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A Living Cinematic Organism: Stephen Cone on "Henry Gamble's Birthday Party"

"Henry Gamble's Birthday Party," written, directed and edited by Chicago filmmaker/actor Stephen Cone, is a dizzyingly confident ensemble film, switching back and forth between farce and poignancy without once shattering the mood. The film is an honest, humorous look at a group of teens coming of age during the lead character's title event. Before the party, the characters were one way, afterwards they are another. The revelations are not all visible or vocalized, but the shifts that take place are enormous. Sometimes the transformation is an internal shift where something clicks into place, or a realization that life is more complex than they thought it was, or a moment as seemingly small as a girl dipping her toe in the swimming pool. 

Henry and his friends are all deeply involved in their Evangelical church, attending youth groups and Bible studies, getting ready for the church's summer camp program. It is their whole world. Unlike a lot of films that deal with faith, especially Evangelical Christianity, "Henry Gamble" inhabits that world from the inside with no condescension, no superior sneering. Cone grew up in South Carolina, and his father was a pastor, so this world is very familiar to him. He treats it with equal parts affection and honesty. The kids are teenagers, and their sexuality is exploding, and many don't know what to do about it, how to navigate their adolescence while remaining true to their Christian convictions. Henry clearly struggles with his sexuality, although he's been so sheltered he barely has a word for "gay," or even a conception of what the world would look like if he came out. "Henry Gamble" avoids some of the pitfalls of the cliched coming-out drama by investing in the journeys of every single person at that party, including the adults, sitting up on the patio, looking down on the exuberant kids in the pool with pleasure, envy, and (in some cases) fearful judgment. "Henry Gamble's Birthday Party" is a true ensemble film, and Cone's attitude is that of an affectionate humanist. Nobody is a villain, even those with more uptight outlooks on life and sexuality. It's a portrait of a world rarely seen in film, at least not in this way, and it's presented by a director/writer who knows that world's rhythms and respects the struggles of those who try to live within that system. 

Stephen Cone has directed many shorts, as well as a couple of features, some of which have done quite well on the indie circuit. Cone's 2011 film "The Wise Kids," is another coming-of-age story and, like "Henry Gamble," has, as its backdrop, a Southern Baptist world, looking at what that upbringing does (good and bad) to people in the process of growing up. "The Wise Kids" got very good reviews from Roger Ebert, Variety, The Village Voice, as well as being a New York Times Critics' Pick. 

Cone and I spoke recently about "Henry Gamble's Birthday Party," which opens this Friday.

Let's talk first about the faith aspect of the film. This is something that Hollywood often gets very, very wrong. It is clear in your film that the environment isn't the "Jesus Camp" brand of political Christianity, but a community that shares a faith that has deep personal meaning for them. This is not often seen, at least in the movies. 

There was never a moment where I had to make a conscious choice to humanize these characters. It was telling a story about people I grew up with. That's why I think there are so many films out there that don't succeed in that area because they're made by outsiders. That brings up another problem of the movie, for me: how to evoke their world without ever leaving the house. So much of their social existence is in church, a place we never see in the movie. That was tricky. For some reason, and I can't explain this, "Henry Gamble" seems to be clicking with non-Christian audiences much more than "The Wise Kids" did. A lot of Jewish people responded to "Henry Gamble" very strongly for some reason—maybe because we don't see the church—so it's potentially more universal.

How did you find this amazing ensemble?

I've had the same casting directors for the last couple films and they've been as important to this process as anyone else. There are 20 actors in Henry Gamble, and 18 of them came out of that traditional casting process. Pat Healy was a different process, and Tyler Ross who plays the boyfriend—we already had a relationship from "The Wise Kids"—and he was always going to be in "Henry Gamble." Pat Healy came in late in the game. Pat was interesting because he was about 10 years younger than I originally envisioned the character so he wasn't a possibility at first. But we were brainstorming about people we met out on the festival circuit—someone we could put into this group of Chicago actors. Pat had never been asked to play the father of a 20-year-old before, so he took a week to think about it. And the same thing with Elizabeth Laidlaw too—I originally envisioned her character a little bit older. But having 40-something parents of teenagers happens in that world.

Right, because people get married at 20, 21.

Yeah, so it made sense. Pat joined up, and it ended up being really interesting to bring in a Los Angeles actor to play that particular role. There's something separate about that character anyway. It worked. Everybody else are great Chicago actors. I don't know how many people we saw, 200-300 people total, and then we narrowed it down. Cole Doman originally came in for another role, and then we had him read for Henry. The other interesting thing about this process—all of these are reminders of how production circumstances can affect the narrative: originally I really wanted it to be like a prequel to "The Wise Kids." I was interested in the burgeoning sexuality of 15-year-olds. But what we realized very quickly was that A.) you needed the skill of slightly older actors to be able to pull off that sexual confusion and B.), no 15-year-old actor's parents were going to let them audition. So we started to skew the kids a little older and I don't think the movie suffers as a result. It's an example of how you have to grapple with practical logistical situations that end of shaping the narrative. 

The fact that everyone was a little older showed that people are late-bloomers in that environment because everyone is so divided from their impulses. Everyone, not just the kids. We all feel those divides in life, but in this particular environment, sexuality—especially girls' sexuality and gay sexuality—is so threatening. 

Evangelical America doesn't even celebrate heterosexual sexuality! When you grow up in that environment, you end up with a lot of really lonely adults. There's a lot of really beautiful qualities to the Southern Evangelical world, which is the world I grew up in. My father is a pastor, so it's a world I love in a lot of ways, but one of the ugly parts of it is the lack of emphasis on the importance of pleasure and joy. So much of it is: we're living for the next world, we're lucky to even be here because we screwed up back at the beginning of time, and we should do nothing but be grateful that we're even allowed to be a speck. That's the essential philosophy of the salvation scenario. We were so shitty that we had to be redeemed. That's the Gospel. So what does that do to people's psyches?

One of the images that really stayed with me was the girl putting her toes in the pool. It was heroic, and it was just toes in the water!

When we screened a rough cut, over a year ago at this point, a good friend of mine who's really into mysticism went off on this whole thing about how the water in the film is the underworld, and I was like, "None of that was intended, but this is really beautiful that you got that!" 

Did you rehearse at all?

We didn't. I was a theater major and I'm a self-taught filmmaker which is why it took me so long to crack the indie film culture. Everyone assumes that this is my first or second movie, but I've been making these things for the last ten years. Many got out there in a really lovely way but a lot of them weren't up to snuff. It's been a long slow process. There wasn't time to rehearse "Henry Gamble," but eventually it became a process I liked. I'm rehearsing a play right now and obviously I see the value of rehearsal, but for a film I really like the fact that the first time these people are interacting is when the camera's rolling. 

There are so many different narratives going on at the same time, and the editing helps with the pace and also brings out the structure of your script. Could you talk a little bit about your editing choices and how you think about that process?

The other films I've made came in with ridiculously bloated first cuts. There was an hour's worth of deleted scenes in "The Wise Kids." This is my first film where the first cut came in not just under two hours, but under 90 minutes. We shot what I wrote, and the first cut was pretty close to what you saw. I enjoy the editing process even more than the writing process. Writing is hard, getting it right is hard, and also as I'm writing I'm always thinking, "Where will the money come for all of this?" It's just a different mindset. Editing is a little bit looser because you've already got it, it's done, and you can play with the footage. People call editing the final re-write, which is true. I come from a musical family, and editing is the one area where I feel my piano training growing up coming into play. 

There were changes made in the editing process. For example, the mother/daughter conversation in the car was originally one long scene. And in the final film we move away from that to the girl watching television, she's not watching "The Red Balloon" yet, she's just flipping channels, and then the father comes in and asks about Ricky, and then we go out to the kids in the hammock. 

Cutting away from that conversation helped because when you go back to it, you feel that the wine they've been drinking has started to change the atmosphere between them.

A lot of people edit their films because they stubbornly don't want to relinquish control. It's not that for me. A.) I enjoy it. And B.) it's because I'm able to do it and the movie is then completed faster. I don't know why this is, and maybe it's because of my budget, but really good post-production people are harder to find. A really special post-production collaboration is for some reason more difficult to establish than a DP relationship or an actor relationship. You need someone to commit to the post-production in a really fierce way. 

Growing up, as a young actor/burgeoning filmmaker, who were your influences? Who were the people who turned you on to wanting to do this?

I'm someone who really loves actors and I have a theatre background. I come from a performative world and I constantly had to push against this notion that acting came first. I was always a cinephile first and foremost. So someone will say something like, "Your film feels like a play!" And my stomach just turns. Because I am interested in movies. This movie takes place in one house, not because I'm interested in plays or theatre, but because I'm interested in locations that are purely cinematic. 

I went through the obvious path: early teens, I was into stuff like John Grisham adaptations. And then in high school I discovered the Academy Awards section of the video store and I watched "Ordinary People" and "Kramer vs. Kramer." And then late in high school in South Carolina, I suddenly was watching "The Sweet Hereafter" and "The Ice Storm" and "Fargo" with my dad. You go from action films to Oscar films to perceived classics to independent film. In college, I discovered 70s films, and Ingmar Bergman, and the "canon." I had one year in New York after college, and the Tower Records there was my film education. I was a scared sad lonely 21-year-old in New York discovering Abbas Kiarostami, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Claire Denis. The deal was sealed when I was a kid, though. I remember reading a making-of "Star Wars" book for kids, which was the first time that I realized that people actually made these things. I had a whole notebook filled with fake movie posters of movies I made up. My big three, personally, are John Cassavetes, Jean Renoir and George Cukor. And Jonathan Demme is my favorite living American filmmaker. 

This statement could come back to haunt me but I never want the screenplay to feel THAT complete. I'm getting feedback on a script I think I'm going to make this summer and it's tough because if you get it too perfect, what is there left to do? I am also professionally inspired by André Téchiné, Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin—these alive, wonderfully novelistic French filmmakers, they're always on my mind. I feel like I watch "A Christmas Tale" before every movie I make, to remind me what a living cinematic organism looks like.

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