“I’m Gonna Shout Action—When I Do, Just Be in Love”: An interview with Stephen Cone

When I was a babier man, in September of 2020, my ‘Chicago friend’ (*he lived there once), Curt, introduced me to Stephen Cone’s film, The Wise Kids (2011). In order to weather being alive in 2020, Curt and Ray and Jake and Kayla and sometimes Jackie and always me would watch a movie a week, in our own homes, on our own screens. Then we would come together on Thursday nights through the magic of 21st Century video call software. This was not only a space of necessary connection amid the quotidian devastation happening outside our screens, it was also a great place to say things like “I love you so so much but you’re being an absolute moron about this like I cannot believe you still like Chicago (2002) in 2020.” What else can I say? Thursday nights (and Chicago…) kept me alive. 

The Wise Kids became, and remains, a movie in unique conversation with social-artistic spaces like Thursday Movie Club, like a film magazine. It’s about making art and a life, about how these practices are separate but related. It’s about the complete liberation that a song can provide. A week after Wise Kids night, and still dazed by Cone’ seemingly-magic ability to extend a pure perspective of attention to every character in the film’s wide frame of humanity, we watched Princess Cyd (2017), an ode to Chicago’s Lincoln Square, to the pure possibilities of pleasure poetic and biological. Between the two, I watched Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015), a leaner, meaner ocelot than these other films, but no less attuned to the way lies and lives pressurize and decompress in equal measure our grand ensemble of living.

The films continue their remarkable resonance: in mid-November of 2023, just as the seasonal chill settled onto Queens’ street corners, The Wise Kids and Princess Cyd screened at the Museum of the Moving Image, programmed as part of  Reverse Shot at 20: Selections From a Century’. On the Thursday before that mini-retrospective, I spoke to Stephen Cone via video chat about film- and self-criticism, preserving pleasure in cinema, and finding an artistic home in Chicago. It was, thankfully, graciously, just another Thursday Movie Club. 

Are you going to watch The Wise Kids tomorrow, at the screening?

I don’t know if I’m going to. It’s almost too close. It’s like if you’re about to delve into a box of photos or old writing or even call a family member? You have to give yourself a pep talk. And the experience of watching it is so inseparable from the experience of making it, that it’s almost something you wanna save for when you really need it.

And so I have to be really careful about when I watch it because it can be such a balm. Watching it is an experience I like to preserve. And I don’t know if Saturday will be one of those moments. The production office was my parents’ dining room in Charleston and we made that movie for less than $100,000. And, it really was a “let’s put on a show” experience. And it was so many people’s first movie. My production designer [Caity Birmingham] and assistant director [Laura Klein] will be there on Saturday. I mean, that was my assistant director’s first movie and she just did Janet Planet, and my production designer just did all three seasons of Joe Pera and a Documentary Now season, has worked for Gregg Araki. And it was their first movie. It was really special.

Did it feel like that was gonna happen? Or that could even be possible? That feeling of like, we can make this movie and then we could make more stuff? 

It was the most in-the-moment experience. Laura says she knew it would be the most special time she’d ever have. I think a lot of people saw it as, “oh, we’re kind of making that golden summer here.” We were all in our late 20’s, early 30’s. But in our memories, it really is more akin to like, being 18 at camp. I don’t think we realized how young we were, you know?

Yeah, what was it like to be working with kids on that too?

Well, I was only ten years older than the kids. The little kids in that movie are the age of the wise kids now. And the wise kids are in their early 30s now, which is wild. At that point, I’d made a couple of shorts and a couple of medium-length features that didn’t get into many festivals. And so, I’m in the position of having this tiny movie—which was technically my third feature—be widely-perceived as my debut.

But that came after four years of me putting myself through my own film school. It was just a lot of festival rejections, and movies that tonally weren’t landing. It was a problem, how I was influenced by my theater degree, my influence doing and writing plays—they were so talky. I didn’t know how to go from theater major-Stephen to filmmaker-Stephen. I just wrote what I think is the best thing I’ve ever written. And yet, I’m like, Why are you just doing this now? I don’t know: I’m really grateful for the long game that has been thrust upon me by the cosmos. And if I wasn’t quite as confident in the actual movie-making portion, I was a confident presence with other artists.

You mentioned “your own film school,” was there a discrepancy between what you were watching, what you loved, and what you were making in these early films?

From shot to shot, nothing was wrong. I was too confident in some ways that were only revealed to me when I would watch the thing in its entirety and realize I was putting these scenes together like someone who “knows how to make movies”, but a sort of cumulative thing—of unity and tone and not overwriting—wasn’t there. They’re a little bit overwritten. And I had already seen Claire Denis and Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, and I knew that stuff. Like, I knew that. And I wasn’t doing it. I was just putting scenes on camera, you know?

Do you think something changed on the Wise Kids, in terms of collaboration? Did it all just sort of catch up?

I think in my 20s, my cinephilia got the better of me. I was a little bit of a snob about just doing, like, intimate character studies. I was obsessed with Arnaud Desplechin, Assayas. And I wanted to do these wild messy things, but you can’t force that. And so that’s how I ended up with the movies that didn’t do well. And then… Wise Kids.

I can take this directly back to Reverse Shot actually. You know those videos they used to do with filmmakers? There was one with Assayas and he was talking about how he stopped worrying about influence because he realized no matter what you were influenced by, it’s going to be filtered through your own sensibility. If you’d have said to me at the time, maybe you should just make something close to home, something about your upbringing as a preacher’s kid, I’d have been like, that’s so boring. But seeing that video helped me understand that it was going to be my own, regardless. It’s gonna have its own tone dictated by being filtered through my person. And in that sense, understanding that I could tell a straightforward story and it would still be unique, it was important.

I’m apprehensive to make artist characters avatars for the artists who write them, but near the end of Princess Cyd, an interviewer asks Miranda where she gets her story ideas from. And she says, “each one of them is me re-formed.”

I just had to get through that one movie. It’s hard to talk about it, not knowing what phase I’m entering. I’m proud of this movie called Black Box (2013) that didn’t really get a real release. Most people think of this trio of Wise Kids, and Henry Gamble, and Cyd—there’s also this secret fourth one in there that no one has seen. But if you think about those: church kids, college theater majors, sort of pan or queer Chicagoans. At a certain point, you know what you’re obsessed with and you realize that the ideas that are lingering have qualities that obsess you. And so those are the ones you tend to latch onto.

I was just reading an Ebert interview yesterday where you say you hadn’t planned on all those specific story details, in Wise Kids? That some parts of it—the closeted minister, the character of the gay teen—came out in the doing of it.

The flip side of cinephilia slowing you down is that your indecisiveness can be your strength. In some of those cases, my interest in mess allowed me to not make a decision about who the movie was about, and work that to my advantage. This circles back to this new thing that I just wrote, which in many ways is the first intentional ensemble movie.

If you don’t like these movies, you could accuse me of having a little too much chutzpah or being a little overconfident in my ability to raise funds to make whatever I want to make. And you could say “the problem with Stephen being his own boss for these early movies is that there was no one there to say ‘Do another draft.’” But I think for the most part, some of these movies are better for my having decided to pull the trigger prematurely. 

Maybe that’s part of the theater of it? Finding things in the delivery?

Yeah, for Wise Kids it was going to be about two girls. I was really thinking about Nénette and Boni (1996), the Denis film: what if it’s two girls and they’re just spiritually moving apart? That was the initial idea. And this goes back to the discipline that allows you to be like, okay, I see a unified whole versus ‘let’s see what I want to do tomorrow’—maybe if I’d stuck to the original idea, maybe it’d have remained that way and maybe it would have been more successful because it would have been a tonally coherent movie about two girls. I would have set aside any pretensions I had about not wanting to make some straightforward indie. And it would have maybe been successful. But what you have in the finished movie is essentially a second draft. I like that.

Totally. And maybe in the same way that by doing it, ideas eventually come out—does it seem like Cyd is that movie about two women in different spiritual places?

Well, the corollary here is that each first assembly of these movies got significantly shorter. The first cut of Wise Kids was two and a half hours. The first cut of Henry Gamble was shorter, and the first cut of Princess Cyd was 14 minutes longer. That was me getting to a point where I was interested in bringing my excitement about form into a more thoughtful and disciplined place. But with Henry Gamble, it all kind of went haywire again. You can see me—you can see the writer—in all of those movies, not being willing to do certain things, for better and for worse.

It’s curious that you’re making an intentionally ensemble-forward movie now, because Wise Kids and definitely Henry Gamble feel that way. But in Cyd, you have those two-person scenes shot wide, and then the camera very slowly pushes in, versus the more kinetic shots in Henry Gamble.

This might be putting it a little crudely, but I think my understanding of style has caught up with my confidence a little bit. And so I can be on more sure-footed ground in terms of playing with it. But I will say that the shot lists for Henry Gamble and Cyd were done very quickly, very intuitively. And for whatever else might be a weakness of mine, one thing that I’m able to do at this point is basically tell you how everything’s going to go. So it’s probably 75% planned. The confidence I’ve always had with actors has sort of spread to other places.

And I should say, I’m jumping the gun on talking about that ensemble project, because this thing follows another new movie that has a single protagonist. I’m sort of jumping to what’s on my computer right now, it’s not necessarily what I’m trying to make at the moment.

How do you see the movement between characters in Henry Gamble? It feels a little like a spillover from The Wise Kids’ shifting perspectives.

On Henry Gamble, I was more sure it was going to be about a bunch of people. But on Wise Kids, I didn’t know if the lead was Brea, who I now ultimately think it is. She’s sort of my surrogate. But making Wise Kids, I was never 100% sure who it was. This is probably too academic, but I think I eventually figured out that the whole point of the title is that Austin and Elizabeth are also kids. As long as one of those five people is in a scene, we can include it. That was a principle that I’d forgotten about. And then with Henry, it was honestly, what would an R-rated Wise Kids be like? I wanted to do something a little cruder.

That moment when they’re laying on the hammock and Christine says to Logan “we’re gonna get out of this,” is so recognizable, that trapped in a certain suburbs feeling. But also the sense that art is a real out? Henry has a podcast, he’s sort of a music critic. And they all watch movies together—does Christine gives Henry a DVD of Kaboom (2010) as a present?

Yeah, Caity Birmingham, my production designer, had worked with Gregg, she was able to just email him and get permission. I watched Doom Generation (1995) with my high school secularists. The code for non-church people in Henry Gamble was “secularists.” And with my secularists, I watched Blue Velvet (1986), and I watched Clerks (1994) and Beautiful Thing (1996), all the late-nineties slashers. Actually, the other day in a script I was going to have a kid be an artist and I thought, no. Because the movie’s already doing the job of the journey. It’s hard to explain without trying to talk about it, but you do have to ask yourself: if it’s the job of the narrative to humanize someone, do you really need to make them an artist in order to double down on that? Maybe a lesson I’ve learned late, but it is true. Tim’s going to film school [in The Wise Kids]. Art’s where I seek salvation.

I feel like whenever pleasure or appetite enter the picture, Henry Gamble enters a mode of exaltation? That scene of the kids standing around the hot dogs and hamburgers gets this lush choir underscore. There’s moments of pure pleasure trying to come out.

You’re bringing back memories, bringing back things that were indeed part of the plan. And part of that movie was the building blocks from my memory. I was a preacher’s kid in South Carolina going to church three times a week. But nothing felt as intensely powerful as Top 40. So I’d go to church and then I would come home and listen to whatever made the Top 9 at 9. And that would be some gonzo list that included The Gin Blossoms, Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins, Ace of Base, Crash Test Dummies—this is like mid-nineties Top 40. And I was too young to realize, oh, this is how I’m supposed to be feeling at church. This sense of excitement.

But being in chorus, and coming into my own as a queer person as a senior in high school, leading a Bible study at the same time, having my chorus teacher introduce me to 14th and 15th Century choral music…suddenly it’s pop music and movies you’re finally allowed to see and renaissance choral music and kind of hanging on to faith and being attracted to guys all happening at the same time. So really, when we go back to obsessions, you could say the horniness of Henry Gamble comes from all that. Just wanting to make something more sensual, that captures more of the sensual experience of that time, different than Wise Kids does.

It’s amazing when his mom puts the third mixtape on? The music gives the film permission to enter another gear of pleasure-seeking. And that’s when the dancing on the grass starts and we get this alternative glimpse into what these peoples’ lives could be like.

I like that movie. For whatever reason, it’s the most divisive of them. When it first came out, I would talk to people who would say, I like Henry Gamble, but I love The Wise Kids. It could be the depiction of self-harm. The movie is having a great time and then it throws self-mutilation in your face.

I thought about Our Town watching it this time, all these stories under a unified dramatic horizon. And there’s this Simon Stimpson character who unsettles it, this tension and desire to pull it back to order. And the house of it all! The role that kind of house and that kind of suburban space play in the oppressive order.

That was an accidental thing. We couldn’t find a location, so we changed the whole movie. In my life, certainly in South Carolina, no one with a minister’s salary would have lived in that house. I didn’t grow up in the sort of mega church era. So we were looking for a small, single story, maybe two-story brick home that a family would buy for $200,000. But we discovered that there aren’t as many in-ground pools in the Midwest as there are in the South. And in the Midwest, in-ground pools are a little bit more a sign of luxury and privilege. And I wanted an in-ground pool, so we ended up at that McMansion, which brought issues of class into the movie that weren’t in the script. 

I feel like the location is similarly sculpting in Princess Cyd? The first time I watched it, I was just overwhelmed by this highly unmediated, highly uncritical: “oh, I move to Chicago?”

I’m Southern, through and through. I moved to New York out of college and it was way too much for me. And just too intense, it stressed me out. So I went to find a cultural center that’s a little bit less noisy. And that’s what got me to Chicago, ultimately. It’s more affordable, there’s trees and things. I’m in a normal neighborhood. You can hear crickets. And that was it, that was it. And then before I knew it, I’d been here 18 years. But living in a kind of relatively normal village-type neighborhood in a city like Chicago that’s relatively affordable sort of strengthens the belief that you could just go out and make something. I feel like on the coasts, people often think about what series of things need to happen in order for them to begin to think about pursuing this project. And here, you can just say you’re going to make a movie in three months.

I’m trying to be patient and wait to scale up, work with real producers, which takes forever. But the thing that keeps me from panicking, that keeps me optimistic, is that at any point I can go back to my old ways and continue to make things. And so I’m willing to give it another little while.

The camera has such an affection for Lincoln Square, in Princess Cyd.

That’s another movie where original intention went by the wayside. The whole story of Cyd is wild: it was literally conceived in June and shot at the end of August. And I’d had this idea for a while, a sort of author and a relative moving in but in a chillier vein, like Swimming Pool (2003). But there was no money so I just decided to think up a movie to shoot in two months. And I thought I’d just do the story in Chicago and flip the tone and it’ll just be a big party. And I gave myself permission to flip the script on the kind of repressed evangelical stuff from the other movies and make a big liberal utopian thing. But again, it’s obsessions, it’s just bodies in a single space, which is basically what all these movies are.

I feel like Cyd’s idea of “laying out”, which has almost this metaphysical phrasing, is so alluring, so utopian, but it’s also this space that’s similar to the pool in Henry Gamble. It’s when and where you let your body do certain things, what clothing you do or don’t wear. That scene where Miranda puts sunscreen on Cyd’s back is just such a…I don’t even know if the characters really know what that moment is.

Or the author! It’s someone who lives in a different place, being forced to directly confront a body in an intimate way that they’re not used to. And that’s the whole point of the movie. I guess the whole point of the movie is in that scene. It’s a movie about Miranda rubbing lotion on Cyd. 

And I think what’s so impactful about the soiree scene is getting to be behind the pure pleasure the camera takes in watching these actors read this amazing poetry and give each other pleasure? That goes back to Henry Gamble maybe—we don’t give ourselves permission to just enjoy watching pleasurable things.

I think this is a thing that will not change in whatever I’m lucky enough to make in the future: a constant prioritizing of the pleasure principle. In some ways, it’s why I’m not the primary audience for contemporary American independent film. There’s a sort of gritty American naturalism that lacks an engagement with desire. I lament the moving away from sensual pleasures in cinema. So the ideas that tend to survive in my mind are the ones most conducive to that mode of movie.  

But to me, the juggling act is that for whatever reason, I also tend to make movies about good people. They’re sweet and warm, but how do I get some exploitation in there? Maybe that’s what my aesthetic is, a sort of wholesome exploitation quality.

That moment in Princess Cyd when they’re on the rooftop and the camera crew from across the rooftop shouts, “I’m gonna shout action—when I do, just be in love.”

Yeah, I look forward to more opportunities to bring pleasure back into the equation. At the end of the day, it’s not hard to know where all this came from. If you’re a horny preacher’s kid in the South, what else are you going to grow up and make? Movies in which bodies and desire are stand-ins for classic notions of grace and salvation.

Okay, I have to check in on a Chicago guy. I want to ask you about Robert Zemeckis because you said on Twitter “ask me about Robert Zemeckis at your own risk.” 

I’m so proud of what I said there. It’s a strange case because his sensibility is not a natural fit for me. I’m a Malick head. Terence Davies meant the world to me. And yet, I think what’s happening is that as the years go on, American popular artists like Zemeckis are looking to technology to express what American artists have been trying to express in various forms for 200 years. They’re urgently and passionately trying to to command the maximum expressive potential from this form, which I find as moving as what Emerson or Whitman was doing. They’re using these very expensive machines to do essentially what poets in the 19th Century were doing. The courage of Ang Lee to do what he tried to do with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)…give me that. All these other award-winning things will just fade.

That run of oughts animations, Polar Express (2006) and Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009) feel like such opportunities to rethink concepts of what “works” and “doesn’t work”, what failing in art means, what it might mean.

A lot of this feeling goes back to discovering Dave Kehr and even Armond White in his late 90s, early 2000s peak, discovering those critics, reading Armond White’s Mission to Mars review. “Any reviewer who pans Mission to Mars does not understand movies, let alone like them.” I remember being so excited by this notion that this movie that was getting terrible reviews was being written about as if it was like a Tchaikovsky symphony. So what do we think of as good? Is what we think of as good something that is palatable and naturalistic? That’s why, to my dying day, I’ll defend the art of criticism as being a thing that can take you out of your comfort zone. Because that was when I realized that a movie can be good without feeling right. That it can try—like my early movies—to sort of experiment itself into sort of being. Maybe they just didn’t want to give you a naturalistic performance. Maybe that’s not the thing here.

It’s easy to feel despondent about criticism these days, but then you read those old reviews, read Reverse Shot, and it’s like, oh, okay.

Michael didn’t even tell me ten years ago that he was reviewing The Wise Kids! And I’ll never forget that day. I sat down to check Reverse Shot. And it had taken me a while to even get going. Imagine what reading a Michael Koresky review of your movie could do, especially for my half-defeated spirit back then. Having them champion the work so many years after it came out, and repeatedly champion it, is like putting gas in the car.  

Those moments with criticism are trailheads. It was Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Run (1988) review for me. Sort of what you described early, an artist letting themselves experiment, this is how I feel like doing it today.

The only fan letters I’ve ever written to anyone were Armond White, who didn’t respond, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who I believe did. And I wrote those letters when I was 22.

Do you remember what Rosenbaum said?

No, and that was my AOL account, so it’s gone forever. But I met him later and told him and he wasn’t at all impressed.

 

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]