Friday, 8 June 2012

Interview with Tennyson E. Stead

Tennyson E. Stead is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and founder of 8 Sided Films. His webseries, The Starmind Record, won awards at the 2012 L.A. Web Fest for Directing and Editing. 
   I first encountered Tennyson when I ran a post featuring The Starmind Record. He popped up again a few months later, whilst in the throes of pre-production and fundraising for his next project, a movie called Quantum Theory. He came across as an intelligent, energetic, and committed filmmaker, with a philosophical bent, so I asked him a few questions.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Mostly, I'm from the Boston area. I was born in Newton, Massachusetts.

*  Does that make you a “Southie” in The Departed or The Town sense of the word?
No. South Boston is where Southies are from. South Boston is the Irish part of the harborfront, basically.
*  What school did you go to
I studied theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and I'm a proud alum of Phillips Andover Academy.

The Social Network:  The John Harvard statue is fake, the snow is fake, 
but the building is the genuine Paresky Commons at Phillips Academy. 
*  When did you first take an interest in films/stories?
Right away. Before grade school, my grandmother used to help me make storybooks about spacemen riding around on friendly dinosaurs. Learning to write was something I put a lot of work into, because her health was failing and my parents were constantly concerned that I was exhausting her.  
   Films got me excited as soon as I figured out what they wereand there was some confusion at first. My mother had a hard time explaining that we couldn't just... go to Dagobah. I eventually got the hang of it. When I realized someone could just make all these things up, I wanted to be that person.
   My first stage production in high school sealed the deal. For the first time, I was around people who appreciated my eccentricities.

Luke Skywalker goes to Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back
*  What was your first paying job?
I helped my parents pay for my books at Andover by working in fast food restaurants and coffee houses over the summers and holidays, but my first real job was as a stagehand.

*  When did you move to L.A., and why?
Back in the winter of 2002, I came out here to put my hands on the entertainment industry and sort out what exactly I wanted to do with it.

What was your first job in the movie business?
My first job in Los Angeles was cold-calling investors on behalf of an independent film company that made direct-to-DVD films of highly dubious creative or financial value. At the time, I didn't know what I was getting myself into... and despite some hard lessons in the beginning, I wound up helping to produce films under some very cool people.

Keith Kjarval
*  What training or mentoring have you received?
My only mentor in the industry has been Keith Kjarval, president of Unified Pictures. Keith made his name in the film business on the strength of his considerable sales and finance experience, and working with him over the years has helped me understand the forces that drive a successful financial venture in any industry.
   In a lot of ways, that's what finally gave me the confidence to start building my own homestead in Hollywood. At the same time, the strength of my craft comes from thirty years of telling stories. There's no substitute for that.

What was the best advice you received at the start of your career?
"Keep writing." 

*  Why did you name your production company “8 Sided”?
Playing tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons back in high school was what first got me thinking about directing. I usually played with kids who were acting in the theater department, and the games were run by folks who really knew what they were doingthe stories that came out of those sessions were some of my most intense and engrossing experiences I'd had up to that point. Watching people I knew share things through performance that they had no idea they were capable of... that got me hooked!
   Over the years, I've written several tabletop games myself. All the rules I made up were based on a system of chance using eight-sided dice.

*  Much of the interesting filmmaking happening at the moment is coming out of filmmaking collectives. You refer to your production company as a repertory film company.” What’s the difference?
Filmmaking collectives seem very focused on sharing production resources, which is important... and at the same time, the ability to make a movie is only part of the puzzle. 
   As a business model, repertory theater has thrived for centuries by not overlooking the audience as part of the well-being of the company. A repertory ensemble works together when it comes to production, but we also share accountability for cultivating and maintaining our audience. Social media gives folks like us the power to build global communities, so repertory business principles can finally be applied to film.

*  Most young filmmakers understand the need to build social networks, but you go further than that. Can you explain your approach to “building the audience”?
Have you ever tried to get people to come to a theatrical or musical performance? Even with people you know, it's impossibly hard to pack a house... and movies open in more than one house simultaneously, with multiple shows a day! If you're not ready to fill five movie theaters, four times a day, for three straight weeks, then even the most modest American theatrical opening is beyond your reach.
   If you do manage to fill those theaters, then you'd better be ready to expand to thirty screens. Perform well on those, and now you're getting somewhere!
   Our approach to building an audience is to find the people who like what we do, and to use every resource we have to keep them entertained. If we work hard, then the three years or so it takes us to get this film through production and our first festival season will prepare us to fill theaters. If we then continue to keep our audience engaged, the same people who came and saw the film will be there to make the next opening even bigger.
   My advice, if you want a career in this business, is to take full accountability for who-shows-up to see your shows. Do not assume that getting people to come is someone else's problem, because one day it will turn out to be your problem after all!

From The Last Shot, a great examination of the Hollywood dream.
*  It has often been said that “Hollywood is the only place in the world where you can die from encouragement.” Do you think that’s true?
Definitely. There is a lot of talk in Los Angeles. People move here because they are hoping to realize a dream, and not necessarily because they have polished their craft and made show business a way of life. All the time, you meet folks who expect Hollywood to take them by the hand and help them become the actor or writer they know they should be. Folks come to Los Angeles expecting destiny to take over once they arrive.
   Calling attention to the deficiencies of someone else's work might just bring unwanted attention to your own, which in turn might scare destiny away. There's also a lot of people who simply don't know what makes a good performance, screenplay, or what-have-you. Lastly, everyone is worried that the person they wind up speaking critically of is the one person who was destined to make them a star. Folks in Los Angeles deal with all this by buttering one another up constantly, and then we dignify it by calling it politics.
   Bear in mind, however, that there is a distinction between the business of filmmaking on the one hand, and the business of breaking into Hollywood on the other. These kinds of conversations are more or less exclusive to the latter of the two, which is a world rife with snake-oil salesmen and lots of empty promises. The world of filmmaking is basically like theater, but with more illusion and lots more money.

*  Tell us something about your next project, Quantum Theory.
When a defense contractor steals next-gen reality-bending quantum technology, the two sassy geniuses who invented it will stop at nothing to get it back!
America Young
Danielle Jones
Quantum Theory is a science-fiction heist movie with a very fun, goofy, quirky pace and tone. Our two stars,  Danielle K. Jones and America Young, have an on-screen relationship that's very much like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men - and their relationship is what gets them through. These two girls have created something that literally allows them to bend and alter the fabric of the universe, and it's been stolen by the most resourceful, thorough, and completely unethical people you can imagine. This is a movie with exceptionally high stakes.
   We've chosen this film as the one we want to introduce ourselves with, basically because it's so much fun. This movie is goofy in the same ways we are. We're hoping the fun of making and watching it will draw people in. If you're looking to find out more, join our community at!

*  If you could recommend just one filmmaking advice book to a newcomer in Adelaide, what would that book be?

Read anything by Stanislavski. Everything in cinema boils down to the action of the characters, and what the actor is doing. Stanislavski, in my opinion, has written the definitive body of work on that subject.

*  Name your ten all-time favorite movies.
Thank you for the questions, Henry!  If anyone has anything additional they would like to know, you can always find me on our own community pages, here: 

Break a leg, everyone!

Here's the creative team for Quantum Theory discussing the project on an Indiegogo fundraising video. 

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1 comment:

Kathy said...

This is a thorough introduction to a director I had never heard of. The movie sounds good, although judging from the trailer it may not be as funny as the makers think it is. The actors come across as very appealing. Mr Stead has thought long and deeply about movie-making, his comments are the best part of the post.
Henry, I can't believe you illustrated Mr Stead's comment about Dagobah. I vaguely remembered there was a planet of that name in Star Wars but it is so much better to have a picture explaining a throwaway comment like that. All your interviews are detailed and well-rounded, they ask the questions I want to ask.