Born in Germany to an American military family, Adrian Stewart traveled the world while growing up. Stewart took a break from traveling to study film at NYU. From there, he earned editing work on shows such as Pushing Daisies, Marco Polo, and more. Now stepping up to the role of director, Stewart had the bittersweet opportunity to direct Diminuendo; a science-fiction film written by Sarah Goldberger and Bryn Pryor, this movie is also the last to star Richard Hatch before his untimely passing. Wanting to learn more about Stewart’s background and Diminuendo, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: What were some movies you loved as a kid? Do you find yourself revisiting any of those films?
Adrian Stewart: There are so many… I grew up in the 70s, which I will go to my grave arguing is the greatest decade of American film, so I had classics like The French Connection and The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon. All the President’s Men, Alien, Silent Running, The Man Who Would Be King, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; earlier films like The Lion in Winter and Cool Hand Luke and Harper and Lawrence of Arabia… I discovered all of those as a kid, and a thousand more, and I watch those movies often.
I also have a very soft spot for some of the trash I grew up with… Logan’s Run (sorry, but it’s a ridiculous train wreck), The Seven-Ups, The Eiger Sanction, Colossus: The Forbin Project… Even bad movies from that period had a texture and seriousness and commitment to story modern films just don’t have.
Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to have a career in film production? Was there a specific moment in which this goal crystallized for you?
Stewart: This is so trite, and so cliché, but it was on May 25, 1977 when I saw Star Wars. I sat in that theater and even though I’d been to the movies dozens of times at that point, I had never experienced something like that; never seen it, never felt it. I watched that film unfold (knowing nothing of what a nightmare Fox made Lucas’ life while trying to complete the film) and thought “That. I want to do that.”
Yanes: You studied film at NYU. How beneficial do you think your education has been to helping your career? Specifically, do you think people need to go to film school?
Stewart: You absolutely do not NEED to go to film school, and with a few caveats, I don’t even recommend it. IF you are wealthy and can afford to go to NYU or USC (I had to drop out after three semesters), the contacts you will make there can help you build a career. IF you solely want to PRODUCE (i.e. never direct, write, shoot, edit; just focus on the business side) then USC can be useful.
However, a film school education is like the von Clausewitz quote that “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Nothing you learn in film school will survive your first hour on set. And you will learn more working a week on a low budget film than your entirety of film school. Whatever your ultimate goal – directing, shooting, writing – go DO it. That’s the way to learn. Work on no-budget projects, work on low-budget projects, create your own projects, but DO the thing.
Yanes: You have done a lot of editing work for various shows. Given that editors never get enough credit, could you take a moment to explain why editing is important and how this work helped you become a better storyteller?
Stewart: The power of editing absolutely cannot be overstated. I’ve seen – and been involved in – a lot of lackluster projects (poorly written, acted, shot, directed, sometimes all of the above) that were absolutely transformed by brilliant editing. They might not have become masterpieces, but they became watchable. Sometimes, even good. I have never seen a well-done project that survived bad editing.
My work as an editor has informed everything about the way I direct. I’m efficient. I don’t shoot a lot of coverage I don’t necessarily need. Normally, I’ve already got the scene edited in my head, and I just get the footage I know I want. It has also made me sensitive to structure and pacing.
Yanes: Diminuendo is the first film you’ve directed and is your most recent work. What attracted you to this story?
Stewart: I loved the concept of creating a film built on the memory of an unreliable narrator, and the way the story manipulates the audience’s perceptions and expectations. Much of the story is told in flashback as our main character Haskell remembers his life with Cello Shea, a young actress who killed herself nine years earlier. Haskell has been hired to make a biopic of her life starring a robot LifeDoll that has been designed to replicate her, and we see a lot of these scenes from his life intercut with the same moments as he presents them in the film he’s making.
The really ingenious part most audiences don’t notice is that (except for the first shot of the film) we never actually see Cello in the movie. We either see the LifeDoll playing her, we see her in dreams and delusions as Haskell becomes obsessed with the machine, or we see Haskell remembering her. But his memory is faulty, and there are tricks we play on the audience to keep them wrong-footed as to what they’re really seeing as they go deeper into the film. They’re seeing the film through his eyes, but they can’t trust what he sees.
Yanes: Sadly, Diminuendo is Richard Hatch’s last film. How did working with him help you become a better filmmaker? Was there any advice he gave you that you know you will hold on to?
Stewart: Richard was truly one of the finest men I have ever known, and an incredibly talented actor. One of the reasons I wanted to direct the film so badly is that Richard had never been given the chance to really show what he could do before. Sarah & Bryn wrote this script for Richard so he could play the most fucked up individual on the planet and really dig into the role, and he was incredible.
What he taught me is that you can try too hard. When you’re focusing on a film, it’s easy to get overly-obsessed about details and lose your connection to the story. Everyone around you is focused on their part of the project, and they demand your attention. You can’t let your part of the project suffer by spending too much energy with those little bits and pieces.
I’m not suggesting the details don’t matter; they’re extremely important, and in an ideal universe, you would have the time and the money for all the details to get decided and laid in before you even start worrying about performance and story, but that universe doesn’t exist. What matters most is the characters and the story. That’s what the audience will connect with, and Richard taught me that you have to let the details handle themselves to a degree and do your own job first.
Yanes: Chloe Dykstra – who is a fantastic actress – plays the roles of a human actress named Cello Shea and life doll/machine called Number 8. How did you and Chloe go about depicting the differences between Cello and Number 8?
Stewart: Chloe had a hard job on the film, and she really knocked it out of the park. Except for those scenes where we want it to be ambiguous, one glance tells you when she’s Cello, and when she’s the Doll. That’s an impressive achievement.
Obviously, there was a lot of rehearsal and discussion about how the Doll should be played, and what the beats were in the scenes. We wanted Cello to be as free and easy and full of life as possible, and the Doll to represent that (when it was active), but not duplicate it. One of the ways we made that work was with scheduling; we never put the Doll and Cello on the same day of shooting, so Chloe never had to switch back and forth. She was either the Doll for the day, or Cello.
Also, Chloe created her own series of rules for the Doll. She would only blink every 20 seconds. She would only breathe every 30 seconds. The Doll’s eyes went to whomever was speaking, and would stay there until that person finished speaking. Things like that. I had the faith to trust her to conceive of those rules and enact them all on her own, and she didn’t disappoint.
Lastly, we used a tiny bit of movie magic to sell the illusion. The Doll has very different makeup from Cello; it’s a long process of airbrushing to get truly flawless skin tone. There were also some VFX tricks we played in post; blinks I removed at dramatic moments or scenes where we had a still of the Doll in the background rather than Chloe so it wouldn’t move at all.
Yanes: Reflecting on the production of this film, how do you think you’ve improved as a filmmaker? Were there any production obstacles that took you by surprised?
Stewart: I’d like to think I improve with everything I do. I’d also like to think there will be a chance to prove that down the line, but you never know. With this film, I’ve learned how to demand a lot from an audience without it being exhausting. It’s something we call the Elephant Man rule. The Elephant Man is a brilliant film that’s grueling to watch. It’s like getting kicked in the head for 2 ½ hours. We knew we were taking the audience on a very dark journey, but we didn’t want the experience itself to be miserable, so we made sure there were light or funny moments along the way to balance it out. I think we pulled it off.
As for obstacles, every other day was an existential crisis for the film. When you’re working with a budget this tight, there’s very little wiggle room, and we had to get very inventive when it came to tackling certain challenges.
Yanes: When people finish watching Diminuendo, what do you hope that they take away from the experience?
Stewart: Honestly, I’d just like the audience to come away thinking. The movie raises a lot of questions, and it intentionally refuses to answer some of them. I’d like to know that those questions stuck with the audience, and hopefully they came to their own conclusions.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you currently working on that people can look forward to?
Stewart: Right now my next project is a horror movie called The Ruin set in Kenya, but that’s still in very early stages. We’ll see…