I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
If Bob Byington has your email, he sends you cryptic messages all the time. One day he sent me a link that said “think you’d like this movie. the password is
-——.” I click on it, a film called Marvin Seth & Stanley, never heard of it, watch it, love it, immediately screen it on my site NoBudge, it gets a rave review in the New Yorker (for one-night online, no less). I’m happy, Bob’s happy.
I have never met the man behind the film, Stephen Gurewitz. Here’s us meeting through g-chat.
I was introduced to Kentucker through Netflix. Back when they used to send me discs(!) in the mail(!) (insane!), I received Team Picture, his first film. I’ve followed his work ever since.
Around the same time, I came across his website NoBudge Films, a free, online library of low-budget independent cinema. It was my new Netflix. Somebody has to do the work of collecting these often overlooked films and sharing them with who ever is interested, Kentucker’s on it. He’s turning over many rocks. He’s a saint.
Recently he included my first film, Marvin Seth and Stanley on the site via a one-night only screening. I was thrilled. That enthusiasm carried over into these chats, conducted through Google chat. I was excited and probably forgot to use punctuation. Kentucker and I haven’t met in person yet, but when we do I hope we can continue where we left off here. I enjoyed these chats very much.
12:00 PM Stephen: Kentucker, what’s happening?
me: hey man
12:01 PM Stephen: glad to be right back to it here.
12:02 PM Stephen: I recall last chat you mentioning being a rook at the gchat. I have to preface this conversation with telling you that I’m a little rusty myself. Been neglecting my gchat contacts lately. So let’s ease in, start slow…
12:03 PM me: My life has been a trainwreck / rollercoaster since we last talked, but I’ll try to forget all that, and act like nothing’s wrong…and yes, we can ease in…
12:04 PM Anyway, what’s new with you?
Stephen: sorry to hear that…
Right now I’m in Montana. I’m here working on a film that my girlfriend’s making.
12:05 PM I’m the sound guy.
me: Neat. What’s the film ? You know how to be a sound guy?
12:06 PM Shit. Hold on I need to take a phone call. 5 minutes or less.
Stephen: sounds good.
12:09 PM me: Sorry ok…I’m back
me: So what’s the film? Has she made other films?
12:10 PM Stephen: so yeah, out in Montana. This is her home town. So she wanted to come back here to make a feature. She’s made a few short films…this is her first longer movie.
I’m learning how to be a sound guy. Enjoying it so far.
12:11 PM me: How long are you there ?
Stephen: early September.
in for the long haul
12:12 PM Stephen: We have Adam out here shooting it (he shot MS&S and Red Flag)
me: Dang. How long do you prefer your film shoots in general?
12:13 PM Stephen: (she made this short film …more people have watched this on vimeo than will watch all the movies I’ll probably make)
I think it depends on the project. And tend to work around the actors schedules (for me). But MS&S was about three weeks.
12:14 PM me: 46,000 views. Damn. She’s got us both beat.
12:15 PM Stephen: And I could have used a little more time but it was definitely enough. Something like this, out in Montana with less resources, there’s a lot audibles, things have changed here and there, so more time to shoot it is nice.
yeah, it’s come in between us in our relationship (the page views)
she has that ace card on me.
12:16 PM me: Yeah, jeez, her power over you must be difficult.
Stephen: ha…how about you? did we discuss how long is ideal for a shoot?
12:18 PM me: Dustin Defa and I always talk about wanting our shoots to just never end, keep going. I think that’s the only time we can deal with life, is when it’s not life at all, just some fake world, where the logistics are handled by someone else.
Stephen: In the open five movies it seems like you have a few jumps in time/season. I admire that and would like to do something like that in the future. As you remember MS&S is by design an easy shoot, takes place over a weekend.
12:19 PM Stephen: I know what you mean. I want to make movies because of how much I enjoy myself while making them. Whether that’s directing, doing sound, or whatever…
12:20 PM me: Yeah, I’ve been trying to incorporate time passing, which is inherently profound. If I can stomach making Open Five 3, I want years to pass within the narrative.
Stephen: and it is a fake world. I was just talking to one of the actor’s on this movie here, she’s not a trained actor, and she expressed feeling awkward about it, and I mentioned that it’s awkward on both sides of the camera if you think about it. The crew is participating in a similar way I guess. We’re acting like this is all normal to be doing.
12:21 PM I’m interested in watching that. If you get around to it.
12:23 PM me: Yeah, behind the scenes as well. I was just acting in my first bigger movie, and it’s a fascinating song and dance, a pressurized and self-contained environment with so many types of people somehow ebbing and flowing together in search of something that only maybe one or two people really know what the search is for.
12:24 PM Stephen: i should say, to the above, she was feeling awkward about us being around watching her act. my point was that we’re all in it to a degree…
12:24 PM Stephen: and the bigger the movie, do you think the harder it is to find a consistent tone?
12:25 PM that the more people you bring in the harder it is to get everyone to work in concert
12:29 PM me: Maybe not. Maybe the bigger the movie, the more professional each moving part is, and more adept at producing the desired effect. But as far as the actual heart and movement of the story, from what I’ve experienced most people are in the dark about that.
12:30 PM Stephen: That makes sense, the pros can move from one project to the next seamlessly.
So how was the experience? Are you done filming in that movie?
(that’s exciting to hear by the way, congratulations)
12:31 PM me: Exactly. For instance, I’ve edited all my own movies, but I’m a shitty and clunky editor, because my only experience is my own films. When I finish one, I don’t edit again for another year or two.
Stephen: yeah, you don’t get that constant practice. Can’t stay warm
12:34 PM me: The experience was great. For whatever reason, I’ve never made any moves trying to get involved in “legitimate” movies, but now that I’ve fully processed that these are the only paychecks out there, hopefully I can sneak in the back door a little.
Stephen: I’d love to see that work, see you in more work.
12:35 PM me: But anyway I was a tiny part in the film, but Keith Carradine plays my dad, and I’m in the old gang of Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. I die in the first sequence.
Stephen: spoilers Kentucker.
12:36 PM me: I probably die before you even realize it’s me.
Stephen: beyond the behind the scenes differences, while performing scenes with these actors, are you approaching anything differently than say your own movies (or BAD FEVER/SUN DON’T SHINE)?
as in, the scale of the movie…did that affect your approach
I’m looking forward to watching you die.
12:38 PM me: Really the only thing was getting comfortable being on set of a big movie. I really am such a small part that I don’t even know what I was doing.
12:39 PM me: Are you not shooting today in Montana? Or are you on a break?
Stephen: day off today.
12:40 PM this movie is probably, in scale/production, the opposite of the movie you were just in. not for better or worse, just that we’re running around making it on a fairly small scale.
12:41 PM and Brit (gf) is producing it all herself essentially. So today’s an off day. Who knows what tomorrow brings. We’ll see.
I’m by no means trying to make her sound incompetent, if that’s how this sounds, not intended. She’s far from it. Just mentioning the style of production.
12:42 PM And that style being in contrast to your latest experience.
Anyway, how about directing a bigger production. Any interest? Eventual goal, or no?
me: That’s always where my heart will be. It’s how I fell in love making movies. I can’t wait to see her short. 46 K can’t be wrong.
Stephen: 46k can’t be wrong.
12:43 PM Stephen: it’s solid. I’m biased to say she’s talented but she is. I wish I come up with stuff she does.
12:44 PM me: I think it’s an eventual goal. But as much as I’ve tried to be excited by bigger stories, they always feel like dead-ends, cope outs.
12:45 PM But one of these days I’ll suck it up, forget my pride and undying allegiance to personal, small scale, and go big.
Stephen: Yes yes, I’ve sat down to write things like that, bigger stories, and I just can’t get excited for it. I don’t know why! an old friend of mine watches MS&S and says it needs more action. I’m boring my old friends and I can’t get excited to impress them.
12:46 PM I’m sure when you do make something big, it’ll still be personal (I like the way we’ve made this black and white, small/big movies).
12:47 PM me: Ha. Yeah, anytime I’ve tried to put more conventional story elements into a film, I feel like a fraud and a hack. But also, I’m kinda sick of boring people.
12:48 PM Stephen: I think that’s a conversation I have with myself over and over before making a movie. How can I make something that I feel fulfilled by that still excites or interests other people.
12:48 PM Stephen: that thought gets in the way a lot for me
12:50 PM And the idea of a conventional story, seems like film conventions are a means to an end, and putting all that filmmaking work into doing something like that just seems useless.
me: Right now, I’m lucky to have acting, because I’m able to be in films that use traditional stories, and as an actor, I can stomach pushing those buttons, because it doesn’t feel like I’m cheating on the way I used to make movies, because I never wanted to be an actor.
12:52 PM Stephen: That’s a great point. And you still get to have the experience of working on films without having to be the one making every decision (as you may on your own “small” movies).
That’s kind of ideal. You get to have it both ways
12:53 PM me: Exactly. I don’t have to stand behind every single frame of the film. It’s not up to me. All those choices are not mine.
12:54 PM Stephen: And it’s not to say you don’t care about those aspects on these projects, but it’s not your role.
12:57 PM me: But when people I admire, like Amy Seimetz and Dustin Defa, make movies that push buttons that I was always embarrassed to push, that loosens me up to the possibility of sometime using those buttons. I never used them before, because the people who told me those things were either professors (who were just doing their job) or books (and who knows what kind of idiots write those books).
12:59 PM Stephen: can you think of something you grabbed from either of those movies (Bad Fever or Sun Don’t Shine) that you’ve wanted to carry over to your own work?
1:00 PM Not to put you on the spot there…
1:01 PM me: With Bad Fever, I realized you could completely make up a character (different than yourself), and people would believe it. I still don’t believe it all the way, but when most people do, you realize ok, I can just fake you out, and that’s fine, and in fact, that’s what you want me to do…
Stephen: and that opens endless possibilities. With that in mind you can do whatever you want.
1:04 PM me: Yes, exactly. You can do whatever you want. And it doesn’t have to be perfect, and most people will accept it. With Sun Don’t Shine, I saw how she (Amy) put guns in the movie, and a murder, and ongoing threat of more violence, and she still had authentic human representations, that not everything was ridiculous and meaningless because this would never happen like this in real life.
1:07 PM Stephen: this makes me think about how when reading some scripts, it’s crucial to keep in mind how it will be executed. Who’s directing, who’s acting in it. So much comes to life with the right execution. The right people, focusing on, like you say believable characters or authentic human representations.
1:08 PM Stephen: So I’ll remind myself while writing, that you don’t have to impress, or make something more readable than it should be. It’ll come to once executed. I’m even a little skeptical if it’s too much of a page turner. That’s not my goal.
1:09 PM me: With something like having Marv stocking milk, do you worry that’s a simple way of establishing sympathy. The way you presented it was endearing, and I didn’t feel like I was being asked to feel bad for him, but on paper, it could seem like that.
1:10 PM Stephen: No question. And funny you bring that up, because I recently watched a little bit of the movie and really wish I cut that shot, at least down in time significantly. Think it’s the only edit I’d make still.
But in the story, it’s purpose wasn’t entirely to garner sympathy
1:11 PM But establishing him as a milk man does do that. I just wanted to show him working, not retired.
1:12 PM But again, this was touched down on a little last chat, but my original script was awful, and thinking back I bet there was a lot of material there to serve the purpose of garnering sympathy. And I’m glad, or at least hope, that that stuff is no longer present.
1:13 PM It’s pretty easy to make an audience feel bad for a movie character.
1:16 PM Stephen: But back to your question, I think that’s always a worry when making movies all about relationships and characters. You want to make them believable and honest, and try not to always use the simple solution to create character/relationships.
1:17 PM me: It’s so easy to do those things. That’s how we are taught—to use simple devices to demonstrate simple conditions.
1:18 PM And those are conventions taught to keep things moving, to keep an audience engaged, because if you take your time to discover these things naturally, a lot of people check out.
They want a first act of bullet points to explain to them why they may want to finish watching this thing, “In this movie we’re going to discuss this, this, this, and this.”
1:21 PM me: I just don’t think a simple subject means much anymore. I think it’s old-fashioned. I don’t think it’s getting us anywere.
1:22 PM Stephen: that’s a big reason I get really excited about work that really stretches standard film structure. Like movies you’ve played on No Budge, Open Five 2 or Frank Ross’s stuff, these movies anything can happen and to really watch for clues to figure out the relationships in the movie is a thrill. that’s as engaging as a movie can be, speaking for myself.
1:23 PM It’s old-fashioned definitely, and we’ve seen it time and time again. It’s made for t.v.
1:24 PM I don’t want to watch films built on each scene ending in a cliff hanger.
1:27 PM me: I think so, it’s interactive—the viewer plays a part. It’s the difference between sitting at a table all night and listening to one person tell all the stories, VS. having a conversation where other people contribute opinions and attitudes and personalities. That’s another part of my approach. Things Caroline says in Open Five 2 for instance, are not her interpreting lines I’ve written for her, it’s her expressing her own personality. So all over the movie, you’re getting actual distinctive personas, not a persona filtered through me, as the writer / director.
1:28 PM Stephen: I love to hear that.
me: Made for T.V. true. Cliffhangers are the most idiotic device. How embarrassing to fall for a cliff-hanger.
1:29 PM Stephen: I can’t stand watching movies in which every character speaks the same way—they speak like the writer.
me: Huge problem
1:30 PM And I think most every T.V. or movie is guilty of it.
1:31 PM Stephen: so for MS&S (I just typed MS*S and it felt like MASH a little bit), there was a full script but right away it was clear to me that it was more interesting to have Marvin and Alex deliver the dialogue in a way and in the words that were most natural for them.
1:32 PM me: I think you were very successful in creating highly specific ways in each character talks.
Stephen: That’s good to hear. And to their credit.
1:34 PM Back to cliff hangers, I’m sure I’m guilty of it too. I don’t like ‘em but I’m sure I’ve lazily leaned on them to help me (so I thought).
1:34 PM me: Plus, your movie is a comedy. And a good comedy just has to be funny; anything else is bonus. Luckily, your film is funny and insightful.
Stephen: yeah, I tell people it’s a comedy at least!
1:35 PM me: Of course, we’re speaking in absolutes. I’m sure we are both guilty of all kinds of things we preach against.
1:36 PM Stephen: like an example is when Marv leaves the guys at the camp site to stay in a motel. We find out in the morning from Seth’s perspective, and I remember while writing that felt like such a movie thing to do. But I couldn’t stop myself, I thought it was funny and would amp up the conflict. So it is a little bit of a handicap but I can live with it.
it’s here that we come clean.
1:37 PM this is a safe environment. I can tell you whatever.
1:38 PM me: Yes please. Honesty!
Stephen: I’ll admit it
and try and hold myself to a higher standard in the future (until it’s convenient not to).
1:39 PM me: Your film does use some comedic devices, but like I said, it’s allowed to. But they are not contrived applications of the device. It stems from the characters, and you add new life. And it’s always funny.
1:40 PM Stephen: thanks…I can sleep easy again (I’m only partly kidding here)
me: My first film Team Picture uses all kinds of comedic devices.
Stephen: i mean, don’t we all have insecurities about our work? maybe best not talk about them, not to bring attention to them.
and people believe us, like you said above
1:41 PM so why point out the flaws?
me: I love talking our insecurities.
Stephen: me too. who am I kidding?
this could go dark quick.
1:43 PM I’m picturing this thing being printed, people passing the link along, “yeah it’s this great chat with two filmmakers sharing their inadequacies. great read.”
1:43 PM Stephen: “really makes you feel better about yourself.”
1:47 PM me: Yeah, I struggle with this. I always thought showing your fear of inadequacy demonstrated a neurosis people didn’t want to deal with. But I don’t think that’s true. I think people can confide in you for that.
1:48 PM me: To a degree I guess.
Stephen: I’ll commiserate with a insecure neurotic amytime
1:50 PM So, what do you think? wrap it up soon…anything else we should touch down on? how are you holding up?
me: I guess I was going by what my high school soccer coach taught us. That if you feel tired, don’t show it. If you feel weak, don’t show it…Things like that.
1:51 PM Stephen: that’s the athletes mentality. if you do something impressive, don’t celebrate, act like it’s commonplace.
1:52 PM me: Ha. Yep. Guess there’s still some of that in me. (read: a lot of that still in me)
Stephen: did you go up an athlete?
i figured you did, team picture touched down on that a little, no?
working at the sporting goods store.
1:53 PM me: Yes. Through high school, I played soccer. But my entire childhood was spent playing every sport, and establishing no other hobbies.
1:54 PM But yeah we can wrap it up…
Stephen: haha yes…zero hobbies over here as well. all I wanted was to play baseball or basketball. before I could dream of the idea of playing pro, everyone else grew and I didn’t…so even playing high school sports wasn’t even a pipe dream. that dream died young.
1:55 PM I have Adam messaging me for a ping-pong game. A note to filmmakers, a ping-pong table is invaluable for crew morale.
make the investment.
1:56 PM me: No question. Yes, let’s try to find a place in NY to play. Can’t wait for the festival.
1:57 PM Nice chatting again
Stephen: Have a good one. Good luck. Make sure all the sound gets recorded.
1:58 PM me: See ya in a month.
2:01 PM Stephen: you still there? sorry, technical difficulties.
2:02 PM Stephen: just got your last message…thanks man, I’ll see ya in New York?
me: Yes. Look forward to it of course
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.