CWNY/NYWIFT Present "The Cake Eaters" - June 24, 2008
(Jayce Bartok, Mary Stuart Masterson & Jesse Scolaro talk about The Cake Eaters. Photo by Maria Pusateri.)
(After Party at No Malice Palace. Pictured L to R: YLANA KELLAR, CWNY board member, MARIA PUSATERI, CWNY board member/programming director screening series, MARY STUART MASTERSON,
JULIE PRAETZEL, CWNY screening team intern, GERALYN ABINADER, CWNY Co-President, and JOSEFA JAIME, NYWIFT membership & screening coordinator. Photo by Maria Pusateri.)
Tuesday night at Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York, CineWomen NY and New York Women in Film & Television co-presented a screening of Mary Stuart Masterson’s directorial debut, The Cake Eaters. Masterson discussed the making of her film (and in the end commented on the current state of the independent film industry) during a Q&A along with screenwriter/co-producer Jayce Bartok and producer Jesse Scolaro.
The Cake Eaters is a quirky, small town, ensemble drama that explores the lives of two interconnected families coming to terms with love in the face of loss. The ensemble cast includes Bruce Dern, Jayce Bartok, Elizabeth Ashley, Miriam Shore, Jesse L. Martin, Aaron Standford and Kristen Stewart.
It premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival (read A.M. Peters’ notes here from the Bringing Home the Bacon panel at Tribeca where Masterson was a panelist) and later played at the 2007 Woodstock Film Festival (where I took notes at the Amazing Women in Film panel that Masterson also spoke on).
Below are some highlights of the questions asked starting with Cinewomen NY’s Maria Pusateri.
Pusateri: What steps did you take to make yourself ready to transition from acting to directing?
Masterson: I think sometimes people think directing is a promotion from acting, and that’s just not it. I didn’t want more control or power. If I had been in the movie and I was directing it, maybe. I’ve always wanted to direct. I’ve always written. I had a bunch of projects for years…sixteen years since I wrote the first draft of one script that had three casts, four production companies, people with suitcases full of money, Japanese attaches, girlfriends…and it’s all true. None of those movies got made. Two that I was directing that I didn’t write that I was working on with various producers. In part, I’ve been writing a lot for a lot of years…re-writing mostly is what writing is…and developing material. I spent a lot of time doing that, sort of like my day job for 10 years, despite the fact that occasionally I had to take work to making a living as an actress. A lot of times projects that I was working on would fall apart when I was taking a job as an actress. For The Cake Eaters, Jayce and I had the same agent and he gave me the script and I thought it was wonderful and had great characters and great heart. We started working on the script together for a number of months and I was presented the opportunity to do a Broadway musical and I said, if I do this, this is going to fall apart again. So the gamble paid off. I did a lot of homework, a lot of reading working with great actors, great directors over the years, and really bad directors. And then I directed a half-hour film for Showtime that is a science fiction short. That’s great training, a half-hour short…a stupid length. It’s too long, it’s too short. Don’t do it, don’t try it. But it was great training.
Q: What about this material spoke to you and how involved were you in the casting process?
Masterson: The material I thought was very unusual in that it had an innocence and timelessness about it. Instead of trying to change that, we just embraced it full on. For one thing, the names, come on…Beagle, Easy! These are great character names. I think it’s a world that is lovely and kind of rare. The struggle that we had in terms of developing the script to be ready to shoot was he wrote so many stories in this one story and it was hard to tell, was this The Last Picture Show or Nashville, that kind of many, many character stories. That was a challenge that we both struggled with. I was very involved with casting. We had a casting director and casting sessions. The horrible part was sometimes they brought people in that I already knew or had worked with or liked or was friends with to read a three-line part. I wouldn’t have asked my friend to read that part for me and put it on tape. It’s embarrassing. And yet the amazing thing was that the people who did come in and read that I didn’t ask to read…the incredible preparation and the choices that were made, it was really beautiful how many people came out and wanted to be a part of this. Then there were people who didn’t audition. Kristen, I had just met. She loved her character and was willing to go the distance with the research and didn’t in any way, shy away from extra time spent on the role. And I also I just met Aaron. Bruce, I wrote a letter and Elizabeth claims I seduced her, but I think it was the other way around. The woman made me drink a half a bottle of wine.
Q: Was pre-production or post-production more difficult?
Masterson: The obvious answer for this project might be post because we made some changes and actually went back and did a little extra shooting. We just re-wrote the material and restructured it a bit. In a way, that was more difficult, but we had a great situation where we had support from our producers and our financiers to really get it right and approach it in the most thorough and appropriate way. It was never terrible. I loved prep. We had months and months together working on the script before we even got a green light to do it, so that wasn’t hard. I think a movie is made in three drafts for a director. Your first draft is in prep…how you visualize it on the page, how you set it up so you can shoot it realistically on budget and on time. And then your second draft is what happens when you’re actually shooting. And the third draft is in the editing room. You just see it fresh and start from scratch. Hopefully it all fits the way you planned. You just have to embrace that as part of the process.
Q: How did you get Duncan Sheik to compose the music in the film when he was working on the Broadway musical Spring Awakening?
Masterson: I was interested in the idea. His agent made that a possibility. He’s really got a great sensibility for this because he’s very sensitive to these characters in this world and gets it and writes mostly beautiful melodies. He also understood in particular Beagle’s character and his not wanting to make it sound too small town and hokey. He used electric instruments instead of just acoustic. I thought his instinct sounded really good. It just seemed right, however, her was about to go into rehearsal for Spring Awakening. I had done a Broadway musical a couple of years prior and thought, dude, do you have any idea what you’re about to go through?
Q: What kind of dynamic did you and Mary have on set in terms of actor and director? What was the most difficult process of directing?
Bartok: We had a good dynamic on the set. The pre-production I think was very intense. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We spent countless hours talking about it passionately trying to find the story. Once the process of was over for me as an actor, then I went to the set to take on another job. I think that was great relief. It was like a whole other chapter in the process.
Masterson: This dynamic in a way was the most difficult because we were both equally passionate about it. Some things we disagreed about, ultimately fighting for the story and the characters. And then to step into the other relationship, which is I want to nurture you and love you and help you do your best. The other part of that relationship is that some of this material is personal to Jayce and I didn’t want to know how that was personal to him, because I tend to be a bit of a caretaker, and I wanted to be kind of a hard ass if I needed to be and not know that’s my brother you’re talking about. I probably inadvertently was kind of hard core about things.
Bartok: In a good way.
Masterson: I still don’t know. Most difficult in general is probably not losing your own vision and voice as you go through with a lot of people’s opinions coming at you…mostly in post. I don’t think I lost that at all in any point till post. Everybody’s got a valid point and were all talking about different things, and I was losing focus. I just wanted everybody to get along.
Bartok: It was good for me to have that perspective because it was my first script and was personal. If Mary Stuart hadn’t come along and had that perspective, it wouldn’t have become a film. That’s just the reality. These processes are very artistic and intense. When you get through them, you’re like wow, I’m really proud I went through that process and didn’t go cuckoo.
Pusateri: You worked with your brother who was the cinematographer. What was that like?
Masterson: He did a great job. I love my brother a lot. We have a short hand and it’s very easy. He was actually living at my house while we were doing this. We drove 40 minutes to and from the set every day and talked about the work, what happened or what we could do better. We shot on HD. My brother is sort of a technological wizard and hadn’t shot HD before and did a lot of homework. Fortunately, we made sure to do some camera tests. We both learned a lot about HD and what we could do to get more of a film look.
Q: Can you talk about the title of the film?
Bartok: It’s a term that was used in Pennsylvania where I grew up to describe the wealthy and those who had their lives kind of laid out for them…the cake eaters who live up on the hill in a nice house. When I wrote these characters, I thought they are so not the cake eaters. And through the course of these couple of days, they sort of get the cake and eat it too. I liked it as this sort of mysterious metaphor for this kind of band of misfits. It definitely raises some opinions. People get excited and passionate about The Cake Eaters title.
Q: What are your plans for distribution?
Scolaro: We started a distribution company and are going to put it out ourselves. This came after a lot of research and talking to a lot of different distributors out there and getting their take on what they would do with the movie versus what we wanted to do with the movie collectively, and what the audiences were telling us as we traveled around the country showing it. It was the first movie I’ve ever been involved with where theater chains were saying, we want to show your movie, but distributors were not really putting forth anything that was very sensible. In lieu of that, we said, we’re filmmakers so why not do that part of filmmaking that very few filmmakers do and actually distribute the movie as well. This way we know everything from development through distribution and we don’t need to rely on other people to tell us if our movie is good or bad. I think more filmmakers are going to start doing that. They’re going to say, if my movie has an audience, which hopefully it does, there are ways to get your movie to that audience and it’s not brain science. It just takes hard work and some thought and a lot of time. It’s going to be released around Valentine’s Day next year. We’re going to start in the South in Arizona, Texas and Florida. We’re going to work our way north as the weather gets a little better.
Q: With the culture of independent film being what it is with the small independents folding into their bigger studios, what is the future of independent film and distribution?
Masterson: The state of things is a little scary right now. I think everybody’s wondering what’s going to happen with digital downloads? All the deals are being re-negotiated for direct output deals of DVD sales or the payroll companies even. Everything’s up for review all at once, and of course all these strikes. Everybody’s kind of trying to figure out where the money coming from…who gets part of what revenue. Financiers specifically don’t know how to break even anymore. There’s a lot of new models for distribution being presented. I think some combination of all of these things is definitely going to work differently for each film. It used to be, when I started out, you market a film doing regional junkets. You went to Chicago, Dallas, New York, LA and sometimes Japan and Europe. You actually did a lot of press everywhere that you went. You didn’t just rely on these giant pipelines of Time Warner or whatever these massive companies bring to bare. For independents to try to penetrate this crazy market, it’s really hard. There will be more and more ways. It’s just going to be, I think, on an individual basis. You have to decide what makes the most sense for your film. I don’t think films at film festivals are really going to necessarily get advances for theatrical release anymore. That’s kind of a thing of the past. Maybe it will come back. Eliminating the middle man makes a lot of sense for an independent film that’s living so close to the bone. Like Jesse said, on our film, we had personally gone to all these different places and talked to people about what they did and didn’t like. We’ve seen age group responds and which ones are less interested. We kind of know how to target it pretty much. Who cares more than us about it? Nobody. Nobody taking a fee is going to care more than we do. If there is a way to get it into theaters or whatever DVD deals we make later, then why don’t we just do it ourselves? I think a lot of people will if they have the opportunity. They’re making more service deals than ever before where some company takes a percentage and find a creative way to release the movie. I think it’s a scary and very interesting time. It frees up a lot of bandwidth for people whose movies have just gone to festivals and not been released. There’s going to be an alternative…I hope.