Second-generation director Jake Scott does fashion and feature films his way

Jake Scott cast Kristen Stewart as a stripper who meets a grieving conventioneer in 'Welcome to the Rileys.' Jake Scott cast Kristen Stewart as a stripper who meets a grieving conventioneer in "Welcome to the Rileys." (Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe)
By Judy Abel
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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NEW YORK — Jake Scott looks like a Frisbee player as he lounges in a tweedy hotel restaurant wearing faded jeans, a dark hoodie, and a wrist-full of woven Buddhist bracelets.

But when the 45-year-old director gets up to leave, he pops a formal brown bowler on his head, apparently unaware that it seems incongruous with the rest of his attire.

A prop for an upcoming photo shoot or television appearance?

“I just like hats,’’ he says, seemingly surprised that his headgear would prompt a question.

Melissa Leo, who stars in Scott’s new film, “Welcome to the Rileys,’’ which opens Friday in the Boston area, says an original dressing style is completely in character for Scott because he’s a guy who’s prone to flout traditional expectations.

“That’s very typical,’’ she says. “It not just his clothes, but I did notice his outfits all the time. There’s always a statement he makes — an invention of his own. And he really does wear a lot of hats.’’

In fact, Scott’s determination to do things his own way is largely the reason Leo was cast in the role of a bereaved mother who remains cloistered in her Indianapolis house for eight years following the death of her teenage daughter.

“Melissa was one of the first names I came up with but, the industry being what it is, and financiers being who they are, everyone said, ‘We need a bigger name — a bigger movie star,’ ’’ says Scott, who often cannot suppress his frustration with the establishment. “So we sent the script to these famous actresses and none of them was right.’’

Only after the backers saw Leo’s performance in the 2008 film, “Frozen River,’’ for which she received an Academy Award nomination, did they understand Scott’s eagerness to cast her, he says.

“It’s frustrating that arguments against casting a certain person can be absurd,’’ Scott says. “In big movies I completely get it, but we’re talking about small budgets here.’’

Scott’s impatience with the movie establishment is curious given his lofty Hollywood lineage. His father, the director Ridley Scott (“Alien,’’ “Gladiator’’), heads RSA, the production company. His uncle Tony Scott is also a director. Together the elder Scotts run Scott Free Productions, which began in 1995 as a television production company and now produces feature films. The company’s president, Michael Costigan, was a producer of “Welcome to the Rileys.’’

But Jake Scott says his family connections have not really opened doors. “People assume that because of one’s family standing, it’s a lot easier, but my experience has shown that that’s not true.’’

If it were, he argues, it would not have taken him 11 years to make his second feature film. His 1999 debut, “Plunkett & Macleane,’’ was a box office failure for which, he says, he’s paid a price.

“Because of my first film’s failings, it was really hard to convince anyone to back another film,’’ says Scott. “You go to movie jail after you make a film that doesn’t work. God knows it’s hard work making films and, as a first film, it didn’t do me any favors.’’

He probably could have done an action movie, but he was determined to make a character-based film. When he read the “Welcome to the Rileys,’’ script, written by Ken Hixon, he was motivated to orchestrate his prison bust.

The film, which was well received at the Sundance Film Festival last winter, depicts the struggle of parents after their daughter is killed in a car crash. While Doris Riley (Leo) shuts out the world, her husband, Doug (James Gandolfini), tries to find ways to cope. After his mistress suddenly dies, he attends a convention in New Orleans where he meets Mallory, a teenage stripper played by Kristen Stewart. Despite her resistance, Doug is determined to save Mallory. When he tells his wife that he is staying in New Orleans, she manages to overcome her fears and neuroses and drives down to find him. Together, the couple attempts to help the young runaway and keep her safe.

“I came to it as a father,’’ says Scott, who, with his wife, Rhea, has four children ranging from 5 to 16 years old. “I was fascinated by the idea that these conservative Midwestern people are contending with something that’s impossible to imagine. And they go on this journey to this place that is completely opposite to their world and connect with someone who is so horribly damaged.’’

While filming the movie, Scott was concerned about exploiting Stewart’s character by including gratuitously sexy scenes of her in the strip club. There was, he says, pressure to depict her pole dancing, but he adamantly refused.

“It was very hard to explain to them — I understand why they wanted it — Kristin Stewart, who’s got a bum like an apricot swirling around on a pole,’’ he says. “I thought it would destroy the character and disrespect people who have lost children. It would be an immoral act.’’

The experience of making this film was worth the struggle. He hopes his next projects will be films that focus on characters, including a screenplay about a Tibetan nun who was killed in front of a group of climbers in the Himalayan Mountains. The true story is based on an article in Men’s Journal, and has been expanded into a book.

“It’s one of those stories where you watch and say, ‘God, what would I have done if I’d been there,’ ’’ says Scott. “It really throws that question at you. It’s an amazing human drama.’’

Another project, which is more tentative, is a biopic about Peter Tosh, who performed with Bob Marley and was pivotal in popularizing the reggae movement.

“I am a complete reggae fanatic but it’s hard because, believe it or not, Peter Tosh is a relatively unknown figure in music,’’ he says, with a hint of irritation creeping into his voice.

Meanwhile, Scott, who got his start making music videos and commercials, will continue to make commercials to pay the bills and finance his projects.

From Leo’s perspective, it is absolutely imperative that Scott stick with his plan and work on interesting film projects.

“I really want for him to have a great career as a director because he’s a beautiful director and we need many more like him,’’ Leo says. “A director has to have an ability to communicate with all kinds of different people. And his ability with the three of us, who are very different actors and very different human beings, was uncanny.’’

Scott agrees that making movies is in his blood. That said, he admits to briefly losing his way at one point in his youth.

“Believe it or not, I went to fashion school in London in the ’80s,’’ he says. “I realized I made a mistake as soon as I enrolled. I think I was just doing it to wind my dad up.’’

Well, that could at least explain the natty hat collection.

Judy Abel can be reached at

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