INTERVIEW: Patrick Stettner's "Business"; Balancing Style with Sentiment in "Strangers"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 12.07.01) — Patrick Stettner is sitting in Manhattan’s The Cupping Room, drinking a latte and awaiting the release of his first feature “The Business of Strangers” just 10 days away. Nearly a year ago, we sat in the same spot, talking about his preparations for Sundance 2001. He was an unknown commodity, one of the many faceless Dramatic Competition directors that every distributor in town was eager to meet. All they knew about him was that he made an award-winning short “Flux,” his feature starred “hot” up-and-comer Julia Stiles and acting stalwart Stockard Channing, and was produced by indie notable Susan Stover (“Happy Accidents,” “High Art“). The label “buzz film” was already circulating.
But in the midst of Park City glitz, Stettner’s incisive debut didn’t meet the commercial expectations of those looking for the next “Save the Last Dance.” Instead they found a smart, intimate two-character study, astutely photographed in postmodern hues by Teodoro Maniaci (“Clean, Shaven“), which seemed more attuned to arthouse audiences than the mainstream. Here was an aspiring auteur, not a wannabe Hollywood lackey. The Sundance bidding war among specialized distributors never quite materialized, and IFC Films announced its acquisition in late March. Stettner went on to receive acclaim from Deauville to San Francisco (winner of their $10,000 Skyy Prize), however, and his film remains one of the standouts among this year’s slate of American newcomers.
One year later, Stettner seems unfazed by his time in the spotlight, still insecure about what to wear to his premiere party and revaluating his next screenplay in the light of September 11. When asked whether he feels the need to capitalize on “Business of Strangers” and hurry to make a second film, he replies, “I should, but I’m not very good at looking out for myself that way. I do feel a sense of urgency, but I just want to make good films. That’s my determining factor, not necessarily having a ‘successful career.'”
indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Stettner about style verses emotion, location and character, and directing his two businesswomen, Stiles and Channing.
indieWIRE: Let’s start at the beginning. The opening shot [of grass being blown in the wind of an engine] is rather surreal, and the whole opening sequence sets this really peculiar tone. What is it?
Patrick Stettner: It’s a plane taxing on the gateway, and it’s creating that effect on the grass. It speaks to the whole idea of this industrial influence on nature. And it speaks to the graphic look of the film. There’s many other different reasons that are kind of esoteric.
iW: Like what?
Stettner: It’s going to sound pretentious. [Sergei] Eisenstein talks about how cinema was started on scrolls. The Chinese would have these scrolls with characters that repeated many times, and I just found this incredible. And you had this narrative and the scroll was like this one long pan shot. [In my film,] I had initially planned for the opening to be one continuous shot, but then there were problems with the roads and I had to cut it together. For me, it kind of speaks to Julie’s story in a very abstract way. You get a sense of struggle and a confliction of lines.
iW: As far as the film’s look, I absolutely love that cold, metallic, reflective look, but I wanted to ask you, was coming to that stylistic decision an obvious one? Did you have to debate: how cold do we go with it? Is it going to be too cold?
Stettner: That was my whole struggle that I was wrestling with as a director was how formal do I want to make this. I can make this as an aesthetic exercise, but the characters were really important to me. This humanistic approach to the characters, and really caring for them was important and achieving that balance between the two. A lot of it is about this character in those kind of rarefied, industrial spaces, and I could have easily gone off too far — where it was all about those spaces. That was my big fear. It was important to allow the character to have those beats and not objectify or look down on them.
iW: The film takes place in one airport hotel, but you actually shot the film in many hotels? Was that tough on your schedule?
Stettner: It was demanding. I don’t know if it was the smartest thing, considering we only had 23 days. The look of it was so important to me; this hotel was an evolving character along with the storyline. It had this strange, menacing, sexy feel to it. It was really important that it was like this biosphere, where everything is contained within. We had a lot of fun playing with sounds that we placed inside; like sounds of water and birds are inside the hotel and outside, we’d have planes and industrial sounds. We even had subtle themes for each of the rooms, to give the sense that they’re in this weird, industrial Eden. I was fascinated by this idea that you can’t go outside to a bar; you have to stay inside.
iW: Stockard’s character, Julie, is really what this film is about. I know you’ve gotten questions about being a man and telling a story about these women; what’s your standard defense?
Stettner: It’s just about who I’m interested in. First of all, these are not issues exclusive to women. Issues of power, issues of control, issues of fear — men have these issues, too. There are subtle forms of oppression and barriers that certain businesswomen have to jump over which make them more complex and interesting, but I think women would be surprised that men have these emotions, too, so it’s not coming out of thin air. Look, some part of me is a little bit embarrassed that I am focusing on the women. I don’t want to be an independent Vincent Minelli. I just want to explore topics that interest me.
iW: What is perhaps a more interesting question is not why you’re telling a story about women, but why are you telling a story about this corporate world? You don’t strike me as someone who’s had much personal experience with that.
Stettner: Well, I was a temp for many years. And that’s where the genesis of my fascination with these businesswomen came from, and there was this idea of the part-timers like me and there lack of respect for the older businesswomen. There’s also a class difference, because a lot of the older executives came from working class backgrounds and the part-timers were middle-class graduates of Dartmouth and Bennington and looking down on the business world. For me, there was this sense of entitlement and power and I didn’t want to laugh at that and say, all business is bad.
iW: I know you’re a very cinema-literate person and I wanted to ask you what sort of filmmakers did you look at, in terms of 1.) the cool spaces of your film and 2.) the competitive banter of the characters?
Stettner: To answer both of those, I’d say Polanski, in terms of how he deals with tension and the spatial relations between the characters and the camera, andhow minimal amount of dialogue can convey a lot. That was very important to me. I was really affected by “Rosemary’s Baby” and all his films. Also, “Safe,” with Todd Hayne‘s use of architecture; “La Promesse,” and “Dream Life of Angels” in terms of the characters and how they were really surprising and fresh. In terms of dialogue, I’ve always been a fan of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.
iW: Let’s talk about the actors. How did you get the two of them onboard?
Stettner: The first one was Stockard. We sent her the script; she expressed an interest. As an independent filmmaker, you have to present something interesting to an actor, so I wrote really juicy roles. In that sense, it was easy to cast. She responded to it. We talked about it and she had some concerns about who she would go against and that was a big concern of mine, as well. Stockard is formidable and I didn’t want some Gen-X girl ripped off of some Gap ad. And Julia is incredibly strong. She doesn’t seem false. She was really within herself in a very organic way.
iW: So how was it getting to Julia?
Stettner: It was all within ICM. Once the script got in, Stockard is at ICM, and Julia was at ICM at the time. She asked really intelligent questions and that was really important to me. She was thinking about the script and doing her homework. It’s difficult, because this script is a small timeline; we don’t see their lives outside of it, their homes, and so forth, so they have to know their lives. They have to do a lot of background work. Julia wrote a diary. I didn’t talk too much about it. I think a lot of directors talk too much; I think it’s important for actors to have secrets from their directors.
iW: What sort of preparation did you do?
Stettner: We talked about the beats where this game is being played. And this one-upmanship that goes on through the evening. Every scene doesn’t have to be a home run. There is a cumulative effect. It really is a journey and they needed the confidence to measure those scenes. So I was constantly saying, it’s okay to be subtle here.
iW: I don’t agree, but you’ve gotten these comparisons to “In the Company of Men.” Care to argue?
Stettner: My problem with the comparison is they are very different films. There is the culture of Sundance; they premiered at Sundance, and “In the Company of Men” was such a part of that Sundance thing. And there’s not a lot of independent “corporate” films. But they’re very different. My concern of who these characters are is very different. I respect LaBute’s writing, but there is a certain conceit for the dark comedy, and I think mine is more character-based. The comparison is also a little offensive: I wanted to do a story about businesswomen and people seem to have to use businessmen as a reference point. People also say this could have been a play, but I shake my head, and say, this couldn’t be a play. It’s really about those faces. And I wouldn’t know what to do with this on a stage.
iW: I think there’s this risk of the film feeling too schematic, of the emotion not coming through. How did you strike that balance?
Stettner: I think people have prescribed notions of how they think women should act. When men do the same thing to women, does it become a socio-political issue? No. These aren’t stand-ins for all women. There are many businesswomen who have children, who are very powerful, and are very levelheaded and put together. Even my mother, who was a diplomat. I wanted it to be about these characters. Maybe this isolated, archetypal setting lends that kind of interpretation, but it was never my intention. Because those kinds of films usually make me nauseous.
iW: Did the movie change at all since its Sundance premiere?
Stettner: There is considerable difference in the sound and music. The film is a little smoother now; there was a sense that the film was pushing towards the conflict and there wasn’t enough of just staying with Julie in silent moments, so we took out music and changed a lot of sound design. I took out at least three cues. I don’t know if I was reacting to criticism, but people were talking about that social political element and I felt like, they’re missing the point that this is about the characters. So it was like, let’s just take the music out and let the characters be.
iW: As someone who knows indieWIRE and its audience, what would you say to the thousands of other filmmakers out there who may be in a similar position you were a year ago, or two years ago?
Stettner: I get upset when I see independent films trying to be cheaper versions of Hollywood films. I feel that great independent films are those that challenge us, either formally or content-wise. I can’t tell you how upset I get when I see independent films that look like Hollywood films, that want everyone to love them. This idea that it’s a calling card to bigger films is nauseating. I’d say that it’s really important that we challenge. You have to rustle some feathers.