Chlotrudis Chats with Jeff Stanzler

by Beth Curran

 

His hello is a litte rough around the edges, his voice deeper than I remember. Even though he gave a direct number earlier in the week so that I could call him for the interview, and despite our subsequent emails setting up the time for the chat, I confusedly ask to speak with Jeff Stanzler, and formally introduce myself. His laugh is friendly and relaxed, and he explains the previous night’s celebrations, no doubt in honor of his film SORRY HATERS garnering two Spirit Award nominations. After a few moments I realize that he is not in New York, his home base, but in Los Angeles, and that he had amiably agreed to what is for him a 9:30 am weekend phone interview. I’m disarmed by his accommodation - out of all the things he could do during the last weekend before the craziness of award ceremonies kicks in, and he’s getting up early to talk with Chlotrudis? I guess an independent film director’s work truly is never done!

 

SORRY HATERS is up for three Chlotrudis Awards (Film, Actress, Original Screenplay), and after an engaging Q&A session with him at our screening of the film at the Brattle Theatre last fall, the chance to catch up with Jeff once again, post-nominations, is a welcome one. I congratulate him on both sets of nominations, and he is gracious and deprecating. My sense is that, more than anything, he is happiest that his film has given its lead, Robin Wright Penn, greater acclaim and attention. Towards that end, he is presently working to put together his next film, which would reunite him with Penn - if all goes well, Jeff hopes to begin shooting some time this year.

 

It’s tough for him to say more about the status of the project - as he mentions when I ask, “there’s a saying that independent films either take a very long time or a very short time to make.” SORRY HATERS was in the latter category, taking only two years from screenplay idea to completed film. The actual moviemaking process, Jeff says, was remarkably quick. “Funny enough,” he notes, “the one time where things felt stalled was afterwards - we just couldn’t find a festival where it could play.” The film eventually went on to play Toronto in fall 2005 (and later was picked by IFC Films for distribution).

 

Jeff’s first feature film, JUMPIN’ AT THE BONEYARD, was made in the early 90’s, the heyday of the Sundance/Miramax indie scene, and I ask him how much was different for an independent filmmaker since those times. “Something’s really changed,” he responds with muted disappointment, “in the last few years, it seems as if no one’s interested in funding a million dollar film in order to make three million. They all want the Little Miss Sunshines, ten million budgets,” in the hopes of scoring really big return. He continues, “and if you want to make something really personal, that might be potentially offensive to some, then no way - well, it’s just going to be a rough road for you.”

 

I follow up, asking if he had any surprises by who took offense to SORRY HATERS as well as by those who reacted positively to it. “I’ve been constantly surprised by who got it and who didn’t, there’s no set demographics of haters or lovers of this film.” He goes on to talk about examples, like the audiences of mostly blue-collar types, or folks who aren’t art-house film lovers, where “the film almost played better there than anywhere else,” or the man at an industry screening for Spirit nominees the other week who got up and walked out immediately after the film and screamed “thank you for wasting my time” over his shoulder on his way towards the lobby. “I thought I’d be able to say ‘smart people will get my film’, and yet people I know to be smart, some really didn’t like it, at all,” he says. “And I can’t be flip and say ‘the ones who hate it are rightwing Republicans’, either - it’s just not a movie where people can say ‘oh it’s one of those kinds of films’,” he continues. From his tone, it’s obvious that he has been fascinated and enlivened by his audience’s feedback, whether positive or negative.

 

Was this something deliberate, I ask, that you thought about when you wrote it, to have something political or ‘bigger picture’ themed that people would respond to? He talks a little bit about his writing process. “I try to concentrate only on the people in the story, because all that other stuff will cloud your mind - I mean, you know it’s kind of there, but you have to trick your mind to do it,” to see but not write any themes directly into the work. I ask him if he thinks of himself as a filmmaker who always writes and directs, or if he has thought of pursuing just one or the other craft.

 

“My stock answer is, I’m very much open to it, but it doesn’t ever seem to happen, so I guess I should wonder, ‘is it me’, that maybe I get so attached to a writing project that I subconsciously won’t let anybody but me direct,” he answers slowly, as if thinking aloud. “But, on a conscious level, I definitely would like the chance to direct someone else’s work, and to have someone else direct something I’ve written.” He’s also interested in exploring other mediums, particularly television. “I tend to write things that are very current. I’m a bit of a news junkie, a political junkie, and the immediacy of TV is really attractive to me. To be able to make something in response to things going on now and to see it right away, instead of, you know, six years later.” He’s already written a pilot and is trying to bring the project further along, another reason for him to be in Los Angeles now, in addition to his project with Robin Wright Penn and the upcoming Spirit Awards.

 

The new film he’s written, in which Penn would once again star, will this time involve no politics. A psychological thriller, Jeff describes it as “more of a modern-era story of exploitation”. His television pilot, on the other hand, is more familiar territory, set in South Dakota and exploring the dynamic between both ends of the spectrum when a radical leftist moves in among evangelical Midwesterners. Given the intriguing and surprising interactions Jeff scripted between his characters in SORRY HATERS, no doubt his take on ‘redstate meets bluestate’ will provoke unexpected and engaging reaction and conversation.

 

“We had a screening in San Francisco, and there was this one woman, and I think she said it best,” about some people’s reactions to the film, Jeff comments near the end of our talk. “At a certain point in the movie, she said ‘between these two people you feel like (they’ve) been in a battle, and it seems like they’re getting beyond, and then you pull the rug out from under us all the sudden, and that pisses people off, that you did that.” Jeff is looking forward to the chance to see if overseas audiences have similarly strong reactions. Already the film has Italian distribution, and he hopes that he gets the chance to catch up with Robin’s costar Abdel Kechiche at screenings in France, where Kechiche is a director (his next film will show at Cannes this spring).

 

A half-hour has passed quickly while we’ve talked, and I remind myself that I probably woke Jeff up - whether it’s back to bed or a shower and coffee, it’s time I let him get back to his morning. I wish him luck at the Spirit Awards on Saturday, as well as at our own awards in March - although, I joke, I’m guessing the Spirits are probably a bigger deal. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he counters, serious. “Your support has meant a lot, to us all - what your group has done, it’s great to know we’ve got a place where we were appreciated.” When his new project with Robin gets finished, “definitely we want to bring it to Boston, back to you guys.” After thanking him for those words and his time, I let him go. Here’s hoping Jeff’s next film ‘takes a very short time’ and meets with much success!