October 17, 2001|Quick with a smile and a self-deprecating laugh, Patrick Stettner is not the dour cynic his films--the 14-minute Flux (starring Allison Janney) and his feature debut, the wicked The Business of Strangers--lead one to expect. I sat down to talk with the polite and effusive Mr. Stettner, who is utterly passionate about and eager to discuss independent cinema, among many other topics.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How did you know about Allison Janney in 1995/'96 before her relative stardom, and how did you get her to be in your student short?
PATRICK STETTNER: Allison is a really well-known theatre actress and I'd seen her and I'd loved her, and she was doing little films at the time so I thought I'd try to see if she'd do Flux. She said "yes" and suddenly, voila!, there was my student film. She's such an accomplished comedienne and dramatic actress and it's so much fun to see both she and Stockard on the same show ["The West Wing"] every week.
Is this how you were introduced to Stockard Channing?
No, Stockard was a little more complicated--I had to send the script for Business to her manager and then her agent. When she finally read the script she was drawn to the Julie character and the dialogue, and I think, possibly, that the character reminded her of some film executives in Hollywood. There was also a really honest desire be a part of what we were doing if we were honest about doing it.
She was really interested in meeting me so I flew out to Arizona and we sat and talked. I was a little nervous, I mean, she's really intelligent--she has a Harvard education and this really piercing intensity--laser questions--but it was good. I think she really wanted to know where I was coming from in terms of the "whys." She really saw that I wanted to honour the characters, and that I wasn't looking down on or mocking Julie, which I very easily could have been.
Did you have Ms. Channing in mind when you were writing the screenplay?
I tried not to, I tried not to--I was thinking of a vaguely American Catherine Deneuve, y'know, someone along those lines. I knew I needed a formidable actress and I can't think of a strong nor better actress than Stockard. It became a trick because once I had Stockard I had to be very careful of who I got for the younger character because she's so strong, I remember during my casting sessions for Paula thinking, "Stockard's gonna' pick her teeth with this kid." I had to find a young actress who really felt like she wasn't doing this sleepy, affected Gen-X thing.
How did Julia Stiles come to be involved?
At the time, Stockard was represented by ICM and they pitched all these people to me to star opposite her. I was like, "No...no...no..." And then when they said Julia, I thought, The girl from 10 Thing I Hate About You? Okay let me see her film. So I saw it and had them said send me more stuff like "The '60s"and this weird film she did when she was 16 called Wicked. It was really interesting to see the range of her choices. I felt like I could work with this person so I met her and she seemed so intelligent--she was eighteen at the time going on forty. She really understood the script and what I was trying to do.
I really admire Julia, it's great to see that she's gone back to Columbia, my alma mater, to study and she's back there and not doing the whole LA thing. I respect that she wants to do good film. She could easily have done comedy and I know after 10 Things that she was offered the moon and some more to do some of those and she said no. She wants to do real work and I really appreciate her.
She's been in three Shakespeare films, it does show that she's a little more serious minded perhaps than some of her peers.
Yeah, but if she does another one I'm gonna puke! [laughs]
How much input did Ms. Channing and Ms. Stiles have in the shooting script and what was the rehearsal process like?
It's always funny at Q&As when people ask if you had a lot of rehearsal time and Stockard and Julia were always like "Yeah! Yeah!" and I'm like, "Wait a minute [laughs] we had about five days." We did have time on set, too, but both of them are game-day actors. I trusted both of them to be faithful to the characters, with 24 days, I had to, and they were fantastic. The irony of the tight shooting schedule is that I think it attracted both of the actresses to the project in a way--it's good for the actors, bad for the director.
Because we didn't have a lot of time, rehearsal was more concerned with beats what those scenes were about and how they played. Sometimes it's really hard to judge with some actors to the extent that you don't want to tell them too much and you can't give them too much a sense of the film, you have hold their hand and be very moment oriented. But especially with Stockard, I found that I could talk about genre and style, I could see that she understood that when I was doing these weird architectural push ins that she got it. And she could change her performance. To be unconscious and to do that is really tricky because sometimes someone will try to react to a camera theme and end up giving the audience some bad French film. Not Stockard, she could understand and interpret on her feet, which is really interesting to watch.
It was interesting as well because we spent a lot of time on the power dynamic between the two in terms of words and looks, and also in the physical placing of Stockard a little higher in a frame, or in another scene maybe having Julia stand up in front of her--there're just different games you can play that are really interesting as you begin to find your performances and your film.
Did you do a lot of takes or are you more of a first take director?
I don't think anything was first take. I feel like you need to work that first nervousness out in the first take--I don't call "cut" until later even if I see something I don't like. I really need actors to finish their thoughts if I don't like something, move it out of their system. I like to find the end of the scene, I think, and also I think that repetitions are really good because sometimes in doing something a lot you start to lose yourself to the character. You sort of lose the words in a way so that the meaning no longer inhibits what you're trying to do as an actor, as a character.
How faithful was the final product to your original screenplay?
That's another funny thing, I have the impression that we changed things, and they have the impression that we were sticking to the script. We didn't do a lot of improvisation because the film was very carefully sculpted in terms of the one-upsmanship and the idea of a shifting power dynamic. We all wanted to keep those moments and those digs--Business is very measured and it has this building effect where Stockard would take the upper hand and then Julia would take the upper hand. It's a game, and they respected the rules of that game. Part of those rules were that it had to be a slow build and a gradual payoff.
What was surprising, though, was that we weren't playing for laughs. People laugh at my films and at the first screenings I'm always surprised. I don't write comedy, I don't write funny lines--I think the funny parts in my films, hopefully, come from a kind of observational humour or a nervous laughter. That last scene of Business especially--I know if an audience is really with it there'll be a lot of uncomfortable giggling.
Did Ms. Channing's experience as a stage actress help during the rehearsal process?
Oh sure, but It was a little nerve-wracking. I remember during rehearsal she was like "John Guare" this and "Mike Nichols" that and I'm like, "Um... Okay, Stockard." I gotta say I ended up being less nervous than I thought I was gonna be and that's because I knew the characters, I knew what I wanted, I had faith in the film in that respect.
How did you develop that intimacy with your screenplay and characters? Was there a long gestation period?
It wasn't that the script had been in the works for a long time, mainly, because the script was developed at the Sundance Lab, I had been asked a lot of questions about it at every stage so I had to know my characters and motivations inside and out. I had also written extensive back story for all of my characters because I knew that there wasn't much back-story given during the film and that means that you have to know your character even more. I had written out their lives so I knew what the scenes were about and I knew what the characters were about so I felt confident in that way.
Did you share that back-story with your cast?
No. I'm a blabbermouth--I can really talk a lot, but I'm very conscious of actors having secrets, even from directors. I think that's important. Some directors like to get into this kind of mind meld with the actors but I was content mainly just to encourage them to foment their own back-stories and to keep their character's secrets. If somebody knows you too well, if it's all too transparent, then I think it actually begins to affect your performance. There's a danger that you get puppets--you tell them everything and they rely on you for everything. I didn't think that would happen with the people that I got, but there was a lot of "Well, you figure that out" and "What would lead up to that?" and having them supply that was really the right way to go for me.
You do use a good deal of open spaces, however.
I had a very specific visual plan throughout. I really love architecture and characters in architecture and was enchanted with the whole notion of Stockard inhabiting these spaces. The film starts out on all these wide-angle lenses basically where you see her in this environment and then you start going to longer lenses. As you go to a longer lens the backgrounds kind of collapse and they spring closer and I started even playing with flats that moved closer and away to play with the idea that sometimes Stockard is feeling pressure, or closed in. So there was this whole idea of architecture until finally at the end we tie the two characters together with negative space. Things like putting Julia at the same distance from the camera at the beginning as Stockard is at the end and so on. I really tired to employ all of these Polanski ideas of space. In many ways it was good that I didn't have too big of a budget because I would've wanted to try to recreate all those shots.
"...I think a naked Fred chased Stockard around on Broadway..."
Did you storyboard?
I storyboarded all of it--shot by shot. I'm laughing because a lot of it went out the window because I couldn't do these more complicated shots. It's really an organic process when you go to shoot, and you have to pick your battles. I mean, if you spend three days getting this one shot, you've just burned half your movie.
My DP was Teo Maniaci. He'd done Clean, Shaven (1995), Claire Dolan (1998), a bunch of others, a good NY indie, we worked very well together. He had a smooth, crisp quality about his work. We talked a lot about colours. The production designer Dana Goldman and I talked a lot about the rooms. Everyone thought I was insane, but I saw this hotel as a biosphere. I wanted to get this elemental, archetypal, kind of sense that this was this weird industrial Eden. I wanted to do a hotel room where you want to reference the standard look of everything but not make it a winking kitsch, campy thing like "look how ugly the hotel rooms are"--or to make it unreal. I wanted it to be real but also menacing and creepy at the same time.
Each room had if you look carefully very subtle themes: the green forest room, the desert room, we go to a pool with a lots of water. And we played with sounds like taking sounds that are outside the building including bird sounds and took it inside the atrium, I had a really great sound designer at C5, the guys who used to do the Coen Brothers and Scorsese films and they worked on Business mainly because they liked the film, I think. It's really a great sound design--it was really fun to play with those elements.
You have a really striking final scene in which a plane takes off behind Ms. Stiles--how did you set up this scene, or was it serendipitous?
It was certainly an accident when we got that plane. I knew the runway was in the back and that's why I set that shot up--but they were only taxiing when I saw it and then for some reason in the middle of another shot I saw a plane start to lift and I screamed "C'mon everybody!" Right in the middle of Stockard's shot I lifted the crew, lifted the camera, threw Julia there, and did a couple of takeoff shots.
You've mentioned that your short film's reception sort of established your reputation as an actor's director, yet during the course of our conversation, you've been extremely detailed and excited about the visual aspects of cinema. What would you consider yourself to be: an actor's director, or a visual stylist? Or do you think the two can coexist?
I feel really conflicted about that. It's funny because I think so visually. Even in my writing, I could not have written it without thinking of it in a visual environment. I don't see a difference between them, to answer your question, actors are just as important to me as visuals I would guess. I care about their involvement and soul that we really know the Julie character, and the Paula character.
For all of that, though, I would like to do something more visually intensive for my next project. I felt like Business didn't really show any visual chops on my part. I say that, though (and now I'm going back again)--I say that and I'll get down to writing it and something has to resonate and the films that resonate with me always have strong characters. I definitely view with suspicion things that are purely aesthetic exercises because I find them very easy to do and very mechanical--but I definitely have a very real humanistic concern. I'm laughing because the film played at in France, and this French critic, he didn't say much to me, but he did say [affecting a French accent], "You are a subversive humanist." It really made me think about my film and the role of an indie filmmaker.
It's what Manny Farber described as "termite cinema"--the idea that it bores under the society and shows things as they are. I think that's really the job of indie film, that it's important not to show the audience what they could get at the Cineplex at a lower budget. I feel that it's not my job to please everybody and I wear the fact with pride that some people get offended by the film. Independent film should show us something that we don't usually see. I get furious at indies that do banal romantic comedies.
I don't know that I can do a Hollywood film yet, I feel really committed to exploring that termite cinema.
Are there Hollywood films that impress you, though, that you feel aspire to that "termite" esthete?
Yeah. I think Steven Soderbergh--if you look at Traffic, I certainly respect that in a formal way and I think he does try to subvert convention, he definitely tries to. Listen, I love Hollywood history--it's such an easy knee-jerk thing to bash the studios. Granted, they're probably gonna do American Pie 5 and we're gonna have to sit through that shit, but there are films that try. Look at Malick and The Thin Red Line, I mean they even get it right sometimes.
Badlands was a primary instigator in my wanting to study film and talk about them in a public forum.
Malick is just this fucking poet. I refused to see Pearl Harbor, but I wanted to see what Bay did with the bombing sequence so I actually timed at the multiplex that I would see another film and then sneak into Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately I had to endure thirty minutes of insipidness before it started but just looking at that bombing sequence, it was amazing to see someone who had literally hundreds of millions of dollars to create that and do it somewhat faithfully and, at the same time, capture not even a quarter of what Malick did in Thin Red Line or Coppola in Apocalypse Now in terms of disorientation and the horror of war.
It ended up being this bland epic, this glamorized, exploitive, spectacle in the worse way.
Malick really is our Faulkner.
What has the reception to Business generally been?
I brought the film into Sundance not completely finished--there were a lot of music issues that needed to be resolved and there were a lot of music cues I didn't like and I was pretty nervous about showing it, but since then it's been really great. Toronto was just an amazing reception, it's been good and a lot of people are talking about Stockard possibly getting an Oscar nomination. IFC changed the release to December because they want to get it closer to Oscar season. Everyone's talking about Stockard's performance and I'm biased, but SC should get it!
What were your goals with this film, and do you feel like you got to where you wanted to go?
There are different models on how to become a feature director and one is that you become an assistant director in Hollywood and you go through all the different departments. The problem with that model is that you don't necessarily prove yourself as a writer and I really wanted to be a good writer. Someone, I can't remember who it was, had the idea that you do a good short and prove that you can direct and have a good screenplay and get the job that way.
For Business, it was the ambiguous psychological darkness that I really liked--it's very important to end with that scene you mention with Julia in the airport and the plane taking off. I felt like I really wanted that scene to mirror this idea that she had this understanding of herself that she couldn't articulate--well, it's not exactly that she couldn't, but that's not what we do when we have a profound understanding. You know, we can know ourselves a little deeper in a moment, and then we move on.