Whatever your dreams are going into film school, the sad truth is that most first-year grads don’t have the time, resources, stamina, or talent needed to helm a feature film right out of college. When I heard that my classmate Michael Steves was spending his first year out shooting a horror-comedy with known actors and a budget, however, I wasn’t too surprised. At Wesleyan University, Michael had a reputation as one of the most prolific kids in the theater and film scenes, dedicating himself to more over-the-top creative projects in a single year than most people get to in their college careers. I caught up with Michael to talk Clinger’s past, present, and future, as well as other big projects on his creative horizon.
The idea for Clinger germinated years ago in an experience that shows just how far Steves is willing to go for his art.
“I was in this play, directing a stunt, and got stabbed with a sword,” he said. The incident has become legend among current Wesleyan students—on a stage Steves was supposedly overseeing, someone had accidentally replaced a prop sword with the real deal. “When I was in the ambulance after getting stabbed, I tried to use the event to get sympathy from my high school ex…. It totally didn’t work. The thing I learned is that when you’re a young man, especially if you think of yourself as the dorky nice guy, guys think they deserve the love of the girl they choose to love, and see themselves as the hero in the high school movie in real life.”
Steves’s epiphany led him to create Clinger’s relentless titular character: Robert Klingher, an overly attached boyfriend who literally loses his head in trying to prove his love to main character Fern Petersen. Though she appreciates Robert’s affection, Fern is a track star who has her sights on out-of-state colleges, and when Robert’s “love ghost” comes back to be with (read: stalk) her, things get weird and the fake blood starts spurting.
While Clinger’s premise may sound like a dark, timely tale of male possessiveness, the tone is anything but. Within Wesleyan’s student-run theater community Second Stage, Steves regularly produced plays with the scatterbrained humor and propulsive drive you’d expect from a weirdly raunchy Bugs Bunny cartoon, and Clinger doesn’t buck the trend. Steves credits the Wesleyan theater scene with giving him outside-the-box opportunities to hone his craft.
“I think the biggest thing doing those plays at Wesleyan taught me was how to handle criticism and how to actually improve,” he said. “It was really clear when something went well and when something didn’t. Wesleyan audiences are very receptive and they want to support art, but they’re also honest. Sometimes it might hurt one’s feelings, but it’s also good to have an audience who will tell you when your stuff sucks.”
A long-time horror fan, Steves cites 80’s horror classics like Dead Alive and the Evil Dead films as his main influences, wed to a John Hughes vibe. A class on horror film that we took at Wesleyan introduced him to Stuart Gordon, director of camp classics like Re-Animator and From Beyond, and Gordon’s approach to special effects proved to be a huge influence on Clinger.
“We were very ambitious with what we wanted to create,” said Steves. “Knowing what you’re good at is really important. I knew we would be good at making over-the-top set pieces and fun goofy moments…. We played to our strengths by making it a campy movie, so the budget is excusable. If something doesn’t look totally professional, it’s part of the charm of the movie.”
Made In Houston
After developing the script with high school buddies Bubba Fish (also producer) and Gabi Chennisi Duncombe (also DP), Steves enlisted the rest of the crew at Wesleyan and went to work. Through a combination of financing initiatives, they secured a $100,000 budget, which, while not huge in the grand scheme of things, is more than a couple of quarters and some pocket lint. Rather than shoot somewhere known for its film culture—LA, New York, or even nearby Austin—the Clinger team elected to make the film in their hometown of Houston, a city not particularly known for its arts scene.
“The film community in Houston is kind of small,” said Kirby Sokolow, the film’s 2nd assistant director and a Houston native. “It’s not like LA or New York where you see people out and about shooting, which was really to our advantage. We were able to pitch this project to restaurants and equipment centers and get them excited about the project…. We created a really symbiotic relationship with a lot of businesses in the area.”
Sokolow describes the shooting process as somewhere between real-movie (meticulously scheduled, well-organized 12-hour shoots) and student-film (a bunch of college friends sharing a house), which is probably how all indie movies should be made. “Not even just for something right out of college, it was a very professional but really fun shoot,” she said. “And that’s what it’s like to work with Michael in general.” Production could be hectic: at one point, Steves texted Sokolow asking that she hunt down a free ambulance at the last minute. Another time, a scene involving teddy bears and gallons of fake blood had a location change hours before call time.
“When we lost a location, we didn’t know what to do,” Sokolow said. “People weren’t answering our phones, so we decided to call up the theater of the high school we were shooting at. They agreed to let us build a room in their theater! We were really proud of that, that we could pull that together.”
“The teddy bear scene, there was blood everywhere, you could hear us leaving because our shoes would be sticking to the ground,” said Steves. “The night before we shot the scene, we realized we couldn’t cover a room in Bubba’s house with blood. We called up my high school and asked if we could build a room in their black box theater. They started to ask us what the scene was about, and then were like, ‘You know what…just…go ahead, shoot it.’”
With the final cut in the can, the Clinger team sent screeners to four of the major festivals in the US: Tribeca, SXSW, Sundance, and Slamdance. Of the four, Slamdance picked it up, which was a huge boon for the film’s public exposure. When we asked about what a movie needed to have to connect at a festival, Steves chalked it up to luck.
“On some level, a programmer at one of these festivals has to fall in love with the movie for whatever reason,” he said. “We met the guy who championed our movie for Slamdance, he was really awesome. His comment about when he first saw the movie was, ‘I’m not sure if this is amazing or I’m crazy.’”
Clinger’s success on the festival circuit has led to big things for Steves, Chennisi, and Fish—they just finished shooting a bigger-budget project titled The Cold Descent, a Reconstruction-era western starring horror veterans Tony Todd and Lance Henriksen (!!). Reflecting on Clinger sticking the landing, Steves considers it a miracle that it performed so well.
“If you’re doing a feature, one thing you should know about is, there’s enormous risk involved,” he said. “If you’re just out of school and want to make a movie, you think that no one’s really watching you, but you realize that it really does matter to your career…. Thank God [Clinger] didn’t get into Sundance, because it would have been crushed. We’d be competing with studio movies directed by Eli Roth. Certain festivals are good for microbudget films, Slamdance is one of those.”
Now that the dust on Clinger has settled, Steves, Fish, and Chennisi have their sights set on keeping the momentum going. In addition to Clinger and The Cold Descent, their production company regularly works on commercials, and Steves often takes on screenwriting gigs for hire. While things are different now (on account of him having to pay rent,) it seems like his writing habits have made a neat transition from Wesleyan to the real world.
“I learn new things every day,” he said. “Anyone who says they’re an expert writer is full of shit. You learn new stuff all the time, it’s important to always be learning and always be self-critical…. In college my writing habits were all based on trying to learn and get better. The reason the plays were so nice was, sometimes they were good, sometimes they were bad, but I could always put them on in front of a large number of people and learn.”