On the Edge of a Breakthrough: Todd Stephens,
writer/producer of "Edge of Seventeen"
By Aaron Krach
One of the most common pieces of advice that writers hear is, “write
what you know.” Todd Stephens, the writer and producer of “Edge of
Seventeen,” took that advice and followed it. After toying with a horror
film, he sat down and wrote a film that loosely followed his own life
growing up in Ohio during the 1980’s. Not only growing up, but coming
out of the closet, experimenting with fashion and listening to New Wave.
What could have been a witty nostalgia trip back to 1985, instead became
a remarkably small film with a heart the size of Ohio. Co-producer,
David Moreton stepped into the directors chair. A talented cast of
unknowns and a supporting star, brassy bull dyke, Lea DeLaria took a
good script and made it even better.
Prior to winning four awards at L.A.’s OUTFEST, including a screenwriting
prize for Stephens, he sat down with indieWIRE to talk about the making
of “Edge of Seventeen” and it’s journey so far.
indieWIRE: Your first two screening of the film have been huge
successes. “Edge of Seventeen” premiered as the closing night feature
during last month’s New York’s Gay/Lesbian Film Fest. Then two weeks
later, you won the Audience Award at San Francisco’s Gay/Lesbian Film
Fest. How do the two screenings compare?
Todd Stephens: San Francisco was weird, wild, fabulous. People stood up.
The reaction in New York was good, but you’re sitting there thinking
‘these people are friends.’ In the Castro, which is three times bigger
to begin with, we didn’t know anybody. It was wild. I really felt that
people loved the movie. People really related to the movie on a personal
level and that moves me. People came up after the screening and they
thanked me, “for writing that movie, cause that’s my life.” I felt like
that was true in my gut. I knew that so many of us had came of age in
small towns. And so many of us went to our own Universal Fruit and Nut
Company. Which by the way was the real name of the gay bar in my town.
iW: The logistics of taking a low-budget film back to Ohio to shoot must
have been a daunting task. Why did you choose to go back and shoot
Stephens: We debated that for a long time. Ultimately we felt we would
get a flavor in Ohio that we wouldn’t get anywhere else. The sets and
extras, just the sound of it. So we went back to the exact town I grew
up in, Sandusky, Ohio. The amusement park we shot in was the actual
amusement park I worked in. The exterior for the gay bar, The Universal
Fruit and Nut Company was the actual Universal. It’s a Junior
Achievement now. We took their sign down. My house was Maggie’s house.
The costumes at the amusement park were copied from old pictures of
mine. Ane Crabtree did the costumes and she is totally amazing. She is
from Indiana and says she was raised by drag queens. She had friends who
had saved a ton of old clothes and stuff. I am a total pack rat and had
saved all these clothes from the 80’s. And we bought a bunch of stuff.
But a lot of the clothes that ended up in the film, were ours.
iW: In addition to the production, what really pushes “Edge of
Seventeen” is the acting; especially Chris Stafford as Eric and Lea
DeLaria as Angie.
Stephens: We cast all last summer, here in New York. We did the whole
Backstage thing and saw hundreds and hundreds of people. During that
time we hooked up with a couple of agents. The weird thing was that we
pitched the story to some people and they wouldn’t even return our calls
based on “gay character has sex.” We had this dream that we would find
the real Eric, a seventeen year-old kid in a gay bar in Ohio. My
boyfriend was out in Ohio doing this whole “real person” thing. Which I
will never do again. It’s just not worth it. We found some drag queens
that ended up in the movie, but that’s it. Chris actually submitted a
picture through Backstage and then coincidentally a couple of the agents
recommended him. We actually cast this other guy, who dropped out four
days before we were going to do a stage reading.
The character of Angie was completely based on a friend of mine. She was
my gay role-model. I saw Lea two years ago doing her stand-up act. I
knew there were only two people who could play Angie’s part; Angie or
Lea. Last summer, Lea was doing “On The Town” in Central Park. We got
the script to her and she read it that night. She called us in the
morning and said, “I want to fucking do this movie.” Her agent hadn’t
even read this script. The amazing thing about the movie, is that she
shows a different side of Lea. She wasn’t crazy about wearing a skirt,
but we made her wear it and I’m sure she’s glad now.
iW: One of the most poignant scenes Eric goes through is having sex for
the first time. These scenes portray sexuality differently than most
films. Can you talk about your intentions when you wrote those scenes?
Stephens: I’m sort of sick of dissolves and gooey sex scenes. It’s not
real. When I wrote it, I pictured it done in real time. We just wanted
to show how amazing and sexy and hot and scary and freaky it is to get
naked in front of somebody. I thought back to what it was like for me to
see a guy naked for the first time. How amazing it was. I wanted to
capture that. It’s why I think the actors were so great. Because they
went to such an edgy place.
iW: Such intimacy doesn’t show up on screen very often, let alone in a
low-budget independent. Is that affecting you negotiations with
Stephens: We are in the process of finding a distributor now. There are
several people interested and a couple of offers on the way. One
distributor feels it should be marketed as a John Hughes movie for the
90’s. They feel that young people are open to seeing this. Because of
the fact that it works it’s way up to some of the heavy stuff, it works
you into it.
iW: “Edge of Seventeen,” is quite a departure from what you started out
doing after graduating from NYU. Will you explain how you went from
producing Karaoke videos to writing and producing “Seventeen?”
Stephens: When I got out of NYU, I started making Karaoke music videos.
We became the karaoke kings and made 200 of these videos. It was really
cool, cause you could come up with some really wacky shit. They were
like $4000 budgets and they were shot on 16mm film. We hooked up with
this company from Tokyo and we were making like one a day. It was a
factory. We started farming them out to other filmmakers we knew from
NYU. A lot of these people went on make music videos and films. When the
karaoke thing dried up, we started Luna Pictures. It was here that I met
David Moreton while he was editing a documentary.
I got frustrated because this horror film I was working on just wasn’t
getting off the ground. So I said to myself, I am going to die unless I
make a film. I always knew I wanted to write a script about when I came
out in Ohio, in the 80’s, so that’s what I did. I wrote the first draft
in 8 days. It just came out. And then I spent the next year rewriting
it. Originally I wanted to direct it, so I was looking for a producer.
David first came on as a producer. But then over time I realized that
this one was a little too close to home and I didn’t think I would be
able to be objective about it. So we produced it together and he
directed it. It just would not have happened without David. He just did
a fabulous job. It’s a case of writing something and you think that if
someone else directs it, they will rip it apart. This was an example
where it was just not the case. He remained true to the vision of the
script. I’m very grateful for that.