We often hear about the NYU film school success stories, but what about the guys who dropped out? Filmmaker Stephen Statler just so happens to be one of those drop-outs we never hear about… until today. With his feature “The Breathing Show” getting the special edition DVD treatment and hitting major retail shelves, Stephen took a moment to wax nostalgic about NYU, self-destructive youth and indie filmmaking with Film Threat’s Mark Bell.
What’s the quick history of Stephen Statler, indie filmmaker?
I was born in Sunnyvale, CA. My parents moved to upstate NY when I was two. I moved to NYC in 1983 and went to NYU’s film school. I dropped out of NYU two weeks into my final semester. I lived in Brooklyn for the next seven years making obscure art films and getting involved with dark and depressed people. Then I had a big awakening and moved to San Francisco and life has been much better since. Making this film helped my crystallize the misery of my twenties, put it in perspective and put it behind me in some sense. But there are always fresh miseries: the important thing is to stop making yourself miserable.
What was your first film?
I didn’t make a film until I went to film school. The first film was called “Tumble Dry”—a three-minute thriller that took place in the laundry room at NYU’s Brittany Hall. Quite dramatic. In one shot the guy was behind a railing on a stairway…and you got the idea that he felt trapped!
Why’d you leave NYU?
I decided that filmmaking was too difficult. Too many people, too many hassles, too expensive. So I decided to be a novelist. But that was too lonely. Now I embrace the collaborative, chaotic nature of filmmaking. I can almost enjoy it when things go wrong. I certainly like it when my collaborators come up with better ideas than mine.
Tell me about “The Breathing Show.” What’s the film about?
This movie was generated by events from my own life and was based on people I ran with in NYC in my twenties. It was a very painful decade, full of pointless, self-destructive behavior—which all seemed, as I thought about it later, to stem from not being in your own corner, hating yourself, and then developing world-views to support your self-destructive tendencies.
What was your budget for the film, and how long was production?
The total budget was around $15,000—although I never created a budget for the film. I had a rough idea of how much it might cost, and simply began shooting, hoping I wouldn’t run out of money and credit cards. The big expenses were food—about $3,000–and the sound mix—about $3,000. $2000 went to DVCAM and Digibeta tape stock; I paid the cameraman and sound recordist $1,200 each; $700 for a loft space to shoot in; and $500 for a one-day rental of a hospital room. Everyone else, including editor Steve Bloom (now an editor at Pixar) worked for the love and the promise of the 70 virgins in heaven. We shot the film in about a month, with a couple of re-shoots after the roughcut. The edit took about a year.
San Francisco plays a big part in the film, but after hearing your budget, I can’t imagine you were securing the necessary permits. How’d you get all the great footage?
We shot in DVCAM with a PD-150. Our sound man, Adam Sperry, used a boom mic connected directly to the camera. That was the setup. We chose DVCAM mainly for money reasons, but also because I knew we could move through the city without permits, permission, or drawing much attention.
Where did you find your cast?
Craigslist. During the audio commentary, we realized that we had all found one another on Craigslist. But we also put ads in local Bay Area casting mags, such as Casting Connection and Bay Area Casting News. We auditioned 20 or 30 people for each of the main roles. Neither Mouncey (Hubert) or Audra (Katherine) had ever acted before. But even in auditions, those two came off better than the dozens of trained actors. In film acting, less is more: playing to the back of the house—or even to the third row–is overdoing it. What I looked for in the auditions was simply their ability to feel the emotion. The camera always picks up the innermost feelings. It’s a reliable machine that way.
What do you think drew the cast to the story?
The chance to play f****d up people like themselves. I hope it was cathartic for them. They also did a lot of improv. We did a lot of “throwing out the script” even during shooting, if we got a better idea. It often felt like filmmaking by committee—especially the “party” scene, which was towards the end of the shoot. By then, everyone had lived with their characters for a month—which was good, because I was out of brain cells at that point. I’ll never try to produce as well as direct again. All I could think about was getting the next location, getting everything in the can before everyone turned into a pumpkin and the shoot was over. Fortunately, the actors were up to the challenge and, for the most part, wrote their own dialogue for the party scene.
Anything particularly horrible happen during filming?
We were lucky. We had no insurance; no one got electrocuted, run over by a car; we never lost the master tapes…not much went wrong. The hardest thing for me was to make sure we had a complete movie on our hands. It was something I had to sense the whole time—especially since we kept re-writing during the shoot. The boldest move was to film the Peter Naked on the Golf Course scene at an actual golf course, with real golfers milling around. We did one take, two cameras, and then ran away. We did pay our greens fees, however.
What was it like getting a special edition DVD done?
The process of getting my DVD done was frustrating, mostly because I’d been dragging my a*s. And I’ll tell you why I’d been dragging my a*s: Making a DVD presents you with a dizzying array of options and choices to make. If all I had to do was to put the feature and my shorts on the DVD I would have been done a year ago. But—no! I’ve got to tape some interviews with myself, I’ve got to do the f*****g audio commentary (does anyone ever listen to those?) And I’ve got to decide what other work represents me. It’s all flabbergasting.
What other projects do you have coming up?
I’ve always wanted to try to make a living at writing/filmmaking. Something bugs me about having a day job. Since “The Breathing Show,” Mouncey Ferguson and I have spent the last few years trying to write scripts to sell to Hollywood. We’ve got an agent, taken a bunch of meetings, but no one’s pulled out their checkbook yet, so it’s been a bit frustrating. Because a script really isn’t a finished thing like a book; and if you’re writing to sell and nobody buys—what have you got? I’ve been thinking about making another indie film. It’s called “The Retreat,” about an addiction counselor who takes a group of recovering addicts out into the woods, and the woods come alive in way that suggests the real issues behind everyone’s addiction—including the counselor’s.
Stephen Statler’s directorial effort, “The Breathing Show,” is currently available for sale in the Film Threat Shop.