Movie: The Party
Director: Kevin Stevenson
Hello Kevin, Welcome to the SIFF. Tell us how you started your journey as a filmmaker?
Like most filmmakers, I started as a cinephile, enjoying movies for entertainment. Then at film school in California, I learned how to interpret films for their meaning. How lighting, camera work, acting, editing, blocking and sound have an impact on the audience. And from there, I was hooked and couldn’t satisfy my appetite to learn every aspect of the industry. From pre-production to post-production, I interned at various well-known production companies being mentored by some of the best in the industry. But, I gotta say, the best way to learn filmmaking, is to actually make a film. And so the process of making a film taught me the last phase of filmmaking, which is distribution. The economics of selling a film was the ultimate motivator for me. Once I learned the process of selling the rights of a film to a sales agent and distributor, there was no stopping me at that point. With 5 films, and over 100 awards later, I can confidently say this is just the beginning for me. I’ll be making many more films in the near future.
What made the story appeal to you?
This story was especially unique because it followed an ensemble cast, and each character narrated their thoughts to the audience. So, I took it as a challenge to take on this complex material. While adapting the novel to screenplay with the screenwriter, Ryan Mccoy, we came up with the idea to have the characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. So this concept was exciting to me.
Not to mention, working with Sara Catherine Bellamy again was a big pull. We have shot 2 other films together and it’s always a joy to work with her, because she elevates the material to another level.
Another fun element was that we were scheduled to film a week before Christmas, so we decided to play on that, and incorporated that theme into the background of the story. This would be my first Christmas movie, and that was something that was very appealing to me!
While casting the actors, which aspect did you want to emphasize more on?
While both the casting director, Jennifer Layton, and myself were seeking the most talented actors and actresses we could find, we also wanted to find the ones with that special sparkle in their eyes. As a result, we put a unique spin on the auditioning process and decided not to match the roles to their audition tapes but to instead match their audition tapes to the roles. With respect to that, a lot of the talent actually auditioned for a different role other than the one that they were cast for. There was a lot of mixing and matching, which was a fun challenge that worked in our favor. Our last casting decision was for the role of Max. Our original choice backed out because of the concerns with Covid, and he didn’t feel safe filming during the height of the pandemic lockdown here in Los Angeles. Fortunately, we had discovered a tape for Alex Lecca, who was from Florida. His audition made him a perfect fit for Max with his ability to play a sensitive and caring gentleman. Yet, he also brought this sense of tragic disillusionment to the character as well, and this was something we hadn’t found in anyone else that had auditioned. And once he freed up his schedule and agreed to fly to LA, we knew we had our complete dream cast and we immediately started online rehearsals. Seeing the characters come to life was and always is very exciting, to say the least. And to have the writer of the novel, Tom Leveen, watching the rehearsals, made it so powerful. To hear him sign off on the script and the casting, we had the wind on our backs and the movie was destined for great things, despite the pandemic lockdown being the biggest hurdle.
As a storyteller, what difficulties do you face?
As an indie filmmaker, the number one difficulty is alway time. We never have enough time to rehearse, location scout, or film each day. So there are always concessions and compromises we have to make in order to make our days and complete the film. Despite any setbacks, we still have to tell the story that has a beginning, middle, and end. With that being said, I take pride in always completing my projects on schedule and under budget.
What makes a story stand out to you?
The stories that stand out to me always have a strong character arc. Stories that change the characters for better or worse. And to be honest, I prefer stories that have tragic endings. I don’t want to give too much away, but in our film The Party, the conclusion is pretty tragic for multiple characters. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
While watching the movie, I found out it has two names. Would you like to explain what the names stand for? And if you had to pick any one of them, which one would you prefer more?
Great question. We went into production with the working title “Butterflies…” And personally, I prefer this name because it’s a little more unique and ambiguous. It makes the audience think about the meaning of the title as it pertains to the story. And the payoff at the end has a much bigger impact with the title “Butterflies…”. You’re gonna have to watch it to find out what I mean…
The movie follows multiple characters and it was commendable! Tell us how you managed to provide everyone with a proper arc?
Honestly, giving each character a proper arc was tough because we had a large cast, 12 characters in total, which is the biggest cast I’ve had the privilege of working with. But, the writers Ryan Mccoy and Tom Leveen spent a lot of time diving into the culture and real lives of teenagers to provide the biggest transition each character could make. The themes of guilt, regret and accountability permeate each character as they face difficult life lessons, all of which teenagers these days may inevitably be challenged with during the course of their high school experience. To put it more clearly, the characters begin this movie naive and sarcastic. Each one learns a vital lesson about themselves through the course of the long cold winter night that changes them forever. These lessons humble and harden each character, giving meaning to the cliche “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”.
The characters are seen breaking the fourth wall, an aspect of movies which always seems intriguing. How did it feel to direct those scenes?
Frankly, I was scared as I didn’t know how it would play out. But, late in rehearsals, I discovered a technique that really brought it life. Just before the character breaks the fourth wall, I directed each one of the actors to turn their heads towards the camera and then address the audience. This helped separate this monologue with the viewer from the dialogue with the other characters.
Additionally, we discovered another technique that helped make the fourth wall break feel more intuitive and effective while editing in post-production. There’s a subtle effect we apply and if you watch you’ll know pretty quickly what effect we use.
Kevin, in filmmaking, how important is it to have a strong storyline? What are the three basics of filmmaking according to you?
A strong storyline isn’t always critical. The feeling and pacing is the most important in my opinion. Especially now when most people are watching at home with a lot of distractions. So, most viewers will miss some portions of the film. So it’s imperative when they’re paying attention, I believe each scene has to have a beginning, middle and end. I try to film each scene as its own little mini short film.
Furthermore, the climax and conclusion of the movie has to have a pay off. The audience has to feel rewarded after they have dedicated 90-plus minutes into watching a film. So the ending must feel like it was worth the watch, or else I believe the audience could feel cheated. So, I think the audience will walk away from our film, The Party, with a sense of satisfaction because we filmed one hell of an ending the audience will be sure to remember.
It is the passion for filmmaking that keeps a lot of young people like you going. What is your motivation behind filmmaking?
The feeling I get filming a scene, watching dailies, and editing is what keeps me going. It’s a euphoric feeling for me. As a kid, I never thought I could be fortunate enough to work on film sets, let alone direct movies. Now that I’m lucky enough to live beyond my wildest dreams, every day is a blessing and I’ll never take it for granted. If I stay humble and hungry, keep working hard and stay dedicated, then the long process of making a film will always be rewarding because I have earned the position I am in. And with each picture I make, the next one gets bigger and better. So, I’m excited and eagerly waiting to finish my other projects A Girl Upstairs and Dark Hearts. Not to mention, a vampire movie called Sunrise with Ryan Mccoy.
Kevin, would you like to suggest a few of your favorite films for our readers?
A few films that I recommend are Terribly Unhappy, Se7en, Gone Baby Gone, Le Samourai, Apocalypse Now, Children of Men, A Wolf on Wall Street, Midsommar, Let the Right One In, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Ghost Dog. These films never get old to me.
The Party often feels like a beautifully but abruptly set collage. Is this how you envisioned your film?
Yeah. We wanted the film to feel a little splintered in the first half. And the 2nd half brings it all together concluding with everyone coming together at the end for the collective understanding of each other. And so we wanted each individual to feel isolated, but as the movie progresses, each individual begins to feel a bond with the group. On top of that, it could be interpreted as Beckett finding herself with the other characters representing a piece of her. And in the end, she becomes whole. But, that’s only if you choose to interpret it that way haha. So, I encourage the readers to watch it with an open mind. It is definitely open for interpretation.