Show Us Your Shot: Interview with Filmmaker Roderick Stevens


The filmmaker behind Learning to Drive, Roderick Stevens, shares his thoughts on his film and filmmaking.

Steven Gladstone: How long have you been working in the industry, and how did you get started?

Roderick Stevens: I’ve worked in the film industry in some capacity or another for just shy of 30 years. I moved from a small town in southeast Arizona to Los Angeles, in 1990, to attend the since defunct Film Group Institute. Around the same time I worked on a few AFI student films and heard the term “stinger” for the first time. Ever the “overachiever,” after school I moved back to Arizona and set out almost immediately to write, direct, and produce my own first feature film. I did so in 1992, having raised $235,000 from local doctors and business people. It’s a horrible film. I can’t even sit in the same room if it’s playing, but I certainly learned a ton, which made my sophomore effort, in 1993, more tolerable.

At that point, I needed to learn a better way to draw some kind of income out of my passion for film and I focused on cinematography. From 1998 to 2011 I lensed over two dozen feature films and countless shorts and music videos before taking a four-year detour into fine art. I spent those years traveling about, selling my photorealism paintings and mixed media work at fine art shows and galleries around the country. In 2014, I returned to film to complete a long-term passion project in my short film, Learning to Drive, which has gone on to win over a dozen awards at film festivals around the globe.

SG: Did you go to school to learn about filmmaking?

RS: I attended a vocational style, 6-month program at the Film Group Institute in Chatsworth, CA, in 1990-91. Essentially, we spent a month learning each of the basics: writing, directing, producing, cinematography, art department, and editing, Obviously, it wasn’t very in-depth in any discipline, but it did happen to fit my ambitious, DIY nature. I was the first in our class to go into production on a feature, so of course, a third of my crew were those classmates.

SG: Can you share the scope of the films you’ve worked on as D.P. or Director?

RS: Admittedly, since I dove right in and started shooting things, learning as I went, I would say the first half dozen feature-length films I photographed were under $150K, starting with a 15-day, 16mm film called Byline that we shot on my old 1970s CP16R. Over the next decade, while resources improved, I don’t think I shot anything budgeted at over $1M. Otherwise, I shot music videos and short films with $3,000 budgets up to just over $100K in both cases. Along the way I was also hired to produce and/or edit some of those projects. My own first feature film came in at around $300K. Twenty five years later, I “many hat’d” two short films, one with a budget of around $35K, and one that came in under $1,000. One does what one can.

SG: Learning to Drive seems to be a personal project for you. Can you fill us in on why it is so important?

RS: Learning to Drive is a passion project of mine, over twenty years in the making, which started out as a feature-length script, in 1997, about a feisty young man with Down syndrome determined to convince his scatterbrained brother to teach him how to drive. Inspired by my brother Andy, who has Down syndrome and a stubbornness that won’t quit, I tinkered with the script off and on for years, always knowing there was a story in there I wanted to tell, but not yet having learned how to tell it well as a writer. Over the years, I’d gained some skill in many of the technical aspects of filmmaking, but still had much to learn about that ever-important foundation: the screenplay. Finally, in 2013, I decided to develop a short film from it and slammed out a 30-page script.

I set out on the oft-touted crowd-funding adventure with less than stellar results, so I needed to recharge and try again later. This delay proved advantageous, as I took that time to keep rewriting the script. I spent the next several months doing nine more drafts and ended up going in a completely new direction, tonally, before another crowd-funding campaign and a great many favors falling on us in the way of crew and equipment landed us in principal photography, in January 2015. My cinematographer, Daniel Gonzalez, and I decided to break the script into two distinct sections divided at the point when our hero Michael steals the family car. All of the art direction shifted at that point from a surreal, almost monochromatic look to a more natural palette. Similarly, we went from locked off or very smooth camera work on a Sony F55, to more intimate, handheld work on 35mm via an Arriflex ST. Since this was largely a road movie shot in Arizona, whether digital or celluloid, we shot on Todd AO anamorphic lenses throughout to capture this bit of love letter to the desert. Said lenses, ArriST camera and a ton of support gear were all donated by Denny Clairmont, our five-ton G&E truck was donated by Monsoon Productions in Tucson, and an impressively experienced crew came out from L.A., Phoenix, and Albuquerque in support of the film.

As is so familiar to productions, the weather was not kind to our seven-day shooting schedule and we ended up having to set aside a few more days a year later to shoot more. In between, of course, I completed as much post-production as I could, including a notable amount of green screen compositing work. July 2016, the 27-minute film was finally completed and had its theatrical debut, in October, in Tucson, on The Loft Cinema’s 70' screen.

I was determined to see the project through because I felt we had an important voice to add to the broader narrative filmscape. Our film is unique in a few ways. It is told from the perspective of our hero, a young man with Down syndrome. He’s not just a supporting player. While the film is somewhat stylized, the characters are genuine, especially our Michael, whom star Connor Long plays not as a stereotype or a counter-stereotype, but rather as a real person. Lastly, while so many films approach these kinds of subjects with a brooding, indie-drama tone, I was determined to show that it’s not always depressing to be around people with intellectual disabilities. Sometimes it’s a downright hoot!

SG: Overall, how would you describe the filmmaking process?

RS: Personally, in spite of the fact that I keep plowing forward in the one-man band, DIY train, I truly adore the collaborative process of filmmaking. I love experiencing how other people’s point of view gets expressed. Admittedly, for me, it’s all about getting to that editing room, and principal photography is about getting performances and clips that can be linked and molded on that timeline. I find that the whole process is as much about what we take away or leave out as it is what we create or add. For instance, often times the art direction is about removing that which is distracting or which directs the tone away from what’s intended. Scoring and sound effects can be specifically about when to stay silent. Directing is equal parts adjustments and restraint or letting go, and of course, editing is all about what we cut out to distill only the most essential components of our story.

SG: It seems like you took the budget constraints as an opportunity to experiment and come up with creative solutions. How successful do you think they were (the slider, for example), and the process shots, as well as mixing formats?

RS: So many of our decisions as creators are hard to gauge with regard to effectiveness, especially when so many of them are meant to be as invisible as possible. I don’t think anyone has necessarily noticed that there is no green anywhere in the film until after Michael strikes out on his own. I doubt the average viewer noticed the change in camera styles, but I would like to think that once Michael is in charge they “feel” like the film gets more grounded and believable. I love stylized filmmaking, but I wanted specifically to use just enough in the first 2/3 of the film to create a contrast with the more “verité” style of the end and hopefully evoke a documentary-like believability. In this case, the surrealism was infused specifically to bring attention to the realism.

SG: What is next for you?

RS: High Priest is my latest venture. It’s a much simpler and shorter film than LTD was. It was just a quirky idea that occurred to me as I stepped off the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland last October. I quickly wrote up a 10-page script, cast Andrew Wolverton, who played one of my escaped convicts in LTD, and shot it all at my house over five weekends, from January through March 2019, on my BM Ursa Mini Pro 4.6 (purchased at BH Photo, btw). Post-production was completed in July and I’m just now tackling how to best point as many eyes as possible at it. Meanwhile I’ve been working with a venture capital group in Tucson with regard to funding for River, the feature-length big brother to LTD, about a feisty young man with Down syndrome determined to get to the Grand Canyon in spite of his scatterbrained brother, a tenacious sheriff, an escaped convict, a runaway bride, and Elvis Presley!

Roderick Stevens's Bio

With more than 25 years of experience in the film industry as a writer, producer, director, and editor, and most notably as the director of photography on more than two dozen feature films and countless shorts, music videos, and commercials, Stevens has a thorough working knowledge of nearly every aspect of film production. He is also an award-winning fine artist, and renowned activist for safe working conditions in the film industry.

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