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Ben Sachs: Could you talk about the origins of Mystery of Life?
Stephen Cone: There was a period in 2013 where I wanted to make another feature but wasn't able to. So I decided to use that time for experimentation. We shot Mystery of Life in April and This Afternoon in June. They came about for practical reasons, and they took shape pretty quickly. With Mystery, I was excited by the potential of that playing space, and I've long been interested by the hierarchy of a casting studio. I was also interested in Andy Warhol's [film] portraits, so I wanted to do something really streamlined that had to do with faces. The Paul Morrisey trilogy [of Flesh (1969), Trash (1970), and Heat (1972), which Warhol produced] is also a huge influence on me, and I hadn't yet figured out a way to mix my interests with that particular style. This was the closest I could come to realizing something Warholesque.
This Afternoon has something of a Warhol vibe too. Almost all of it consists of two people talking in one room.
That's another case of the project lining up with that style. I don't want to force a story into a particular style, but these simple projects came about from an interest in recording actors, so the style fit.
That movie came out of a project you devised with your acting students. Do you see a connection between your work as a teacher and your work as a filmmaker?
I've been teaching a lot since I made The Wise Kids [in 2011], and in the last two months especially. I started teaching at Second City and now I'm doing this class at Northwestern. My only longtime gig has been at Acting Studio Chicago, where I do this cinema lab. It's taken me the better part of a decade, but now I can spend most of my days with actors. I'm happy to be there.
The lab is a crash course in television and film acting. The students and I work together to develop short films, coming up with the stories and characters. This Afternoon grew out of something I did with my first [lab] in late 2012. It was called Support, and it took place at a sex-addiction support group. It was simple and ensemble-based. . . . But later on I wanted to do something where I focused on one or two people at a time, so I took two characters from [Support] and over a month I developed a feature with the actors in the same way [as we did the short]. They improvised something one afternoon, I wrote a script based on that, and we shot it the next week.
In Mystery, I'm sort of playing myself, but I'm deliberately being a little more obnoxious than when I'm directing for real. The movie relates somewhat to my experience of talking to actors and trying to guide them, but it's not a literal document of how I work. Both of these films have taken a year and a half to find a home. That's the downside of making something super-tiny on a whim: Where the hell's it going to play?
This Afternoon turned up at the Chicago International.
It was the first movie of mine they've taken. I knew Mystery of Life would be harder to submit to most festivals because of its length. [At an hour long, the film isn't quite a short or a feature.] Preparing a film for traditional presentation is not one of my strengths.
Based on your difficulty in submitting these medium-length projects to festivals, do you see yourself making more of an effort to write feature-length movies?
I'm still very interested to continue making smaller things on the side. It's liberating to know I can make something for $10,000 if I can't raise $100,000. The pressure goes down [in that situation], so I can take bolder risks. The lower the financial risk, the greater the creative risks.