How Director Chell Stephen Navigates Independent Filmmaking
Chell Stephen

LA-based Canadian filmmaker Chell Stephen (pronounced with a hard “ch” sound, like cello) is at an emerging stage of her career. Just a few accomplishments: Her shorts have played at SXSW, the Atlanta Film Festival, and the New Orleans Film Festival; she was a fellow in the Sundance New Voices Episodic Short Form Lab program where her script is now in development; and she recently made her TV directing debut withRiverdale. (Though she says the top highlight of her life was “when a music vid I directed for a friends’ band was lampooned on Beavis and Butthead, haha.”)

And while the pandemic has been a wet blanket on production as a whole, Chell is still trucking along. We caught up over email to chat about the craft and language of independent filmmaking and what her mentorship programs have taught her.

You can watch Chell’s work on her website and onThink/Feel, and follow her on Insta/Twitter/Vimeo at @chellstephen. 

When did you first realize directing was going to be your form of storytelling? 

Growing up, I was movie and TV obsessed (I had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly at like 11, lol) and knew from a young age I wanted to work in the film industry. I wrote stories, but for whatever reason I didn’t really think I was going to be a director; to be honest, I’m not sure I even really understood what a director was. Of course that did become clearer through my time in college and grad school, but as a type A control-obsessed person, I figured I was destined to be a (possibly reluctant) producer because I’m organized and maybe was the only one I trusted to make sure everything got done, haha. 

Later I realized: 

1) Organization and making sure everything gets done is a big part of directing.

2) Being a control freak works pretty well here too! 

3) I actually can rely on collaborators to have my back (aka produce) and don’t have to do all it myself.

4) Truly nasty battles with self-criticism/loathing aside, I kinda also believed that I knew how to capture things in a cool way — that I had good ideas, that my taste level was proper (whether or not it is or was). There is a certain amount of confident delusion necessary, IMO. 

Here is a visual aid, re: a possible mindset to be an artist / storyteller, just for a lol.

Most importantly, when I started to actually do it, I realized directing is the thing that intertwines all the obsessions I’d been dabbling in (music/playlist curation, image making, fashion, creative problem solving, narrative weaving, etc). If I was only doing one of those things I don’t think I’d be satisfied, but together? Ahh… It’s very intoxicating to take a feeling or an image from inside your brain and turn that into something tangible that others can experience. I think I just got obsessed once I had my first crack at it, once I let myself believe it was OK for me to be the artist not the organizer.  

I have always had a very vivid fantasy life — like I would spend a lot of time imagining scenarios unfolding exactly as I wish they would. Picture this: you walk into the school dance through a fortuitous puff from the fog machine, the outfit? Is top tier. You make eye contact with your crush (he loves the lewk) just as the beat drops on the most apt banger for the moment it’s… PERFECT!!! And rather unlikely to happen as such in real life. But I realized somewhat recently that that’s part of what drew me to directing as a form of storytelling: it’s there, unlike in the everyday, that I can actually make things look, sound, feel just like I want them to! Ultimate control freak energy!

Do you remember your first paid gig as a director? How did you get there?

I believe some of my first paid directing gigs were on branded content that my team Think/Feel and I were hired to make. (Directing work previous to that being mostly music videos where the budgets were so small it didn’t make sense to pay myself.) 

Our first one was for Garnier involving five pieces of #content featuring five different internet influencers. It was part hair-dye tutorial, part scripted commercial, and challenging in many ways. But even when it’s chaotic, I find most production enjoyable when you’re working with the right people. 

We got that first gig actually through a bit of the ole smoke and mirrors. Think/Feel is a company (we called it a collective at the time) where all our work lived together on one beautiful site (thanks to brilliant partner, Alice). Pieces that may have been created for no money by five stinky people rolling around in a 15-pass over a weekend between day jobs took on a more… polished quality. When we bid for this gig, I think we just compiled all these links into such a way that it… looked and sounded like we as a production company had ourselves produced a bunch of these pieces (not exactly true) and were more than capable of handling this one (definitely true)!

Most people who are going to hire you for a job want to see that you’ve literally done that job before. This can be tough when you…haven’t! Right. So that’s where our smoke and mirrors came in — presenting ourselves in such a way that they knew they were in good professional hands.

How would you describe your aesthetic? Do you feel like your style is solidified or do you think it’s continuously evolving?

My preferred aesthetic is campy, bright, poppy — I dig camera movement (not necessarily of the motivated variety) and visual choices that could be called surreal or maybe absurd; definitely I like to make things that are fun to look at. I grew up obsessed with music videos and started my career in that world — I’m pretty sure you can see that all over my work. I think super dialed in production design and wardrobe choices are also clutch to my style — the devil being in the details as he is. Music, too, inspires every part of my life, so choice use of it in my projects remains a big part of the whole shebang. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, in regular life we see the world at eye level and at 24 fps so if you’re going to the trouble of making a moving image of some kind why not hit ‘em with the slow mo, or put the camera on the ceiling or whip it around some or bring it too close or too wide, for… fun! That’s part of my aesthetic. Honestly sometimes I want to shoot things a certain way just because “I like it like that.”

One time a filmmaker bro giving notes on my first short called it “a bit indulgent” and I wanted to die because it seemed so disgusting and embarrassing and awful??? What did he mean? Well I think he was responding to my aesthetic haha but I’m good with it though. That was regarding CRYSTAL a film I still think is the purest, most distilled version of my preferred aesthetic so… we did it!  But it’s worth thinking about how just “making the shot weird for weird’s sake” isn’t usually the best idea — strong visual choices are always going to work better when they are designed to be in step with the character and story. But when I’m telling stories I’ve written, I trust that since they come from my brain and my heart, full of my tastes and my energy, when I pour that same energy into the aesthetic choices it’s… all samesame, of a kind, you know?! 

Ultimately, too, the aesthetic shifts and evolves depending on what story is being told: if I’m directing something that someone else wrote, it’s probably not going to have that full Chell Aesthetic all over it… but it’s definitely going to share some common DNA. Or say there’s a budgetary constraint — like my second or third film was made by a crew of three including me, so it’s not ALL THE WAY on the aesthetic, but it has composition similarities, tonal similarities etc. 

The style feels pretty locked in but of course one must keep evolving! Even your fave things can get boring if you only ever do them — so sometimes you probably want to do the exact opposite, just to see how it feels. I always strive to be improving as an artist, as a craftsperson — take in art of all kinds, etc. — so I hope and think the aesthetic I consider mine will keep growing and expanding into different iterations over time, as the things that get me psyched change and the stories I want to tell get bigger.

What are some themes and/or storylines that obsess you?

I am obsessed with teen girls: they are perfect and amazing and heartbreaking and brilliant and foolish and just everything. My heart busts open for them and how fucking gnarly it can beeeee omg … is there anyone more misunderstood than the teen girl? She doesn’t think so — and I am with her! 

A theme I return to constantly is control vs. surrender: I love to think about and see how far a person might go, into the realm of bad decisions, when they feel their sense of control slipping away. My stories often have young people at the heart because said stories tend to revolve around those moments in our lives when we start to understand for the first time the big contradictions and dichotomies running rampant throughout the human experience. Like how nothing is really black and white… everything in the grown up world is more murky and grey which is much more confusing. That eye-opening time period in a character’s life, especially a young woman’s, is always going to excite and inspire me. 

Shauna is a Liar from Think/Feel on Vimeo.

You’ve made several short films. How have those shorts helped you figure out your voice/visual style?

Shorts shorts shorts yes, I love our babies, and these shorts I made with the best folks ever really were everything as far as figuring out the voice, mainly because there’s no client. The music videos I was doing before shorts often had a label or artist involved, there are rounds of notes, there’s treatment buy off etc etc — so yeah you’re pushing to establish something like your voice, but you’re hopefully also making good strategic choices, because it’s… a job! Say “OK, I’m choosing to shoot something this way, because it will make the band look best, perhaps not because it’s my personal most exciting, try-something-new type fave,” you know? Best case scenario it can be both!

I was fortunate to work with a lot of great bands and artists who gave my team and I big creative freedom, so I do think the style honing started there, especially because I was working with my DP and regular collaborator Gregg on many of those, and then the shorts as well. He definitely was well-versed in the kind of composition, lighting and camera movements that excite me, before we got to the shorts… it’s just, if you’re funding it yourself, shorts is a place to do it where you don’t have to answer to anybody but yourself — the toughest client of all!! Wahahah jk. Unless.

There are so many instances where a story can feel like it’s coming together (or falling apart I guess). What do you think is the easiest and most difficult part of the storytelling process? 

I find writing really really challenging. Of course it can feel amazing when it’s going (or has just gone) really well but… oftentimes it’s a nightmare that makes me want to freak out. Production is more about “creativity within limitations”: do we have a hard out? Do we have a paper clip? Do we for some reason have only one 1.5 directions we can shoot in?OK we can get creative with that! But in writing it’s like oh ANYTHING could happen?? Yikes. Sometimes I find that prospect of so much anything a bit paralyzing.

I also feel like… as much as there is definitely no shortage of ideas, a lot of ideas have been done, and if you’re going to go to the trouble of wrangling all your people, spending a bunch of money, or even pitching/selling/writing to get someone ELSE’s money… well shit it better be a pretty good one of them ideas! I can psych myself out there, when I forget that sometimes ideas are dumb for a minute before they turn good, so that is a difficult part of storytelling because you may have to have patience as it sort of reveals itself (in my experience) and I’m not a very patient person. 

Editing is maaaybe the “easiest” mostly because you have so many elements at your disposal (music, sound design, vfx if you’re into that kind of thing) to potentially nudge the story or the feeling in one direction or another — but you also have the limitations of: this is the footage that was shot. So, here is your paper clip and hard out to solve the problem with. Creative time! That said, if you didn’t get what you needed while shooting, and say you can’t do pick-ups, you’ve exhausted all those options and you’re still desperately trying to tell the story you thought you were telling, but it’s not working? That does not feel great. You may find the thing you gotta do is tell the story… that the footage you do have is telling you wants to be told. Which isn’t easy emotionally if you’re stubborn, plus also you have to kill and mourn that other baby first so it’s like, jeez. This sucks. But it is the job. So we’re telling a new story now!  

You already had directed plenty of things by the time you did the WB Directors’ Workshop. What are some things you learned that changed the way you approach directing, if anything?

TV directing is its own special beast really, very different from all the other work I’ve done, and the workshop really hammered this in for myself and my compatriots there. I felt like I had a lot of production/creative problem solving experience going into the workshop, but the thing about the pace of narrative directing in TV land is that: it’s nuts. You’re part artist but also part scientist/mathematician — the goal is to get out alive, and to make the very best decisions possible in order to get the pieces you need, but also just don’t-stop-running and do not beat yourself up if you can’t get that one wacky shot you dreamt of: here, you are not an auteur, it is definitely not about you. 

Hammered into me via the WB Workshop’s lovely endlessly knowledgeable, generous teachers was the importance of blocking actors in such a way that you can shoot a scene efficiently, there just literally isn’t time to do it any other way.  I thought the indie world kept me ruthless and efficient, but it turns out TV is that x 1000. Luckily some things do carry over in both worlds, like: the best idea wins no matter who had it, collaboration is key and don’t be a dick to anyone! 

What are some books, films, interviews, classes, anything really that you love and recommend that you feel have elevated your work?

Recently I revisited Dick Tracy, a film my sisters and I watched when we were young basically just because of Madonna, and I was shook by how incredible the visual style is and how I think I’d been unknowingly trying to imitate it over the years. (ps did you know Warren Beatty directed this film???) I felt the same way when I rewatched Detroit Rock City a few years back, I was like: oh yes, I stole so many shots from this haha I didn’t even realize I was doing it because they were buried so hard in my subconscious. So don’t know if this really answers the question but, right now I’m just thinking about how weird it is that my brain has been taking this stuff in and organizing my taste and style preferences for me for so long, before I even knew that’s something that would help me bring to life the things I want to see on screen. 

Book Architecture is a super cool book on writing, very practical, easy to read and has plenty of examples. If you’re trying to “bury the knife in a cake” (as an old friend of mine used to say) scene by scene, this can help you plot out complicated arcs — which theme am I nodding to here, and when should I do it again so it doesn’t get forgotten, and oops did I mention that one symbol 5 times that is at least 1 too many etc. Highly recommend. 

Directors Tell the Story was the textbook we had in the WB Directors’ workshop — it is written by the two ladies who teach it and is super handy, again practical, and great, regarding TV work especially Directing Actors by Judith Weston is a very important text, I think she rules and I re-read this all the time before I’m getting to work. Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies is another classic, and on the self-help end I dig The Tools, which wants to help make it easier for you to keep doing hard things (like going after your dreams or telling stories or both).

More recently, while hitting a bit of blockage idea-wise, I came across this wonderful Alexander Chee article, on the ways we kind of let our brains get in the way of things.

Classes can be good: if you are in a position to drop a couple hundred dollars to force yourself to write something in order to not disappoint a stranger (your teacher), I support that. I personally find that accountability helpful plus it might include deadlines which are fantastic. I took a Continuing Ed class at NYU years ago, where I wrote my first short which we shot two years later: worth it! Right now I’m in a feature writing zoom class with Scott Rodgers and so far it is great; he has really good advice about letting ideas be shitty for a while and telling the nasty voice in your head to just chill while you do your thing. You see the theme here. 

What is a piece of advice you have for aspiring filmmakers who aren’t sure how to get a project off the ground?

Think long and hard (or short and soft!) about what ties YOU to the project you want to make. What is your connection to it, how does your worldview/life experience relate to your story? I’m definitely not saying every film needs to be a true story or anything like that but, what the connective tissue between you and the project is, is worth figuring out. Be ready to explain that to folks so they’ll join you on your mish: If you have other people outside your brain involved, your thing starts to get more real! 

Talk to people, all kinds of people, tell them what you’re doing and how pumped you are on it and why it’s awesome, ask if they want to help. And yes of course you will help them make their thing? Even if it’s just reading and giving notes. We gotta always be turning it over. A lot of people assume if someone wanted to help them, they would have offered but mostly we’re all just thinking about ourselves so get audacious about it. Ask someone if you can trade gear for another skill you have (we shot my first film CRYSTAL on a RED which I “rented” from a friend by giving him five days of my editing time). 

Best case scenario your enthusiasm for the project does not waver — of course in reality sometimes you get bummed, frustrated, that’s fine — but it’s YOUR enthusiasm that, especially when you maybe/probably don’t have enough money to properly pay people, that can keep your collaborators inspired and excited. 

Speaking of collaborators: always say thank you, like 100x a day if you can manage, and remember that there are human needs behind all your helping hands. If you treat people like humans, your film is better, it’s just science. You need the army to pull it off, so inspire the army and be kind to the army. 

In the meantime, while you’re finding your folks, inspiring them, bringing them aboard, channel your frustration at the project not happening as fast as you wanted, into something else. Whether that’s another idea or project (if you like to work like that, not everybody does — but it’s helpful IMO to not have all your idea eggs in one basket if you will) or some prep for this project. 

Can you cut a feel reel? Can you pull hecka refs organized by shot / lighting / production design / wardrobe, etc? Put together playlists for your characters, make a mood board / look book. If this sounds like annoying busy work, fair and no worries, but imo they are not a waste because:

1) When you get going you’ll be ready to communicate clearly with your team, your vision, and

2) You will have figured out some more stuff about your project and your taste along the way.

3) You’ve kept moving and not let the inevitable pause in momentum drive you mad.

“Just do the next right thing,” as they say. It’s tough because there’s a necessary part of you — the part that pushes and makes things happen out of thin air — that can feel very frustrated and pained when things are moving slowly. In my experience it’s a tricky balance: staying patient while also somehow not letting your foot off the gas. It’s confusing and a weird line to walk — KINDA LIKE ALL THE GOOD THINGS!!!