Stuart C. Paul earned a degree in screenwriting from University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television. While in school, Paul wrote a short film called Confessions of a Late Bloomer, and later, he wrote another short titled Orion Slave Girls Must Die!!! In 2010 he ventured into the world of comic books by authoring Ides of Blood, a comic book mini-series published by Wildstorm/DC Comics. Paul has recently returned to movie making with his indie film, The Lord of Catan.
Featuring the talents of Joss Whedon alumni Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing, and Person of Interest) and Fran Kranz (Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing, and JourneyQuest), The Lord of Catan is about a young married couple whose relationship is tested by playing Settlers of Catan.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in writing? Was there a specific moment in your life that you look back on as the beginning of your love with writing?
Stuart C. Paul: There wasn’t any watershed moment. It’s just something I started doing when I was a kid for fun. I liked to write stories about a crime-fighting karate badass named Hyak and his sidekick, the AWOL Marine Menacer Z2. It wasn’t until around middle school that I realized I wanted to be a writer. That realization does change things. It’s like blinking. You do it involuntarily, and it’s a part of you. Then if you actually start to think about blinking, it makes you conscious of the act and changes it. Anyway, I wrote a lot of Star Trek fan fiction in middle school. In high school, I realized I hated quotation marks and loved movies, so screenwriting seemed like the perfect calling.
Yanes: I know lots of people in the entertainment who went to school to be writers and film producers, and a I know a lot learned on their own. What are your thoughts about going to school for film/TV production? Given that you did go to school for this field, how do you feel the academic environment has helped shape you?
Paul: At the end of the day, you’re always learning on your own. Constantly creating is the most important thing. I can’t really speak to the production side of things that much. I was in the screenwriting program, and it was a great experience to basically have multiple writing workshops every week. I think it’s a great thing to learn the standards of the craft and cinematic storytelling; to give and receive feedback. There’s always a danger that you’ll be shaped too much by your instructors and forced to think a certain way, but I think the benefits outweigh the downsides of formal instruction since very few people are natural storytellers (a la Tarantino). You always have the ability to throw out the rulebook, but it’s good to know why there is a rulebook and why certain things work the way they do.
We did some cursory film production courses, but I really did not ever spend much time on a set—save for a couple student films I wrote. Even my internships were more on the development side. So, speaking as someone who went to school specifically for screenwriting and just directed his first short since graduating, I felt somewhat unsure of myself in the production world. But as it turns out, the screenwriting program actually did prepare me very well and gave me most of the tools I needed through the production courses they had the writers take. I had a basic knowledge of lenses, I knew how to line a script, how to manipulate film language and how to edit. When I was preparing to shoot this short film, I did prepare by learning more about cinematography, which I think helped me to be able to really communicate well with the DP.
So in terms of giving you a structured way to learn the principles and the tools you will be using on set, I am a big proponent of film school. It’s also very important to have a time when you can focus one hundred percent on the art and craft rather than the commercial side of the industry. Basically, I think it’s a great thing to have a time when you are in an academic environment that fosters creativity in the way film school does.
Yanes: Before we get into your film, The Lord of Catan, I was hoping you could a bit about your comic book, Ides of Blood. What was the inspiration for this story? Also, what did this experience teach you about the comic book industry?
Paul: The inspiration for Ides of Blood was how completely uninspiring I found anything involving vampires. Usually ideas don’t work this way, but I happened to be specifically brainstorming comic ideas. When you’re brainstorming, vampires are going to come up sooner or later. When they did, I said, “Vampires are boring. What would make them not boring? If they were assassinating Julius Caesar.”
As for what it taught me about the comic industry? Man, I’ll tell you—I thought the film industry was hard, but I think comics might be harder. Even though agents suck, it helps to have someone on your side to market you in film and TV. I know some dudes have comic agents, but mostly you’re on your own, so breaking in is pretty tough. I mean, I had a comic published by DC, and I still haven’t broken into comics.
On a more practical level, communication between the writer and artist is absolutely crucial. I had a project go south because the artist and I simply were unable to communicate effectively. You also have to be aware of how much time it takes an artist to do their job. In film, you’re constantly rewriting before you shoot, then you’re changing stuff while you shoot, and then you’re altering things in post, so the process of creation is extremely fluid. But this becomes difficult for a comic artist if you as the writer are also trying to be a director. It’s not that a writer shouldn’t be very precise and demanding with revisions to get the image he wants for a certain panel, but you have to understand what it means in terms of the artist’s process. It also depends on the artist’s temperament. Some guys will work with you because they believe the process will make their art better. Some guys are just too lost in their own ego to let anyone tell them what to do. Realizing this definitely pushed me back towards directing my own projects.
I love writing comics and seeing the world come to life on the page, but it’s also sort of like methadone for the real drug—which is directing film. Coppola said that filmmaking is one of the few truly dictatorial occupations left. With the exception of studio interference, everyone is working to achieve the director’s vision. It’s still a collaboration, but the hierarchy is more clearly defined. Still, there are times in both mediums where you bump between what you and your collaborators are seeing. In the end, they both have the same challenges, just in different ways.
Yanes: Now on to The Lord of Catan. What was your inspiration for this film? Have you ever had a game night that took a turn for the worse?
Paul: The idea came to me from playing the game with my wife. I had been looking for a short film that I could write and direct, but everything I wrote was too ambitious and expensive for my first foray back into directing since film school. Then, as we were playing a game of Settlers of Catan on the iPad, we started getting into it, trash talking, rejecting trades, that kind of thing—and I realized this was a movie I could shoot in one location with two actors. As for the details of that fateful game, I am afraid that I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Let’s just say my nipples may never recover.
Yanes: Once you had the story for this film laid out, how did you go about planning its production?
Paul: I did a lot of storyboarding, which is nice because it uses a different part of your brain than writing. I find it very relaxing. I also collected reference images—just like I would for a comic book—of costumes, bedrooms, furniture, props and especially screencaps from movies that depicted the visual look and emotional feel that I wanted to convey with each scene. Then I called up a producer I knew to ask if he’d help me produce it. He at first said yes. Then he saw my storyboards and shot list and realized it was more than he thought he was signing up for. I scrambled to try and find another producer to replace him so I could shoot the movie while I had some downtime between screenplay projects. Ultimately, I decided I would have to delay the shoot. This turned out to be a good thing.
After the first creative team fell apart, it gave me some more time to revise the script and storyboards. Fortunately, during my scramble to find a replacement producer the first time around, I met Lisa Barrett McGuire. When I was ready to get back into the film again, she came on board to produce. After that, the rest of the team came together piece by piece. I brought on another producer, Jason Dolan, who introduced me to Fran. Finding the right DP was the next big step. I met a few guys, but Pawel was the only one with whom I felt an immediate sense of collaboration and communication. I knew that we were seeing the same movie, and he brought his own ideas that perfectly complemented what I wanted to do.
Yanes: I learned about this project because of Kickstarter. How did you approach setting up a Kickstarter campaign for this film? For instance, did you study any successful Kickstarter projects to give you sense of how to design a pitch and reward options?
Paul: My wife and I had funded Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter bonanza in the past, so I was familiar with backer updates and such. My producer sent me a bunch of Kickstarters to check out. I watched the Veronica Mars Project, the Zack Braff thing, the Charlie Kaufman animated short and a couple others. Also, my wife showed me the Double Fine project videos—she backed their first game. I really liked the Massive Chalice project video—way better than the Veronica Mars video, which was pretty much just, “Look! Actors! Give us money!” Which, apparently, was all they needed.
Actually, that brings up the most important element of the Kickstarter—the actors. I was always planning to run a Kickstarter to help cover the cost of the film, but I knew that the common denominator between all the wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns was that they had a built-in fanbase. I hadn’t been planning on getting anyone famous to be in the film, but after Fran agreed to do it, I realized we’d need an actress of equal caliber. Obviously Fran and Amy have a large following of dedicated fans, so I owe Fran and Amy a huge debt of thanks. As for reward options, we were careful not to offer too many rewards that had a lot of overhead.
Yanes: You mentioned in your Kickstarter pitch that you invested about 50K in this film before you turned to Kickstarter. What has this process taught you about film financing?
Paul: Um, be reckless with money and everything will be okay? I mean, I knew it wasn’t a wise decision to invest all this money in a short film, but I just had to do it for the sake of my artistic sanity. In all seriousness, it does make you weigh things differently when the money is coming out of your own bank account. It’s certainly nicer to be able to fund the film yourself so you don’t have to answer to anyone else or compromise for investors, but it’s definitely more stressful. I mean, history is replete with examples of idiots who blew their entire savings to make a short film that completely sucks. I was just hoping I wasn’t one of those guys.
I was always split between the artistic side that wanted whatever the movie needed, no matter the cost—and my business side, who had to write the check. It ended up being the kind of thing where the DP and I would look at a shot that I wanted to get that would require an expensive rig. And he’d say, “with a 12-foot jib, we could get the shot to look like this, and with the 21-foot jib, we could get it to look like this.” And we found that with a little extra work, the 12-foot jib would do the job just as well and save me a thousand bucks.
So, I’m not sure if I’ve learned anything or not. I guess, I’d say you just have to know what you’re selling people. I actually made a Venn diagram at one point of Fran fans, Amy fans and Catan fans. I figured that if we could market the movie to that intersection of humanity, we’d have a shot with the Kickstarter. I was very lucky that it turned out to be the case.
Yanes: The Lord of the Catan stars Amy Acker and Fran Kranz. What was it like to work with actors who have established careers? Also, what advice would you give to other young filmmakers about getting such respected talent?
Paul: Frankly, I was completely unprepared for it. That’s not to say that I was unprepared for the film—in fact, the actors felt I had prepared too much. They were very generous and agreed to a rehearsal day, even though they didn’t have to. It was good that we did, though. We actually had a discussion that came out of rehearsal that completely changed the end of one of the scenes of the movie. And the Catan/Cataan pronunciation argument they have in the Kickstarter video? That also came straight from rehearsal.
The rehearsal was interesting, though. It didn’t go at all like I thought. I had brought the script with a ton of alternate lines for things that I didn’t think were working, but it turned out that when the actors said the lines as they were originally written, it just worked. All my rewriting turned out to be unnecessary. It definitely gave me confidence to see them in rehearsal, because I immediately saw how good they both were, and I knew that I’d be able to depend on their instincts.
Ultimately, I learned the most from working with Amy and Fran. In all honesty, the first two days were a little tough on them. I had gone though my vision for the film so many times with so many people, that I think I failed to fully prepare them for what we were going to be doing and why. But once I brought them into my creative sphere and showed them the storyboards and really just opened things up for discussion to get their input and instincts, it was kind of amazing how things took off.
So, the best advice I have is to bring your actors into the creative process. That doesn’t mean letting them take over the film—but it does mean giving them room and knowing when to give slack and when to tighten the knot. It means you need to engage with them and get a rapport so that you’re comfortable with each other. I communicate very well with the camera, but I had to learn how to communicate with my actors. Once that line of communication was open, the things they came up with astounded me and really brought the set to life. Also, their bodies, voices and emotions are their tools—that makes their job so much more difficult than the rest of us, who can separate our bodies from our jobs. So, I guess what I’m saying is to not underestimate the importance of the actor as collaborator.
Yanes: You mentioned in the Kickstarter pitch that you have a wife. Would you like to take a moment to talk about how fantastic your wife is for supporting you through this process?
Paul: Yeah, man. You know, when you shoot a movie, your spouse shoots a movie. Liz had to put up with me being insanely stressed out during preproduction; then she was handling the nuts and bolts on set everyday—doing the unglamorous jobs that someone had to do in order to keep the crew running—and now she gets to deal with post. Not to mention the movie wouldn’t exist without her. The idea came from our life, and to a certain extent, the script as well. She was totally cool with me taking details straight out of our lives and putting them on screen. Liz is a fascinating creature. She’s not an obviously volatile person, but she is sarcastic as hell and does have a devilish fire that is ready to bitchslap the universe if it asks for it. I guess this movie is my way of saying how much I love that about her.
Yanes: Finally, what are some of your long term goals for this film? Also, are there any other projects fans should look forward to?
Paul: We’re going to submit the film to a bunch of festivals. I’d love to get it into this short film festival in Tokyo just so I can go back to Japan. My goals for this film are simply for it to be seen. It was mainly made for the sake of artistic expression and to serve as a calling card for my future work as a writer-director. So, I do hope it will be a stepping stone to the next project and start me on the path of making movies instead of writing them and watching them flounder in the system. Right now, I’m writing a feature comedy about AIDS. I’d like to cast Fran as the lead. He does not know this yet. I’m also doing camera tests for a modern take on the samurai film. It’s a project that I’ve been working on for years, and I fully expect to be working on it for the rest of my life. When it comes time to shoot it, I’m sure I’ll be coming back to Kickstarter to try and get more help. There’s always a bunch of projects rattling around, but the Hollywood system being what it is, it’s a complete crapshoot whether you’ll see them or not. Right now, I’m just excited to be able to do what I started doing when I was a kid: make stuff.