STEPHEN J. SZKLARSKI: FROM BAR MITZVAHS TO BULLETS Image

There is quite a quantum leap from videotaping weddings and bar mitzvahs to creating a highly controversial film poised for theatrical release. For Stephen J. Szklarski, the journey from one end of the entertainment world to the other was riddled with personal chaos and national news events which mirrored his creative focus. ^ The 36-year-old Long Island native is the director of “A Packing Suburbia,” a jolting drama focusing on a maladjusted suburban teenager who comes into possession of a handgun and relies on dubious Internet sites for lessons in using the weapon to its maximum effectiveness. “A Packing Suburbia” was actually one of six unproduced screenplays which Szklarski authored, but in an eerie triumph of prescience it was the story that he sought to bring to the big screen. ^ While maintaining a day job creating corporate and marketing videos (along with the aforementioned videos of special events), Szklarski began pre-production of “A Packing Suburbia” in 1998. Raising funds for the independent production was a bumpy road, with potential investors either abruptly going broke or withdrawing without explanations and Szklarski ponying up $23,000 in funds he initially planned for the purchase of a house. The film was shot in 26 days on a $60,000 budget, and even before post-production rolled around Szklarski began getting calls from October Films, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and Gramercy Pictures. ^ However, post-production of “A Packing Suburbia” coincided with the gun rampage at Columbine High School. The film industry, which received blame from some conservative pundits for fueling teenage violence that resulted in the massacre, began to withdraw several projects focusing on trigger-happy teens. The violent drama “O” (a high school-based equivalent of “Othello”) was shelved and the revenge flick “Killing Mrs. Tingle” was delayed and retitled “Teaching Mrs. Tingle.” Lost in the shuffle was “A Packing Suburbia,” which Szklarski brought into the festival circuit when his A-list distributor inquiries suddenly vanished. ^ But Szklarski’s persistence and faith in his project eventually paid off. “A Packing Suburbia” earned awards and praise from the festivals it played and the film was picked up for distribution by Cinema Esperanca, a Canadian company which plans to open the film in selected markets later this year. Industry buzz on the film is growing steadily and Szklarski is now finding himself with an increasing slate of tempting new projects.
Film Threat caught up with Szklarski to discuss the rocky road that “A Packing Suburbia” traveled.
You began the creation of “A Packing Suburbia” before Columbine and the other school shootings. Did you actually predict this violent school trend would take root or was this an unfortunate coincidence where life mirrors art? ^ Predict is a strong word, it was more like a feeling of a suburban violent or rebellious undercurrent. At that point all I saw was the increase of suburban teenagers buying guns and starting suburban gangs at the ages of 13 through 15-teenagers of all races. No one really ever said anything to the news at that time. This was in 1995, 1996. Just walking around my neighborhood in Bellport Long Island. It was only a matter of time before the increase of suburban handgun violence among teenagers would rise across America. Out of that fear I wrote “A Packing Suburbia” in January 1996. ^ The second part of the question is that it’s very sad to see this happen in America. After we shot the film the school shootings occurred. I felt very guilty about making the movie because so many kids and their families had suffered. Now that all these school shootings have happened the film went on the shelf because many distributors were afraid to take on the subject matter. I was turned down by everyone.
You actually began your behind-the-camera career shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs. Did your work at these festive occasions impart any practical lessons in terms of cinematic production? ^ Absolutely. While working as an event videographer I discovered many ways to shoot very quickly. Just get the shot with good light, hit the record button and get the shot. Event videography is tough because it’s always candid. I learned a lot about coverage in a small period of time to get what you need, capturing as fast as you can, making sure that there is quality in the shot including good lighting, f-stops and framing. ^ One never stops learning; the more you do the faster you get. That goes for anyone. So when I shot the film I shot very quickly. The crew didn’t really like me at first because I’m used to working with a small crew or alone for most of the time. Set up scenes, two takes, three takes per shot then the next set up. Most of the film are mastershots because I like what I saw at that moment. I felt the actors did a great job so I just kept it as is. Almost like a documentary. After the crew saw the way I liked to work they got into shape and went along and it worked out fine.
“A Packing Suburbia” was one of six screenplays you’ve written. Why did this screenplay get the green light versus the other five? And what were the other five screenplays about? ^ I felt strong about it. I wrote it in ten days it, shot right out of my head. I was completely taken by it. It felt very true and honest. I chose it to be the first screenplay to sell or try to get somebody else to direct it. I felt it could be done for $30,000 or $300,000 the cheapest and put out there so I can work in the film business. The other screenplays are different subject matters but all have a similar theme. I tend to write about identity within oneself. Who are you? What would you do if your comfort zone changes in your life? For the better or worse. The other screenplays are about the mentally ill, single Latino mothers, musicians that lose their talent. On a good note I also have a haunted house script. I didn’t think any of these screenplays stood up to it.
Raising funds for “A Packing Suburbia” was a nerve-wracking drama worthy of being a film unto itself. Did you ever stop and wonder if it is really worth pursuing? And what kept you fueled to get the funds needed to complete the film? ^ First time out is the worst because you meet every a*****e in the world. I hated it at first. After being turned down by film companies for the screenplay and putting together package deals with up and coming stars with up and coming film companies. Nothing worked out. But I got the greatest education I ever got in my life about raising funds and learned a great deal about putting a film together by watching their mistakes and learning from my own. I have a box full of investment agreements, budget breakdowns, distribution agreements and all this crap that one person has to know about when trying to get your small little idea onto the screen. So after getting jerked around I started my own film company and hit the pavement for money for two years. I decided to direct the film. All I raised was $60,000. Good enough f**k it, let’s shoot now and get this movie in the can. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Now here it is. All I wanted it to be was a launch pad anyway. $60,000 can make a film. What kept me fueled about the project was everyone that said, “You’re a no name director and a no name writer we can’t make this movie work.” My response, “F**K YOU. Here I am. I am a name: it’s Stephen J. Szklarski.”
The Internet plays an important role in the film. What is the challenge in turning a flat computer screen into a fully dimensional quasi-character? ^ That is the first time that anyone has every asked the importance of the Internet. The Internet is such a powerful medium. It’s fantastic. If only Isaac Isamov where alive to see how wonderful technology is, so easily accessed and used by home consumers all over the world. Anyone in the world can learn about anything they want, that is what makes it very dangerous. Personally it scares the hell out of me. ^ In this film the Internet becomes a father figure or mentor when falling into the wrong hands of an emotionally disturbed teenager. James Maxwell, who is an only child to a collapsing family, turns to the Internet for escape. The first scene of the film, he is on the Internet looking at pornography. Teenagers will always explore sex. It’s a natural thing. Teenagers are always asking questions about sex, love, affection and acceptance. So the film begins with easy access to pornography when not being supervised by parents. After the parents split up James and his mother move to a tough side of this suburban neighborhood. James still keeps his computer because that is part of his old life. He still wants to hang on to what he has. James then becomes more isolated and more resentful towards the teenage gang members in the neighborhood. ^ The Internet is his only amusement. So by nature when James becomes scared and angry his amusement on the Internet become abusive and darker. He learns about handguns and how to finger proof them, load the bullets while wearing gloves to leave no prints. He searched for answers and he got it very easily.
Stuart Alson, executive director of the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival, dubbed “A Packing Suburbia” as “the most controversial film about American youth today since the film ‘Kids.'” Is this a comparison that you would agree with? ^ Stuart Alson’s quote is a powerful one as well as a great compliment. He watches hundreds of films a year because of his film festival. He knows what is good and what is not. We talked for a long time about the content of “A Packing Suburbia.” He felt that it was powerful movie, that it should get distribution. He thought it was of the best films he has ever seen in his festival. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from him. He was very helpful and supportive in getting distribution for the film after all distributors turned their backs on it. It is a powerful film about the rise of suburban teenage handgun violence in American now. KIDS was about teenagers having unprotected sex, drug abuse and AIDS set in lower Manhattan. Being controversial like “Kids,” I think it is. I thought “Kids” was a great film. Larry Clark did a great job putting it together. Both films are different but both of the films share a common interest in the struggles of teenagers surviving in America.
“A Packing Suburbia” was completed in 1999. Tell us about your work in getting the film (both the highs and lows) into the festival circuit and before distributors. ^ When the film was put in the can I felt I had something special to show distributors. At the time, distributors were looking for the next Generation X film. “Blair Witch” was getting buzz. But the school shootings went down and it was a tragic moment for American youth. The acquisition people liked the film the big bosses were like no way are we going to take the heat for this one. ^ The typical response: “Mr. Szklarski we like your film but it’s not for us, it’s too small, no name cast, no name director.” It was like shopping the script all over again. It was the worst when I had to sit for several hours at a film festival meeting when a large festival, that will remain nameless, told me they like the film, accepted it into their festival then declined to show it. I had to sign all these confidentiality agreements and I will honor them. ^ I was told it’s good but we can’t showcase the film here at our festival. Why? Well, it doesn’t fit into our criteria. So I said “I guess you only want little wimpy a*s art films that suck that might be liked by some arty fart that knows everything about film stock to lenses and every quote made by Captain Kirk. Why are you afraid of this topic?” Many independent film festivals are not independent anymore. The big ones now are large conglomerates of companies that are laying down millions of dollars. That is not independent film. That is Hollywood buying and selling. The high point was that I picked up two best director awards at the NY International Independent Film and Video Festival 2000 and another one at the Long Island International Film & Video Expo in 1999. It was the first time I had ever won anything with the exception of a baseball trophy in little league. ^ Another high point was the theatrical deal I got with Cinema Esperanca. They saw this as a ground breaking opportunity for them and myself. Thearical in Toronto, in New York City and Los Angeles. They really believe in the film and they are behind me 100%. After all the put downs and let downs the film will be seen.
Now that “A Packing Suburbia” is heading into theatrical release, what is next on your agenda? ^ Next is a toss up between directing a film based on one of my screenplays about single Latino mothers or a film about the mentally ill. I’m also currently at just the beginning of pre production of a documentary about an independent filmmaker that is still talk at this point. Since the film “A Packing Suburbia” got theatrical distribution from Cinema Esperanca through Hiltz Squared Media, I have received a few scripts from some good companies and one acting offer. I would like to direct a film that is not written by me. I would also like somebody else to direct one of my scripts as well. Just to see the director’s interpretation of the story. That’s right all this at once. I like it. Look forward to working with other artist on a larger scale. I live in New York City now and it’s great meeting all the people involved in the film making process. I can now tell them I have a film coming into the theaters that might blow your mind. I’m going to Cannes for the first time. I was also invited to visit Brazil for the International Brazilian Festival. I was chosen for the New International Directors category. I will try to work as much as I can as long as the film industry lets me.
Get more info about Stephen J. Szklarski by visiting the official web site for his film A Packing Suburbia.
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