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Stephen Cone on ‘Princess Cyd,’ Film Twitter, and the Economics of Indie Filmmaking

Written by on November 3, 2017 

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Stephen Cone has the tenacity of first-time director, yet he has eight feature films and dozens of shorts to show for it. His vision for filmmaking, grit in self-fundraising, and ability to collaborate with fresh faces (like Joe Keery of Stranger Things fame) and veteran actors alike results in nimble productions with a quick turn-around.

The Film Stage’s Jose Solís reviewed Cone’s newest film Princess Cyd, which opens today in NY and Chicago, saying: “With this, Cone also continues to be one of the few directors who has chosen to contextualize faith rather than demonize it. He shows greater interest in the places where we are like each other, all while celebrating what makes us different.”

Offering a look into his still-young career, Eric Hynes, Associate Curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, programmed Talk About the Passion: Stephen Cone’s First Act, going from November 3 – 12 to celebrate their New York theatrical premiere of Princess Cyd. The First Act includes screenings of Cone’s The Wise Kids, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, In Memoriam, This Afternoon and Black Box, with cast and crew Q&As at various screenings both weekends.

We had a long conversation with Cone about his filmmaking process, Marilynne Robinson’s sex life, and learning from (and disagreeing with) Armond White.

The Film Stage: Princess Cyd respects its characters. In a banner year for ideological warfare in America, it’s nice to see people love each other even when it’s difficult.

Stephen Cone: I’m sure in Miranda’s (Rebecca Spence) soiree they don’t all have the same political views. I’m sure some people would watch that sequence and go, oh it’s a bunch of liberals or whatever. I think Miranda is an open-minded character with an open heart who allows different points of view in her sphere. This thing of respect for characters is always so interesting. There’s never a point at which I’m consciously thinking I respect these characters, to give them their due and create them in a three-dimensional way. It’s funny to me that anyone would write a character they didn’t respect. It’s funny this is considered a thing of note that I like my characters. The gentleness is not strategic, the openness, the heart. We just do what we do, we paint what we paint. But I like seeing that it’s somehow notable to make a movie like that.

I read an interview with Pedro Costa about today’s filmmaking and he said its ethos is to avenge, to revenge. I think that’s why your filmmaking stands out.

Yes. I’m glad it stands out and I’m glad people are eventually willing to showcase something like this that doesn’t necessarily have a powerhouse, in-your-face third act twist. Otherwise this movie would be sitting in my apartment. So kudos to programmers for wanting to include that sort of feeling in the mix.

Is Miranda at all based on Marilynne Robinson?

One hundred percent. I joke that this movie came about by wondering about Marilynne Robinson’s sex life. She’s so confident and so brilliant, insightful and deeply connected to spirituality and nature and science. But I often wonder, when is the last time she had sex? [Laughs.] I think she’s divorced, so she’s alone in that house. What would happen if a horny young teenage came and stayed with her? What would that physical dynamic be? What would the spiritual dynamic be? In fact, in the screenplay the character was fifteen years older than the actress who plays her. So she used to be even closer to Marilynne Robinson in age, but Rebecca is incredible and fifteen years younger than anyone who came in. It was a controversial decision in the casting office to do that because we saw so many beautiful, mid-fifties and even sixty-year-old Miranda’s. It was hard to say no to them because I know what they were thinking, of course he went with someone younger. But Rebecca understood people like Marilynne Robinson. She had a beautiful spirit about her. She just got the sensibility. She was utterly shocked to get it. She said she just came in to audition to meet me and say hi so she would be on my radar. It didn’t occur to her that I would actually cast her. She sort of ages herself from within. It’s quite remarkable. We put a little grey in her hair because she’s very early forties, but to me she comes off as fifty years old in the film. But in many ways, Cyd’s body is more weathered because of playing sports.

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Why base Miranda on Robinson?

God, her mind. I don’t see eye-to-eye with her on spirituality. She’s interestingly skeptical of science and I certainly prefer her to someone like Richard Dawkins, who’s just an awful arrogant person. But she goes a little far in her ‘we should also be skeptical of the scientists.’ I understand what she’s saying but she remains my intellectual hero. I love her thought. I love how she in her mind integrates community and spirituality. I don’t think she sees the cosmos as separate from theology. It’s this beautiful joining of world, matter and spirit.

You definitely see Robinson’s way of intermingling of spirituality, intellectualism, and sexuality in the film.

I talked about the things before that weren’t conscious, but all of this is conscious. This is the movie. Because once you start thinking about Marilynne Robinson’s sex life, it just takes you there, right? Asking yourself what is the world, what is the yard? What is she experiencing, does she see her body as separate from her soul? You know, I’m curious. Marilynne Robinson – what is the soul? I think I’m more a materialist than Marilynne Robinson. On my most spiritual days, which are few, I get caught up in the complications of evolution. When did the soul suddenly appear in our journey from neanderthal to now. That’s where it trips me up. Was there literally a day when the soul started or did our animal predecessors also have souls? The thing about Marilynne Robinson is I think she’s more conflicted than she lets on. Now we’re off the movie… but it’s always interesting to me when Marilynne Robinson criticizes Richard Dawkins for his arrogance because she has her own very healthy dose of arrogance. I don’t know many writers who write more confidently than she does. Even when she’s asking questions she’s really confident in her thoughts. But that’s also where Princess Cyd comes from. What is Miranda thinking about when she’s not dressed in a beautiful dress at a book conference?

Tyler Ross is your lead in Wise Kids, then he plays a lame boyfriend in Henry Gamble and in Cyd he plays a total sleazeball. Why are his characters devolving in your films?

He’s just someone I want to keep working with forever. I think he’s wonderful. I love what he does in Cyd, it’s really strong. I just have roles that I’m casting, I’m not thinking of him for them. I hope he’ll play a lead for me again one day. A lot of it too is how he’s aging. He’s turned into a kind of husky, masculine soul. That said, he could have played the youth minister in Henry Gamble, which is weird because it’s only three years after Wise Kids. This is making me want to see three stills of him in each film.

Richard Brody called Twitter a ‘salon’ for contemporary film discussion. What’s it like for you as a working filmmaker?

That seems to be true for cinephiles and critics but not for filmmakers. I feel like an outlier, a little bit. It’s starting to get a little complicated to be mutual Twitter friends with people who are reviewing the films. Not bad, but more complicated than when we debuted Henry. At that time, Film Twitter didn’t know about The Wise Kids. It’s like a salon, sure, but it’s also narrow in its maleness, its whiteness, its Brooklynness, so yeah. Salon is a very generous way of putting it.

He loves it.

He loves it. Nick Pinkerton hates it and he loves it.

I read that when you were learning about film, you read a lot of Armond White and received a lot of ideas about movies to watch. He has the column at Out Magazine, so have you ever wondered why he hasn’t reviewed your work?

I don’t think there’s any consistency in his decisions to watch a film. I actually don’t think he’s actively seeking out movies anymore. That’s my theory. I don’t think he watches movies with an open mind and an open heart. I say this as someone who’s been a fan: at his best he’s still great. In the 90s, people said he was a fluke. I thought then he was only ten percent the kook people said he was. Now I think he’s sixty percent. A lot of it is older age, I think. Becoming defiant, stubborn, arrogant, rebellious. I’m still a fan and certainly his prose, when he’s spelling things correctly and is naming things accurately, is still beautiful. I think there’s a lot of queer films he doesn’t review. He’s probably never heard of my movies. Maybe he will one day. God knows, with the Logan character in Henry Gamble, he would either loathe it or hate it. He used to be in my head when watching movies but I can’t take a lot of what he’s been saying. But I love when classic Armond comes out. It’s important to question these people too. There’s a way to be almost too swayed by a critic. It took me a few years to push back. He was so powerfully persuasive in his writing that it was only in the last decade that I’ve been able to push back. Sometimes a critic can be too persuasive, Pauline Kael was that way… I love that our conversation has been preoccupied with Marilynne Robinson and Armond White.

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You didn’t plan on doing Princess Cyd after Henry Gamble. How did it come together?

We could do a whole interview about it. But the long story short is I’ve been making movies for over a decade, movies for under two-hundred thousand dollars. I have no family money. I raise them entirely from dozens of individuals. There’s no magic to it. I have no single source of funding. There’s been this issue over the last couple of years that I’m so comfortable and safe in this two-hundred thousand dollar bubble. How do I expand? Because I’m entirely self-reliant. That becomes a problem eventually because if you haven’t built a wide organization of people to help you, then you end up the powerful, most connected person on your project and there’s no one to help you take the next step. I spent the first six months of last year attempting to make my first over-two-hundred thousand dollar project. The script wasn’t ready. I was stubborn. I tried to rush it. I was basically treating a half-a-million dollar project just as a smaller project. Around July 4th, I came to my senses and I had the discipline I wouldn’t have had three years ago to say, “No Stephen, don’t just force this movie with your bare hands.” And then two weeks later I lost the sense and decided to make another smaller film eight weeks from that point. I had the story in my head, but the whole thing, from conception to shooting was eight weeks. No sources of funds were available. I had to raise it in eight weeks. So basically I made a quick decision of going back to my old way of doing things because I wanted to make a movie. But I didn’t want to make a movie just to make it. I only wanted to make it if I could very quickly make something that actually was a step forward for me. I know that some people will prefer Henry, some people will prefer Cyd. I wanted to give myself the opportunity to grow. I thought I could pull it off by making the budget a little bigger while simultaneously narrowing the characters. I could give myself a canvas to focus on a couple of narratives instead of twenty at once. I needed to give myself the gift of seeing what it’s like to tell the story of a few people.

I think Princess Cyd is going to have a different life from your other films.

It’s already being more warmly received than Henry was. Wise Kids may have been as warmly received as this but no one really saw it. Everything’s been slow for me. But I’ve had prominent filmmakers who’ve said they don’t know how I do this. I want to say, I don’t know how you do that. One thing I’m trying to do is nurture some mentorships. Some with people who are younger than me!

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Would you ever do the Sundance Labs?

That’s another discussion. Because there’s such an obsession with discoveries and debuts in this country, I long became ineligible for those. They’re almost entirely for first- and second-time filmmakers. There are very few opportunities for development for people who’ve been working at it for a really long time. It’s really sad. But can you imagine if The Wise Kids went through a screenwriting lab? I can imagine being told to cut three characters out of Henry Gamble. So I’m also grateful for the way I’ve gotten here.

What are you doing next?

I want to keep making the films but I need to expand the audience. That said, if someone said I’ll give you five million dollars to make a movie, I don’t know if I could come up with a five million dollar movie because that’s not where my brain goes. Bigger for me is still almost too cheap for some producers. I can do it but I’m giving myself time to figure it out. I can get any role filled on set, but no one raises money for me but me. One of the downsides of working very quickly is you don’t nurture the broader connections that help you take the next leap because it’s entirely utilitarian. It is: who do I need to fill these tasks? Not a slow burn of developing a relationship with a very well-connected person. I’ve never given myself that gift because my priority has been make movies. But I don’t want to feign isolation. There are people I have access to so I don’t want to pretend I’m making movies on a farm in the midwest. Of course I have people who will respond to my emails, but in terms of making stuff, it’s all been friends.

Princess Cyd is now playing in NYC and Chicago and opens in LA on December 1. Museum of the Moving Image’s Stephen Cone retrospective is also underway through November 12.


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