Big Time Spirituality
An Interview with Stephen Cone
by Eric Hynes

Have you seen the one about the teens trying to healthily reckon with the varieties of sexual orientations and experiences while also sincerely grappling with the responsibilities of family and Christian faith? If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen…oh, you haven’t? Perhaps that’s because Stephen Cone is working in a terrain all his own—one far from the four westerly neighborhoods in Brooklyn that have hosted the majority of American independent films this century, one with characters, dilemmas, and milieu more finely articulated than that of the prevailing, quick-read culture of inchoate post-collegiates.

Raised in the south, and currently based in the Chicago area (where he teaches performance to film students at Northwestern University), Cone tends to populate his films with faces and scenarios unfamiliar to the American art house—but not unfamiliar to him. Particularly with 2011’s The Wise Kids and his latest, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, Cone’s films emerge from the inside out, both in that they explore the lives of young searchers not unlike those he knew—and was—bouncing between church youth groups and choirs as a preacher’s son, and in that they start from a place of empathy and warmth. There are no villains in these films, no obvious oppressors or cowards or idiots, just people trying to figure themselves out, and accommodate what they find.

With Henry Gamble, Cone doubles down on the multiplicity of perspectives. Over the course of a single day-into-night bash, a drifting, curious, Altmanesque camera accommodates over a dozen distinguished characters, from the prepossessed but wide-eyed Henry (Cole Doman) to his late-blooming mother Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw) to the uncommonly out Logan (Daniel Kyri). He also accomplishes a complexity of tone, sliding between comedy and drama, breezy teen pop and bitter pill parenthood.

Cone and I spoke via Skype at the ungodly (or is it godly?) hour of 9:00 AM on a Sunday morning, right before he began a full day of rehearsals for Le Switch, a play by Philip Dawkins that premieres in Chicago later in January, and in which he plays a leading role. “I was a theater major,” he says. “But acting doesn’t give me nearly as much pleasure as making films.” Having also spent formative years as a Christian youth, I talked to Cone about how his upbringing shaped his sensibility and aesthetic, and how his own fluid identity has informed his interest in the wide spectrum of faith, sexuality, and taste.

Reverse Shot: I’d like to start at the beginning, with your family history in the Christian church. How did growing up in that culture shape your sensibility?

Stephen Cone: Dad was getting a music degree when I was born, so the first 11 years of my life and the first 25 years of his career he was a minister of music, and my mom was a pianist and organist. Dad originally wanted to be an opera singer—he chose the ministry over classical music. Then at the end of fourth grade, Dad decided he wanted to become a pastor, so he went back to seminary.

RS: Being a pastor’s kid can come with its own identity and expectations. Did you have to adjust to that or was it similar enough to being the son of a music minister?

SC: It was similar enough. But every church has a different vibe, and you’re always relearning. The world that I grew up in was much closer to The Wise Kids than Henry Gamble. I didn’t grow up in a megachurch. When you’re a pastor’s son there’s a tendency to be a little snobby. I’m hanging out with these people at church but there’s a little distance, because I do this three times a week and I just want to go back home and listen to music, sit in front of my radio. Duran Duran, Roxette, and Crash Test Dummies. Those were my three big adolescent bands. This is where all the music love in Henry Gamble comes from. You’re going to church and you’re hearing people talk about passion and ecstasy, but you’re too young to put this together, and you’re only really experiencing it in culture. So there’s this disconnect between sacred learning and actual ecstatic experience.

RS: At that age, were you thinking about any of what you were encountering and doing as being cinematic or dramatic? As fodder for stories?

SC: Back then I wasn’t really thinking about stories. I was getting excited about images and music. That’s probably where early daydreams about movies came from—in connection with the music I was listening to. And movies were their own wondrous thing.

RS: Considering your upbringing, did it ever feel transgressive to watch movies?

SC: No. And yet . . . I don’t think [watching movies] was directly, consciously related to that, though we haven’t talked about the fact that dad took me to see Philadelphia when I was 12.

RS: Now would be the time to talk about that.

SC: Well, it’s one of the most formative experiences of my life, but there’s no story there. It was as simple as: he knew I loved movies, he knew I was interested in seeing Philadelphia, and he took me. There was no real discussion afterwards. My parents were politically, socially, fiscally conservative Evangelical Christians in South Carolina who let me go see Philadelphia. Without discussion. Without judgment. In some ways that’s why, later, I only really struggled with the faith aspect. There was never a struggle for identity. I would credit that to ultimately feeling like I could break free and do my own thing without severe emotional trauma, because of small gestures like that.

RS: Looking back, do you think he knew?

SC: I don’t know. There’s no early ’90s South Carolina version of like, just generally queer. There’s no sense that’s even a thing. If anything it was just like—this kid gets along with everyone, he’s a good kid, and he loves movies. I don’t know what dad had a sense of. We aren’t and have never been very open—or I haven’t been. My sister is more open than I am about conversing about sexuality. I’ve always been very touchy, but I haven’t been the open sibling in terms of talking about my feelings. But I loved that he did that. I remember I wasn’t allowed to tell people that I’d seen Lethal Weapon 3. It was: is it R or not? But then around ‘95 he let me see Braveheart and Heat. Then by ‘97 I’m suddenly watching The Sweet Hereafter and The Ice Storm. I changed my production company name to Sunroom Pictures for Henry Gamble, and that’s because while the girls sat in the other room and watched Touched by an Angel or Now and Again, Dad and I would sit in the sunroom with the 13-inch TV and watch all these films.

RS: Is this around the same time that you were questioning your faith?

SC: During a lot of this I was having night sweats about faith, about going to hell, but it wasn’t connected to culture. It wasn’t connected to a sense of hypocrisy or sin. I was starting to intellectually grapple with the idea of salvation and eternity. It was torturous because what I was really looking for was proof. And not just proof that it was all true, but proof that I was going to heaven. I wanted, like, a receipt. But it was never connected to sexuality or culture. It was a purely intellectual fright. And this thing about the second coming, when you’re 14—it’s the most terrifying thing in the world. It scared the shit out of me. I was worried about the pets. I was worried about all this stuff that would happen. My mom would try to tell me it’s a beautiful thing, but it was very hard to grapple with.

RS: I remember how reverently and excitedly people would talk about the rapture, and yet there’s all this furious, heavy metal-grade iconography, and threats of a reckoning and the world coming to an end.

SC: That could literally happen at every moment. Like waiting for a bomb to go off. Meanwhile, I am leading Tuesday morning Bible study in my high school, founding a club called First Priority, while simultaneously finding my first true real happiness in the choir and performance, and grappling with sexuality with my friends in a way that was actually genuinely thrilling. All of these opposing things somehow I had room for. I don’t know why.

RS: That’s really amazing that you didn’t conflate the two—that your fears weren’t wrapped up in becoming a sexual person.

SC: But there were times when the existential dread was so rough that I would have traded some good old sexual anxiety for it. It is a pretty horrific thing to discover that we might be finite mortals. There were moments in college when I would have given anything to be a struggling queer Christian.

RS: Because that seemed more manageable?

SC: Because the other thing is the worst—to face extinction for the first time at 19 or 20.

RS: I’m amazed at your sensitivity to all sides of the experience in your films, your ability to empathize with characters that might have opposed your sense of self growing up. Might that be more accessible to you because you didn’t feel that embattled over your desires?

SC: I’ve never heard it put that way, but I guess that makes sense. But I actually grew up really loving spending time with these people. When you realize this person you’ve loved for 25 years is a Sarah Palin fan, it doesn’t mean you stop liking them. I think it comes from choosing to take a purely secular, humanistic point of view. In that sense, if I’d grown up the son of a police officer, you’d probably be experiencing a bunch of humanistic police family dramas.

RS: When did you first think you might make films about this culture, and these friends?

SC: I remember as early as 21 or 22 saying to someone, “If no one has made a Nashville-sized epic about the American Evangelical world by the time I’m 30, I’m going to make it.” I obviously haven’t made that, but it’s funny that I went there before I went to Wise Kids. My first short was an adaptation of Abraham and Isaac, and that was ten years ago. It’s taken me so fucking long to get a grip on tone. I don’t see anyone else for whom it took that long to figure out how to tell a story, but it took me forever.

RS: What was tonally off about those early efforts?

SC: I didn’t know who I wanted to be. For that first short I didn’t know whether I wanted to make a Kubrick film or a Dreyer thing. So as a result it’s this weird kind of not-funny, kind-of-funny black comedy about a pastor trying to sacrifice his adolescent son on the altar. There’s a janitor there who sees it, calls 911, and says, “I’d like to report a sacrifice.” [Laughs] And it’s too long, the performances are very theatrical, it had a final shot that was inspired by Places in the Heart . . . The only time it ever screened was in my apartment for the crew. The thematic material was the same as it is now, but I really didn’t know how to do it.

RS: But clearly those struggles were productive. You needed work through those disparate impulses so that you could arrive at the complex tones of your recent work.

SC: Which makes it very hard to give advice to young filmmakers. I want to say, “Guys, start simple.”

RS: You said your thematic concerns are basically the same—do you know why that is? It doesn’t come off as strategic, like you’re making these films because nobody else is.

SC: It’s a preoccupation with sensuality and spirituality. I’m interested in trying to reconcile our bodies and whatever the soul might be for whoever is believing in it. It goes back tonally to discovering my sexuality. I identify largely as queer. I came out to my parents and dated a guy for two and a half years, and then dated a girl for two and a half years. So I personally have never felt like I had a fixed sexual identity. Which is weird. I can’t get on the bandwagon of this is who I am, I was born this way, because I had a much more complicated experience. I had as many early opposite sex attractions as I did same sex. That’s what I love about André Techiné. I love André Techine. He has a huge, huge, huge influence on what I do. I love that you never know who’s going to sleep with whom in his movies. It’s weird—I’m not actively trying to make young religious people okay with being gay—that’s a byproduct of the films, I think. But it’s interesting to have this personal, more fluid experience, while telling stories about people who feel trapped.

RS: It seems your characters are not all projections of your own experience—you’re exploring each of their individual experiences, most likely different from yours. With all those different POVs, is Henry Gamble your first step toward making that “Evangelical Nashville”?

SC: No, I want to take a break from this Evangelical stuff! I feel like I’ve said what I need to say about that world for now, and maybe I’ll come back to it later.

RS: Then let’s talk about the film on a formal level. You’re using long takes and populated frames to focus on a multiplicity of personalities and emotions, not to be arch or showy.

SC: I will say that with Henry Gamble I was a little more formally conscious than I was on the others—I wanted to step it up a bit. Early on the formal inspirations had nothing to do with what the movie was doing. Olivier Assayas’s statement, in that video interview you did, about how you can be inspired by things, but they’re going to go through your own filter? I grapple with that every day. For The Wise Kids I made my DP watch Nenette and Boni and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. Which is absurd—it really didn’t come into play there. But I’m thinking about it. I basically show every DP A Christmas Tale before the film, just to say, “Hey, look what can be done in interiors, look at this living organism.”

RS: But it’s not about making a playbook?

SC: It’s not about a playbook because ultimately you’re just going to make the choices that you make on the day. Also my interests are just too varied. My ideal right now, my holy trinity, is Cassavetes, Renoir, and Cukor. Those are the three filmmakers that I think about all the time. And what I love about them is that they found a formal identity through their interests. They were all interested in performers and performance, but there’s this wonderful unity of form and performance, and discovery and camera in the films of those people.

RS: I see you working that out in Henry Gamble. One of the things that make these long takes work is your ability to sustain a moment among a group of people in a space. It’s not about being theatrical, but it is a thing that theater can do, while film often elects not to because of the ability to cut.

SC: I love long takes, and I love hearing that because what you’re talking about is not the theatrical aspects of cinema, but the cinematic aspects of theater. It irks me when people think because I come from theater that I’m making deliberately theatrical things. I can’t tell you how many people, because what they’re seeing is an ensemble piece that’s reaching outside of the frame, say “I’d love to see this as a TV series.” Which is totally honorable. But my instinct is to reply, “Why not more ensemble movies?”

RS: Where are your upcoming projects taking you? Is this a thread you’re pulling?

SC: They’re more focused on women. I have this loose trilogy in my head about older middle-aged female artists. I wrote a North Carolina–set script, and a South Carolina–set script, and I’m trying to choose between them.

RS: And you’re focusing on a central character?

SC: No, it’s happening again. [laughs] It happens every time. I often hear, about my work—I wish he’d focus more on this character or that character. The Wise Kids was born out of a struggle of “who is this movie about?” Black Box was born out of the same. Henry Gamble is my first intentional ensemble piece, but there was a similar struggle. Who was it that said that artists find themselves by cultivating what people criticize them for? I think that’s what I’m trying to do. Part of me wants to take that and run with it.