Interview with Stephen Cone

When the filmmaker Stephen Cone first broke into the national indie spotlight at the relatively young age of 30 with his 2011 film The Wise Kids, he could already claim an impressive résumé of competently-crafted short, medium, and feature-length films made in the Chicago area. An early advocate of his work was the late critic Roger Ebert, who praised Cone’s In Memoriam as “a touching film” and Cone himself as “a sure-minded director.” Since this breakthrough, Cone has regularly delivered films of equally high quality, among them 2013’s Black Box and 2015’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.

Cone’s latest film Princess Cyd debuted at the Maryland Film Festival on May 4th last year and later had its New York City premiere at the BAMcinemaFest on June 17th. Since its release, the film has been met with widespread critical acclaim—by far the most successful of the director’s short career. Now available on DVD and VOD through Wolfe Video, Princess Cyd has appeared on best-of-2017 lists from The Film Stage, IndieWire, NPR, Vanity Fair, Vox, and Vulture.

I caught up with Cone online, who graciously accepted my invitation for an interview. Here we talk about Princess Cyd, actor collaborations, and what the future will bring for the writer/director as he steps out of indie obscurity and into the national spotlight.

All of your films to date have dealt with burgeoning sexuality and coming to terms with one’s religion or spirituality—Princess Cyd being no exception. What is it about these subjects that keeps attracting you artistically?

That’s a tricky question because there’s never a point at which I sit down and try to think up a subject. It’s only in looking back that you see themes.I grew up in an evangelical household and have always had an interest in the spirit and the flesh, and with the question of why they’re commonly perceived as being counter/in opposition to each other. Why does that need to be the case? Where can reconciliation be found? That’s something I love about the work of Carl Dreyer, a favorite filmmaker of mine who I, for some reason, almost never mention. You don’t know where the body stops and the spirit starts in his films. It’s dazzling and magical.

Until now, your films have focused primarily on the experiences of youth and coming of age, but Princess Cyd seems like a departure in that you’ve devoted almost equal screen time to the subject of late-middle age in the character of Miranda Ruth. Are we seeing the beginning of a “middle period” for Stephen Cone, so to speak, in which your films will focus more on older characters, or do you still plan to make films that deal predominantly with adolescence?

For the next film I’m almost exclusively focusing on an adult family, but I have been and will always be interested in the parallel experiences of young people and adults. I don’t think that’ll ever go away. Even in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and The Wise Kids and Black Box, there are parallel narratives focused on people over the age of 30. I have little interest in making a coming-of-age film about teenagers exclusively. That could always change.

I think of you as an actor’s director, in that you seem to value developed characters over intricate plotting or heavy philosophical concepts. Would you say that people are the subject you’re most interested in exploring through your work?

Yes, but I also have a profound interest in film form and am terrifically bored by films which seem to have come about by simply setting up a camera in order to capture performances.

You’ve worked with an impressive group of actors, including now Rebecca Spence, Austin Pendleton, Francis Guinan, and Josephine Decker, but a few have appeared more often than others. With Princess Cyd, Tyler Ross has now played in three of your films, and I’ve seen Sadie Rogers in everything except Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. What is it about specific actors that draws you back to them?

There’s zero rhyme or reason to this. With Tyler, he feels like a little brother to me, and he’s a great actor, so I like the idea of continuing to use him. Sadie is my best friend and a great talent, and I love having her in things. Hanna Dworkin is someone else I’ve worked with regularly. I don’t know, I just take it on a film-by-film basis.

The choice of music in your films has always fascinated and surprised me. You seem to cull from an eclectic set of artists, which has included Enya, Duran Duran, Night Gallery—I even heard a bit of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia in Princess Cyd. What motivates your selection of music and what purpose do you think it should serve in film?

I’ve always been a fan of mixing and matching music in films—and I’m a fan of filmmakers like Claire Denis and Jonathan Demme and Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas and Stanley Kubrick who used music in a similarly wild way. I don’t know, it feels more like life to me. Music comes in from cars on the street, meanwhile we’re switching from jazz to classical on Spotify. Also, I’m a sucker for choral and classical music. The juxtaposition of modern images and sacred music really takes us back to your initial question about sex vs. spirit.

You’ve described Princess Cyd as a “love letter to Chicago,” but your previous films have been shot in other cities as well—Black Box in Normal, Illinois; The Wise Kids in Charleston, South Carolina. Do you intend to make more films in Chicago, now that you’ve scared up some of the city’s finest talent, or will you hit the road with more productions in the future?

I go where the ideas take me. The two ideas at the front of my mind right now take place in the south and Malibu, respectively. But I love Chicago and hope to film here again as soon as possible.

You’ve cited John Cassavetes, Jean Renoir, the aforementioned Jonathan Demme, Terence Davies, Sofia Coppola, Terrence Malick, and a gamut of contemporary French directors as major influences on your work. If you were to name just a handful of films that have had the greatest effect on you as an artist and a person, what would they be?

A Woman Under the Influence, The Long Day Closes, Days of Heaven, Rachel Getting Married, Wonder Boys, The Rules of the Game, Holiday, A Christmas Tale, Summer Hours, 35 Shots of Rum, [and the] collected works of Andre Techine, to name just a few.

I first discovered your work, I imagine like many others, through the critic Roger Ebert, who was an early advocate of your films, specifically In Memoriam and The Wise Kids. What was it like to get such highly sought praise so early in your career?

This is an important question—I had had almost zero success or exposure up to that point. In Memoriam was bombing with festival programmers. I, to this day, do not know why he reviewed that film, and I can’t believe he actually liked it. (I’m too hard on that film, I think.) I’m not sure I would’ve kept going without a) those Ebert reviews, and b) programmer Kim Yutani programming The Wise Kids at Outfest.

Many of your films have now received at least some kind of distribution, including The Wise Kids, Black Box, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, and now Princess Cyd, but there are many others—In Memoriam, This Afternoon, The Mystery of Life, etc.—that have not received any form of distribution. Is there any chance the general public will ever get to see these movies?

In Memoriam is available for free on Vimeo. This Afternoon, a movie I wish I’d made some different choices on (mostly technically), will eventually be released via Vimeo OnDemand, or at least that’s the plan. Even though it screened publicly, The Mystery of Life never technically had a completed sound design, but it remains by far the most experimental thing I’ve ever done and is kind of a trip so maybe I’ll dig back in when I get a moment.

With the critical success of Princess Cyd and your recent profile in the Los Angeles Times, it seems like you’re finally starting to break out of the indie world and into the mainstream.  Every one of your recent films has been a knockout for me, so my question is: What do you have planned next, now that the world is beginning to watch?

I’m currently planning to shoot a large Southern family drama in the Carolinas this coming summer. It has a sixtysomething female photographer at its center. It’ll be a bigger budget than I’m used to, and I have a wonderful producing team on board, so, I’m excited.

(Photo credit: Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune)

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