The Pleasures and Perils of Independent Cinema: An Interview with Jay Stern (Web Exclusive)
by Cynthia Lucia
Jay Stern’s films are not mumblecore, screwball, or cult (yet). They incorporate bits of all these elements, along with those of the rom-com and the musical, but in delightfully unconventional ways. And while fiercely independent, Stern’s films are neither Linklater- nor Soderbergh-styled indie. Although Stern’s work includes aspects of all, it doesn’t fully occupy any of these categories. How, then, to define the work of filmmaker Jay Stern, who, to date, has made four feature films, ranging from quasi-horror and -musical to -rom-com and literary adaptation (“quasi” being the main qualifier here)?
Stern’s work inhabits a category into which I would place the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson, and that I would dub, humbly, as “UnSerious Cinema”—uppercase “U” and “S,” because beneath the playful, quippy, quirky, “quasi” surface of the movies these filmmakers have produced, something quite serious is at work—as well established in the case of the Coens and Anderson. When considering the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, along with Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, one begins to enter the realm of UnSerious Cinema—with its simultaneous embrace and subversion of genre conventions and its reflexively self-deprecating surface that opens up so many meaningful layers beneath. This is an aesthetic that Jay Stern, as a theater and film director, shares, yet in his own unique and ever-evolving way.
Stern’s brand of self-conscious, reflexive filmmaking is least “quasi” in his first feature, an adaptation of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling (2006). Stern fairly closely follows the main action of the play (first published in 1652), while excluding its parallel narrative set in an asylum and often regarded as comic commentary. According to Stern, “the madhouse stuff is tricky because of the regressive way in which it looks at mental illness.” Pointing out that there is precedent for removing it, Stern explained, “I wanted to do a more restrained, domestic piece,” which he adapted, directed, and edited. In the play the treacherous Beatrice-Joanna arranges for the murder of her fiancé and betrays the man she claims to love, falling instead for her father’s servant De Flores—the killer she contracted and initially reviled. Stern’s unique cinematic touches—most notably recurrent images of a young woman walking in a field along the forest’s edge—raise the question of whether Joanna (Wendy Herlich) wishes to recapture her lost innocence or is haunted by deeply hidden guilt. Zach Abramson’s musical score—featuring piano, cello, and percussion—perfectly captures the Macbeth-like atmosphere and influence most certainly present in the Middleton/Rowley play.
Stern’s work with composers on all four of his films is no more vibrant than with Abramson in the sassy, politically charged, tongue-in-cheek rom-com musical, The Adventures of Paul and Marian (2014). Actors Paul Herbig and Marian Brock play the eponymous characters—another of the whimsical, self-reflexive gestures common in Stern’s work, here taken to its fullest extreme when Paul and Marian “escape” their character roles, their green-screen studio confines, and even filmmaker Stern, to stroll down the streets of Manhattan (the only actual location-shot sequence in the film). Unlike the naïfs they embody in the musical diegesis, here the “real” actors are embittered as they battle “the fucking people” who impede their way. Having broken out of the studio just before shooting a scene in which Marian apparently is killed, their real-world song reflexively asks, “Why must it end in tragedy for two fucking people like you and me?” A first viewing of the film—before audiences will witness the studio musical’s tragedy to follow—broadens the “it” of the lyrics to encompass life itself and the “people like you and me” to include all living beings facing the prospect of certain death.
In the musical narrative Paul and Marian are young newlyweds who have secretly eloped to escape the controlling hand of Marian’s father (James Prendergast), a militaristic Trumpian business baron who has given his daughter so pampered an existence that the operation of a sink faucet eludes her. Paul, a poor college graduate, deposits her with his uncle, a bookseller (Craig Wichman), before going off to “make his way” in the world. His uncle provides Paul with a reality-check—“You think charm and a positive attitude is gonna take the place of the clothes and the nice things that can only be had thanks to a corrupt, self-perpetuating capitalist system?” Paul concludes that—in order to provide the material comforts to which Marian is accustomed—“I think I need to get a job,” to which she responds, “Is it really that bad?”
Paul’s better nature is compromised as he ascends the corporate ladder (mostly by accident) upon realizing, when Marian points it out to him, that, “You’re right—I’m white. That’s totally going to work in my favor…I don’t…have to do anything. I just have to take what’s mine.” And he good-naturedly does so, elevating himself from mailroom lackey to trusted right-hand man of “The General” who heads the fascistic YVH Enterprises and who turns out to be Marian’s father.
Meanwhile, Uncle re-educates Marian, who not only learns how to make toast but also becomes an enlightened Marxist revolutionary dedicated to “freeing humanity” from the tyranny of the ruling class. She visits the tropical lair of La Junta (Ramona Floyd), where she is trained to lead a revolution that will take her to one of her father’s factories. Paul is tasked with suppressing the revolt, resulting in the climactic reunion and battle that leaves Marian supposedly dead and Paul bereft. Disillusioned, he divests himself of his stock options and journeys first to the psychiatrist’s couch and then to a Himalayan retreat in order to discover meaning in a world that appears “meaningless,” the title of one of Stern’s and Abramson’s best musical numbers.
The music and lyrics, along with the dialogue and madcap pace of the film, are funny and over-the-top in their self-conscious whimsy, yet barbed in their anticapitalist satire. Paul and Marian has strong echoes of the Coens in its cleverly pointed incongruities and to Anderson in its stylized visual tropes that lend both humor and reflexive commentary. Stern’s experience as a stage director also is evident in the film’s theatrical aesthetic, sprinkled with purely cinematic touches, including split screen, back projection, nondiegetic inserts and green-screen technology that draws obvious attention to itself. Paul and Marian has the fabric and spirit of a cult classic—and I can only hope that it will be rediscovered and given the theatrical exhibition, streaming, and DVD exposure it deserves.
Stern’s earlier Spirit Cabinet (2013) that he directed and produced and that was written by his wife and collaborator, M. Sweeney Lawless, also features actors Herbig and Brock among its larger ensemble of characters. In its hybrid aesthetic conjoining horror, murder mystery, rom-com, and family melodrama, the comic incongruities and dramatic undercurrents again align it to the Coens and Anderson, yet with Stern’s own quirky qualities. Shot on location in the Bronx, this film has a very different visual aesthetic from the studio-bound Paul and Marian, linking it instead to The Changeling and Stern’s most recent film, Say My Name that premiered in the U.K. and U.S. earlier this year. All three films make extensive use of camera movement—Stern favors 360-degree circling of his characters, which works especially well during séance sequences in Spirit Cabinet, along with skillful yet subtle handheld camera work that punctuates moments of tension in all three films. Extended tracking shots in Say My Name temper the more frenetic moments with slower rhythms, allowing for the gradual intimacy that grows between American Mary Page (Lisa Brenner) and Wales island local Statton Taylor (Nick Blood), after their one-night stand in a Wales hotel room is interrupted by a couple of thugs who hold them up and force them on a journey to retrieve the stolen necklace Mary’s birth mother had left for her when putting her up for adoption.
Sounds of their sexual tryst fill the darkened hotel room as the film opens. Mary clearly is the one in charge and when, in near ecstasy, she gasps, “Say my name, say my name” and Statton can’t remember it—well, the moment goes south. Enter the brutal thug Dec (Mark Bonnar) and his bungling sidekick Kipper (Celyn Jones)—the label “sidekick” is it’s own source of humor in the film. Dec accidentally shoots Kipper in the leg (a mirror is to blame), forcing Kipper to remain in the room with Mary and Statton, where they become friends, sort of, over opera—Kipper’s aspirational career as a singer has led him to thievery in order to make ends meet; he’s got a family to support, after all. Statton is a piano tuner and vaguely remembers Kipper from a party given by a mutual friend. The smarter Mary and Dec realize that this recognition of identities will doom them—in different ways, of course—while Statton and Kipper remain obliviously happy to connect.
Written by Deborah Frances-White, Say My Name incorporates Woody Allen-esque verbal quips matched by Stern’s visual surprises, and leavened further by his infusing the comedy with dark undercurrents and the darkness with comic incongruities and heartfelt poignancy—linking it in tonal complexity and humor to the Coen brothers’ second feature, Raising Arizona.
Mistaken identity leads to the false arrest of Mary and Statton; the earnest, nerdy Statton is forced to call his ex-wife for bail. She begs Mary to take Statton with her, for although they’re divorced he continues to sleep on her couch—like a forty-year-old son who cannot leave the nest. The wiseacre Mary once was a convent novice—an experience she parlayed into a nightclub “stripping nun” act when she entered the real world (and she’s not even Catholic). You get the picture—the zany qualities of The Big Lebowski with a bit of the obsessively driven nature of Anderson’s Bottle Rocket characters thrown in. Even with its Hollywood producers in control, Say My Name clearly bears Jay Stern’s signature.
Stern credits his ability as an “actors’ director,” as many have called him, with his experience as a stage director. Among his directorial theatrical credits are Butterflies by Emanule Aldrovandi, with its world premiere in 2019 at the Tank Theater in New York; The Worth of Women at the Access Theater in New York in 2017, a play that Stern adapted from a 1600 text by Moderate Fonte, and that’s going to be performed in Florence, Italy in October. Stern directed Stephen Garvey’s sitcom-Shakespeare mashup musical The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady that first went up at the Fringe in New York in 2011, and then went on to play at New York’s Theater at St. Clements in 2014 and Chicago’s Mercury Theater in 2016. Stern says this play is his “personal favorite,” enjoying the fact that “we used so much fake blood.” Stern also is a founder of the World Wide Lab, an international group dedicated to collaborations among directors. With this group, he’s created theatrical work produced in New York, Rome, and Syros, Greece.
Among Stern’s mentors at the European Graduate School, where he recently earned his PhD, were Peter Greenaway, Agnès Varda, Volker Schlöndorff, and Claude Lanzmann, all of whom have significantly influenced his work. The school puts artists in dialogue with philosophers and is designed to be an incubator for people interested simply in learning—while there, Stern also studied with Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek.
Stern’s pursuit of such learning goes a long way to understanding the artist and the person he is—in his mid-forties, he embraces his work in part to expand his own horizons, a product of his devotion to artistic collaboration. As a truly independent filmmaker, he pursues his art for its own sake—something that has earned him the recognition and respect of fellow professionals in the New York indie film and downtown theatrical communities.
Shortly after the June 14th release of Say My Name—in Los Angeles, Portland, Monterrey, Chicago, Houston, Chattanooga, a few cities in Florida, as well as On Demand—I met with Stern, now a colleague of mine at Rider University, where he is teaching and developing a film production program.—Cynthia Lucia
Cineaste: In many cases, independent films and filmmakers appear to be “trying out” for mainstream Hollywood recognition and acceptance, rather than embracing what “indie” status is and means, with all the freedoms and difficulties it involves. I don’t sense this in your case.
Jay Stern: When I was younger I wanted to grow up to be Steven Spielberg. I grew up watching blockbuster movies of the Seventies and Eighties. I’m from Alabama originally, and there wasn’t much of a cinema culture there. When I moved to New York, my eyes were opened—I was exposed to European art movies and so much else, and those were the kinds of movies I knew I wanted to make. I remember seeing Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy when I was eighteen years old at Theater 80, and I was blown away. This is the aesthetic that I was drawn toward. At that time the independent scene was thriving in New York and independent films were very influenced by that aesthetic. I didn’t necessarily find my entry into those indie companies to get work, but that is what I as striving for. As for independence, I’ve seized that mantle, because that’s what I have [Laughs]. My most recent movie, Say My Name, has a first little hint of Hollywood. I can see why it’s seductive, but I also can see how it doesn’t necessarily fit in with what I’m doing.
Cineaste: If I were writing a book on contemporary filmmakers, how would the chapter on “Jay Stern” characterize your work?
Stern: Well, I’d be shocked to have a chapter, and flattered, maybe it would be a footnote! I think my experience directing theater has really influenced the way I approach filmmaking. I’m highly collaborative, and I refrain from relying too much on editing to tell the story but rely on what the camera captures at the moment, which tends to be more performance-driven. My work, by its nature, is sort of dialogue-heavy, though I also want to move beyond that to stronger visual storytelling. It is ensemble work, too. I tend to work with the same actors, and I like giving them different roles and writing parts for them, with a back-and-forth quality in developing those parts—that gives it a certain spark for me.
Cineaste: Do you meet with your actors and construct the script with them or do you come in with a finished script that they then respond to?
Stern: It’s been a bit of both. When Meg [M. Sweeney Lawless, Stern’s wife and colleague] was writing Spirit Cabinet, she was thinking of specific actors we had worked with, and we’d say, “Oh, let’s write a part for so-and-so—I’d like to have that voice in there.” The Adventures of Paul and Marian was entirely written for my actor-friends Paul [Herbig] and Marian [Brock]. I was frustrated in trying to get other projects going and I said, “You know what? I’m going to bring Paul and Marian over; we’ll play around; I’ll write some scenes, and maybe James [Prendergast] can play Marian’s dad.” That’s how it evolved and grew into a feature. If you’re writing for voices, it’s definitely helpful, and also it’s fun to write for voices of actors who don’t normally get to play certain kinds of roles.
Cineaste: In your three films shot in real locations (as opposed to your green-screen shooting of The Adventures of Paul and Marian), your visual style tends toward elaborate tracking shots, as a means of “following” the development of relationships—and here I’m thinking a bit about The Changeling and quite a lot about Say My Name.
Stern: That’s true—you have to be conscious of the camera. When I started working with my director of photography, Alan McIntyre Smith—I’ve worked with him on every film—he would ask me what the last shot of the scene was in relationship to the first shot of the scene to follow. It’s obvious to know that, but when you’re thinking about shooting a given scene, you’re thinking compartmentally, and having someone who was looking at the movie globally in visual terms was helpful to me. He’s a very literate person and on The Changeling we were able to work together to find nuances in the language that we could use in making visual choices.
Cineaste: In Say My Name, I really like the way he uses light, and also admire the production design—the use of color, set design, fabric, textures—all work together really well. How actively were you a part of those decisions?
Stern: Very actively. Obviously, I had a production designer [Julian Luxton] who was highly accomplished, but together we would talk about color schemes and so forth, that I’d go along with or not. My movies are low budget, but I’ve always felt that you have to counter that by making very strong choices. So, for example, in Spirit Cabinet, which had only a five thousand dollar shooting budget and was shot in five days—a little ridiculous—the production designer Robert Eggers and costume designer Polina Roytman and I all worked together—“OK, what’s the color scheme going to be? We’re only going to use the color red here. No blues until we reach the supernatural moments.” That’s a “free” choice that you don’t need money for necessarily. You look at what you have in front of you and decide how to tell the story in a way that makes it cinematic rather than something you would put on a stage.
Cineaste: You seem to enjoy “trapping” the characters engaged in the several séances in Spirit Cabinet through 360-degree handheld movements—and it works very well!
Stern: I have some rules about using handheld shots. When I first read the script, I thought of it as Hitchcockian drama, and I wanted to lock down the camera to build the tension, and storyboard it precisely, which I don’t normally do. But we had only two weekends to shoot it. When we decided on handheld for the séance scenes, I wanted to rely on handheld throughout the movie so that it seemed normal, in a way, with no shift in style. The opening prologue, shot a year later, is not handheld—it’s tracking shots, following the little boy Gideon who, as a child, has a supernatural vision that enables him, as an adult, to unknowingly or unexpectedly act as a “medium” during the séance. We also wanted this prologue to feel different from the rest of the film. Going handheld allowed us to shoot the séance seven times, one time for each actor. It allowed for some really remarkable moments in the movie where Alan used “swingle” shots—a series of single shots, swinging from actor to actor and then locking on that. It’s not uncommon but there’s one scene in which we use every combination of shots serially—so you’ve got a two-shot, a close-up, a wide shot, even an ersatz crane shot. One advantage working with Alan as cinematographer is that he’s a very good study of human behavior. When we’re shooting a scene in a certain way, he may choose to do something off-plan because an actor does something in a certain way or has a certain expression in a certain moment. And we do multiple takes and slightly reframe them because he knows how to follow people.
My “rule” in The Adventures of Paul and Marian was to use handheld only for the “reality” moment when the actors break free from the studio and escape to the streets of New York—and this is the only location-shot moment in the film, as you know.
I broke my rules in The Changeling, where I wanted handheld only for the fight sequence. We ended up having to use it also in another scene before the fight because we were running out of time. I wanted a very restrained classical looking movie, but for the fight scene, I thought it would be interesting to break that. It’s a violent scene that’s expected but it’s outside the rules of its world, and suddenly it breaks the movie open. The next scene when the two characters confront each other in the attic is handheld, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the handheld camera in the previous scene. I wanted that to be the turning point.
Cineaste: It seems Jean Renoir is an influence here—and Welles in the deep focus compositions that sometimes are present in your films.
Stern: Definitely, in The Changeling, especially, it was a very formal piece. We were shooting on mini-DV but wanted to make it as cinematic as possible. And I was studying Bergman at that point and the way in which faces work in the cinematic space. In thinking about the space of the house in The Changeling, Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons were in my head. The theatrical staging of placing bodies in space to focus the eye, along with Alan’s classical training in shooting created a sense of harmony.
Cineaste: Many critics have pointed out that filmmakers like Hitchcock seem to be reworking through the same themes from film to film. What are the issues/concerns you feel you return to, in however lighthearted a way?
Stern: I’ve written just two of my features, so it’s hard for me to know what that is. I do know I have an interest in bringing viewers into a world where they don’t normally live. When I was working on Paul and Marian, I had a kind of evangelist impulse to do that through the technology. We’re entering into a psychological world that we understand and can relate to but the trappings, while not theater, are theatrical. Paul and Marian creates a fantasy world. And my favorite moments in Spirit Cabinet are the flashback sequences shot in that blue tone that is poetic yet brutal and real—a memory of the murdered victim that was real but heightened.
Cineaste: To me, the politics of personal relationships seem central to every one of your films, from The Changeling and Spirit Cabinet to Paul and Marian and Say My Name. It seems that negotiations of power—who has it, how they exercise it, and the degree to which they share it or don’t whether in personal, social, or professional life—seems central to each of these narratives. Do you see that dynamic in the films?
Stern: My next movie is exactly what you describe. It’s about the use of power in professional and personal relationships and its abuses. So, yes, I’ll buy that!
Cineaste: Your latest film, Say My Name, is the only one you shot outside of the U.S. The Wales setting, beyond its breathtaking shoreline vistas, plays crucially into the story and the humor that arises from incongruous moments that juxtapose the practical American Mary and the nerdy, insular Statton who rarely has ventured outside the world of the island.
Stern: Originally screenwriter Deborah Frances-White’s script was set in the U.S., then rewritten to take place in France and rewritten again to take place in England. Deborah is British, and she sent me the first version of the script to ask whether it sounded “American” enough. I immediately told her that I’d love to direct it, but she had a production company attached, and then later she had a French director interested, and then a British producer. The version we first worked on together, when it looked like I’d be directing, was set in Britain. I had an offer to shoot in Greece so for a time we thought we’d set it there—instant production value! But Deborah knew all of these British actors. We thought about Ireland at one point, and even the Channel Islands, but Wales was most practical. Dr. Who and many television productions are produced there, so amazing crew and cast are available—all who can sleep in their own beds at night and not in hotels that we’d have to pay for! Once Wales became an option, we threw ourselves into it. We cast locally whenever possible; we worked in some Welsh material; we actually shot a scene in Welsh, so if we want to show it there, we have a Welsh version of the scene. The reference to Welsh cakes was added because our grip made them—with lard—and that became a bit in the movie! This sort of thing is fun and adds a production value you wouldn’t get shooting elsewhere. Wales also gave us so many visually rich opportunities with light and color.
Cineaste: Just those opening establishing shots of the coastline alone!
Stern: And the ocean and lighthouse worked their way into the script later—the concept that, in a relationship, one person is the ocean and the other the lighthouse, and that they can trade positions as circumstances change—is something we added later based on what was physically present in the setting. This is the great thing about having the writer on set. Deborah is a brilliant writer and improviser and could pick up on stuff that was happening and say, “Let me try this.”
Cineaste: Even though it’s Deborah’s script, it strikes me that it has a lot of you in it. The screenplay is filled with so many Woody Allen-esque turns of phrase that echo your own writing in Paul and Marian. How much of it is you?
Stern: It’s really not me, but that’s why it resonated with me, and I was able to get the performances I was able to get. I had a hand in how we cut scenes and placed them, but I wasn’t the writer. Deborah and I have known each other for a very long time, so maybe she sensed some qualities of my writing that worked their way into the final version of the script.
One thing that I’m proud we were able to do is to make the hotel sequence dynamic, even though it’s about twenty minutes long and set in one room. Our “trick” was that every time there’s a beat shift in the scene, we would change our master shot. So you’re not ever going back to the same set up. So, initially, with two people in the room, that was one setup; when the criminals enter the room, it’s another setup; a new setup when they go to the door. That gave us a way to tackle it. The overhead shot at the end is another example. When the cops come into the room, we go to handheld—the only time we use it in the scene.
Cineaste: Yes, and that makes it feel different—the tension really rises when the cops come in—even more than when the criminals first invade.
Stern: There’s the low angle shot of the female cop from the perspective of Mary and Statton, and then we go up to the overhead shot—the aftermath of the scene. And when Kipper rolls over, he smiles. So it’s a little exhale-moment. For the most part, Alan was able to pose and shoot characters in a way that doesn’t seem too contrived—it’s not natural but it feels like it’s where it needed to go.
Cineaste: You tend to work with the same actors but in this film, since it’s filmed in Wales, not so much. It’s the first time you’ve worked with British actor Nick Blood, who is terrific.
Stern: He always does cop shows—he played Lance Hunter in the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He always plays tough guys shooting guns. Look him up online—he’s ripped. That’s why he relished a chance to play Statton because nobody ever has cast him as a bumbling lead. That’s the trick of how you get actors on board—he was above my pay grade, but I think he wanted an opportunity to do something different.
Cineaste: To what degree do you consider yourself an “actors’ director”?
Stern: I’m told that I am. I like working with actors; I like developing parts with them; I like watching actors. I’m much happier sitting on the edge of the bed in a room with the actors and the camera behind me than I am looking through lenses. I think the life of the movie happens in these interactions. People call me an actors’ director because I’m able to give actors notes and know how to do that. I think actors feel comfortable talking to me, and I can give them support in a way that they can understand—and that comes, I think, from doing theater. In film school, actors are props. I didn’t work with a single actor in film school, which is why directing theater has been so invaluable to me.
Cineaste: Did you ever act? They say that the best actors’ directors are people who have acted themselves.
Stern: Yeah, I know they say that. But I can’t do anything—I can’t act; I can’t shoot. All the things you have to do to make movies?—I don’t do any of those things well at all [Laughs]. But my role as a director is kind of like a sheep dog—I’m herding all the people. But I can’t do the things that all of the people who are part of the production do—I can just bring them together in some way. The reason you see so many insecure directors is because the job is kind of a fraud. You’re overseeing the whole thing, obviously, but directing is not a specific task. You don’t have to know how to do anything to direct. And young directors often start there—they learn. Coming from writing does help—I know how to structure scenes.
Cineaste: The Adventures of Paul and Marian is so sharply written. Did you write the song lyrics as well as the dialogue?
Stern: I wrote most, and my wife Meg wrote a few. And obviously in working with the composer we would tweak them. I wrote the script and wrote the first solo song for Marian—mostly I wrote the lyrics before the composer wrote the music.
Cineaste: You’ve worked with Abramson also on The Changeling—and it seems you’ve had original musical scores on all of your films, including those of David Noon on Spirit Cabinet and Joseph LoDuca on Say My Name. Can you talk about how you worked with the composers on these nonmusical films?
Stern: Zach Abramson, who did the score for the first three films, was a student of David Noon at Manhattan School of Music. I’d been trying to get Noon to write for my films forever, and when I approached him about The Changeling, he declined but introduced me to Zach, instead. For Spirit Cabinet, Noon offered me his library, giving me the recordings and scores, and Zach adapted them. Usually, I like to bring composers in early in the process. It was a little different with Say My Name, since there were Hollywood producers involved, and they brought in their own composer. In the end, it was very collaborative and LoDuca was great. Normally, I want their input. My impulse is to use as little music as possible and then see what happens. But I want that exchange and sometimes will recut scenes for music. You want the music to be a partner in the movie; I hate when movies rely on music to tell the story or supply the emotion. I run a comedy film festival, and I can’t tell you how many submissions we get with the music telegraphing the comedy. If it’s good comedy, I’ll laugh; if the music is telling me to laugh, I won’t laugh. Music should be working simultaneously with or against the story, or providing a level of irony or of feeling that goes beyond what’s happening on the screen. It should not be there because I failed as a filmmaker but because I want to deepen the moment.
Cineaste: The tango-inflected musical themes of Say My Name add vibrancy and playfulness, while also commenting on the relationships and actions. How strongly involved were you in working with the composer to establish this musical motif?
Stern: I wanted something that would be playful but not “cute.” The idea of the tango is that it’s a dance but it can be sexy. We were working with a music supervisor as we were preparing the film for festivals, but he was giving us the sappiest stuff for the romance or bumbling music for comic moments involving Kipper, the bungling thug. I resisted that. The score may have some of those elements, but I wasn’t around for the final score decisions—I didn’t have that level of control, but I do think we did a good job, generally, of reining it in.
Cineaste: I feel that Lisa Brenner’s performance is somewhat reflexive in that it is somewhat distanced, with a few ironic winks-at-the viewer.
Stern: That’s entirely in the editing of the film—it’s not something I was going for originally. There is this sense that things are bouncing off of Mary and not the other characters—she can handle it, so there are moments when she’s playing it much cooler than the other characters.
Cineaste: In playing Mary she seems kind of amused rather than frightened in the opening scene when Kipper and Dec break into the hotel room and rob her and Statton. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but on second viewing it has grown on me—I can appreciate it.
Stern: Yes, there’s a lot of that that happens with her character. As far as winking at the audience, I didn’t intend to be that direct with it. In the end, it wasn’t my final cut but the edits return to her a lot for reactions. When she’s in a scene but not the main part of the action, we check back in with her—it kind of softens the edges of her performance to make her a little more charming or to emphasize something in the scene a bit more. Those early takes are not where I was bringing the performance necessarily, but that became the language of the movie. I think if I had final cut, there would be less of that. But I think people really appreciate her performance.
Cineaste: It begs the question of who this person, Mary, is. In the arc of her character I thought the need she had to unite with her birth mother felt forced, but on second viewing it worked better for me.
Stern: Yes, it’s a mystery. In the original version of Deborah’s script, the mother sequence wasn’t in there—it ends in the church, and Mary and Statton run away. But it became more driven by the Mary character when Lisa Brenner came onto the project. We thought, “What’s her story and how can we resolve it?” The mother idea then came into it. The flippant, things-running-off-her attitude of Mary, and her quick harshness, is maybe now understood as a protective layer—a game or an act. Whereas all along we think that Statton is the weak one and Mary is the strong one, in fact, when it comes to the most important aspects of life, like emotional commitment, she can’t handle it. And that is the romance of the movie: she helps him enter the world of adventure a bit more and he centers her—so there’s a sense of completion. Ultimately, as Deborah, Lisa, and I shaped the movie, we were able to suggest that there’s something she’s run away from. In earlier versions, test audiences reacted poorly to the search for the mother. Through another scene we shot during postproduction and some massaging of the edit, we were able get there believably. What I like about the movie is that it’s not the standard rom-com but that it has a tension that can lead to the lost mother. I think it’s earned now—or as much as it can be. In a lot of standard Hollywood comedies, that I don’t like—especially the “bro” comedies—there’s the ha-ha moment that turns serious. They don’t have to do that. Preston Sturges was serious but he wasn’t that serious in his comedies.
In Say My Name once we realized that we were restructuring the narrative around Mary, we had to give her more, otherwise it’s too one-level. The bounciness of her character, if too superficial or flippant, leads you not to care about her so much in the end. It’s then not important that they’re together—it’s only because the genre dictates it but not because it’s earned. So this was an attempt to give it emotional depth. When Meg first saw it, she said it felt like a featherbed being dropped from a helicopter, meaning that it came out of nowhere but it landed effortlessly. And that was my goal. I think retroactively or recursively that moment with the mother makes Mary’s earlier scenes stronger because we see that when she’s appearing a bit superficial or uncaring, it’s because she’s covering up. And then you see where she can go, and I think that’s surprising. The question of whether it works or not in a genre movie and with the audience expectations that come with it is complicated. Are they expecting Love, Actually? Or a dark comedy? Hopefully, it will be earned, but I’ll leave that to the audience.
Cineaste: One quality that seems crucial and consistent within your work is self-reflexive distancing—characters and shot composition draw attention to themselves as “constructs” and make us aware of the creative and performative process as it’s unfolding. You go against the convention of seamless storytelling and allow many of the seams to show.
Stern: I don’t know how deliberate these choices are, to be honest. I do think I learned to embrace the seams early on. If there’s a seam there, you can’t run away from it. So, in making my shorts, I learned that and it has become a style. I’m influenced by Brecht and Godard and Werner Herzog, all of whom distance us, and obviously Peter Greenaway—all are influences on Paul and Marian. These are filmmakers I’ve always admired, and they do have a sense of presentational quality—that something is happening on camera, but there is a camera. And when it’s working right, you’re not necessarily thinking that. You’re thinking, “I’m watching people in a room doing a thing,” but it conveys an inherent awareness. I try not to be too stylish or too show-offy, though—I see a lot of new directors who are.
Cineaste: I wouldn’t use those words. In Spirit Cabinet, to me, your reflexivity is expressed in the obvious presence of the video monitors and in The Changeling in your retaining of the original soliloquies.
Stern: In Spirit Cabinet there’s a question of what does the camera see and what does it not see? And because we were shooting the séance with handheld camera, there’s the observational eye at all times, and as the character looks at something the camera follows to reveal what they’re looking at. It happened organically; the monitor adds to the claustrophobic space of the room and the theatrical “staging” of the séance; the camera becomes part of the performance space.
In The Changeling I thought about the soliloquies a lot—you could do it as voice-over, obviously, or you could eliminate it. Traditionally, the idea of the soliloquy in Shakespeare was as an aside to let us into the characters’ thoughts. So I thought, let’s do them that way, and also in the case of De Flores, you start off hating him but grow to care about him. There also is a sense that Joanna and De Flores are competing for the audience’s sympathy. And they express themselves in language, but I also was not as secure a filmmaker then to figure out how to convey those feelings through image and action alone. We made a lot of edits and shifts, but I also knew the actors could carry the language really well. So that’s how it evolved. It was a choice but every choice is really in a sense a series of three or four choices that lead you to finding your way into the characters and action. Again, it comes out of theater. If I were to do that movie again, I’m quite sure I’d do it differently. I even thought of how I’d reshoot the opening—years later! I’d have Joanna in the church and have De Flores watching her. She’s always being watched and this heightens the romance and eroticism.
Cineaste: In Paul and Marian not only do you draw attention to the obviously fake sets—it is green screen and you don’t try to hide that—but then there is the epitome of reflexivity when the actors Paul and Marian shed their fictional roles and exit the studio for the New York City streets—in your only location scene shot in the film.
Stern: Yes, that was Meg’s idea. She said that in most musicals there’s a fantasy sequence, so here we should have a reality sequence. The idea is that we could use a break, and I wanted to break from the green screen. The artifice is so obvious in the movie, so why don’t we call it out, in a way, was the thinking. Also, the idea of their being actors forced into a position—it weirdly says, well they can’t get out of it, they’re doomed, but we’re thinking of them not as actors but as the Paul and Marian of the film narrative, so it kind of feeds back on itself in a certain way. Even musically, we have an electronic score, but at that moment it’s still an electric guitar, but with nothing altered or manipulated. The color scheme and editing style are different from the rest of the film, and we used a different camera to shoot it. I was thinking about American theater director Bartlett Sher speaking about his admiration of the Polish director Tadeusz Kantor. He said that three-quarters of the way through, the play needs to break down—something needs to throw the audience some place else. In the 1983 miniseries version of Fanny and Alexander there’s a scene where there’s a casket, and the bodies of the children are appearing on the floor but they’re clearly in another room or somewhere else—there’s this weird moment that defies the rules of everything. Bergman felt that we’re at a point when we have to break away.
Cineaste: In many ways I see The Adventures of Paul and Marian as the quintessential expression of your style, maybe because you were in control of all aspects of production as director, producer, writer, and editor. I wonder about the ending when all characters, including the uncle, seem to embrace personal happiness over political commitment—a little bit like in Voltaire’s Candide—giving up on politics and ideology and retreating to the tending of their gardens.
Stern: I intended that to be incredibly sarcastic. The only way to solve it is to forget about it. The whole question of experience in that movie is “I’m pretending it never happened, so I don’t have to learn anything from it. I’m going to sweep this under the rug rather than take it and go anywhere with it. My life is complete, so I can put the experience behind me and pretend that it’s gone.” The idea is that they can find this weird harmony in the handshake between capital and labor. It’s bullshit. But the characters are not in a real place anymore—they’re in front of a colored background, dancing and “Ta-Da,” they’ve solved everyone’s problems. It’s meant to be very flippant, as much of the movie is also. My hope is that the conclusion is not taken too seriously. But I do hope there are moments of emotional truth there, I do hope there are moments where you actually care.
Cineaste: So what happened with that movie?
Stern: It failed miserably. I got into a couple of festivals but no major festivals. I was expecting it to be a good festival movie for a bunch of reasons. I was making it right around the time when Damien Chazelle was making La La Land, and we were in touch with each other. Glee was hitting at the time and the whole Occupy Movement hit when I was making the movie, so it seemed there was a lot of zeitgeist stuff going on around this movie. But it’s a cheap movie with no-name actors. The cheapness is something I embraced, and we do it well. It was over five years in the making. We partnered with SUNY Purchase, where we shot it, with their theater and film students helping. We had a Jerome Foundation grant and a little bit here and there. I raised about $150 grand to make the movie—a lot of it was Kickstarter, but we had online auctions and fundraising events over the years to build the film. So it was a serious chunk of my life that I thought would finally get somewhere, and it’s just sitting on a hard drive. It was a pretty soul-crushing experience.
On the other hand, Say My Name happened, in part, because I wrote to everyone I knew about Paul and Marian—seeking advice. Asking people: should I just stop doing this? Or do you know someone who can help me out? One of the people who wrote me back was Lisa Brenner, whom I had known from college. She had just been on a number of Hollywood movies and living there for a long time, and her husband is an established producer. She felt it was the best thing ever but that no one was ever going to buy it. But she said, “Let’s make a movie together.” In a positive sense, that’s what happened—it’s the legacy of this film.
Cineaste: What brought you to an adaptation of The Changeling as your first feature film project?
Stern: I was frustrated in trying to raise money for other projects, and I thought, “I’ll find a play that’s public domain, and one that has lasted the test of time.” The play is good. I got some friends together and we began shooting in my apartment—it wasn’t as ambitious a project as it became. But it grew. I was drawn to the Jacobean era. I read the play and was moved by how raw it is. I didn’t want to do Shakespeare, although I’m drawn to that work—I wanted to avoid kings and queens. Although Middleton’s play is about the upper class, it’s achievable. I was going to shoot it as a contemporary play at one point. I liked that it was relatively unknown and that audiences might not know what to expect. During a theatrical production of the play I saw a few years ago, audiences actually gasped. So I had the best of both worlds—I had something that I knew had withstood the test of time but that also would surprise audiences. Middleton and Shakespeare exchanged material and the witch narrative of Macbeth was pretty much supplied by Middleton. And there are obvious echoes of that play in The Changeling.
Cineaste: The film returns to the image of a woman walking in a field framed as within the subjective experience of Beatrice-Joanna. Who is this woman? Is this an expression of her longed for desire to recapture an innocence she has lost or perhaps a projection of the guilt she experiences in having arranged for the murder not only of her fiancé but also of her maid and confidante? Can we assume that this figure is somehow a stand-in for the murder victim?
Stern: The play is the story of Joanna and De Flores, and I realized that in the film it had to focus on either the story of Joanna or De Flores in order to make it work right. And I settled on Joanna—and this is after we shot the film. I had this image of a girl, and I wasn’t quite sure who she was, but I wanted something to open up the movie—to break the literariness of it. To me, the young woman is a way to focus on the Joanna character because she represents youth and freedom—and Joanna thinks she can kill and get away with it. But the young woman is always walking on the lines between light and darkness, and the woods are calling and representing the idea of corruption and threat. I wanted to insert some sense of that into the film. I always liked the symmetry of that character. And the composer did a great job with the opening series of notes that never resolve until the last shot centered on that character. There’s this unresolved music around that character, and it’s something that you wouldn’t necessarily know, but you can feel it.
The ending of the play, which I shot, involves all the men in the room, with the father saying of his daughter, well she’s a whore; she’s dead; and to her wronged husband, you’re my son—the men are resolving to sweep it all under the rug—it all will be fine. We’ve gotten rid of the cancer in the house—the “sleeping around” woman that we can’t tolerate and the servant rising above his class. And they close the door. It’s very dramatic when the door closes—they’re basically going to get rid of the bodies. It’s a great little scene, but I realized that when Joanna and De Flores were dead, it seemed the movie was over. But through the young girl in the field, I wanted to resolve Joanna’s story, without just leaving two bodies on the ground.
Cineaste: What is the film project you’re currently working on?
Stern: I’m working again with Deborah, and I’ll go over to the U.K. We have funders allowing us to be in the room with the actors to develop the script. It will be a drama. It’s starring British actress Juliet Stevenson, maybe best known to your readers for her role in Anthony Minghella’s 1990 film, Truly, Madly, Deeply. It’s about the question of power dynamics in the acting community and the generational shift in the context of actors’ training.
Cineaste: I know Say My Name recently premiered in the U.K. and that you attended several opening night screenings. How did audiences respond?
Stern: We had two screenings at the Odeon in Leicester Square, and Deborah did a minitour with the film as well, plus we had a few festival screenings in Liverpool, Cardiff, Blackpool, and London. I attended festival screenings in Cardiff and Blackpool, and the two Odeon screenings in London. Response was quite strong. Something like eight hundred people attended the London screenings, and we had a full house in Cardiff, too. A lot of Deborah’s fanbase came out.
Cineaste: In introducing our readers to your films, and in trying to understand them myself, it came to my mind that I might dub your body of work as something like “UnSerious Cinema”—uppercase “U” and “S,” because beneath the playful, quippy, quirky, “quasi” surface, something more serious lurks. While the term “UnSerious” may have pejorative connotations, when applied to your work, I see it as anything but. Does this seem fair or accurate?
Stern: I haven’t had to process this before. When I was a kid, I would watch Ray Harryhausen movies and Godzilla movies, and they always had a sense of play. I had a Super-8 camera and would go out back and film things—animating my play dough and stuff like that. I remember hanging rope on my sister’s E.T. doll and filming it dangling from a branch! There’s that sense of fun to it. I spent every summer in the movie theater. I was really drawn into the magic of cinema. There is something about the artifice of it that appeals to me but an artifice that we willingly accept and embrace, and I think it’s fun to think outside of conventions. We have conventions of the horror movie, but I think where movies are striking is in the personal relationships. I always liked how directors such as Welles and Sturges worked with a kind of repertory company of actors. Seeing this ensemble take on different roles from film to film brings an element of artifice to these movies, and an element of play too. I also work with an acting ensemble, and that feeds my work in specific ways, which, as in the case of Welles and Sturges, results in something like serious humor.
My work doesn’t quite fit into boxes. So when the producer wanted test screenings of Say My Name, they were presenting it as a romantic comedy, but I’m not sure it is a romantic comedy. You can’t categorize it—it’s in between categories. So, if I’m excited by a movie, I’m excited by that sense of play!
For distribution information on Say My Name and other films by Jay Stern, visit Electric Entertainment.
To purchase The Adventures of Paul and Marian, click here.
Cynthia Lucia is professor of English and director of the Film and Media Studies Program at Rider University.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4