This month will see the Chicago premiere of Love Stalker, a terrific micro-budget indie comedy from Columbia College alums Matt “Mugs” Glasson and Brian “Bowls” MacLean. Love Stalker explores the dark side of the romantic comedy genre by telling the story of Pete (co-writer/director Glasson), a thirty-something player who gets a taste of his own medicine when he falls for and is subsequently dumped by Stephanie (Rachel Chapman, a real find), a beautiful relationship advice columnist. Made in St. Louis, the evocative locations of which practically function as another character, this was very stylishly shot on the Canon 5D Mark II, proving yet again that a big (or even medium) budget isn’t necessary to make a winning feature when you’ve got enough filmmaking smarts.
I recently spoke with Glasson and MacLean about the film.
MGS: In a lot of ways Love Stalker is a conventional romantic comedy scenario. And yet you bring a clever self-awareness to the project by having the characters refer to “rom-com” conventions and you even use the tagline “An Unromantic Comedy.” To what extent did you want to honor the conventions of this genre and to what extent did you try to subvert them?
MUG: I think you kind of hit the answer in the wording of your question: we wanted to honor the conventions and hallmarks of the traditional rom-com so that we could later subvert them when the film takes a darker turn. On the other hand, we didn’t want to draw too much attention to the meta aspect of doing a self-knowing take on a familiar genre. Originally, we had a whole monologue early on from one of the characters talking about how he hates rom-coms and then goes on to deconstruct all the familiar tropes of the genre which basically set up the story for the rest of the film. But it felt a little too precious that early on in the film, so we cut it but it actually ended up in the trailer, as did a few other rom-com genre specific references such as our hero standing in the rain outside of his lost love’s window at night.
BBX: More subvert than to honor. I was an 80’s cable kid and became infatuated with feature length movies as a child. Teen and romance and sex comedies flourished throughout that decade; however, we didn’t want this movie to be too predictable, but we did want to give it the edge of a 70’s movie. Love Stalker‘s very derivative of these types of influences. We had no interest in making another movie where the guy ends up with the girl at the and we didn’t count on it being played in any shopping malls, so we figured it would be best to take some chances on the content. It’s great when people tell me how “creepy” it gets in the second half. Being so behind the scenes, I almost see the whole movie as a comedy. We sure had a lot of fun making it.
MGS: Were there any particular movies that influenced you or were you just trying to make a movie that was the opposite of the kind of movies you don’t like?
MUG: I think both. Our plot was clearly lifted by some rom-coms out there and we worked in a lot of subtle nods to classic rom-coms, not all of which I think are terrible but let’s just say I prefer a grittier edge to my cinema. I’d say the film that probably influenced us the most when we were first discussing it was Autofocus by Paul Schrader. While the stories are fairly different, the two protagonists in each film follows a similar arc, and I think stylistically we took a number of cues from that film when things begin to jump off the rails for Pete.
BBX: There’s Always Vanilla by George Romero.
MGS: Your film began life as a musical short made during a 48 Hour Film Project. How did it evolve from that into a feature?
MUG: Bowls and I finished the 48-Hour Film project Love Stalker in June of 2009 and it ended up winning an award for “Best Actor” and getting nominated for “Best of St. Louis.” We turned to each other afterwards and said, “There’s something here, let’s try to figure out a way to make a feature like this.” We both had a lot of ideas for features that we tossed back and forth, but nothing really stuck until we started discussing the possibility of doing Love Stalker as a feature film, and what that would look like. We tossed out the premise of the short and started planting seeds for what ultimately became the story in the movie. They say, “write what you know” and we both collectively had a lot of stories from both sides of the equation (in this case, love and stalking!). It took us about a year to prep the script and get it into production.
BBX: The experience of the 48-Hour Film Project definitely gave us both a hunger for more. We bounced a few around but kept coming back to Love Stalker. Back in the late 90’s, I remember an Onion article titled something like “Man Arrested for Romanic Comedy-Like Behavior.” I always thought that premise would be a good movie. I guess I got tired of Hollywood “not getting around to making it” so we did it ourselves. Matt had the brilliant idea of making the girl a relationship blogger. We based the character of Pete on a hodge-podge of different people we have known. Once the concept was in play, a lot of it came together fairly well. Matt and I bounce dialogue off of one another very well together.
MGS: It’s unusual for more than one person to direct a movie. How exactly did you split up the directorial duties between the two of you?
BBX: It’s not so unusual in that a film usually requires a lot of collaboration. Matt and I are already very like-minded. I can imagine it’s very difficult for actors to direct themselves without someone they absolutely trust making the decisions on their performances. Matt and I had co-directed, as a matter of fact, within the first weeks of meeting each other in film school for a class exercise. It’s not unusual to us at this point.
MUG: Once we had established that I was going to be acting in the film, I knew that I was going to need some buffer between me, the actor, and me, the guy working with the other cast and crew. So we tried to make it a pretty even split in terms of sharing the producing and directing chores between the two of us whenever possible. As far as how that worked on set: we would typically work as a “tag-team” where I’d be talking to the DP while Bowls would be talking to the other actor in the scene and vica-versa. We had a bit of a scrappy approach on some days as we would figure some stuff out on the spot (such as blocking, re-working dialogue, camera, etc.) but we’re pretty comfortable with making these types of decisions on the fly. It’s kind of like operating the two different sides of one brain to make sure everything gets tended to and done correctly.
MGS: The tone of the film, and correspondingly the visual style, change quite dramatically halfway through the movie. What strategies did you implement, whether cinematographically or in post-production, to achieve these different looks?
MUG: I’m glad you mentioned that because we put a lot of thought into trying to visually “shake up” the world that this character inhabits once things take that crucial dark turn. Our strategy was to establish certain rules depending on the stage of the story: in the beginning, the camera is primarily locked down on a tripod that rarely moves or even pans. Then as the core romance begins to blossom, the camera begins to rove around more and it takes on a more fluid and light touch; the skin tones get warmer and the image gets super saturated. And then in the third act, the camerawork is always handheld and more manic in nature. Here, the contrast in the image gets greater: highlights get blown out and the darker areas of the frame get slightly crushed. We de-beautified some of the images that we shot to make them “ugly.”
BBX: Those cameras shoot beautifully. However at times it can be just a little “too” crisp. I like it to match the warmth of film as much as possible.
MGS: Another strategy I loved was how the early sex scenes were made to look cartoonish and ridiculous, which makes it doubly effective when Pete and Stephanie get together and you stage their intimate scenes in a more naturalistic fashion. You must have had a lot of fun shooting those scenes. Are there any interesting anecdotes you can share?
BBX: I wish there were more. Everyone was on board to make the same film in that sense. Laura Baron and Ashleigh (Gill) were both extremely professional. Still, I got very ‘Kubrick’ on those particular shooting days with my excessive takes. Better to have too much than too little. It turned out to be a wise move as we lost a handful of shots during the transfer on one of those days. That’s where digital can bite you in the ass. We used someone else’s card reader and ended up losing takes of Jen 2 as well as “Little Stevie.” Fortunately, enough made it over in the transfer to save the edit.
MUG: People often talk about how terribly awkward it is to shoot sex scenes or how boring it is. I think Bowls loved every minute of production on those days. Suddenly, there was a spring to his step and an edge in the authority of his voice when he would say, “No, guys… we definitely need to do another take of that!” For me, it was kind of surreal because I had to balance the relationship I had established with the crew and the one I had established with my fellow actors in those scenes, so I had to be very sensitive to what people were comfortable with while also recognizing what we had to do to get what we wanted for the film. I don’t tend to be a bashful person and I’m very comfortable in my own skin, but I definitely reached a point where I was getting very tired of having to walk around in my leopard print banana hammocks and try to seriously work with people on the set. I think it’s safe to say that some of the crew had a hard time taking me seriously and who could blame them? Ironically, I think the hottest sex scene in the film (between myself and co-star Rachel Chapman) was probably the most difficult to shoot for a variety of reasons. What comes off (on camera) is far from what the mood was like on set that day. But everyone was super professional about it and at the end of the day, we always got what we needed to make the finished film.
MGS: I had the pleasure of reading the script before you shot the movie, which differs quite a bit from the finished product. What happened to the subplot about Pete hiring the indie rocker to serenade Stephanie?
BBX: Ha! Everyone asks about the musician scene. My date to one of the earlier screenings had read an earlier draft and asked me on the way there “Hey, who played the indie musician?” “Yeah, about that musician scene…” I had to break it to her while we were in the car. There was also a funny scene where Pete cons the building manager into letting him look around her apartment. We both liked the scene a lot, and honestly if we’d had the time and budget probably would have shot it. Too bad, it would have made a great bonus feature to add to the pile.
MUG: Some of our friends who had read the earlier draft of the script seemed to really enjoy that particular subplot. Pete, in his desperation to prove that he’s a romantic, hires an indie folk singer named John Dill to serenade Stephanie and, of course, the scenario ends up backfiring terribly on Pete. I think before we started shooting, the concern was that it took a little too long to set up and that the payoff wasn’t as satisfying as it needed to be. Also, some of those scenes showed Stephanie reacting to Pete’s romantic efforts in her private time, so we decided would be more effective if we didn’t see her at all since everything is kind of wrapped up in Pete’s mind at that point. It’s similar to when Betsy (Cybil Shepard) dumps Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Taxi Driver: we never know exactly what her character is thinking as he tries in vain to win back her affection. Sometimes, it’s more powerful to not lay out all your cards on the table.
MGS: The legendary Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter, who helped produce Love and Anarchy and Dawn of the Dead, is credited as Executive Producer. How did he come on board the project?
MUG: I met Billy Baxter through his son, Jack Baxter, who brought me in to edit a trailer for his film, A Diary of the Cannes Film Festival (1980). Billy and I got along right away and he was happy with the work I did on the trailer. For whatever reason, he took a liking to me. It was probably because I was in awe of his poster collection (he had an original King Kong hung in his bathroom), and I enjoyed his stories (some of which he told repeatedly) about all the people he knew from the golden era of cinema. His involvement in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was something that Bowls and I were both really blown away by. When we were getting ready to make Love Stalker, Billy asked me to keep him “in the loop” and so I got him an early cut of the film. And he must have really liked it because a month later, he asked if he could be involved by lending his name to the project. Sadly, Silver Dollar Baxter just died at the end of January. The last thing we had worked out was doing the double-feature of Love and Anarchy and Love Stalker for our Chicago premiere. He liked the idea and I’m sorry he won’t get to see it happen. Fortunately, his son Jack is gonna fly into town and introduce the film and talk about his father’s life and career. We’re gonna do our best to keep his legacy alive.
BBX: That was a connection of Matt’s from New York. Jack Baxter on set was one of my favorite days of the shoot. I’m very proud to have that name on our poster. His blessing of the project is very endearing to me.
MGS: Love Stalker was shot digitally and the last shot in the opening title sequence is of a closed movie theater. Did you intend this to be a comment on the death of cinema?
BBX: Ha, no. The meaning of that shot is “closed movie theater.” Well, it’s certainly a theater that was around in my youth – I saw The Doors movie there. It was just too irresistible to not stick that in somewhere. When you see buildings like that, it’s best to shoot them while you’ve got ’em. Those places will go down. Less than a week ago, that entire building was torn down. Out of nowhere the paper announced it’s demolition and it was GONE within a week. I tried to take pictures and document the process, but I worked the entire week and they were too fast for me. So I guess cinema is officially dead. (Also, there is a fair amount of digital augmentation to that shot – we removed a realty sign and added some marquee to it.)
MUG: There are many areas of St. Louis that are in a state of decay or disarray. Our buddy Bill Streeter premiered his doc Brick by Chance and Fortune alongside our movie in this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival – it’s about the history of bricks in St. Louis, and eventually it gets into how people are now pillaging the older abandoned houses to steal the quality bricks for new construction projects. I think we wanted to drop those types of visual details in our movie whenever possible to really embrace the city of St. Louis as a sort of character unto itself and to underscore what’s happening with Pete at this particular time in his life. To your point, I love old movie theaters and it makes me sad when I see them shuttered. Pete’s drive by the Avalon theater was one of the last things we shot but it’s no accident that it is placed where it is in the title sequence.
MGS: I’m sorry but I have to ask this: when Pete and “Jen Two” are in bed and her son walks in the room . . . was that kid really in the same shot with the adult actors or was there some digitally trickery involved?
BBX: It was an analog little boy.
MUG: No comment.
Love Stalker Rating: 6.7
The Chicago Love Stalker premiere, playing as a double feature with Lina Wertmuller’s Love and Anarchy, will take place at the Portage Theater on Friday, February 17th at 8pm with Glasson and MacLean in attendance. For more info about the film and the screening, visit the Official Love Stalker Website.