Piven, visiting The City for the San Francisco International Film Festival to promote the movie, which opens Friday, grew up in the theater. Her parents ran the Piven Theatre Workshop near Chicago and her younger brother is actor Jeremy Piven.
She fell in love with performing at 13, studying improv as well as method acting. In her 20s she began gravitating more toward teaching, and eventually directing, first in theater, and later, film, where she began to discover set design, music and editing: "I didn't really know coming from theater how much I would love all these other parts of filmmaking," she says.
"Welcome to Me" stars Kristen Wiig as Alice Klieg, a woman who suffers from borderline personality disorder. She wins $86 million in the lottery and uses the money to start her own talk show. The subject? Herself.
The role seems tailor made for Wiig: "People are universally saying they can't imagine anyone else in this role,” says Piven.
"I knew I wanted someone with a comic center," she says, "but also it needed to be someone who could go to the darker places and have that vulnerability. Kristen can really carry off a role that has many colors to it."
The script by Eliot Laurence was enough to attract Wiig and other talented actors. But like her husband, director Adam McKay, Piven built time into her 25-day shooting schedule for her cast to improvise, adding jokes or other lines.
"I was nervous. I did a lot of improvising in my first movie ("Fully Loaded"), because we had no budget and we just kept the camera rolling. With this, I was worried we didn't have enough time," she says, adding that several improvised scenes successfully made the final cut.
The cleverest aspect of the Alice character is how she uses self-promotion as her own personal expression of creativity. "What I keep thinking is that the thing that it's about parodies itself," says Piven, considering the movie's many subtle layers.
"Facebook and reality TV and all of the self-involved stuff is already so absurd, it's hard to write fiction about it that doesn't seem silly."
It's a tribute to Piven, Laurence and Wiig that the movie doesn't fall into "Saturday Night Live" sketch territory.
"There are parts that you could make into sketches," Piven says, "but Alice is definitely a whole person. It's a real life."
IF YOU GO
Welcome to Me
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Tim Robbins
Written by: Eliot Laurence
Directed by: Shira Piven
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes