Stephen Cone on Princess Cyd, George Cukor and the Bisexual Cowboys of Brokeback Mountain
In brief—this interview is long as is—Stephen Cone’s new feature Princess Cyd begins with what’s almost a feint: a phone call to 911 reporting trouble next door and a potentially helpless young girl, heard before we actually see now-grown protagonist Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) on the soccer field. 16-year-old Cyd comes to Chicago to spend some time away from her father, crashing with her writer aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). They’re opposites: Cyd’s all body and bluntly atheist, Miranda is cerebral and Christian. The question of what happened to Cyd fades away over the course of a seemingly low-key movie in which Cyd plunges into a quick fling with Katie (Malic White), though it gets answered. It’s a lovely piece of work, which begins a run tomorrow at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of a retrospective of Cone’s work to date. (I’ll be moderating the 5 and 7 PM screenings this Sunday, Nov. 5, come on by). I talked to Cone about his movie and apparently everything else on our minds earlier this summer.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the structure. You immediately introduce a big piece of information in a really low-key way and then cut away from it. There’s two questions hanging over the movie. One is, “What happened to Cyd, exactly?” You kind of have an idea but don’t really know. The other question is, “Does it matter once we find out?” It’s not like the movie is about somebody who’s acting in response to something that happened when they were a kid. How did you structurally think that through? You mitigate the possibility for extreme, tense drama, which doesn’t seem like what you want to do.
Cone: First of all, this is just an afterthought. The 911 call wasn’t in the script. It was a decision in postproduction to start the movie that way. It was a wake-up-at-three-AM thing of “Let’s try this.” I showed it to some friends; about fifty percent of people liked it and fifty percent of people thought that it wasn’t necessary. It was two elements coming together, because it wasn’t conceived of as a story of a young girl bouncing back from tragedy or rising from the ashes. It was more like, I was interested in the story about someone like Miranda and Cyd, and separately interested in young people and horrific 911 calls, and what happens to those kids. I had occasionally found myself listening to really startling 911 calls.
Cone: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know. Maybe it was one night after I had been drinking or something like that. But there’s some really moving stuff, because sometimes what I would do—and this is, I guess, borderline creepy and obsessive—but occasionally I would hear horrific things. This 911 call, this traumatized teen, something is happening to his family, domestic violence or his dad’s just shot his mom or whatever. Then I would look them up to make sure they’re OK and were functioning individuals. So these are two ideas I decided to try to put together, and in my imagination it clicked and made sense to put them together, because an origin story can be interesting. There’s something about forming yourself and finding your spirit after coming from some sort of darkness or violence that makes the final version of that person more solid and electric. I hope that’s not a roundabout way of saying I’m interested in stories about people rising from tragedy. It started out with almost collagist tendencies, wanting to piece this together to see if these two things would even fit, and then it became a story about this girl. Does that make sense?
Filmmaker: Yeah. I don’t know how much you want to get into this, but when I was watching it, it was like you had split yourself, between these two characters. Cyd is bisexual, which you self-identify as, and then there’s this other character who’s a bookish and religious person, which also speaks to your background. I don’t know if you thought about it that way all.
Cone: Of course I thought about it. Even watching it in Maryland, I was suddenly startled halfway through the movie to realize that Miranda was me.
Filmmaker: But Cyd is also you.
Cone: Cyd is also me, yes, in terms of being sexually obsessed, but we’re all sexually obsessed. It’s funny how things are still autobiographical even when they’re not. That phrase “spiritual autobiography” rings true here. It took longer for me to figure out how it related to me personally, because Miranda was inspired by Marilynne Robinson.
So, in conceiving the story, I’m thinking about my most recent intellectual hero, Marilynne Robinson., She’s divorced, she has children, she teaches literature in Iowa and she lives alone. I think all she does is read. She reads things like the history of metal, and then seven volumes of theology, and then a science book, and has written extensively on John Calvin. She’s the only liberal progressive, pro-Calvinist Christian that I know. I’m not a Christian, my intellectual hero just happens to be Christian. But again—liberal progressive, loosey-goosey, science-obsessed Christian. She’s fascinating. She rails against Richard Dawkins on one hand and has her own arrogant beliefs on the other hand. She argues for the melding of spirituality and science, while also arguing for the validity of science and evolution and the cosmos. So, anyways, the thought was, when is the last time Marilynne Robinson has had sex? (laughs) And what would happen if an opposite body co-existed with her for a bit? Would she be intimidated by a young girl in a two-piece bathing suit, or is she very confident in that realm? Sometimes I say it’s a movie about Miranda putting sunscreen on Cyd. To me that’s one of the key scenes in the film and sums up the tension. So anyways—because it’s been inspired so much by Marilynne Robinson, it’s been a roundabout [discovery to come] back to it and realize “Oh yes, I in no way got away from my typical issues of repression and fluidity and identity.” I think I watch films and read to fill something. I guess the question is, “Are there two chambers?” You know what I mean? Are there two chambers, and if you fill one, is it okay that the other one is empty? Or is it ideal to fill both? That’s what the movie’s about, right?
It’s worth pointing out that Marilynne Robinson is 70. The actress playing Miranda is early forties. You can imagine how a 65-year-old woman in that role that would’ve changed the stakes, for better or for worse. I hate to say it, but there are more options and possible paths for a young Miranda then there would be for an older woman. Anyway, that’s a side note. Yes, this is all personal, but I really was thinking about Marilynne Robinson and not myself in the conception. I’m also not a fan of Marilynne Robinson because she doesn’t have sex (laughs). I’m a fan of hers because she’s a brilliant, beautiful writer whose essays inspire me to the end.
I hope that was a sufficient amount of rambling.
Filmmaker: One of the funniest things is when Cyd says, “I don’t read.” I heard a teenager say this on the subway once and it just absolutely threw me for a loop, because I feel like ten, 15, 20 years ago that’s just not something somebody would say bluntly like that, as something they would be proud of. But then I heard it and I was like “Oh, this is a real thing.”
Cone: I mean, these days it’s almost like “I don’t like rocking chairs” or “I don’t like baskets,” right? It’s become this quaint, outmoded, outdated thing for some younger people. For the last two years I’ve been mourning the loss of my own attention span. I’m at least once a week saying to someone, “I really want to be the guy who wakes up in the morning and reads.” I obsess over this thing of getting out of bed, not having an inclination to turn on the television or computer, making something nourishing to drink or eat, sitting down at a table next to a window and reading a book. And I keep saying I want to be that person, and I don’t do it! It would be so easy to do it! That’s where that comes from, and that’s a lot of where a lot of the movie comes from. This fixation on… I’m touched when a young person born in the ’90s or this century finds some sort of nourishing connection to the 20th century. I doubt Cyd even knows what the Emerson [poem recited in the movie is] about, but it’s almost like she’s discovering words again, or language. That little baby step of just, “Oh, this is that powerful tool.”
Filmmaker: One of the nice things about her character—because you don’t see this a lot—is that she knows she’s bisexual or she’s open to the possibility, and there’s zero angst involved. Normally that’s not how this works onscreen.
Cone: Yes, well if it were a study of a male person it might be a little different. Brokeback Mountain–a lot of these gay movies strike me as being about bisexuality but almost accidentally.
Filmmaker: How do you mean?
Cone: I could get in trouble for thinking or saying this, but there is a point at which straight actors are so clearly have some quality or element of heterosexuality to them that they really can’t play full homosexual. The fact that they are able to carry on extended sex lives with their wives [meant] I just didn’t buy them as gay men trapped inside gay bodies. I’m not saying it was a hard choice, I’m not saying they didn’t prefer men, but it just seemed like that’s what the struggle was at the heart of the move. Not, “How do I live a life like this?” If you interviewed a hundred gay cowboys and watched those interviews alongside Brokeback Mountain, I think you would see what I mean (laughs), because they’re so clearly exceedingly masculine men who are able to carry on heterosexual sex, and so as a result the struggle seemed sort of narrow.
Filmmaker: Your actors are always giving these very nice line readings where they seem like people at their best and most engaged, surprising themselves and others and taking real pleasure in interaction and inflection. How does your teaching acting feed into that?
Cone: Nah, almost entirely subconsciously. I don’t mind the question, but it’s just a really boring answer. It’s like when people ask me about casting, and I’m like, “Ugh.” I mean, I don’t mind the question but it’s literally just, I hire casting directors, they bring in actors, I pick my favorites and that’s the whole thing (laughs). I experience them as different, even though I know they feed into each other. I know that my having been an actor feeds into it, but when I’m directing I don’t feel like someone who’s leading with that ability, I feel like a director who loves movies. Teaching acting almost feels like I’m working out a different muscle, because in acting classes you’re actually talking about acting, and on a movie set you’re not. On a movie set it’s really more about getting people in the right mood and trying to step back and just film a thing. I feel so lucky and fortunate to be teaching acting at Northwestern, and I love actors and I’m good with them, but it would not be at the top of my list of choices of things to teach. I do it because I’m good at it. You know how we do things some things just because we’re good at them, not because we’re obsessed with them?
There’s very little in the way of theory—zero theory, zero terminology. I do a section in my intro class at Northwestern of American microbudget indies, so they’re doing Frank V. Ross scenes, they’re doing scenes from Zach Clark’s work. The next week we expand the budgetary horizons and they may be doing a scene from Superbad or The Social Network, so we’re going through different categories of stuff. Now I’m contradicting myself, because I said it was different but on the other hand—to be completely contradictory, I’m running the classes like a movie set. I’m saying, “I’m just going to treat this like I’m dragging you on set. I’m not going bullshit or throw terms at you. We’re just going to do it.” Work with the actors in both cases is 80% vibe. It’s just making them feel like they’re not being judged. Very little in the realm of specific line readings, almost none of that. It’s like surfing–get them started well and they’ll carry it through to the end. Sorry, I just vomited all that out.
I love the rare opportunity at Northwestern. This fall I’m doing a microbudget feature screenwriting class. I have no screenwriting training, so I’m going to go in and just be like, “This is your opportunity to write the low-budget feature of your dreams.” I have no syllabus really. People know I’m good with actors and I get those gigs and it’s how I make my living, but I don’t think… probably both are fountains that originated in college as a theater major. Just wanting to be treated well, to be respected, to be trusted, to feel the freedom to try things. But none of this is at the front of my mind, these aren’t conscious things or methods.
Filmmaker: OK, let’s talk about some shots. The walk and talk between Cyd and Katie is fun. There’s three layers. They’re in the foreground and walking towards the camera, behind them a mailman is delivering mail, so he keeps disappearing and reappearing in the middle ground, and in the background there’s a senior citizen in the back. So even though you have a long dialogue scene, there’s a lot of stuff going on to keep your eye moving. I wasn’t sure if you had staged it on purpose or just rolled with it, but then, about ten minutes later you actually recapitulate this question within the movie itself when Cyd and Katie are on the roof and are asked by the crew on the building roof opposite if they can appear in what they’re shooting.
Cone: I don’t know if I can remember doing those two scenes on set, but that’s really fascinating. I think for the walk and talk we had eight decent takes and picked the one that had the most activity. The one guy who passed in the background who didn’t even subliminally ruin the shot, by just glancing in the general direction. So no, we didn’t stage that, but we liked it. And then, to be honest, the scene with them on the roof was entirely about how we perceive trans and queer people. Going back to the thing of Cyd being fluidly comfortable with her bisexuality—one of the many things that I kept telling people before we made the movie was, “I want to make a movie that confuses straight girls.” Princess Cyd is kind of a traditional title, a classic fairytale sort of thing. Katie is a really, really handsome girl, and there’s no reason that a straight girl shouldn’t be attracted to her (laughs). I don’t know. Someone saw an early cut and said he liked it because on any given corner there’s gonna be a student/independent film being shot. So people were taking different things from it. But yeah—what we see from a distance versus the reality of something. I’m sorry that those weren’t as connected.
Filmmaker: No, it’s OK. It’s good for me to know I’m wrong. Can you talk about the slow zoom in on the outdoor lunch conversation? There’s these two women in isolation, there’s this tension, something bad could happen. It’s also just a good way to stage that scene and probably saved you some time as well.
Cone: It didn’t, because we shot coverage. No coverage was shot of the walk and talk, that was it, but it was the opposite for lunch. We shot full singles, close ups, mediums. They sat there eating corned beef for three hours, and it was too pretty. I know that sounds silly because there are other shots of the garden that are very beautiful, but it looked like a Thomas Kinkade painting. It was the only time we were like “Ugh, I can’t figure out what the angle is.” In the end I don’t remember whether it was her [DP Zoe White’s] idea or mine. Maybe it was hers. A lot of zooms were her idea. I was skeptical of the zooms, because they’re done a lot in indie films these days. So I vetted them and wanted to make sure that we weren’t just doing it to be arthousey or unusual. So that was the end of four hours of coverage, and we did probably five or six zooms.
Filmmaker: The scene where Cyd and Miranda are lying side by side in the backyard, seemed like a restaging of the opening and closing scene —
Cone: Of Henry?
Filmmaker: Yeah, the diagonals aren’t as severe, but –
Cone: Right, they’re not looking straight into the camera in this case, although now that I think of it I maybe wish I’d done that. It wasn’t a conscious connection to Henry, but what it was is a tough scene to figure out how to shoot in an aesthetically pleasing way. Especially with the overhead, in both Henry and Princess Cyd, I fought my own impulses to think, “This is too quirky, this feels too symmetrical or, like early 2000s quirk, like Thumbsucker or something.” Ultimately something clicks and you’re like “No, they’re authentic and lovely, and this is a nice way of shooting this.” I have nothing much to say about that except that, much like dinner table scenes, side-by-side scenes are very difficult to shoot interestingly, and you have to figure out how to do it.
Filmmaker: I mean, you’re getting further into your filmography. I think I could blind ID your films visually or based on certain tonal, thematic and performance things. I think you seem a little resistant to having a codified visual style, but also, you’re building a toolkit, right?
Cone: I’m not resistant to it, and I hope with the internal rhythms and pacing and scenes of dialogue that there’s something underneath that’s hopefully feels distinct. But to your point: each of those films has a different cinematographer, but my conversations with them are largely the same—”I want to be striking and decisive but not showy.” Sometimes I wish they were messier. I used to show movies like Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and A Christmas Tale to my DPs and be like “I want it to be this wild.” But no matter what you store away, you’re gonna make what comes from within. Before Henry, I would’ve probably balked at 2.35. Even that was me being, “Oh, just suck it up and do it.” Or the looking into the camera thing, or even the slo-mo in Henry. There’s no slo-mo in Wise Kids, so Henry was me dipping my toes in, and then Cyd in some ways was maybe me trying to split the difference a little bit? Like, go back to the gentleness and slow steady pace of The Wise Kids but keep trying new things occasionally. I’m not saying you’re being critical, I like what you’re saying and I’m okay with the fact that there’s no visual mark as of yet, but there’s never a single moment I’m not aware of visually what’s going on, and that I’m not thinking first and foremost of camera, but always in conjunction with performance. That’s something that I value very much and feel is very underrated about George Cukor, as opposed to like a George Stevens. Cukor knew exactly what he was shooting visually and it excited him, as opposed to someone more workmanlike like Stanley Kramer.
Filmmaker: So tell me about Miranda’s house. That’s really important.
Cone: I spent the first six months of last year trying to make another film, and then this movie came together crazily in about eight weeks. The original Marilynne Robinson-based story that was in my head for about two years was set in the Tennessee mountains, and was going be a southern niece coming to her aunt’s mountain home. Suddenly I had an open summer in which I wasn’t gonna be making this other project, I was walking through this beautiful street with all these lovely homes in Chicago, and that’s when it clicked that I could transplant that story to Chicago and make another micro-budget film, which I didn’t think I would do. I really thought that Henry Gamble would be my last movie for under 200 grand. Not only was it not my last, who knows what I’ll do this year before I make this other bigger project next summer. Walking through these neighborhoods in Chicago inspired moving it to Chicago, so the house from the very first moment was key. The house was in my head before Cyd was. I mean Cyd as a specific Cyd.
I wanted one of the big, beautiful three-story houses that inspired the idea, but we had limited time to find a home. We were seeing some nice middle-class homes that were more Chicago style. Then a realtor friend gave me a stranger’s name, and whenever I get a stranger’s name I always assume it’s not going happen. I barely even consider scouting it, because I don’t want to go through the process of asking a stranger if I can shoot in their room. Me and my producers were like, “Let’s just go so we don’t regret it”–and it was a miracle. There were strangers with dogs in this garden who had zero concerns with the movie coming in to film. I think there were those people who live in houses for a while, then sell them and move on. You know these people? They exist. So for that reason I think that they liked that we wanted to paint. They were like “Sure, what about this color?” So, we sort of helped these people redo this home that they may or may not live in for that much longer. It was really an ideal situation. I couldn’t even believe that garden existed. That was the selling point. It’s a nice space for Miranda to inhabit.
Filmmaker: I know that you’re good with party scenes.
Cone: Thank you. It’s weird because I don’t really like social situations.
Filmmaker: Henry, Wise Kids and Princess Cyd all have party scenes, but they’re not all the same type of party.
Cone: This one was more fun to shoot than the others. It was a little more condensed, I had all the people for two days. Henry wasn’t a nightmare in any way, but I never had all the actors there to play at once. It wasn’t creating a party experience; very rarely did we have all twenty people there to just shoot and have fun and play. Princess Cyd, we had two full days to shoot this and we had everybody all day long. So sometimes we were just rolling. Zoe is the most daring, jump-in-and-do-it fast DP I’ve had. Some of the things Zoe was shooting before the AD even knew we were shooting. Some of them were shot before the sound guy even knew we were shooting. Zoe just starts rolling, even if we’re not ready.
What’s occurring to me right now is that this also goes back to Marilynne Robinson, because she writes a lot about the spiritual value of community. I don’t like parties, I don’t socialize. I like the idea of them, I like the idea of a community. If there’s a bunch of people that I love and there’s alcohol, I have a blast, I really do, but I have anxiety prior. I’m intimidated at any sort of public bar thing or outing. But what parties can be in cinema are—you can’t actively, in a 90-minute minute span, film a community being communal. You have to compartmentalize them into into smaller scale events. So even though I don’t love large gatherings of people, I do love the idea of a community of academics and spiritual people, and the party is the most direct shot into capturing that experience.
I did put a lot of thought into the food though. On a low budget, you can’t afford a full dinner party, so the cheap food that you buy, when you put it all together and mess it up has to look like it was expensive or substantial. So, it’s an illusion of a gourmet experience, or a higher-class experience, when really what you’re basically doing is turning bags of salad and rotisserie chicken into a fully and elegantly prepared dinner party. That’s an example of something I did get really picky about, the production design of the messy kitchen. You’ve seen indie films where some prop person just, like, took a plate out and put some crumbs on it.