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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Deeper Dish with Stephen Cone

I was first introduced to Stephen Cone last summer when I saw him make a memorable Chicago stage debut as a sweet and "adorkable" guy in Philip Dawkins' play, The Homosexuals. His performance was one of the best I've seen this year. However, since he moved to Chicago from South Carolina in 2004, Stephen has focused on his writing - both as a playwright and screenwriter - and making movies. His plays have been seen in Austin, New York and Chicago, and his films include the shorts, Church Story, Young Wives and 7 Experiments, and a short feature, The Christians. In 2009, Stephen shot his first full-length feature, In Memoriam, about a young man who becomes obsessed with the tragic and embarrassing deaths of a couple. Critic Roger Ebert gave the film 3 stars when it was released earlier this year.

Now Stephen is receiving even more praise - and awards - for his second feature, The Wise Kids, a coming-of-age drama that tells the story of three friends about to graduate from high school in a tight-knit Christian community. The film has garnered Outstanding U.S. Dramatic Feature and Screenwriting awards at L.A.'s Outfest and the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at New York's NewFest - and it's been selected as the Opening Night film of Reeling: Chicago's Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival on Thursday, November 3, at the Music Box Theatre.

So I am delighted to have the talented Mr. Cone here on the Dish to discuss his career and answer a few pop culture questions.

So how does it feel to have The Wise Kids opening Chicago’s Reeling Film Festival?
It feels really gratifying. Although we shot mostly in South Carolina, we're a Chicago production - Chicago actors, Chicago crew - and I've been going to see movies at the Music Box for seven years so it's a really special thing.

Will you be introducing your film?
I'm going to do a Q&A after the film hosted by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky from At the Movies. I tend not to say anything beforehand as the film sort of speaks for itself.

What inspired you to make The Wise Kids?
Well, my dad's a Southern Baptist preacher and I grew up going to church three times a week for 18 years in South Carolina. So I guess this is the film where I tackle a lot of the things I experienced and observed and people that I was curious about and wondered about. It's semi-autobiographical partially in the sense that I experienced some of it, but also just sort of standing back and watching church life happen for 18 years while growing up.

I’m curious to know if there was a specific true-life story that inspired you to make In Memoriam.
There was a similar incident that happened in South Carolina actually, but that was a total coincidence. I didn't even know that it had been in my home state. I was kind of fascinated by all these Darwin Awards sites on the Internet of people who actually take time out of their day to make fun of other people dying. I just thought it might be an interesting story to tackle. Someone who actually doesn't laugh, but who feels for these people who made really ridiculous choices. So the film is pretty much fiction.

Which do you enjoy more – writing a stage play or a screenplay?
Film is my #1 thing - but I love theater. I don't know how much more I'll do, but it's just been a really wonderful training ground as a dramatist. I was a movie fan before I was a theatre person so that's where my heart is at.

What did you enjoy most about acting in The Homosexuals?
The script and the part. It was just a really rewarding role to play. Phillip Dawkins is a dear friend of mine, and so it was really nice to be able to work on one of his plays. We try to work on all of each other's projects - whether it's me doing a reading for him or directing one of his pieces or him coming in to act briefly in a scene in a movie. He's in In Memoriam for about 30 seconds. So we have a really, really great personal and professional relationship so it was a real pleasure.

Did you always want to be a writer/filmmaker/actor?
I do think when I was young I had this idea of becoming a filmmaker. But I was so interested in so many aspects of film and theatre that I wasn't quite sure where I would fall. I guess I haven't really fallen anywhere, I'm kind of juggling - but I knew that I would want to end up ultimately working in film.

What film directors have inspired or influenced you?
This is always a tricky question because I could spout out all of these foreign filmmakers that no one has ever heard of. I won't even name the names, but there's a group of actively working French filmmakers who I'm inspired by these days. Cassavetes and Renoir are also big influences on me, and over here I'm a big fan of Jonathan Demme, Terrence Malick and Sofia Coppola. Yeah, I'm a cinephile - I like lots and lots of people and lots and lots of movies, but those are just a few names.

What made you decide to move from South Carolina to Chicago?
I knew I wanted access to a city in which there was a very active film and theatre scene - and I tried New York for a year, but I wasn't a huge fan of the city itself. I needed a more relaxed layout. But while I was living in New York, I sent out the first play that I ever wrote - a one-act called The November Boy - and the side project in Rogers Park chose to do it. That was what sort of brought me here. I came to see it and just kind of fell in love with the city.

Do you think you'll continue to stay here and make films?
That is an open-ended question. I don't know. I want to work in film - potentially in television - and I don't know how long I can sustain that here.

So you think you'll have to go West?
I don't know, it's a possibility - but I love Chicago and Chicago actors too much to do that terribly easily. So that would be a big decision.

What are a few of your favorite things to do in Chicago?
Hmmm, how do I make myself sound not boring? I'm a workaholic, so I'm always working on something. I love to make movies in Chicago, I love to see movies in Chicago and I love to go see my friends do great theatre.

In high school I was:
Anxious. That's actually kind of what The Wise Kids is about - you're just dealing with growing up and thinking on your own and becoming an adult. It's really an angsty time. I enjoyed myself but, yeah, I was anxious. I remember getting along with everyone in all sorts of different groups. I didn't fall into any particular clique.

My favorite comfort food is:
A burrito from Garcia's in Lincoln Square.

The last good book I read was:
The new Patti Smith memoir.

When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
Homicide: Life on the Street.

Today I never miss a television episode of:
Real Time with Bill Maher.

Five movies that I think everyone should be required to watch are:
A Woman Under the Influence, Days of Heaven, The Long Day Closes - those were the easy ones. Mulholland Drive - and I'm going to say Rio Bravo.

If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
Oh God, I feel like I want to think about it and email you. Oh, you know who I like is Chris Pine.

If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
John Cassavetes, Cary Grant and Eleanor Roosevelt.

What’s next for Stephen Cone?
I am going to make a movie called Black Box in Chicago in February. It is set in the world of college theatre.

Anything else you can tell me about it?
In the movie they're doing an adaptation of an 80's horror novel, so I'm kind of thinking of it like a darker, stranger, more haunting Breakfast Club.

Thank you, Stephen, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Stephen and his films, check out his website at You can also follow him on Facebook. And for tickets to Reeling's Opening Night screening of The Wise Kids on Thursday, November 3, at the Music Box Theatre (3733 N. Southport), go to

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