. Already stirring big buzz on the film festival circuit, the movie is slated for theatrical release this spring.

For Piven, the attraction to direct “Welcome to Me” grew out of her interest in the screenplay, penned by Eliot Laurence, who had been a student of Piven’s in an acting class she taught in New York. “I just loved his particular kind of comedy, and when I heard about the script, I knew I just had to read it. … That’s kind of funny because it’s unusual for me to go out asking someone to read their script. Usually, it’s the other way around. You get begged to read something. But I knew that if Eliot had written it, it had to be good — and I was right. I immediately fell in love with this material and wanted to make sure we’d find other people who loved it as much as I did.”

The premise for “Welcome to Me” is unusual. Kristen Wiig stars as Alice, a woman with borderline personality disorder, who wins a huge lottery jackpot and decides to spend her winnings on financing her own cable access talk show — starring her. Alice goes off her meds, and her bigger-than-life, over-the-top personality creates all kinds of tension for her friends and family members.

For Piven, making this film was a way to both entertain and to make a statement about mental illness and our national obsession with what we call “reality television” programs — really, carefully crafted TV train-wrecks that draw audiences who are hooked on watching the misfortunes and conflicts in other people’s lives.

“When I was making this film, things like ‘Network,’ ‘The King of Comedy’ and ‘Being There’ were very present for me during shooting. I wanted to capture the tone and feel of those movies — especially ‘Network’ — to make people think about today’s television media and how it intrudes on our lives,” said Piven. ” ‘Welcome to Me’ is really about the collision of mental illness and our reality TV media culture.”

When she was home recently to visit her mother, Piven saw Joan Cusack [who also appears in “Welcome to Me”]. “Afterward, I got a very interesting email from Joan, who like all of us who worked on the film was so taken with the subject matter of the script. She basically said she feels the film captures the carnivorous nature of certain parts of our TV world.

“This whole reality thing feeds off people’s troubles and the desire to televise them. It’s mining the darker drama of people’s lives. It’s not a good thing,” said Piven.

Thanks to today’s social media culture and the omnipresence of video, “many people are obsessed with fame,” said Piven, pointing to a personal story involving her own daughter, Pearl, who now is 9 years old but is still approached by school friends who think she’s a celebrity because she starred as the title character in “The Landlord,” the Funny or Die video her dad made with Will Ferrell a half-dozen years ago. “Of course, we had no idea that video would go viral to the degree it did,” said Piven. “But Pearl seriously gets a kind of adulation thing from friends for being in that, back when she obviously had no idea what it was all about. It’s crazy. People keep telling Pearl, ‘You’re famous! You’re famous!’ It’s just weird.”

Next up for Piven is a screenplay she’s adapting, based on an Arthur Miller short story, “The Performance.”

“My brother, Jeremy, has had the rights to it for a long time. It’s about an American guy in the 1930s who sort of stumbles into a tap-dancing job in Europe and ends up tap-dancing for Hitler. The twist to it: The guy was not really in touch with his Jewish heritage, but as he tap-dances for Adolf Hitler, that experience naturally throws him into a moral quandary.”