Stage director Mark Rucker makes his film debut with “Die Mommie Die,” a comic takeoff on lavish women’s movies in which cross-dressing Charles Busch plays the part that Lana Turner or Bette Davis might once have essayed in a more serious vein. Rucker visited Dallas in the company of one of his stars, Jason Priestley, prior to the picture’s premiere as the latest entry in the Sundance Film Series.

“I came to [the project] first many years ago, having the idea actually that I’d love to make a movie with Charles Busch, who stars in it and wrote the film,” Rucker recalled. “I’m a theatre guy, but I knew Anthony Edwards and Dante Di Loreto, two of the producers of the film, and they had a connection to Charles on another project that they were working on; and then this came up, and I came up. It took a couple of years after that, but eventually, like with a lot of small movies, with persistence we got it made.”

Rucker explained why the project so attracted him: “I’m a big film buff from way back. That’s one of the reasons I was such a fan of Charles’s theatre work, because it’s so much about film genres. Almost all of his plays come from Hollywood movies, and his performances are a study of these great actresses that he’s sort of merged together and created his own performances out of.” He prepared for the shoot by watching scads of the movies that served as Busch’s models–all the Ross Hunter productions (“I knew every inch of ‘Imitation of Life’ anyway,” he said) and even a little-known picture called “The Big Cube,” with Turner. “I had never heard of it,” he said, “but Charles told me about it as we started comparing notes about what films contributed to the screenplay. Lana Turner plays this glamorous, semi-retired stage actress who marries into this family, and there’s a stepdaughter who doesn’t care for her, and she schemes with her boyfriend o slip her an acid-laced ginger ale. It’s a terrible movie.”

But, he noted, “what’s cool is that you don’t have to be a big specific fan of these movies of this genre to enjoy the movie. The younger people that were involved in the film…don’t know these movies, they don’t even know ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’–which I think is criminal–but they read the script and they’re like, ‘I love this–I’ve got to be in it.’ So there’s something there–you don’t want it to be an exact copy or a parody of something that exists, you want to create your own kind of entity.”

It was also important, Rucker said, to find the right tone at which to play the material. “The really simple ground rules were not to go so far over the top that you were winking at the audience, that whatever way you do it, it’s got to have a kind of commitment that has a kind of reality that exists for you. You understand where the humor lies, but not hit it so hard. One thing I didn’t want was to become like a sketch comedy that wears out its welcome in about ten minutes, [and that] the performances weren’t so arch that you become irritated by it…I feel that we did what I wanted to do with it, and that’s to sort of walk the line.”

Priestley had gotten attached to the project early on, “about a year and a half before we actually started filming,” Rucker recalled. “We started to think about actors to be in it, and he was first on the list for Tony Parker”–a tennis pro/gigolo. “We actually sent him the script, and he liked it and agreed right away…[he] actually was with us on the journey of trying to get it made for a year and a half, helping us by lending his name to the project to get it made.”

When asked why he often chooses such quirky films to appear in, Priestley said, “Certainly with ‘Love and Death on Long Island’ there was an element to it. We shot that movie in ’96, so it was really kind of the height of that ‘90210’ frenzy that was going on. I thought it was very funny to send up that teen idol image that I’d had bestowed on me by the publicity machine. With this movie, Tony’s just one of those characters you just kind of have to play as an actor, because how often do characters like this come along? Also, [it was] a great opportunity for me to sort of send up not only the professional baggage that I carry, but also some of the things in my personal life that have become part of my baggage. It’s just very funny to make fun of those things. Half the time it’s nothing you’ve even done, it’s that these labels have just been bestowed upon you…I think as an actor what you want to do is play a lot of different parts in a lot of different genres of movies, and being twenty-one years old and being on a wildly successful television show, it’s easy to get stuck doing that one thing forever. So I’ve really worked hard to expand my horizons and push myself as an actor, and make myself do things that were scary and things that were risky and things that were going to be very difficult, because that’s what you do. And it seems to have worked. So far I’m happy.”

“The thing that I saw,” Rucker added, “not only in ‘Love and Death on Long Island’ but in some of the other characters that he’s played…you think this guy is willing to take some chances. And also, I think people are beginning to discover he’s really, really funny. Not only in person–I’ve seen him in all these interviews, he’s hysterical–but in the movie. I think he’s really, really funny, and it’s kind of a revelation for some that he’s, like, this very comic actor.”

One of the characters in “Die Mommie Die” is himself a film director, and his motto is “Make it big, make it classy, and leave them with a message.” When asked whether his picture followed that formula, Rucker said, “Well, make it big, give it class, don’t worry about the message. There is no message. There’s no hidden messages. [The film] is meant to be something that is hopefully funny, strangely involving and just entertaining.”