An Interview with Eric Stuyvesant – By Duane L. Martin

 Let’s start off by having you introduce yourself to everyone.

My name is Eric Stuyvesant. I am a writer, director, producer and actor.

Through most of this interview when I talk of “We” I’m including my co-director and editor, Scott Wachtel.

We shot a feature length project called Custody. For the most part it was a two-man operation, with the exception of when I’m on screen. During that 95% of the movie, Scott flew solo on lighting, set design, sound and camera work. In other words, without Scott this project never would have been possible. When you watch the film you may find a couple of crew credits. We gave credit to anyone who showed up for more than 8 hours.

Was Custody your first feature? If so, had you done any shorts or anything before that to practice up for doing your feature?

I’m embarrassed to say that this wasn’t even my first attempt at Custody. We tried to shoot this film several years ago using K-3’s and a four-track recorder. I tried every short cut known to filmmakers and even invented some. The heavy camera noise and lack of planning made our first attempt a veritable blueprint of what not to do when shooting a no-budget film.

We took that learning experience and set out on a roadmap to financial disaster shooting music videos. We traveled around the country, from LA to Nashville, shooting bands for free. We ended up with some great reel material, a wealth of experience, and empty wallets, but at the same time we made some great friends.

From there we moved on to shoot a couple short films which were basically comedic scenes I had left out of Custody. I was inspired by Kevin Smith’s “Show us Your Shorts.” We weren’t necessarily trying to win; we were trying to get Mewes to buy the raw footage.

The way the film sort of drifts in and out of various surrealistic scenes and situations was a technique you don’t see a whole lot of. Did you actually struggle with those parts of the films at all when you were writing it, wondering if they would actually work, and in the end, were you happy with how it all meshed together with the more normal parts of the film?

I write from a very ethereal place, so I never struggled with developing the scenes. I knew by using swipes, whip pans, or fades we’d be able to pull them off somewhat effectively. My only regret was not watching the backside of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before we started. Michel Gondrey used techniques we could have borrowed to make things even more surreal.

I said in my review of this film how great the kids were in it and how naturally they all played their parts. How difficult was it for you to get the kids to focus and to do and say what they were supposed to? Were there any nightmare days for you where the kids were all hyper or overly distracted and you found it difficult to get anything done?

They have been around cameras and movie sets most of their lives, and I’ve even used them on other smaller projects, so for them it was second nature. But anytime you’re directing kids there’s two things to keep in mind. First – Shoot fast and don’t burden them with too many takes. The sheer repetitiveness will bore them into a monotone. If you make it fun and make sure the camera’s rolling as they rehearse their lines you’ll get your cutaways. Second – Always leave the camera run when they’re on set. The most precious shots and usable ad lib shots will come when they’re busy being normal kids and not worried about delivering any lines.

There was one nightmare day with Zach, which is why he disappeared for a long period of time. We never intended for him to go and visit his Grandparents, but he had enough of movie making and was hell bound and determined to make sure everyone knew it. We adjusted the script and moved forward. When he realized we weren’t going to cater to him he came back around, but from that point on we made sure that he was in and out. The last thing you want to do with any kid is make him hate something that’s designed to be fun.

When you sat down to write this film, what was your original idea for how you wanted the story to play out, and did it change at all during the writing process?

It started out as a therapeutic punch in the face to my ex-wife, and while moments of that remain, it became more about the goofy stuff that goes on in an all male household. I mean let’s be serious, I have three boys that I raise “without feminine interference.” We play baseball with dirty socks, basketball with dirty shirts, and can and do play games of pull-my-finger at the dinner table. They’ve lived a fraternity lifestyle long before their college years. That was the source of comedy that I began to draw on during the fourth and fifth revisions.

I had the luxury of knowing a number of prolific producers and directors, and the closer I got to a final draft, the more the word got out. There were several opportunities to sell the script, but that would have included more drafts that would have drastically changed the message and the theme I wanted to convey. So, I held onto and we shot it ourselves.

I will say though, that the writing process was never ending. Just because something sounds good on paper doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate well. In some instances monologues were chopped to single sentence deliveries, in other places things needed beefed up. Whatever the case, there were many times I was rewriting on set as Scott set the lights and mics.

This film is shot in a variety of public locations, what kinds of problems did you have shooting around the public? Did you have to contend with people making noise, hanging out and getting in the shot, etc..?

Would you believe that our major problem was not getting enough of the public involved? We had no money to pay extras, and if your going to have any type of production value you need bodies. While there had been a couple of modeling agencies come to our rescue and say that they would fill our ‘sets’ with hundreds of people, on the average one or maybe two would show up. We got to the point where we were so frustrated that we just said enough. We never sent out another casting call. At the end of the film you’ll notice there’s a credit to God. In the scene where Rick is walking at the camera after he and Mel have split, bodies just flow through the picture. We went downtown on a warm day in hopes that we might find a number of people shuffling through on their lunch hour. To our dismay there were 5 people and they were all sitting at picnic tables enjoying their lunches. Discouraged, Scott sat down at an empty table and put the camera up. I figured we’d at least have a rehearsal. He figured we might get a fill. No one there knew what we were doing. I walked to my mark and just headed for the camera, and as I got close God reached down and picked all those butts out of their seats and just let them flow through the scene on their way back to work. They all moved at the same time and all went in different directions. I looked at Scott, he looked at me, and we both said “Thank you, God” and wrapped. It happened like that on more than one occasion.

Where were the prison scenes shot? It looks like an old abandoned jail.

It was an abandoned jail. It’s the old Mansfield Reformatory that has been featured on a number of “ghost-hunter” style TV shows, and also used in the film The Shawshank Redemption. We shot there in April, and I can’t even describe how cold the place was. There was a late cold snap in Ohio that brought eight inches of snow that weekend, and the prison was nearly ten degrees colder than it was outside.

We could have used other places, but I decided from a marketing standpoint that The Old Reformatory offered several advantages. Not only did it give us an inherent tie with one of the most successful films in history, but also, if we could just capture a “ghost” in the raw footage we could generate a great buzz about the project. Unfortunately, the hereafter is apparently made up of stodgy purists who refuse to recognize digital technology.

 Marisa Tomasic played your love interest and fellow single parent in this film. Where did you find her? Was she a friend or did you do a casting call for the part?

Let’s go back to the first attempt at this film – I held casting calls, and had cast the major parts from those sessions. Marisa had sent me her headshot and resume but was unable to attend any of the evenings I had selected. She lived over an hour away, but her beauty struck me, so, site unseen, I cast her as the third date. After the shoot that day she hung out with the crew, the boys and I for a couple of hours eating chicken wings and drinking wine. That evening was the start of an interesting friendship and work relationship. Over the next 14 months we cast her in a number of unreleased short projects, and also in the John David Lamb video. I already recognized the onscreen chemistry, and when it came time to recast the lead for Custody she was the obvious choice. Our original actress had moved on to LA, and I certainly didn’t have the money to fly her back and forth, so, I called Marisa. I’m not sure I had even finished the pitch before she said yes.

She’s been an obvious Godsend. When she’s not acting she’s a fulltime accountant. Her business sense, and her willingness to force-feed me her knowledge, even when I don’t want to hear it, has kept me out of many the jamb. Where I am primarily focused on the creative endeavors, she is constantly asking for contracts and legalese. Because she’s a stickler for detail, and because our friendship allows for open debate, she’s become one of my greatest assets, and will continue to be asked to participate on future projects.

How long did it take you to complete this film from start to finish, and what was the budget?

Time is so subjective. If you include the mishap that was my first attempt, it was a three-year ordeal. But lets focus on this version. On New Years Day of 2005 I sat looking at boxes of undeveloped 16mm film and a plethora of unmarked cassette tapes, and at that moment I decided to start over from scratch. I called Scott and we went into pre-production mode. This time we took no shortcuts and we ended up with an 800-page production bible that would serve as our roadmap. Every shot was detailed and every creative choice was agreed upon before hand. The major lesson we had learned from prior pratfalls was that if we were going to do this we were going to approach it as professionally as possible. On Good Friday of 2005 we moved into principle photography, and with the exception of the prison scenes and a few pickups, we ended some 19 days later. To make matters worse and to intensify the pressure I scheduled a screening at The Fairfax in Los Angeles for Mid-June. We showed the first cut of the movie on time to an audience that included Lindsay Bloom, Mayf Nutter and Frank Dobbs. That screening provided mixed emotion. While it was an incredible experience for Marisa, Scott and I to see our work on a big screen, right in the heart of Hollywood, we walked way knowing there was still much work to be done. By the end of November of 2005 we had the version that’s available now.

Again, money is subjective, so let’s stick to this version of the film. The filming, from beginning to end, cost roughly $2800 – That doesn’t include travel cost to LA, nor to Sundance. We had one location expense which was the prison. Everything else we bartered for.

The quality of the video in the film was quite good. What camera did you use and were you satisfied with it’s performance?

We had a number of cameras to choose from, but there was very little debate. The DVX – 100a was the camera that we went with. It was the camera that Scott was most comfortable with, and we knew we wouldn’t need any exposure effects in post. The performance on that camera has always been outstanding. There have been a couple of times I’ve considered selling it, but when you recognize all the things you can achieve, and the amount of time it saves just by being creative with the settings, selling would prove foolish.

How difficult was it for you to capture sound properly? Did you have to compensate for bad sound at all in post by doing any line dubbing or digital cleanup and enhancement?

We did a ton of ADR. We were limited to one shotgun mic that was run through the camera. We completely ignored the sensibility of having two sound sources because we didn’t have the budget to grab another microphone or a portable DAT. I know that in some places Scott layered in ten audio tracks just to get a believable sound structure. Sound is the one area that we’re really going to focus on with the next project. It’s much easier to clean something up if you start with good sound.

There’s a lot of really great music in this film. How difficult was it for you to track down the songs you wanted, and did it get expensive licensing it all?

I knew going in that I wanted to use three Dig Jelly tunes. After we had shot the video for Too Deep, Rayko and I had remained good friends. Watching her career begin to blossom, I knew that we could help each other. The rest of the music came from scouring Northeast Ohio. We wanted to keep a local flavor with the soundtrack, and help give some exposure to our artistic brethren. With the exception of Michael Stanley and Wally Bryson and The Raspberries these are all new young acts looking for a break. Hopefully we gave them a leg up. We bought two tunes that weren’t needle drops for approximately $65, and with the rest, including Michael and Wally, we worked out deals on the point schedule. To say it was anything other than charmed would be foolish.

What’s been the general reaction to this film by the reviewers who’ve reviewed it? Have there been any reviewers who just absolutely slammed it? Also, have you gotten any reviews that were so good you felt like throwing a party?

There’s no middle ground. People either love it or hate it. Yes, we have been slammed, but in researching the reviewer I’m of the opinion that they came to the table with an agenda, and when we failed to meet the expected criteria of pain and suffering for single fathers there was a level of disappointment. What are you going to do? I’d rather people slam us than not talk about us at all. Besides, I had a three-thousand-dollar project that was being reviewed alongside Aeon Flux, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Brokeback Mountain and The Life of David Gale. Slam me again. I enjoy being the worst of the best.

The Rogue Cinema review had us all dancing and partying. This Duane L. Martin guy – I tell ya. But seriously, it was nice to finally have someone review the DVD for the entertainment merit. This is show business, and if we can keep an audience captivated for an hour and a half, then we’re doing the right things.

 Do you find it difficult to deal with negative reviews of your work or do you take it as constructive criticism to be used as a learning experience for your next film?

No, it’s not hard to deal with, because we knew going in what our shortcomings were. To have them reinforced only solidifies the notion that we’re not crazy. We always try to learn. We don’t necessarily incorporate every aspect of each review, but we always try to take the time to consider what’s been said so that we can become better filmmakers and better storytellers.

Do you have plans to do another feature anytime in the near future?

I have to be working or I’m completely depressed, so yes, there are more projects on the horizon, including a couple for this year. Rest assured that Marisa will have the lead on those projects. I’m not sure she always understands when I call her Ms. Becall, but it would be foolish to waste the onscreen chemistry that exists.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to go out and make their own film, but maybe lacks some of the know how to actually get started with it?

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be inventive, take chances – think creatively in every aspect of your approach. Film school is definitely a plus, but always keep in mind that most of those that went to film school will work on your projects if you have a take charge mentality. There’s no secret to this industry – you create your own projects, and then you put yourself in situations where you can showcase your work.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about before we wrap this up?

I have contemplated where to talk about this, and have come to the conclusion that this is just about the best forum. Scott, Marisa and I went to Sundance this January with the sole intention of networking and making contacts for future projects. While we were there we were able to network ourselves into a screening in one of the smaller ancillary festivals. Mind you, the festival was closed, but because of our network in music we had something to offer Leslie, the director of The Park City Film and Music Festival. We knew the folks at BMI and ASCAP and were able to put butts in the seats that will ultimately help her gain the exposure she needs. Along with thousands of other filmmakers we went there on a whim and a prayer, and while others got discouraged and left early, our fortunes rose. We were able to get into the ICM party through the help of a friend, and things just rolled from there. The entire experience has been a series of fortunate events that only add more excitement to this chosen career. We screened in Park City Utah during the Sundance festivities, and from that screening are now talking about International Television with a number of potential distributors. To date that has been the icing on the cake. So when I say put yourself in situations where you can showcase your work – do it. You’ll be amazed by the results.