Tennyson E. Stead, an Independent Filmmaker, Talks About the Trials, Creative Processes, and Joys of Making, Marketing, and Realizing the Dream. Filmmaking is not for the Faint-Hearted.By Kaylene Peoples | January 18th, 2011 | Category: Indie Hotspot, Indie Hotspot Feature | 2 comments
“When I write an action sequence, the scale of that sequence is limited by how much it’s going to teach me about the characters.” —Tennyson E. Stead
Tennyson E. Stead is a filmmaker, who like most aspiring filmmakers, has a story that started his journey through the laborious but rewarding process of creating his film. When he was thirteen at boarding school, he found his way into the theater and the rest reads like a novel. To all independent filmmakers, film students, or anybody contemplating taking on this ginormous undertaking, consider Tennyson’s advice to arm yourself for what awaits you.
Kaylene Peoples Questions (bold)
Tennyson E. Stead Responses
How did you get started as a filmmaker?
Can I answer this two ways?
When I was thirteen, I went off to boarding school and immediately found my way into the theater. The head of the costume shop there – her husband ran tabletop role-playing games. For those who aren’t familiar, these games are basically interactive storytelling sessions. One person is in charge of the plot and the conflict, and everyone else takes on the role of one of the main characters. Together, you improvise the story.
In the hands of a good storyteller, a game like that brings out the best and worst in people – and these other kids I was playing with, many of whom weren’t actors, were bringing big, powerful emotions to their characters. Watching that storyteller help my friends learn so much about themselves, discover so much about one another, and ultimately weave those moments into one of the most compelling stories I’d ever been exposed to gave me a huge sense of fulfillment. That’s pretty much when I became a director.
One more story: When I first moved out to Los Angeles seven years ago, a friend of mine got me a job making cold calls for film investments. As it turns out, the gig was more or less an investment scam. When I closed my first deal, I wound up out on my tail with no sense of how to make ends meet. My first winter in LA was a constant flip-flop between homelessness and starvation, and I swore that the business of film was behind me.
One day when I was really hungry, I came across an ad in Variety, looking for young, professionally minded, aspiring producers to help sell film investments. Going into that interview, I planned on getting the job, staying for two weeks, and using the paycheck to hold me over while I found something better. Instead, I wound up being involved in a mid-budget production under a team who took sales very seriously. I was encouraged to stick my nose into absolutely everything to build my product knowledge, and that’s what I did for seven years. That’s how I taught myself to produce films.
These experiences were the laboratory where I tested all my assumptions about the film industry, as well as the assumptions of those around me. All the while, I was writing. Directing theater and web video with my actors. Honing my craft. I still am, you know?
You mentioned you have been using Web 2.0 (new media) to get the word out about your script. Please go into detail about your process.
My cast and I come from a background of Repertory Theater, so those are the business tools we know. There’s no magic bullet to it. The core of our strategy is the basic notion that if we all work together, we can blog and tweet up enough interest in our project to build an audience. Keeping track of that audience and keeping them entertained means always providing content, which means we’re always working. We can’t afford to be shy about self-promotion. We need people to click our little buttons, leave their e-mail address, and spread the word as widely as possible. Folks will only do these things if we ask them to.
Two long years later we’ve gotten ourselves the attention, the support, and the research to draw up a viable plan for making money in movie theaters.
Once this movie is shot, we’ll be spending ANOTHER two years on marketing—from our year of festivals through the DVD release—before we can finally let up and call it a day. At the same time, what we get out of it is an audience of our own. When Sam Bailey is shot, we’ll be dovetailing the development of our next project with the release of our last, and our audience will be that much larger when we do.
Repertory Theater is all about working together to keep an audience happy. Using those same principles in mass media is, frankly, much harder . . . but in the end we get to make movies we love, with people we love, for people we love.
Ground zero for that repertory community, by the way, is www.8sidedforum.com. If anyone would like to meet me, my cast, or my production team, we’re all there on the site. Ask any questions you have. Answering them only makes our community stronger, and we’re happy to do it.
Give us some information about your upcoming film.
Sam Bailey is the story of a man who has survived for almost 600 years, and who finally learns how to live.
Over the course of his extraordinarily long life, Sam Bailey has played fast and loose with the miracle of his immortality—and has been discovered for his secret more than once. Letting that secret out has always led to torture and loss. You can imagine. People do not tolerate that which they don’t understand, and Sam has the scars to prove it. His wife and child are long dead, everything he touches has burned, and all he has left are the memories and the fears.
That’s why he’s been tracking down every piece of history, every remaining record, every last shred of proof that Sam Bailey exists. At this point, there’s only one remaining piece of evidence: an illuminated manuscript from the 16th century that has great personal significance for Sam. The Vatican put the artifact up for auction, and Sam was outbid, despite the considerable wealth he’s amassed over the years. All he knows about the buyer is that the manuscript was shipped to a PO Box in Boston. That’s all he’s got to work with.
The movie begins when Sam arrives in Beantown and finds himself relying on the help of a local cabbie named Max DeStefano. The last thing Sam wants is a new buddy prying into his business, and Max is not remotely prepared to accept the possibility of a man like Sam. Of course, Sam’s search for the book leads him deeper and deeper into Max’s life . . . and his quest for isolation winds up opening him up to new friends and family . . . if only he can let it happen.
This is a modern fantasy film like Interview with a Vampire or Twilight, told with the quirky intimacy of a movie like Sideways or The Station Agent. We get so close to these characters that they become interesting for who they are, instead of just playing the fantasy. That’s a big part of why we love it.
Another huge part of Sam Bailey is the people involved. This film is the “baby” of every wonderful person who has worked for the last two years to bring it to our audience; and the gratitude and pride I feel to be working with my cast and production team is the best feeling in my life.
What has been the hardest part of being an Indie filmmaker?
I’ve been developing this movie for two years, putting in at least 40 hours a week, with no pay and no definitive answer to when all my hard work will pay off. Despite that instability, I had to build a plan reliable enough to enlist the help of others and make it all worth their while. Having a boss means job security, and it means support; and those are things we’ve been slowly, systematically creating for ourselves instead.
The sheer amount of work it takes, the constant acquisition of new skills to solve problems we never expected to have; and the stress of balancing the well-being of my people with the immediate needs of the film are all exhausting, maddening forces. To stay on top of my game, I’ve had to take up meditation and martial arts. Without some actual professional training in relaxation techniques, I’d have folded by now. So let that be a lesson!
What are some of the highs?
Wow! First of all, I’m doing things nobody has done before. These stories I’m telling reveal worlds nobody has ever seen, and that’s why I’m attracted to genre. At the same time, having a story that’s truthful and intimate allows me to open my actors up and show them things about themselves they never expected to see. Those moments are like a drug for me.
Another big high is the people I work with. My cast and production team are my family. I love them. Together, we’re building a future where our creative lives are always challenging and fun, and where our long-term security is provided for. When the work I do leads my actors and collaborators to fulfillment, I feel enormous amounts of pride and delight. Taking care of the people I love makes me feel exalted.
Lastly, I love telling stories.
What is your background (education, awards, projects you have worked on)?
Before high school, my overachievements were academic, and easily awarded. Then I got into theater. I more or less lived in the theater department at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, and my proper theatrical training was at UMASS Amherst.
Since then, my interests have been a little too off the beaten track to be widely noticed or metered. I wrote some role-playing games. I managed a leading neuroscience laboratory. I put myself through college doing roadhouse lighting design for some of music’s top acts, from Nickelback to P-Funk. Then, I wound up financing independent films.
My first screenplay sale was produced as the upcoming horror film XII, from Unified Pictures. Last year, I directed a play to properly inaugurate the cast of our ensemble. Gerard Marzilli produced and starred in the play, and he’s done more for Sam Bailey than anyone will ever know. Making that play with my actors was a big deal for me.
My agent, Katarina Garcia, has embraced everything we’re doing and shone an incredible light on us. The day I was able to turn to my actors and ask them, “Who wants representation?” that was the first big reward for all their hard work; and I don’t think they have any idea how much it meant to me to be able to offer that.
Shooting with my DP, Johnny Derango, for the first time . . . that was one of the happiest days of my life. We made a science fiction film in the middle of the Mojave Desert called Farther, and we pretty much drove everyone else on the set crazy.
When I was able to tell my cast and crew that I knew how we were getting Sam Bailey into theaters that was a big day. Ask Dave McCallum, another one of my 8 Sided actors. He saw me cry like a baby that night.
Right now, we’re getting a lot of attention. Sometime soon, we won’t be—and then we will, and then we won’t. Then we will. That’s how it goes. Knowing that folks are paying attention is wonderful, and awards certainly communicate that to us. But there’s more than one way to let our audience know we’re working for them. What matters is my people, the frontiers we break, and the stories we tell.
What advice could you give a filmmaker who is trying to produce his or her own film?
Remember that this is a collaborative art form. Make the entire process your business. Be your own producer. What I’m saying is this: If you turn a blind eye towards the money, you can’t take care of your people. If you think that someone else can manage those details, then not only are you putting yourself in a position where someone else is green-lighting your film, you’re also letting someone else cement the relationships, financial and otherwise, among your production team and cast. Those relationships are the most influential force in determining what film you actually wind up with.
Be the architect of your film’s financial and creative nursery. Then, once you’ve built those relationships and set things in motion, let go of your vision. Let those relationships evolve and grow, and your film will become something better than whatever it was you originally had in mind.
Own every mistake, and learn from them.
Lastly, remember that the audience is a part of the film. Include them.
Any tips regarding finance? I understand that is your background.
Money is the easiest thing in the world to get, because money is the only thing that can be traded for anything else. If you’re having trouble getting into conversations about money, there’s a very good chance that the project you are pitching is simply not as valuable as the money you are asking for. Keep working, and hone your craft. That’s where the value comes from.
When it comes to honestly assessing the value of your project, remember that nobody cares about your potential. How much would you pay for a television that MIGHT turn on?
Instead, focus on what PROBABLY WILL happen. A great business plan demands the potential for great reward, combined with the thorough mitigation of risk. Why do you think I’ve spent the last two years of my life building an audience for my film? Investors like my projects because while luck can make Sam Bailey into a hit, my preparation all but assures them of making a reasonable return on their investment.
Taking care of your investors means doing likewise. Do not rely on their passion for film, or their excitement regarding your potential. And never, NEVER cast their children!
How would you describe your style of filmmaking? What contributes to its uniqueness?
I really need that element of science fiction, fantasy, or paranormal activity. That’s what keeps me guessing about what’s just around the corner. Once you sense that the world you’re seeing is different from the world we know, all bets are off.
At the same time, the people who live in these worlds are the most important thing about them. Whether it’s because I find them funny, scary, sexy, or admirable in any given moment, I’m obsessed with learning things about them that nobody else would think to look for. That obsession keeps me honest, in the end. When I write an action sequence, the scale of that sequence is limited by how much it’s going to teach me about the characters.
Let’s hope I hang onto that, shall we?
Visit http://www.8sidedfilms.com/Farther.mov to watch one of Tennyson’s films.