Just Write Something — A Miniflix Interview With Chell Stephen
Short Filmmaker & Commercial Director Chell Stephen talks about getting into festivals, writing complex characters and merging music videos with narrative storytelling.
Chell’s always got something in the works. She could be filming a commercial or branding video in her current home (Los Angeles), or her former home (New York City). She could also be making another short film in her home country (Canada). But whatever the project and wherever the locale, it’s clear she brings everything she’s got. That’s even true for this very special interview.
Chell gets honest with Miniflix about life before her first short got Vimeo staff-picked, the good and bad of film school and her upcoming short film Fire Girls.
Miniflix Interviewer: What was the first film or piece of visual media you fell in love with?
Chell Stephen: My favorite movies are still Dirty Dancing and Wayne’s World. I’d watch them endlessly growing up and could quote every word. I like the earnestness. I have an older sister, so I’d watch things like 90210 and other things that were usually for people who were older girls….I grew up tending to like darker stuff hidden within that bright topping. That’s pretty evident in my work too.
Miniflix: There is always a very kinetic feeling to your films and television work. It’s often eye-popping and highly colorful, like cinematic cotton candy. Would you say that your visual sense is more influenced by how you experience the world, or by how other films or visual media have influenced you?
Chell: I would say, truthfully, a bit of both. I grew up being influenced by music videos, and was working in music videos before making my first short. What’s fun about a music video is that, as long as it looks cool, you can do whatever. It’s not like anyone’s reading the treatment, going “hmm does the story track” or anything. That freedom allows me to get real extra with the visuals. Given that Crystal was my first short, and that beforehand I had done a bunch of music videos, the film was a hybrid of both worlds in a way.
I’m not sure if this always come across, but I want my films to feel as much like you’re with the protagonist’s experience as possible. Particularly the feeling of getting frustrated with, or feeling a lack of control over, one’s surroundings.
I’m sure in a way, it is showing the world as I see it since these characters are ostensibly projections of me, but it is meant to be how they see it. Even if it’s not necessarily a POV shot, those fantasy moments are definitely supposed to feel like they’re from the character’s specific lens.
One final thought. I don’t want to hate on how anyone else does what they do, but I feel like in everyday life we’re already seeing the world in a pretty naturalistic straight-forward way, 24/7. Without a change in perspective. Without ever getting a lens change. So to me what’s fun about film is putting the camera way up there or from a crazy low angle or putting a fish eye on it, is that we’re making a film! Why not make it feel like something I’ve never seen before?
M: I love the way you handle kids in Shauna Is A Liar, because you find ways to reveal the same level of complexity as you would with an adult character, but you aren’t trying to make the children into adults like a Wes Anderson would. What is behind your interest in telling stories about youth (childhood to early adulthood)? What about that time speaks to you?
C: I love that question. You know, there’s that time period when you’re a kid and you think you understand what’s going on. You see all these adult things and you’re thinking that it all tracks. But then you really actually don’t have any idea; what you’re doing is applying kid logic to it. Yet, at the same time, you’re realizing that adults are more fallible than you thought. When you’re little you think things are just black or white, right and wrong, but then as you grow up things get increasingly gray. Some things you believed to be ironclad are being contradicted by people all the time. I find that so interesting because that’s humankind: the great contradiction. You can be one thing and the opposite at the same time…more likely than not you are those two things at once.
One of the things I was really thinking about when I wrote Shauna is that the things you hate most about other people are usually what you hate most about yourself. It’s usually just an expression of that self-rage.
M: What was your biggest takeaway from film school?
C: The most important thing for me was finding those collaborators. I’ve had this debate with people a thousand times because the ticket price is not insignificant. So at first, the idea of paying to find collaborators sounds a little insane. But at the same time, you do really need to find your people — the collaborators who will support you (and you them!) in your endeavors.
The stuff I’m trying to make, I tend to need other people to help me execute so I’m just really fortunate to have my team. When I was at school at Syracuse I began collaborating with Sam Winter who shortly after we moved to New York introduced me to Bryan Parker, who introduced us both to Gregg Conde — the incredible DP who shoots all my shit. This was the genesis of our production company Think/Feel.
Theoretically, too, the other benefit is having room to fuck up and try stuff. You’re obviously paying tuition to do this, but you are also paying to have access to gear. So if you’re there, you gotta take advantage of that, take stuff out and mess with it. I mean, I get it; you’re busy with all this reading to do or whatever, but it’s like, take that fucking camera out of the case and shoot with it. Because later, you probably won’t have gear right there for you when you want it and you’ll be bummed.
M: Please share the story behind creating the “You’re Alright, You’re Okay” pilot. I love how you call to attention the cultural attempts at “trendy self help”. Using phrases like “manifest” and “self-care”.
C: I actually wrote that the day Crystal got staff-picked by Vimeo. We had gone online two days before and nobody was watching it. Everyone from our crew had been sharing it and we only had a thousand views, maybe. And I had put everything, all my my money, favors, all of it, into this…and yet nobody was looking at it. I’d sent out like 4,000 PR emails and nobody was writing me back. So, in that moment, I found myself wondering when I’d ever be able to make something like this again. As a reaction, I wrote something that would be so simple that in theory I could actually shoot it myself. I wrote it as primarily VO throughout so I could even do it without audio if I needed to.
The story was based on my recent experience having just moved to Los Angeles and trying to use this meditation app. I felt like I was so bad at it and that the app was telling me how bad at it I was. It was also about experiencing the way people talk in LA for the first time. So I wrote this thing, and an hour or two after that Crystal got staff-picked. Suddenly we’re getting viewed. I’m always trying to remember that moment when dealing with something that I can’t really change — I think to myself, “just write something”.
M: There’s so much primal energy in your short films. Whether it’s hope, fear, desire, or envy, you always tend to capture it in the rhythm of your shots rather than a particular line of dialogue or scene. When you’re shooting montages (like the dodgeball sequence in Shauna or any of Crystal’s pop star visions) do you typically have the finished edit in your head of how it’s going to look, or are you just trying things on set and then hoping something inspired comes together in the edit?
C: I really believe in shot-listing and storyboarding and just being as prepared as possible, so that you have the flexibility to throw it all away if you need to on the day of shooting. Certainly in some of the Crystal fantasies it was pre-determined that we’d get this wide, and then these extreme tights, etc. But in some of them, particularly her vision in the quarry, it became more of an issue of time. Like the sun is setting quickly, we’ve gotta get that shit on a steadi and just chase her around. Coming from the music video world helps in that regard — it’s capturing cool visuals that make a feeling, not necessarily having to tell narrative story beats. I’m very fortunate to have Gregg because he knows my style and what I like so well, which lets us pivot into freestyle mode when we have to and still maintain the overall aesthetic and style.
When it comes to shots in the montage sequences, there’s always at least a couple of them that I know I want. Like for the dodgeball sequence in Shauna, I had Gregg lie on the gym floor and we threw the ball over the camera. It’s nothing too crazy but they were things that I had in my head to do and I wanted it in that specific way. But then there were other shots in that sequence, especially when the kids are playing, that we could let the camera rock. We’ve picked a lens and Gregg would just go around and pick off a few shots.
M: What’s one phase of filmmaking you feel most confident in? And one aspect you feel least confident in?
C: I really like creative problem-solving, so I find production super-stimulating. One of my main strengths as a director is that I appreciate connecting with people where they are, whether that’s crew or cast or whatever, I really like finding the way to get what the project needs out of somebody in a way that makes them feel good. That’s what the trick of directing is. It’s recognizing that this person needs to be communicated with in this way while this other person needs it in a different way.
Something I’d love to get better at is fighting for what I need. Because in indie film, there’s just never enough time and money, right? And at some point I always feel bad about everything. It’s probably somehow tied back to me being a Canadian and a woman but I start everything with “I’m sorry, thank you so much”, which I should probably cut right out…but I’ve been guilty of calling it too early. Like taking the time to get another take of something even though I know we’re running out of time.
You know what I mean? Like fighting for it. Part of it is not always being able to afford an AD on set….but as it is, it’s about knowing when to push for it. Because if you’re not getting what you came out there for, then what’s the point? You have to push.
M: Tell us about your upcoming short film, “Fire Girls”.
C: Fire Girls is a fable, in a way. It has the dark comedic elements as is typically my genre of choice. But it is also a thriller-horror short. I had this idea for a music video in 2015 about this girl biker gang that rides bikes that were on fire. And I just really wanted to do that. I started to work it into a narrative script in 2016 that involved this young girl who’s realized her mom sneaks out of the house one night a month. And tonight she’s going to find out where her mom goes….
… to think about the film on a larger scale of themes, I feel like being a woman is a very powerful feeling and also a terrifying feeling all at the same time… I find that dichotomy to be very interesting. So a lot of that stuff is in there, and our young protagonist Babygirl is discovering that truth over one night.
M: When will this be released?
C: Hopefully by the spring of 2019.
M: What is your favorite short film? Why?
C: There’s this film called So You’ve Grown Attached. It’s by a friend of mine, Kate [Tsang] and it played in the same shorts block as Crystal at Atlanta Film Festival in 2014. It’s super dope. The story is about this girl and her imaginary friend. The girl is reaching a time when she no longer needs an imaginary friend, so the imaginary friend goes to The Bureau of the Imaginary Friends, where he learns how to say goodbye to his human companion and so on. It’s very surreal and stylish. The music is amazing. It’s also really funny and smart. There’s an earnestness to it. I’ve never thought being ironic was cool — the films I love tend to be not afraid to show their hearts.