A conversation with Stephen Cone | Bleader

A conversation with Stephen Cone


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Stephen Cone, right, on the set of The Wise Kids
  • Stephen Cone, right, on the set of The Wise Kids
There’s a reason I didn’t write on In Memoriam and The Wise Kids, both of which screened in Chicago this year: the writer-director of both movies, Stephen Cone, is a friend. I’ve known Stephen for a while now, and he’s one of my favorite people in the city with whom to talk movies. It's not because his tastes often overlap with my own; it's because he's an adventurous moviegoer and he never hesitates to buy the first round at the bar.

I met Stephen for lunch last week to talk about The Wise Kids (which J.R. Jones just wrote about as one of the year’s best movies), his next project, and independent moviemaking in general.

SC: I liked your piece on Monte Carlo.

BS: Thanks. I have this theory that children’s films are the last place where Hollywood directors can be at all subversive.

SC: Sure, because a movie doesn’t have to be that dark to be subversive. When I was writing The Wise Kids, I felt like there were things that would be more original if I presented [them] under a wholesome sheen than if I did them in a typical R-rated style. That was something I thought about a lot, what it means to be subversive. How can a G-rated movie be subversive? How can a PG-rated movie be subversive?

BS: It seems that once you bring in certain types of content, you start limiting your potential audience.

SC: And the people who are used to seeing conventionally “subversive” movies aren’t going to be shocked if you do. So, yeah, you’re not subverting anything [in that case]. But, then, if having a great amount of care and feeling for every character is subversive... if that’s true, then it’s unfortunate to me, even if you’re talking about Hollywood teen movies.

BS: Well, there’s always a bully in those movies—someone you’re automatically supposed to dislike. But one of the interesting things about The Wise Kids that [J.R. Jones] brought up in his Reader review is that there are no scenes of bullying in it.

SC: There aren’t. I thought I’d get more flak for it—I got a little flak, but not a lot... You know, I was trying to remember the other day if I’d ever been bullied, and I realized I hadn’t. I was always able to engage with the people who might have been otherwise bullying me. I was, like, the weird show-choir geek who was also able to have a pleasant conversation with a cheerleader or a football player.

BS: Of course, bullying is still very much a problem.

SC: If not more so now [than when I was in high school]. I don’t think we were seeing as much of it in the 80s and 90s because kids weren’t coming out when they were 13 and 14 and 15. In a way, [the problem is] reaching its peak very quickly in the early 21st century because, suddenly, everyone’s coming out in middle school and high school. I think it will fade, but right now we’re sort of in crisis mode—which is why some people might take fault with a film about an out, gay Southern boy whose father is embracing of him... At the same time, there are zero scenes in school in the movie. We don’t see that.

BS: It reminds me of something R.W. Fassbinder said about Fox and His Friends, that his mission with that film was not to present homosexuality as a problem, because once you do—even if you show a character overcoming adversity—you’re letting the opposition shape the terms of the argument.

SC: Indirectly, sure. Also, that argument gets trite. It’s becoming an old story as sexuality becomes less and less of an issue in society. In that sense, something like Fox and His Friends was way ahead of its time. It skipped over the next three decades.

BS: So did Dog Day Afternoon, speaking of 70s movies we both like.

SC: I’m never not startled by [the sexual politics of] that movie. And a bunch of heterosexuals made it! As far as I know, that screenwriter, Frank Pierson, is heterosexual.

BS: I wonder if it’s because Sidney Lumet threw out most of the dialogue during rehearsal and had the actors come up with their own. Sexuality doesn’t feel like an issue in that movie because everything’s so immediate.

SC: You know, I’m teaching an “Improvisation for the Camera” class right now, and it’s culminating in a handful of improvised shorts that inevitably involve me writing a few pages of dialogue for everyone. Because, for me, the ideal is striking some kind of balance [between scripted and improvised dialogue].

BS: So far, you’ve cast your movies almost exclusively from the Chicago stage. Do you want a theatrical performance style to influence your work?

SC: If an actor’s really good, typically there’s no line between their stage ability and their film ability. So, early on you learn how vital the casting process is in a town like Chicago. Because it’s a relatively large percentage that knows how to do both [theater and film]... If you have access to a pool of great actors—and Chicago and London have the best actors in the world, I think—performance style is not a conscious thing.

BS: You never feel like someone’s overdoing it? Getting too stagey?

SC: Not for a while. And with the more [movies] I make, the more extensive and professional the casting process gets. So, I’m seeing actors on camera from the first moments I lay eyes on them. And you can tell within five or ten seconds if they know how to act in the medium. In fact, I’m casting next week for a new film. We’re going to see hundreds of people... and to me, that’s the most exciting thing.

BS: What are you going to shoot the movie on?

SC: We don’t know yet. It’ll be on video, so what are the options? The DSLR, the Canon 5D or 7D, the RED, or this new Arri Alexa, which is what Lars von Trier shot Melancholia on.

BS: It must be encouraging that low-budget movies are looking better and better. The distinction between film and video is becoming arbitrary to a lot of people.

SC: Yes, but the downside to this is that if there isn’t enough care and specificity put into the work, a lot of [movies] will start looking very good but very alike. There’s going to be this look—the “this is how this camera makes my movie look just like film” look—and there are going to be 20 indies in a row that look just like that. So, the best thing to do is to think about the look you want rather than the camera you’ll use.

BS: Have you talked with your cinematographer yet about the look of the next one?

SC: Yes. I always send Stephanie Dufford [my regular cinematographer] an email with links to trailers and screen shots, basically to give her references to color and framing, even feeling. I think the current list contradicts itself less than previous editions.

BS: What was your list for The Wise Kids?

SC: Well, some of the examples were totally inappropriate...

BS: Like what?

SC: Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.

BS: That doesn’t seem so inappropriate...

SC: In terms of narrative, no, but that movie is so much more kinetic than The Wise Kids—I keep wanting my movies to be a little more kinetic than they are. And I think I finally have a story [for the next one] where that interest can finally catch up to the actual filmmaking... Because I think those French filmmakers who took off in the 1980s—André Téchiné, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, and Patrice Chéreau—I think they’re the best we’ve got. I always want my movies to be as alive as theirs are.

BS: They all seem to be recording the world exactly as they see it, getting their perceptions across before any story registers.

SC: And what you get is naturalistic without being reductive. It’s always as big as life. To me, that’s the ideal—as a filmmaker and as a film fan—being able to filter life through your cinephilia.