Before ever meeting director Michael Stephenson I already knew he was a person that was incredibly passionate about telling a story he feels others should hear. His previous creative efforts are a pair of documentaries Best Worst Movie, telling the story of the bad yet beloved cinematic masterpiece that is Troll 2 (a film which Michael himself was an actor in as a young lad) and The American Scream, a peek into the lives of several families who every Halloween turn their own homes into haunted houses. Michael has now turned his attentions to the narrative world with his first feature film, Girlfriend’s Day. I had the pleasure of speaking with Michael and that passion that I could feel from his films simply as a fan was far more evident in person.
Nerdlocker: I have to tell you I was truly blown away by the movie. I’m a big fan of your two documentaries (Best Worst Movie and The American Scream) so I was quite anxious to see what you could do with a full fledged feature film.
Michael Stephenson: I’m glad you enjoyed it, man. I hope it made you smile.
NL: It’s funny you say that because I was going to mention that the moment the movie begins and I hear David Lynch’s voice giving me all of this information about the greeting card industry I had just the biggest…You know those “inside the theater” videos they do for horror movies to capture reactions? I wish there had been one here to capture the sheer glee on my face. I was flat out already in love.
It seems like the creative minds behind documentaries tend to stick to documentaries. Was moving to features always your goal or did the opportunity happen to come along and you felt like, “Hey, let me try that! Let me See what that’s like.”
MS: I’ve always, ever since I was 8, knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker. With Troll 2 and other acting stuff and then Best Worst Movie really came into existence because at that time I didn’t consider myself a documentary filmmaker but that felt like a project I could make right there. “I can make this movie. It’s just me!” and I fell in love with that process. Same thing with The American Scream. I love non-fiction work and I will always do documentary work because there’s this immediacy to it and something fun about creating stories that are unforgettable around real people’s lives and who they are as people. It’s special. But, I knew that I always wanted to make a narrative.
For me, stories are ultimately about characters. The things I’m interested in are interesting characters and interesting worlds. Whether it’s haunted houses or whether its bad movies or whether its the greeting card industry; stuff that’s very absurd and different and weird but still has these relatable humanistic qualities at the core of them. So in making my first narrative I went into like, “I am going to do exactly the opposite in terms of style of anything that’s related to documentary.” This is an opportunity for me to just exercise formalism that I’ve never had the chance to do. Obviously I’m drawn to these weird, wonderful characters but I looked at Girlfriend’s Day as the chance to just scratch that just completely formalistic approach to something and still create this world that’s a little off-center. It’s heightened and it’s weird. Basically I didn’t want my first narrative to feel like just a natural progression from what I have done before as a documentary filmmaker. I didn’t want somebody to say, “I can see how a documentary filmmaker would have made that.” I wanna push it on the far, far end of complete control. Does that make sense?
NL: Absolutely! Honestly I feel like you nailed it, too. There’s a very particular choice of shots and angles that are on display in Girlfriend’s Day, also the way that it’s edited, it feels like someone who’s already honed their craft and is assured in their abilities. There was definitely a thought in my head going into the film regarding would it feel cut and be presented in a similar fashion and I was pleasantly blown away by how different it felt and how it seemed to have it’s own genuine voice to it.
MS: I’ve had this ability to attract really great people to work with in so many ways. In making this movie it was fun because I get to choose all my departments. So I was very formal in searching out people’s work and finding the DP (Director of Photography) that I connected with perfectly and the production designer really really perfectly. My DP is a guy named Richard Wong. He’s from San Francisco. He shot a noir movie a few years ago called Man From Reno, a small noir movie. Very pulpy and REALLY great. The photography is great. I’m a big fan of photography and we connected aesthetically right off the bat. I had met with several DPs but we connected so aesthetically and same thing with the production designer. I feel like I’ve met people who I’ll work with for life. You know, that other intention you have when I started this was I wanted to really search out these great folks on the crew side in hopes of continuing to work with these people on the next one and the next one. Relationships, ultimately that’s what it comes down to. Finding those collaborators that bring a different point of view and share the same aesthetics and offer something that maybe you just didn’t think of. I feel like my crew on this movie, all the way down the line, everybody came into it with heart and the right spirit. That’s…that’s a gift.
NL: That’s a sentiment that, as a viewer, feels to run true on the actor side of the film as well. It’s a small story, quirky characters but it truly feels like everyone involved cares about it. You genuinely get that vibe throughout. Everyone feels super committed to it.
MS: For sure!
NL: When I initially had heard about the film it was a lot of pieces regarding Bob (Odenkirk) starring in it but then when you see everyone else that’s in the cast it is just filled to the brim with talented, funny people. Even with a shorter running time they all manage to have a memorable moment. I’ve been thinking about Ed Begley Jr’s part all night. It’s so good!
MS: It’s one of those things that for me it’s so fun for me still. Reading it originally I was like, “There’s so many characters in this movie!” Plus it’s not a single or two or three locations, three or four characters, ya know? Now there’s this joy being like, “We’re at a minute and 35 into the movie and here’s a whole brand new character and a whole new thing and I LOVE it. Like you said, every character kind of gets their moment which is fun.
NL: You had previously mentioned that after making The American Scream you and your wife sat down and created a dream list of folks to work with and Bob Odenkirk happened to be right at the top and not long after you discovered that Bob was a fan of your work. How did you two actually coming together finally take place?
MS: So, I wrote those names down. A month after that, just randomly, I came across an article on The AVClub.com where they interviewed Bob and he mentions his love for Best Worst Movie. That was a moment where I was like, OK!
NL: Clearly it’s a sign!
MS: Yeah! It’s weird, it’s so weird. So then I reached out to the writer of the article and they connected me to Bob’s manager and we connected. I was finishing The American Scream and I invited him and his family to the screening in LA and he came and he brought his son who is a Troll 2 fan, of all things. It was that night that he was like, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this thing. It’s really weird but it always makes me smile. Would you ever want to do a narrative?” Then he sent me an email with the script and I won’t ever forget that email because he said, “Dear Michael, Here’s this thing that I’ve been working on for far too long but I keep coming back to it because it makes me smile. I hope one day I get the chance to make it but I doubt that I’ll ever get the chance.” I read it and fell in love with it. To now see it all come together for all the right reasons in all the right ways it’s the sort of thing you dream of, you know?
NL: Without a doubt. Being able to see it on the screen and see it realized I’m stoked for both of you. It being something he was pursuing for so long and you coming into it…
MS: Thank God for Netflix!
NL: That’s where I was headed! It seems like everyone that’s been given an opportunity to do something creative with Netflix seems so overjoyed and empowered by the amount of creative freedom they allow and provide.
MS: The reason why they are successful right now is because they are offering things…they have the stomach and the heart to offer things that other people aren’t offering and they offer such strong support for creative people. They go into it with the spirit of “no rules! do what you want!” and that’s freeing, creatively. On top of that, to have an audience of 90 million people…
NL: Already built in.
MS: Yeah. You don’t have to justify something because of box office or to not be beholden to advertising. It’s like, it’ll be in the Netflix queue and it’s there whenever somebody wants to watch it.
NL: Pretty genius to release a film called Girlfriend’s Day on Valentine’s Day as well.
MS: Oh my gosh, yes. So, So great.
NL: Before we break I had something that ties more into your previous work that I’m always curious about regarding documentaries in general. When someone is making a documentary, they are clearly passionate about telling this story or they wouldn’t be making it in the first place. What I’m curious about is where do you go after it’s finished? Do you still keep in touch with these people? What, if any, is your shared involvement in each other’s lives?
MS: Yeah, I mean they become family. When you make a documentary there is no other relationship that allows such a level of intimacy into somebody’s life. Maybe with the exception of a wife or husband or loved one but you become so close to these people. I talk to George. His mom just passed away. His dad just had a birthday. I’m still very much involved. Victor from The American Scream, I still stay in touch with these guys. I just told Manny from The American Scream yesterday that I loved him. These are all people that I will always feel connected to and my hope is that when I’m 80 years old I can look back on a body of work and be proud of not only the distinct nature of each piece of work but also the relationships that were formed with each piece of work and the things learned and all that sort of stuff. That’s gonna be…that’s powerful. That’s the hope.
NL: I feel 100% confident you’re going to be able to have that. The passion that you have for these things that you create comes through the films themselves and is further cemented by being able to talk about them with you.
MS: Thanks so much!
Girlfriend’s Day is now available to stream on Netflix and is truly a wonderful film that is more than worth your time.
Check out the trailer below:
A million thanks to Michael Stephenson for taking the time to sit down and chat with me. Many thanks as well to The Highball in beautiful Austin, Texas, for hosting us and to Fons PR for bringing it all together.
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