Interview: Stephen Elliott’s movie-making addiction.
Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books and founding editor of The Rumpus, an online journal of cultural commentary. He’s also the director of About Cherry, his first film, which debuted at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
For Elliott, a veteran cinephile, making a movie proved to be addictive. However, his raw subject matter, unsentimental approach to sexuality and violence, and pitch-black sense of humor resonate far more strongly among his legion of devotees than within the traditional film business. So he built a Kickstarter project for his latest endeavor: An adaptation of his award-winning 2004 novel, Happy Baby.
We met up with Elliott deep within the internet to discuss his new project, film addiction, Kickstarter collaborators, and the continuing positive influence of Dave Eggers.
Kickstarter: Hi Stephen, how’s it going?
Stephen: Good! I’d say great, but I don’t know what that looks like :)
Kickstarter is stressful.
Kickstarter: We keep discovering that it’s more or less a full-time job compressed into 30 days…
Stephen: I’m feeling that. We’re doing it in 35 days because of Thanksgiving.
Kickstarter: Gotta make time for the stuffing and the food coma.
Kickstarter: So you just made About Cherry this year. Ready for all the stress and aggravation again so soon? Or was that experience really positive?
Stephen: Do you edit out smiley faces?
Kickstarter: We will make them larger.
Stephen: The experience of making About Cherry was really positive. But I learned some things about how I want to make movies, as I continue making them.
We had good investors on that movie but there was a certain pressure to tell a traditional story. I felt obligated to make the investors back their money. And we did. All the investors made a bit of money on that movie.
But I don’t want to have to think about that. I’ve never approached writing books like that, or starting the literary site The Rumpus.
But the actual making of the movie, production, pre-production, editing, was just about the best time of my life. Making movies is addictive.
Kickstarter: Is it more satisfying than your literary work? Or just different?
Stephen: It’s very similar. Creatively, during production you’re always on, which is as much fun as a creative person can have. You’re creative all day long. Editing a movie is very much like writing a book. There’s no real time limit, you just go over it, tinkering endlessly. There was a little pressure on About Cherry to finish editing so we could apply to festivals. This time I’m going to edit the movie myself, with feedback from Kickstarter backers, and take as long as it takes. We won’t apply to festivals until the movie is done.
Which is how I do my books. I never pitch books. I write them, then I try to publish them.
Kickstarter: So far, so good!
What are you hoping to get out of your Kickstarter backers? Other than their hard-earned scratch?
Stephen: I honestly believe in investors as collaborators. Everybody that works on a movie is a collaborator, and the better you harness that creative energy the better the project is going to be. So we designed most of our rewards to draw the backers deeper into the project. The first thing they get is the script. Hollywood can be very secretive about scripts, but we’ll put it right out there. Then we’ll ask them to choose finalists for some of the parts using Let It Cast.
My favorite thing is that they will be our test audience.
Often, when you’re editing a movie, you screen the movie for a test audience. We’re going to host a screening of the movie online, before it’s finished, for our backers. There will be a chatroom, and each participant will be given a survey to fill out.
It won’t be like they can just watch it anytime. They’ll have to log in at a certain time and they all watch it together. That’s about as much creative input as you could have.
As the director, I’ll still have final cut. I’ve taught writing workshops and the thing about writing workshops is you don’t use all of the criticism. You develop a filter that enables you to shift through criticism and find the ideas that work best for the story you’re trying to tell. It’s completely unique to each individual. Criticism that works for me is different from what works for you, but we’re all responsible for maintaining our own filters. That’s why I look at criticism as such a positive thing and why I’m excited about the screenings. Not because I’ll take every piece of advice offered but because I know enough of it will be helpful and really good and open the movie up in ways I wouldn’t have imagined on my own.
Kickstarter: Thinking about the directions the film might take, is it strange to re-engage with work you wrote almost a decade ago? What’s changed — for you and for Happy Baby?
Stephen: It’s a whole new project. I actually didn’t think Happy Baby could be adapted. I’d tried a bunch of times and failed. Then in June I went for a drink with Dave Eggers and I was saying I wanted to do another movie and he suggested Happy Baby. He edited the book and it was originally published by his publishing house, McSweeney’s. I told him it couldn’t be done and he said, Just do this, then this, then that. In the morning I started following his advice, because he really is an amazing editor, though I didn’t believe him this time. Sure enough the movie just opened up. I had a first draft done in three days. It wasn’t very good but I knew it would be a movie.
It ends up being a different story though. And when we cast it it will change and become a different story from the one it is now.
And when we edit it, it will again become something entirely different.
Kickstarter: Is there a dream Theo for the film?
Stephen: Ha! There are a few different actors that could take the character entirely different directions. But I think if I named one I would be jinxing the project.
There are some really well known actors already on board to act in the movie, but I haven’t received permission from all of them yet to mention them on the Kickstarter page.
Which is actually a result of hurricane Sandy. They’re busy with more important things.
Kickstarter: We’ll keep it between us! Wait, no we won’t…
James Urbaniak is in to play Mr. Gracie. So that’s one person we can name. Alex Karpovsky, from Girls, has a small role.
Kickstarter: My turn: :)
One last question — and many thanks for taking the time!
Stephen: My pleasure.
Kickstarter: A lot of your work carefully balances humor and darkness, but Happy Baby is even darker than most. Were you concerned about depicting horrors that your readers are left to imagine? Did the subject matter influence your decision to launch a Kickstarter project rather than seek traditional movie investors?
Stephen: Interesting. It is true that I didn’t want to have to convince anybody that this was a project with mass appeal. Hopefully, this will be a movie that’s unlike any other movie. I didn’t want to promise anyone would make their money back. I wanted investors who were invested in making the best movie possible. As long as that’s our goal I think everything will work out.