|Doing It His Own Way in Rhode Island|
|by Robert Pushkar|
The distance between Jamestown, Rhode Island, where Stephen Geller calls home, and Hollywood might as well be the distance from Jamestown to Tralfamadore, the fictional planet in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which Geller translated to the screen in the early 1970s. Geller, who is Director of the Screenwriting Program at Boston University’s College of Communication, has lived in both U.S. locations. Hands down, he prefers the picturesque hamlet nestled quaintly on Naragansett Bay despite the fact that the heart and soul of filmmaking, to which he has devoted so much of his life, is a continent away. But Geller is an iconoclast and rebel and, now in mid-life, he tunes-out Hollywood’s modus operandi and instead seeks new ways for independent filmmakers to make films and find distribution outlets.
To that end, Geller set out to practice what he preaches and teaches: he wrote, produced, and directed a feature, MOTHER’S LITTLE HELPERS, based on his 1983 unpublished novel. “One of the reasons I did this,” he says animatedly over lunch at A Slice of Heaven in Jamestown, “is to show that you can make a film with little money, and that it can be beautiful. The film actually is very pretty, the cast is extraordinary-looking, the ambiance is very mysterious and magical, and it didn’t cost a fortune to do.”
Geller serendipitously drew inspiration from a counter girl at this same restaurant. As with Proust’s nibble of madeleine, it all came back to him in a flash of insight. Geller’s perceptive sizing up of the young teen (“tough, neat, interesting, commanding her own space, and an incredible ‘fu_k you’ attitude”) sparked a sudden remembrance of something past-his story written two decades earlier about nine juvenile delinquent girls who break out of a reform school and form a secret cabal involving archetypes from ancient Greece. The girls, it seems, discover from a Ouija board that they might be reincarnated beings with an ancient past and that they were jailed for crimes that those archetypes represent. In the “metaphysical thriller,” as Geller calls it, the plot twists and turns between the analytical world of the institution and the mystical world of the girls’ past lives. Years ago, Geller taught at a reform school in Los Angeles similar to the fictional one. No doubt he followed the dictum, write from experience, when he sat down to limn his novel, and years later, the screenplay. Geller cast his restaurant muse to play a role in the film, but during rehearsal the girl opted for ice hockey rather than acting, and so he cast his net elsewhere.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Geller was whisked off to Paris as a young child after his father, a Hollywood musician, became entangled in the communist-hunt during McCarthism’s hysteria. His father was subpoenaed to testify which, in effect, was tantamount to being blacklisted, and therefore he could not find work. So he gathered his family and fled to France. Geller spent his formative years in the French capital and returned to Los Angeles in his teens. With his father he wrote lyrics for musical compositions. Later, he studied at Dartmouth and at the Yale Drama School. He moved to Vermont and then Rome where he lived and wrote scripts.
Back in Los Angeles, Geller played the Hollywood game, writing screenplays and novels, and hustling projects to direct. He had nine contracts to direct films, but for a variety of reasons they never happened. “Sometimes I would walk away because the elements were not right,” he says. “If my name is going to be on it, I don’t want it to be bad.” Already he realized the Hollywood of legend no longer existed. The studio system had caved to moguls of a a different stripe-young MBAs and number crunchers hell-bent on exploiting the youth market.
During the “auteur period” of the ‘70s, directors, he believes, became important, but screenwriters lost ground. Geller says, “You never knew if you were going to work, or if your work was going to get produced. Directors never committed to the talent or the writer, rather they committed to keeping the deal alive. That’s when you began to see scripts with six, seven, nine, or ten scriptwriters. The ‘original story by’, written by a single writer, was rewritten by three writers who were never in the same room. Then the script was rewritten by five other writers.” Geller says the Writers Guild rationalized, “We are not a union of writers. We are a union of rewriters. They never, never found a way of protecting an original screenplay the way the Dramatists Guild protects its playwrights and the Authors League protects its published authors. In those organizations the word begins and ends with the writer, but not so in Hollywood.
“Writing a screenplay today, unless you are directing it, is like putting a meal in the middle of a forest. Every kind of animal is going to come up and fight over it-grab food, throw food, crap on the plate. That meal is so destroyed by the time everyone has had his or her way with it, you’re lucky if you see forty percent of that film.”
Still, Geller reached for the stars-perhaps Tralfamadore-when he was selected to write the script for SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. He has nothing but praise for director George Roy Hill whom he calls a “writer’s best friend.” From Hill’s meticulous reading of a script in preparation for shooting, Geller learned an analytical method which he uses in his teaching at Boston University. He says it involves constant questioning: “What do you mean by this? What do you want the audience to feel? What is the character’s intention in this scene. Hill didn’t want to go on the set and wing it.”
In translating the novel to the screen, he hit a stone wall in the development of Vonnegut’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. To Geller, Billy was so passive that he was dull. The other characters worked dramatically, but Billy lacked affect. Frustrated, he telephoned Vonnegut. “Is there anything he cares about?” he asked the author. Vonnegut paused, then said, “He cares about Spot. He loves his dog.” Anything else? Vonnegut said, “He loves his Cadillac.” Geller thanked him and hung up. He ruminated, and then it came to him. He rewrote the dog as Billy’s main love interest and devised a raunchy scene with a used car salesman who had sold Billy the Cadillac. “It was the funniest scene in the picture,” Geller says. But Hill read it and demurred. “This isn’t going to happen,” Hill told him. Geller insisted. Hill caved. “We’ll shoot it,” Geller recalls Hill saying, “but that’s the first scene that’s going to be cut.” And it was.
After his first time out as writer, producer, and director, Geller has gained confidence about making a film on the cheap. MOTHER’S LITTLE HELPERS rang in at $125,000. “Everyone involved in the film owns a percentage of it. The crew was paid the minimum. Actors and production assistants got no pay. I paid room and board for everybody.”
The film had a 29-day shoot, most of it in and around Jamestown and in Newport across the bay. Actors and crew were housed in dorms at Rhode Island School of Design. Scenes were filmed at Salve Regina College. Ninety-eight percent of the cast consisted of BU’s students, faculty, and alums. His wife, Kae, also a professor of film at BU, played a leading role in the film. From an artist friend he borrowed his studio situated on a promontory along the sea which became “the Tower” in the film. Also, adjacent land and ocean served as backdrops for other scenes.
To keep within budget, Geller used a trick he learned at Svensk Filmindustri in Sweden. In the offices there, the revelation occurred as a “mystical experience,” one of many that has layered his life. At a meeting with a studio head, Geller sensed an uncanny feeling that he’d been there before. Looking out a window, he said, “I’ve seen this landscape before.” His host asked if he liked Ingmar Bergman’s films. “He’s my master,” Geller replied. Soon he found out that much of THE SEVENTH SEAL was shot right behind the office in several proximate locations. Bergman, apparently, was judicious artistically, just moving his camera a few feet around the spot as he created different settings. Geller adapted the technique in his Rhode Island location. Equipment moves inflate costs, the filmmaker learned, so when cameras began rolling for MOTHER’S LITTLE HELPERS, this insight was an invaluable money-saving strategy. “You make it as geographically viable as possible.”
Not only is Geller a creator, he’s also intrigued by the process of creation. “What’s there not fascinating about the creative process?” he asks. “It’s what makes us interesting and wondrous. It’s memory, the divine memory. Memory tells us where we came from, how we saw things, who we are, and helps shape where we’re going.
“But it contains within it all the gifts of the muses. The divine feminine is the idea that produces memory. Memory is a feminine thing, the sheikinah, the bride, the feminine principle [in Jewish mysticism].
“When you hear great music, read a great book, see a great painting, a great piece of theater or film, your consciousness is so lifted that you’re taken out of yourself. You connect and mesh with the consciousness of the artist. Proust and Joyce write their novels in front of you. You partake of its creation.”
Can creativity, specifically, creative writing be taught? Geller says, “The craft can be taught. The passion and the will to create cannot be.” He shares an axiom: Idea + Force + Form = Idea realized. He continues, “Forms can be taught. Passion, you have to come up with. Imagination, nobody can teach that. Life experience, nobody can teach that. That’s yours. That’s your gift. Idea is what you bring to it, the intention.”
In one sense, Geller’s destiny has come full circle. Since he’s spent a big chunk of his life in Italy, it’s not without irony that the first taker of MOTHER’S LITTLE HELPERS was RAI, the state-owned Italian television network. Happily, Geller says, “I knew I was going to sell it in Italy and in Europe.” The same day the film was turned down by the Rhode Island Film Festival, it was picked up by RAI, the result of a friendship with a former producer and film distributor in Europe and America. After the DVDs are pressed, his friend will represent the film in other European markets.
Geller believes that new ways of distributing films are inevitable. “You need to find other ways of getting films out there. Ultimately, the Internet, that’s where it’s going to be. There’s always someone who wants to hear or see a story.”
To budding filmmakers Geller offers advice: “You’d better love what you’re doing because you’re going to get up at 4 a.m. and have three hours sleep for the next 30 days. And you can’t get sick.
“Love what you’re doing. Write what you’re doing. What vision turns you on is what you want to see on the screen. That’s the one you ought to pursue. Study the craft, whether it’s acting, directing, or cinematography. Make sure before you begin that the script is airtight. And don’t think of Hollywood as the only outlet for your work. Make sure you have somebody who’s going to give you the money. Or do it yourself.”