Stephen Cone, Unexpected Humanist

An under-the-radar American director gets a much deserved retrospective that accompanies the release of his new film, "Princess Cyd".
Elissa Suh

Princess Cyd

Stephen Cone has been making movies at a steady clip for over a decade and yet remains largely unknown. It is a momentous and wholly deserved occasion then for him to receive a retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Despite mixed receptions and even more erratic distribution patterns, his collection of films isn’t as motley as one might think.  While each might tiptoe in a different direction, they maintain a hand in the Stephen Cone universe, imprinted by the same particular humanistic insight. In one of his earliest films, In Memoriam (2011), a young man so subsumed with the sudden death of a couple, fallen from a roof during the throes of pleasure, conducts his own investigation into their ill-fated demise. Innocuous curiosity masks what is essentially an existential inquiry and takes a self-referential pivot when he decides to recreate and film the events, an apt summary of what Cone himself does: broach larger questions under the guise of something lighthearted.  The Wise Kids (2011) captures three church-going high school seniors at a moment of transition when their world starts to evince cracks. A disquiet seeps in amid the bright angelic lighting as the story radiates outward to include the acquaintances and adults around them, also wrestling with doubts and questions of their own. This construction, intimate and far-reaching, also takes shape in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015), which confines its action to the celebratory day, a poolside fete, for a 17-year-old preacher’s son who might be gay. Replacing the French countryside with the American suburbs, this Rules of the Game-like endeavor is by turns ebullient and serious, punctured with tumultuous emotions that rumble beneath the surface. Cone’s latest film, Princess Cyd, now playing in New York, centers on the clash between Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), a teenage girl exploring her sexuality, and her bookish aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). It steps into an idyllic Chicago summer where intellectualism, spirituality, and sexuality, none of which is mutually exclusive, collide.  Earlier this year, I described it as the movie equivalent of finally receiving that long-awaited embrace from a family member; a good thing. After talking at length with Cone, I realize now that the comment may have been at best a mild puzzlement; the tenderness implied in my observation is to him a casual quality, an off-hand byproduct not as immediately recognized or perhaps not with as much zeal as the peers, fans, and critics who refer to his work. I spoke to Cone about this dissonance between the reception and creation of his films, his influences, and much more.

NOTEBOOK: Cyd isn’t as enmeshed in religion as many of the characters in your previous films who grew up in the church. In fact, religion has gone from the foreground to the background here. Could you talk about that shift?

STEPHEN CONE: This particular film doesn’t take place in the south, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t liberal meccas all over the south, but certainly being able to tell this story in Chicago about an open minded, academic, literary novelist and having Cyd integrate into this world was a kind of vacation for me to get away from those philosophically restricted communities. It’s a vacation for Cyd, and it’s sort of a vacation for me. Let’s go to this part of the United States and see what we can uncover over here.

But that doesn’t mean this narrative, or even these cities, are without their own repressive qualities. Miranda is a freethinker, open and firm in her interests, but who knows why she’s resisting romance in her life at that moment. She has embraced a more liberal, open form of Christianity that I wish I’d had more of a chance to articulate; that’s one of my regrets.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve directed a lot of ensemble work. How did you come to this story, a more tightly focused narrative of Cyd and Miranda?

CONE: It started with my love for the author Marilynne Robinson. I had the story of a teenage niece with the polar opposite sensibility and I wondered what that dynamic would be like. In an earlier mental picture, it had a totally different tone: darker, moodier, and less verbal. Maybe in the dark mountains of Tennessee.

Up until mid-June of last year I was prepping this other much larger budgeted movie until I came to my senses. I was rushing this project that’s supposedly my first non-micro-budget film, but the script didn’t seem ready, and I pushed that into the future, and pulled this idea out, what became Princess Cyd, instead. I was inspired by this beautiful summer we were having in Chicago, and kept the premise, but changed the tone, making it a love letter to the city. This idea of two women in a house was transformed into an open-air summer’s tale. The tonal shift happened in a matter of weeks, coming together really fast.

There are two central leads, but much like in [The] Wise Kids [2011] or Henry Gamble, I start by thinking about a few of people, and look for every opportunity I can to shove in as many more people as possible. In that sense, ensemble film became a specialty for me in a backwards route. I stumbled into it. I wasn’t sure if I would be as interested in making Princess Cyd if I wasn’t interested in Miranda, the people around her, and in Chicago—its open, humane society. It’s not a utopia by any means, but this sense of friends and social circles outside the realm of American evangelicalism. I used to think that wasn’t a word but now I hear journalists say it.

NOTEBOOK: Evangelicalism seems like a catchall that some people use for all types of Christians. Do you ever have qualms of it describing your work?

CONE: It’s a catchall term yet one I hardly ever use. No, I’m aware that my films that have risen to the top or are more known are the ones that are about that. But, one thing I’ve discovered is that is I consistently make films that when I see the synopsis written by someone else, I would not be interested in seeing it. I have no deep abiding interest in coming-of-age films, and yet, it seems like I’ve made a series of those films. It’s interesting how what you’re passionate about making is not what you’re passionate about watching. I’ll watch and love movies in that category of coming-of-age indie, of course, but in general, if you had told pre-moviemaking Stephen that he would be known in the early part of his career for films about teenagers finding themselves, I would be surprised to know that’s where I went. I guess I’m more interested in teens subconsciously than I’m aware of.  

NOTEBOOK: One of the reasons perhaps that your films excel is precisely because you’re not watching them and you’re not aware of the tropes.

CONE: Yes! If you gave me a pop quiz on the coming-of-age clichés, I’m not sure that I’d know them.

NOTEBOOK: Your film avoids the clichés enough so that I think they don’t necessarily have to be categorized as a coming-of-age film. They don’t fit so neatly into a category.

CONE: I think if more people knew that, then more people would watch them. There are people on Twitter and in real life social circles, no one specifically, with whom there’s a lot of mutual respect, who are interested in what I’m doing, but haven’t caught up with the actual films yet, and I think it’s because they see how many times I’ve retweeted someone categorizing it as a sweet coming-of-age movie. That’s the other thing: the words used to describe my film, are not words I ever expected to be connected with it. “Warm, lovely humanism.” “Sweet.” Again, if I heard this about other films, I’d say that sounds nice, but I’ll get to this much, much later, after my priorities. It just seems that you are what you are, and it’s so surprising to get an outsider’s point of view. I can only hope there’s something there beyond nice. The Village Voice review came out that was very much mixed and essentially said this movie is, for better and for worse, as light as a feather. That was the headline.

NOTEBOOK: Sweet doesn’t have to be synonymous with slight.

CONE: People loved Princess Cyd and for different reasons, but this person found it slight and forgettable and it makes me wonder about career context. How important it should be. Like, if the reviewer had seen Henry Gamble, would they felt the same way?  It’s like a musician who plays folk music or electronica for ten years and then they try their hand at classical or something else. Context isn’t the ultimate thing, but it is important. Now I want to contradict myself. Maybe the movie should just be the thing. I’m just curious if people who find this slight would find that in the context of my other films.

NOTEBOOK: I do think there’s an importance to be placed on knowing a director’s whole body of work. Also, no one wants to be called nice. So how would you describe your films?

CONE: There’s an earnestness that people find distinct, but I can’t see it, because I wrote it. I discern it to a small extent. There was another review that called it aggressively sweet. This way in which my movies are described as going out of their way to be compassionate, kind, loving. I feel like people see that as an overarching quality, but I’m not consciously putting it in. It’s almost like making a dish, and you’re really proud of this one spice you added, but people keep commenting on the cinnamon or something. But they still like it, so you can’t complain. “But what I think is unique is so and so.”

A lot of what we’re getting at, too, is really the problem of being a cinephile and filmmaker. It’s been problematic for me, not in a way that I regret, but being aware of influences, and how perception is formed. It’s a challenge to keep blinders on, make what you make without thinking about A: who’s influencing you; B: how’s it going to be received; C: being compared to other directors.  To my credit, when I’m making the movie, I’m good at ignoring it, but when it’s out there, it’s hard not to get paranoid about the film’s context in film culture and critical culture.  I’m starting to understand why directors are leaving social media because it can get complicated.

NOTEBOOK: That tender humanist approach that you mention is also used to describe the work of Marilynne Robinson, who also portrays Christian characters in her books. I think that this depiction is even more rare on screen, excepting Biblical epics and niche Christian films, or explicitly spiritual films about men of the cloak. Was it always your intent to incorporate Christianity as a backdrop?

CONE: I want this answer to be more interesting than it is. It really did start from an autobiographical impulse and, I’m guessing, a void in the culture where Christians weren’t portrayed as thinking, feeling, yearning people. That’s where it started. And having a tremendous amount of sympathy for 16-18 year olds in that world, which is where The Wise Kids came from. Just thinking about smart girls questioning. That’s where that movie started. It didn’t even start with the gay stuff. It started with the idea of a preacher’s daughter losing her faith and her friend who stayed firm, and opening out into a community, sort of out of indecision on my part.  It’s a combination of concern for the issues of being trapped in that world, but specifically being young, thinking, and trapped. I wanted to humanize the world I grew up in, but not on any big, tall, platform, but just like if I’d grown up in a family of Buddhist monks, or firefighters, I would be making movies about those things.

NOTEBOOK:  Write what you know, as they say. Most depictions of church often seem written by people who seem to have never stepped inside of one.

CONE: That’s another thing I can’t really be conscious of. It’s just there. For me to do it any other way would feel forced. And that’s the dilemma I run into. Occasionally people will claim that I should go deeper, that I seem to be shying away from more violent emotions. I do think that’s a valid criticism. But when is it a valid criticism and when should a moment just be filled with grace? How to decide when to be graceful and when to be violent is a question I hope to be better at answering in the future. When I’ve attempted to integrate violence and intensity, for instance the self-mutilation in Henry Gamble or even the scene of potential sexual assault in PrincessCyd, I don’t know that I’ve succeeded at integrating these sorts of confrontations. I hope I can get better at that and that my own education will unfold in an organic way.

NOTEBOOK: You consistently get great performances out of your cast. Could you talk a little about how you work with actors?

CONE: For me it’s just casting really skilled actors, whether they’re new or not. You haven’t seen a performance in one of my films that I really had to fight to get. These actors know they’re being cast in a movie that’s being put together in a relatively short amount of time and they have to show up and just do it. I’ll have maybe one phone conversation with them where I’m going to give them two or three general thoughts, and say, “I’m going to trust you to carry this.” There’s not a ton of on-set conversation. There’s respect, kindness. I’ll nudge them one way or another, but for the most part they feel like someone’s trusting them to do the job, and they don’t feel like they can fail, and then they really nail it.

NOTEBOOK: You act and have appeared in your own films as well. Is that your background?

CONE: Background in the sense of that’s what you did in undergrad. I was an actor and did performing arts in high school and theater and a film minor in college. A lot of acting in college. I was the undergrad who got the roles and got to play with the graduate students. I was that guy.  Afterwards, I quickly lost interest in the life of an actor, and was reaching back into my years of being a nerdy cinephile kid. After college, I didn’t know what to do because I lost my motivation to be an actor very fast. Dabbled a little bit in playwriting and in 2005 I made my first short film without any formal film instruction. I teach a couple classes at Northwestern [University] in the film department, but I’ve never taken a filmmaking class. I just started educating myself. I act every now and then, but mostly I’ve just been trying to get better as a filmmaker.

You’re one of the few people on planet earth who have seen all those movies. Really, there’s very few people who have seen all of my movies. And that’s because starting in 2005, I made one movie per year without knowing anything about what I was doing, feeling overwhelmed by influences, feeling like I was failing, and maybe getting one review that encouraged me to be better, so by the time I hit Wise Kids, I had like 3-4 years of relatively unsuccessful shorts and features. Why did it take me five years to learn to tell a story? I think that’s because I was a little too ambitious and trying to put everything into everything. I was resistant to modesty and small goals and as a result I piled all of these narrative threads into these projects that I had no business doing. With Wise Kids, I finally said, “Will you just stop and tell a simple story and not be scared of it?” I think I was scared that if I told a simple autobiographical story, it wouldn’t be special. I was running from it those first few years.

I kept going, but it’s taken me a long time. I feel like I’ve learned very slowly. There are duds in there, from my point of view. If you drew a diagram of how my movies have played, how often and where, it would look like the wildest mountain range in the world. There has not been any discernible slope in my career.

NOTEBOOK: From what you have produced, there is something that speaks to who you are as a director in your body of work, and who you’re turning out to be as you progress.It’s not slow in the long run—that is, if you keep making movies.

CONE: A lot of it is seeing a lot of filmmakers making their first time films. You know, we live in a culture that celebrates the discovery, and the first time filmmaker. I’ve seen these polished projects come out of people, and I didn’t have that. And I don’t regret it. In fact, I see the last twelve years as that instead of a single film it’s just a long unwieldy first chapter. In many ways, I see this little collection of films as that dazzling first time film. But it’s been lonely. Over the last few years I’ve come to truly love how things have gone for my recent films, but it’s been lonely. I don’t have many filmmakers I can look to and say it also took them a decade to get kicked into gear. The only filmmaker I ever reference in any way, even though he’s not that similar, is Sean Baker. And that’s because he had a few features before Starlet and they premiered at oddball regional festivals. He’s someone who for whom it took a few films before it clicked. And he’s older than people think. There have been very few people like that that I’ve been able to look to for inspiration. It’s been hard to sustain the emotional strength to keep going.

NOTEBOOK: The LGBTQ community has had a positive reaction to your films. Do you find that your films are better known there?

CONE: I think that was true for Wise Kids and Henry Gamble, but Henry Gamble was the crossover into New Yorky mainstream film culture circles. There was a period of time where I feel like most of the New York cultural scene thought HenryGamble was my first film because it played BAMcinemaFest, and I came up out of nowhere, and no one had seen Wise Kids because it had been branded a gay film. But the films before that weren’t gay, and since then they were only partially of gay. I didn’t know what it would be like to be branded by premiering at a gay festival and that taught me a lot, but thankfully the person who ran Outfest at the time, Kim Yutani, a senior programmer at Sundance now, was able to nudge it outside the gay scene. So I’ve walked the tightrope. There is a downside of being branded an LGBT film, but at the same time the same distributor has put out all three of my higher profile films, and they’re a strictly LGBT distributor and I don’t know if these movies would be seen without them. I don’t want to be branded a queer filmmaker. I love including queerness in the narratives, but I sort of yearn for it to blend in, like with a lot of European filmmakers. André Téchiné has, like, three bisexual characters in every movie he’s made, and yet he’s not branded a gay filmmaker. It’s only in America where you get lumped into this category.

NOTEBOOK: Your characters are teenagers in that stage where they’re starting to think about what they want to do, who they want to be. You mentioned being a nerdy cinephile. What were your earliest influences that shaped you?

CONE: My obsession hearkens back to film scores. Being eight years old and obsessed with John Williams and James Horner and that whole gang. There are, like, seven phases to my cinephila and I don’t want to burden you with all of them. That’s a random number, by the way. You go through the action movie phase. I was really interested in movies in the mid-90s when the indie was prominent. I was just eating them up as a 16-year-old preacher’s kid: it was FargoThe Sweet Hereafter, BreakingtheWaves. BlueVelvet and even TheDoom Generation with friends. All the while I’m still leading Bible studies. College was discovering the 70s American. I had a friend who invited me to his screenings for his 70s film class and I saw Carrie and DogDayAfternoon and Deer Hunter. The latter portion of college was falling in love with the canon foreign filmmakers like Bergman and Dreyer. I spent a year in New York after college, and I wasn’t very happy there and I escaped into Tower Records’s DVD section where I discovered Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang. That’s when things started to open up.

The next phase the big influence was seeing Opening Night and Woman Under the Influence. That’s when there’s that annoyingly generic thing of saying the great humanists came in. I still love Denis, Tsai, Kiarostami, but what really has stuck with me are people like Renoir, Cassavetes, and Demme—even Malick and Davies. Relatively optimistic poets of cinema. Those are the people that I carry with me daily. Did that trajectory make sense at all?


CONE: One more: a formative group that influenced me profoundly. I only noticed a few years ago I was being affected by that group of Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, Patrice Chereau—that group of French filmmakers in their 50s and 60s that created these uncategorizable, often ensemble, dramas that felt wild and spontaneous like they could go in any direction at any time. I would count them alongside the humanists as influences.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of composers, I’ve noticed that music plays an important role in your films. The soundtrack, of course, but also as part of the narrative, even in small ways, like a character cueing up a playlist on an iPod, for example.

CONE:  I can’t afford a music supervisor nor would I want one. Returning to things that I didn’t really expect to be a part of my filmmaking is the amount of pop songs in them. Predicting what I was going to make, I would’ve thought something largely instrumental. But that also comes with the genre of coming of age. I love mixing, though. That’s directly from Desplechin. He gives filmmakers permission to not have consistent music styles. I like to sprinkle in classical—I’m a sucker for choral music. It’s funny that my original passions were these lush orchestral scores, because my films aren’t heavy with that.

The score that I’m proudest of is what Heather McIntosh did on Black Box [2013], which was very much a score-driven film. My entire pitch for that movie was I want this to feel like a John Hughes movie with a horror music score.Literally the origin was my love of film music. That could also account for some of the narrative lapses or fumbles.It’s a total tonal exercise and I love what Heather did with that. We both feel she did the score of a lifetime for that movie, which didn’t get any play, really.

NOTEBOOK: I love how the play the students put on seems a bit like The Exorcist.

CONE: The thing that I love about this movie, I’m just touched by the relationship of [actress] Josephine [Decker]’s character to that book. These pop culture items that we find in adolescence that are forbidden, but sometimes save our lives. They’re not even well written, but they save our lives. I’m so intrigued and moved by that. I don’t know if you can make a successful movie about it, but that movie was an attempt to celebrate trash. The redemptive power of trash. I hope I can tackle that subject matter again one day and have people actually see the film.

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