An interview with Stonestreet Studios on their work during a pandemic
Stonestreet Studios has been producing film works for almost thirty years now. Founded by Alyssa Rallo Bennett and Gary O. Bennett the production studio is multi-purpose and sets out to create socially conscious and character driven works.
The studio has worked with names such as Miles Teller, Idina Menzel, Rachel Brosnahan, and Christopher Lloyd on the feature film ReRUN. Stonestreet Studios also creates television pilots, webseries, and shortfilms, along with their feature film projects. The studio also has a conservatory which is intended to help train actors, writers, and directors in professional filmmaking.
Alyssa Rallo Bennett (ARB) was kind enough to answer some of our questions about Stonestreet studio’s goals, their current work during the pandemic, and a number of other topics.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
ARB: To make meaningful, relevant films that both challenge where we are and where we’re going. It’s a joy to get to write, direct and produce – to bring people together to work on stories that define who we are, change who we are, and help us aspire to be who we want to be.
Filmmaking helps us make something constructive and positive out of the most difficult and challenging moments and times we go through. Making films is a collaborative medium and a testament to how small and large groups of people can come together and create something bigger than themselves and share it with an audience.
If someone is unfamiliar with Stonestreet Studios what would be the first thing you want them to know? What would be the first film or MicroMovie you’d want them to see?
I guess the first thing is that we are a community of people who love the work, and want to find meaning from doing the work and working together. We’ve been doing this for almost thirty years and we have an ever growing community of creative, constructive, challenging, and open-minded people who love the process and have a passion for filmmaking in and of itself.
The first films we’d want people to see would be our features. ReRUN, with Christopher Lloyd, is now streaming on AppleTV. It’s a film about second chances and getting to reimagine things on one end in order to emerge somewhere new. It’s magical and romantic while dealing with darker moments of what it’s like to be isolated and have regrets. Christopher Lloyd’s character is wonderful, as are all the younger actors who came out of our immersive program.
Regarding the MicroMovies, we’ve produced over 400 MicroMovies so far – so I hope it’s okay to give my top 10: “Uberpool”, “Leading Story”, “Breakdown”, “Checkmate”, “Visitors”, “Trudy Gets Tindered”, “Microphone”, “Oswald”, “Sweet Surrender”, and “Another MicroMovie”, which is more hilarious after you’ve already watched a bunch.
These all feature delightfully flawed and funny characters who are challenged internally and in their relationships to one another. Of the #CertifiedRemote MicroMovies, “First Impressions” was a delight to direct as the actors were very trusting and down to play with their internal dramas, self-doubts, and desires. I look forward to finishing an upcoming, darker, pandemic-related MicroMovie called “The 4th of July” that I developed with writer Eva Jurko and Ollie Phillips.
What has Stonestreet Studios been doing during the pandemic?
We’ve been developing a new network series that we are partnering with an outside EP on. It’s a human rights series we’ve been developing for a couple of years and it’s become more and more relevant as we speak from a political and social standpoint.
We’ve also been producing “#CertifiedRemote MicroMovies” with some exciting new talent across the studio and our residency program with Tisch Drama actors and hyphenates.
Can you tell us a little bit about what Stonestreet’s MicroMovies are? What makes them unique to other forms of short film?
They tend to be beautifully shot, under 10 minute films that are often socially provocative, but tell a story with both a full arc and characters that are fraught with inner and outer conflict.
We care a lot about screen performance, and as the director of quite a few of them, I often focus on finding something unique and a stretch for the actors to tackle – something out of their comfort zone. That often makes for surprising, authentic and meaningful work.
Who are your current influences?
In the film world, filmmakers like Ang Lee, Jane Campion, Kubrick and Bergman. They were all making highly psychological, personal, and sometimes political and varied films. I have always been inspired by the power of people like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, the Dahli Llama.
I was very young when MLK was delivering impassioned speeches and finding inclusive ways to make African American rights part of human rights. He, along with studying psychology and drama, taught me to always search deeper on any issue and drama and to compassionately look at the roots and spirit of everyone. Growing up in the 60s, these people have stuck in my marrow along with writers like Joseph Campbell, Foucault, and Jung.
Where did the concept for Patron of the Heart come from?
Erin Dugan (screenwriter/co-star): The concept for “Patron of the Heart” came from us trying to think of pre-existing internet platforms that could be well-served by our remote recording setup. Optimally these MicroMovies are five pages long and feature each actor significantly, so I tried to pack in as much plot as possible.
I’m very interested in relationships between livestreamers and their audiences, specifically when that relationship is not toxic, but ultimately beneficial to an online community. Stephanie, Casey, and Alex pulled out some really funny and down-to-earth performances (in Stephanie’s case, from another literal continent!), and I think Drew Robinson‘s editing gave it the tone it needed.
Tell us a little bit about First Impressions.
Zoe Oliver (screenwriter/co-star): I really leaned into the challenge of writing pieces for Zoom by looking at films that featured remote communication like Her (2013), Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), and Black Mirror (2011-).
For “First Impressions” I was working with a group of friends (Hope Luna as Beth and Julia Ziegenbein as Juliette) who are wonderful actresses so I felt comfortable knowing that our real life connection would translate over video chat. I value subtlety as a writer and often find myself focusing on queer narratives. This piece was a combination of those elements.
What is the creative process like for Stonestreet Studios?
ARB: We develop young talent through our immersive program where Tisch Drama actors and hyphenates train within the walls of our film studio. During the summers, we take on outside emerging professionals. They work on viable projects we develop and create with and for them.
Gary and I are a writer/director team and have been working that way for quite some time; usually he writes, I develop the project with him – be it a feature, pilot or series – and then I direct. We’ve taken on films that dealt with reproductive rights, personal responsibility, and the second-hand smoke issue.
We’re working on a human rights series now, but have a feature our agent is pitching that is a multi-genre piece that touches on everything from murder to how the media operates, and can deeply affect people on a vital and personal level.
While it has those underpinnings, it’s a fun piece with action and tons of relationship humor. Meanwhile, we have an amazing community of colleagues we work with and support from other writers to directors, editors and producers.
What does the five year plan for Stonestreet Studios look like?
To continue making movies, series, and MicroMovies while partnering with other platforms and producers. The idea was to create a place where we could work, experiment, take risks, and be challenged by people we trust while trusting our own sensibility and aesthetic.
We want to tell the stories we want, the way we want, while still growing and evolving. We work with various reps who distribute our work to different platforms and audiences globally, together with them and our amazing team and agent we will continue to grow our studio, our equipment and shooting capabilities while developing new relationships and partnerships for production and distribution.
You also do feature length films such as ReRUN, what are some of the major differences in working on such a long format compared to short films?
The constant practice of making MicroMovies teaches you a lot about the arc and elements potentially present in every scene in a feature film. While features are a longer ride and require more time to develop a character and tell a story, each scene needs to be compelling, dramatic and varied in its own right.
Going back and forth is a wonderful balance to have to grapple with. After shooting and editing a feature like ReRUN, The Pack or Rain Without Thunder, and while screening at festivals, it’s always a delight to return to some shorter form work!
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
There have been a few exciting filmmakers who have come out of Stonestreet and/or have worked with us who I think will have longevity and continue making interesting films.
Victoria Negri is one, she’s on her second feature now called ULTRA. Her first, Gold Star, was bold and unique and a moving first film featuring Robert Vaughn.
Director Chris Modoono and his co-writer Gil Zabarsky, who made the feature film Tenured, based on a short we co-produced with them called “Teacher of the Year”. They’ve done some pilots since, but I hope to see their next feature happen soon.
Alana Barrett-Adkins, who wrote, directed and starred in Asunder, One Flesh Divided, which was a FANTASTIC first feature film that was genuinely about something deeply personal and universal. She has real weight as a multi-hyphenate, and pulled off the directing/writing/acting thing in a way you don’t usually see.
What’s your next project?
A human rights anthology series and a feature film called Who Killed Juliet Matlin? As a multi-genre film, it mixes a relevant issue and murder mystery with humor. Our lead sleuths are an out-of-work stockbroker who is obsessed with James Bond and a TV journalist who is carrying the weight of their relationship and just needs a fun break.
There are at least three other features and four different series at different stages of development.
Gary is a prolific writer and has been honing his writing skills across short form, series and features for quite some time. There’s a growing interest in work and it’s nice to have quite a pipeline of projects that we’ve been honing and crafting ready or close to ready to go.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Just follow your own sense of things, your own way, do things deeply and fully at your own pace, but as a project develops, be open, collaborative, but learn how to make your own decisions and mistakes. Value everyone you work with – they are your lifelong work family and community. Make sure everyone is heard, respected, and has some creative input and/or outlet.
I think everyone is born with a producer gene, just some of us suppress it or denigrate it more than others. Learn to nurture it and let it lead. While it feels like a ton more work, the payoff is fantastic.
It’s crucial to pay attention to all details, and this helps you actually enjoy how everything matters and affects the work you put on screen, including the actual experience on set.
Stonestreet Studios has been around for 29 years – what has that journey looked like? Is there a production Stonestreet really wants to make, but hasn’t been able to just yet? Stonestreet works on all kinds of different projects from webseries to TV pilots, what’s it like having so many different types of productions? Do you have a favorite?
It really depends on the project and the story and also what resources you have. This determines what format works best for the ride you want to take an audience. We have become adept at working with all kinds of budgets from large to small.
We are looking forward to doing more series and partnering with studios. It’s incredibly rewarding to get to do a second, third or fourth season if you genuinely have more to explore.
Our first series, The 47th Floor, went on for nine seasons. We learned everything while doing it and got to grapple with some very interesting challenges as it dealt with a gene that mutated from survivors from the island of Hashima after the bomb was dropped.
Features might be my favorite, if you have a decent amount of time to shoot what you need. I have learned that time limitations are almost always helpful if approached both creatively and practically.
What has been one of Stonestreet’s most exciting achievements so far?
The features we’ve made, like The Pack and ReRUN, and Rain Without Thunder – the first and last being particularly socially conscious films.
Also, seeing that Stonestreet is a friendly, inclusive workplace we’ve created where there wasn’t one before. A place where people like Miles Teller, Rachel Brosnahan, Nik Walker, Camila Mendes, Beanie Feldstein, and so many others got to cut their teeth and gain confidence and tools and relationships to do what they do.
Where some of the filmmakers I mentioned above found out they needed to be hyphenates – actors, producers, writers, directors and editors.
What is one of the most important aspects of collaboration?
Listening, having a yes attitude, and building with what you get from others regardless of what you want or may expect. Finding a way to incorporate what others gift you with your vision for a piece, whether you’re a director, producer, writer or actor.
Stonestreet describes itself as “incubator of socially conscious, character driven and culturally provocative millennial and generation Y content”, can you tell us a little bit more about what that means, and why it’s important?
I think everyone has stories to tell and share, characters they know and can expound on, reinvent, and create out of their imaginations authentically. To us at Stonestreet, and to me, it feels important to know what’s going on around you in smaller and wider circles and imagine how the story you’re telling, no matter how personal, small or large might intersect with what others going through either the same or vastly different experiences.
This can be on a humane and personal level, social level or political level. So while a story might be outside of a particular circle’s experience, we try to ask the question: Can this speak to something deeper about the human experience and cross boundaries or different circles in spite of how different they might be?
Cinematic drama is a great arena for more than cerebral discussion. It’s an opportunity to grapple with conflicting ideas on a cellular, emotional, and intellectual level. We can usually feel the raison d’etre or true intentions of a film, director, producer, writer or actor when they are truly invested in something that has care and constructive intentions behind it – whether it’s to get us to laugh at ourselves or take a hard look at dark and conflicted sides.
Every film can be so different than the next, but somehow if it’s spirit and intentions address what is deeply human and necessary for those involved in creation along with those around us, and perhaps acknowledges that there is something they care about on a bigger level (whether it’s by character, story/plot, or style), then that’s what we mean when we say socially relevant and culturally provocative.