Today on the show we have writer and director Stephen Karam. He is the Tony Award-winning author of The Humans, Sons of the Prophet and Speech & Debate. For his work he’s received two Drama Critics Circle Awards, an OBIE Award and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Stephen recently directed his first feature film, a rethought version of The Humans for A24 films, to be released in 2021. He wrote a film adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull starring Annette Bening, which was released by Sony Picture Classics.
His adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard premiered on Broadway as part of Roundabout’s 2016 season. Recent honors include the inaugural Horton Foote Playwriting Award, the inaugural Sam Norkin Drama Desk Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards, a Lucille Lortel Award, Drama League Award, and Hull-Warriner Award.
Stephen and I have a great conversation on how he went from Broadway to Hollywood, adapting his award-winning play to the big screen, his creative process and much more.
Erik Blake has gathered three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare. The piercingly funny and haunting debut film from writer-director Stephen Karam, adapted from his Tony Award-winning play, The Humans explores the hidden dread of a family and the love that binds them together.
Enjoy my conversation with Stephen Karam.
Alex Ferrari 0:00
I like to welcome the show, Stephen Karam, how're you doing?
Stephen Karam 0:16
I'm doing really well. How you doing today?
Alex Ferrari 0:18
Good brother. It is Karem. But it's Karam in the motherland. So I was trying to be authentic.
Stephen Karam 0:28
You actually nailed it. You nailed it. No I'm doing great. I'm excited to be here and, and be on the show.
Alex Ferrari 0:37
I appreciate that man. Listen, I just got done watching your film literally 10 minutes ago, cuz it's been it was it was I was like wanting to do as fresh as humanly possible. And I absolutely loved it. We're gonna get deep into that the humans and how you came up with it and all that stuff. But first things first, how did you get started in the business?
Stephen Karam 0:58
Good question. Um, I fell in love with storytelling in Scranton, Pennsylvania, not through any formal education or i My sister was in a production of Little Shop of Horrors at the Scranton Intermediate School. I remember seeing the movie and kind of just being blown away and wanting to get as many VHS tapes as I could. So it started just as an interest Public Library. How many videos can I take out how many plays can I read? And because what was going on in my high school where student theater, I started imitating whatever playwrights, you know, I'd be reading in in Scranton, high school, whatever we were doing. So my first like memory of like creating stuff and participating was both was both acting in school plays and then and then trying to imitate writers that I loved. So just writing skits sketches. In eighth grade, I made a film version of The Cask of Amontillado for a school project with three of my classmates. I didn't know how to I had no editing equipment, so I had to using the crazy heavy camcorder I had to film it. The only way I could figure out how to do was to film everything on the tape in order. So it's like I didn't think right you had to go back.
Alex Ferrari 2:26
And then try not to eat into it. Try not to eat it to the previous steak. I feel
Stephen Karam 2:35
I aggravate my first that was like my first like stab a dragon. But you're laughing Do you have any? Do you have any similar Oh, my experience
Alex Ferrari 2:43
I've first I've been directing for 25 years, my friend and I lived in a video store actually worked in a video store in my in my high school day. So my editing in college, before college was to VHS tapes to VHS decks, and I just would crash. So I was I was just a step ahead of you. In the huge step. It's it is like my hero. But but the first ones though, the first very first thing that I did in high school, because there was no technology was exactly your technique. I would I didn't know how to add. I didn't know what editing was I didn't even understand the concepts because it was no information about I mean, the only information I had was the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark VHS and the Making of Star Wars VHS. And that was essentially all that film education I had at the time, not so much on the editing. So I just kind of just like well, if I shoot it in order, and you would see it and I actually watched it the other day, I don't know why I pulled out my old high eight tapes. And I would see where the splices would come in because I hit the record button. And if you don't hit pause, it would be like a janky cut Oh was just horrible.
Stephen Karam 3:46
Janky cut you get the spice. You know you have to run with it. But it was the there was a there was a moment where the splice was so bad. I remember we added like I couldn't figure out how to bridge it and so we added a commercial so that it would seem like the staticky slice was like stooping us into genius sponsor
Alex Ferrari 4:06
Oh so you were doing you were doing like crazy transitions even in camera.
Stephen Karam 4:11
No, it was we there was this really? I think the like I remember the special effects I remember was like we I did no learn how to there was like a fade button and so there was a great sequence where if you know that truth story, he's it is a horror story. And it's basically like he ends up these these friends end up like one he ends up burying the other alive we walling him up brick by brick, and my sister's like playset like play kitchen house had like there was one section of those brick exterior so I kept like gently fading with this trial like losing my my dad's like trowel, and then we'd like fade back in and just felt like cardboard bricks would be a little higher, with the trowel and then we fade out fade back it
Alex Ferrari 4:56
Well, you know, but the struggle was, this is the struggle was real the struggle was real.
Stephen Karam 5:01
It's also just, I guess the short answer to your question is that this was not my entryway into making plays and films was not that sophisticated route. It was sort of, I was at a public school, there were no artists in my family. So I had wonderful arts educators here and there, and that sparked the love. But I was like a, probably later than a lot of when I think of what, just incredible access young people and film students now have, oh, technology wise, and it's just, I'm giddy, like when I met people outside of the Paramount last night, and just talking to students who, you know, at that time, I was, like, you know, talking about, well, I still don't have the money to buy anything else. And I don't know how to, I can't make any more movies on my parents recorder, because it takes too long to edit it. Now you're just talking to kids where it's like, it's just incredible, like the technology is there it's in if it's not there, it's in their hands on their phone. And so they already know, and are able to do so much. It's just is really just completely thrilling. I don't want to get too far ahead of me. But I felt like the recall that these early experiences was in pre production, like using my iPhone and Artemis Pro on my phone to just go and line up those opening sky shots of the opening credits. And just not taking any of that for granted. It's like I can't imagine being born into that technology. Because doing it was just such a sense of wonder, I'm just sharing that with my cinematographer like the back and forth. And I like to be able to map out something in a way that feels pretty sophisticated, especially once you figure out like what the, my, my oldest iPhone is like an iPhone eight s whatever, you know, I think the focal length, it approximates, like 18 millimeter. But you know, like, I did have a lot of recall, like, How incredible is this, that that I can be having these discussions like and I remember just not being able to figure out how to do anything other than making the movie perfectly in.
Alex Ferrari 7:07
No. But you learned though, I mean, doing the that's the thing. I think a lot of times, filmmakers nowadays and even writers, they don't, when you when you're when you're doing like I sound like to old farts. But like when you do the struggle, like when you're struggling through that kind of technology, you're forced to learn things that you might not if you have everything at your disposal. So even if you even if you using your iPhone, they're still you know, it's a lot different than shooting with an airy or red, you know, so. And if you're editing on on your iPhone or editing on, you know, Final Cutter DaVinci your premiere, you're learning things and you're right, I can't even comprehend what I would have done with this technology.
Stephen Karam 7:50
In some ways, I guess it's like everybody makes the most out of what? Yeah, the pros and cons of where of what you know. And to your point, I think it's interesting. Like, I think about my being unafraid of like, starting from not being seduced by the technology, like I feel like I wonder if I would be so seduced by if I came of age at a time when I knew how like just maximizing the amount of like coverage you get, especially like, over the shoulder over the shoulder, then we'll go and close, then we'll get the established if I was like really married to how, cuz I would have been an obsessive editor as a kid, I imagine I might have just been so attuned to that, that I would have abandoned shots that might have required a little more thought like, like, lost out on the joy of that. And when you start by being like, the only way to do it is to like rehearse and get things ready. Suddenly like the idea of doing like a two minute shot where you have to like coordinate six actors like it's so much of the way that humans is filmed. It's like I sort of love that I feel like you end up your weaknesses become your strengths because you sort of have both in your arsenal like I'm so in awe of how a movie you know with a lot of coverage could be taken away from a director and and maybe to a different movie by someone imposed Oh yeah. That I feel like my focus I'm grateful that I also like know the benefits of what even on movies have to move so quickly like just the benefit of what you can get from if there's a reason for it for like a longer take or what what that emotional read resonance the payoff of those moments can be because I could see myself just being like oh my god just literally cover everything from every angle so that you know I could make this movie you know, into it doesn't even have to be about a family if I decided to add enough voiceover in post.
Alex Ferrari 9:51
Now when you when you go when you start your writing process, how do you approach the process in general do you go with Characters first plot first. You know, how do you actually approach the process in your world?
Stephen Karam 10:08
Ah, it's a little different every time I it ends up being centered around the characters. But in this case, I the initial impulse was like, I was feeling a lot of fear and anxiety about, you know, I was that my day job just about life in general financial crisis and just hit I was an assistant at a law firm thinking about writing my next play. I always like to write from fear or questions I can't answer. I guess that's not character. But in that realm, I was thinking like, Well, why I guess I should be. A lot of things are keeping me up. And I should maybe, what would it mean if I decided to write about these questions I can't answer or these fears. I'm having money, anxieties, worries about health and health insurance, and they'll feel so mundane. And I've always loved the psychological thrillers horror genre, I've always loved being scared, I was always the person who wanted to go on the Haunted Mansion ride or the haunted house. And I just thought, I've never written anything genre, but I was like, what if I write a play about people I love are the things that are keeping me and people I know up at night. And it's actually like, somehow the story itself is like, actually scary, like viscerally scary. And so I was like that, I think I might like to see that. And it might, might be my interest might. So I thought I was going to do something away from character super genre. Almost almost like a slasher movie, like where I would put a family in a haunted house and watch, go jump out of closets and, and I still want to see that movie. And maybe I will see that movie. And those movies exist, but but I just when I put the people into the house, I started to really love them, they got more and more complex. And that kind of like three 417 layers deep kind of layers of character doesn't necessarily lend itself it sort of almost takes it out of being pure genre, even if you're trying to make it pure genre. So that was the origin of the humans on stages, sort of it went from being what I thought was going to be more of a camp, stage thriller, like death trap, like a throwback to these like sleuth, yeah, those old commercial Broadway hits that didn't really exist anymore. And it just kind of in spite of myself, I ended up with with a bit of a genre collision with something that that really was a family drama, comedy, but also completely infected by my love of the horror genre.
Alex Ferrari 12:39
Oh, there's no, there's no question that the horror genre is like drizzled all over the place. Because I'm watching the there's certain scenes in the movies. I'm watching and I'm going, is there I mean, am I safe? I mean, I walked in with with this movie, I felt like I was watching this movie, then all of a sudden, it's like, I he's not gonna there's no monster is it? There can't be a monster. But it was just so brilliantly done that at any moment, like you got me on edge. And I'm like, no, no, I trust the director. He's taking me to cetera as a storyteller. The I can't believe like, you know, an hour and something in they're gonna show the monster like, that doesn't make any sense to me. And, and the monster wasn't in the trailer. So that I
Stephen Karam 13:21
Well, what's crazy is I so somebody who loves more genre, but also loves like, like stuff that's subtle and skirts around the edges. It's like I, I, you know, you're always like, create, I think it's like I was talking about students. It's like, you just you make the movie that feels like the only one you can make. And part of that is running, writing towards what you want to see and what you love and what scares you. It's excited to you and I love movies, even when there are like literal ghosts, but I'm always disappointed. Always and with With few exceptions, like like, even a movie that I'm obsessed with, like Rosemary's Baby, you know, early plants can repulsion of course all these great movies but eat the Rosemary's Baby. My least favorite part of part of that I think is the least scariest when you see the demon baby right? Of course, you get the peek into the crib. And I don't even want to call it a misfire because when a movie is that brilliant, you don't need to you don't need to fix anything, it is exactly what it should be. But it is funny that like that impulse even in movies that I hold up as like, you know, like pinnacles of the genre. It is funny that I'm always like, just as a personal like clocking where I feel like a little less scared or like Oh, my imagination was going to such a more interesting place then that demon that little like the puppet baby with the makeup and
Alex Ferrari 14:43
Oh, yeah, let me you don't want to see the shark. You don't want to see the shark in Jaws,
Stephen Karam 14:46
You know, but if you watch the end of the humans again, I promise you you will see something that will shock you that you will you're going to be shocked that it's hidden in there so explicitly and that you didn't see it.
Alex Ferrari 14:59
Stephen Karam 15:00
It helps when you see it big cuz you did. Did you see it on a movie screen?
Alex Ferrari 15:03
No, I couldn't make it to the screening last night so I saw Yeah, I saw
Stephen Karam 15:06
Just to say that there is something there is an effect of a potential I don't want to say a faceless entity coming out of a wall in a way that on a rewind or on that.
Alex Ferrari 15:17
Oh, no, I saw I saw the thing that scared them.
Stephen Karam 15:21
You guys saw the thing that scared of it at the end?
Alex Ferrari 15:23
Yeah. I know. I saw I saw no, I saw that. I know. I saw that completely. Yeah, when he drops us. Okay, we I don't want to. I don't want to give away too much.
Stephen Karam 15:31
So let's we shouldn't spoil it. We shouldn't. Yeah, okay,
Alex Ferrari 15:33
So let's not go too deep into it. Because I don't want to spoil it for people.
Stephen Karam 15:37
Curious because you're we both love Cooper I can see Stanley's the O ring above you. But like, I'm like, how do you it is a fun push and pull. And it's I kind of love that you were thinking I guess the my big joy with this movie is that the potential feels really real in a way that maybe it didn't quite as much on stage. But where you actually are like, is she actually going to open a closet? Or like is something really crazy going to jump out? Or is this the tension coming from?
Alex Ferrari 16:07
So this is what I loved about the movie, man? You know, cuz when you first start watching it, I walked in cold. I didn't know the story. I only saw a trailer I walked in cold. So that's the way it's best way. I love watching movies. Just like I don't want to know anything about it. Just do what you're supposed to do. You turn the lights up. Did you turn the light? Yeah, yeah, everything was dark. It was everything was dark. Okay. Anyway, of course, I mean, you have to watch a movie in the dark. So I'm watching it. And as I'm watching it, and I love the way the camera moves, which is so brilliant. Because you do a lot of frames within a frame in the film. I noticed that right away. There's just so much framing within framing and framing. And the camera moves. I wouldn't say fly on the wall. But it's definitely distant. So you feel like you're voyeuristic in the in the entire, this is just my feeling on it. You're voyeuristic and you're overhearing something that you might not really should be overhearing. This is very pretty private stuff. So I love that aspect. But then the the noises and the booms, and then how you build that tension. Which is so fascinating, because I'm like, but this is not a horror movie. And this is not a thriller, I think. And that was the thing that I loved about it because it kept me someone who's seen 1000 movies. 10,000 movies at this point in my life. Kept me on edge going, Wait a minute, is the is her monster here. And then, oddly enough, I feel the monsters within the there's so many, there's so much of that within the characters in the stuff, some of the stuff that the characters are saying, I'm like, Jesus, these people are horrible. Like they're so mean. And I'm like, That's my family. I know that I got that person in my family. I got that person in my family, I got that person in my family, they would say something like that. So it's like this. It was just such a at the thing is the thing I love about it, and then I'll let you. I'll ask you another question. But the thing I love about it is that I'm faced level. It didn't seem like it was it like it was I was going to be a good story. I knew it was going to be well written and all of that. But it when you first the first few friends you just like this is I didn't expect what I expected. And that's so rare in today's world, that you walk in thinking something and you walk out thinking something else. And it's so hard to do that nowadays because we're so jaded and so literate visually and seeing so many things for us to be surprised, and anything and it wasn't a cheap surprise. It wasn't like the cat jumped out at you. It was just done on a psychological level. May I say almost Kubrick Ian in the way that it gets under your skin a bit if that makes sense.
Stephen Karam 18:41
It does make sense. I don't even know that I want to say anything other than I know it's a real joy to just listen to somebody you know process the film it's it's a private experience for so long you you sort of make it and you're hoping long for the opportunity to hear what other people think and experience and yeah, like from from the the voyeurism I mean, it's interesting, it's such a slow burn and the movie in a way that I was really hoping or couldn't really anticipate was how many people like you kind of come in cold in a way that the dream was that there would be need to be no preparation that this wasn't the type of adaptation that was like you love to the play now coming up that it was really its own entity. And so the surprise element, which I guess I'm most proud of, because it it felt it feels like it's born out of the just the emotion of the the ride of the story, the characters and their journey. That sort of bending are really familiar thing that we all know but so slowly, while also not being dishonest. It's from the opening frames, everything. The DNA of what I'm doing is embedded in the shots and it's a very bizarre opening shot of a dad to be hiding behind like the molding in a distant, like you said, so part of you knows. And yet I also wanted the audience because none of it needs to be processed, you know, consciously, which is part of like, you know, watching Kubrick it's like you don't even know what some of those images and the frame is doing to your but what the folk but but you just know that you're feeling unsettled. And so I was actually blown away by using domestic drama and comedy how it's such a familiar thing, right? It's in our bones. We know what the family having Thanksgiving, know what those these movies? Do we know what they do, and we love him for it. And so I was surprised how just shooting them differently. I mean, it literally working with my cinematographer, and just framing them in unfamiliar ways, right? How much power that has almost because it doesn't announce itself. It doesn't that like, you know, you noticed it, you were like, okay, he's keeping his distance. This is a lot of a lot of empty space here for but but to an audience who's just going to watch a movie, you sort of like the slow burn of it, as you sort of the movie teaches you how to watch it. I think if you forget it more, and you almost don't know where the dread or the creeping suspicion that something's off, I didn't want to say dread but like, just the power of synonym of just the visual imagery of just image by images that you can hold familiar things right a little askew, you can go down a tenement hallway, you know, on the right focal length, and you're just like, why am I scared watching Amy Schumer walk down a hallway like this is not this is not a weird moment. I just laughed at her in June Squibb like what's happening and you know, last night like the Paramount's so great because it's such a large, huge and it went from a laugh line about you know, Amy's like should I should I just dumped you want me to just dump grandma down the staircase How am I supposed to supposed to go down there to just cutting to the next shot of this read this like blood red?
Alex Ferrari 21:56
Yes with with that lovely always with that lovely image on the on the on the elevator
Stephen Karam 22:02
With a lovely image on the elevator like the audience and this is something that's like now I'm just getting experienced where there's time just kind of went like, like, they felt something about that was eerie to the point that there was like, like, like, the way that one does in a horror movie where you just instinctively know it's like too claustrophobic. You want June Squibb to have more room in her wheelchair. And I just love that. I mean, that's the power of like a photograph and the moving pictures like you the just how powerful the frame is. And I think for me, it was always a balance of not to lean too much into like, I I think the things I love about the genre are what I hate about it, and that I hate being told so early on that a scary thing is coming. Like with music with a staying and and I still love it because it's like, Oh, scary things about to happen. And then it happens, but it's still satisfying. And with the humans just kind of playing with all the tropes that I love, like, like, wrapping my arms around them, but also like, what if it's also like a horror movie with jumpscares, but also much quieter? What if it doesn't have the lead in underscoring of a horror movie like the thing that Telegraph's like creepy, creepy? And weirdly, for the movie like this? I think it makes it feel a little like creepy or creepy. Yeah. Oh, absolutely. There should be. Someone should be telling me more how to feel like someone should be holding my hands as an audience member. Because we're so used to that, like, there's no scary scene, or this is a funny scene,
Alex Ferrari 23:34
You definitely leave the audience out there. You're guiding them to be you leave them out there, you're like, like you said, you're not guiding them. So they're kind of just like, I have nothing to hold on to. I like what's going on. And it gets gets worse in the best way possible. As the as the film goes on, as you build it. You just start like I can't, I can't hold on to this thing. I can't hold on to the score. There's no monster like and you're just like, I don't It's uh, you're off kilter completely. And it's so brilliant. That scene in the hallway. I mean, you using blood red as the, the dog the cover of the elevator. So um, like, and, and all the other stuff so I can understand why people felt like a little bit off there. But, you know, going back to what we were talking about with Kubrick. I mean, I was trying to explain to my wife who's never seen the shining before she's like, is it a scary movie? And I go, I go, it's not as much that it's scary, is that it gets in your bones. And it's that it's not like there's, yeah, there's a couple of scary images in it, but it's not really like it's not a horror movie in the, in the grand scope, and it has that kind of just eeriness, the way things are framed the way things are sitting there. And there were there touches of that in, in the humans, which was so beautiful because you just like I just feel weird here. I don't know why and it just gets you it gets inside. You and that is not a super, that's not superficial, like a lot of horror movies are or a lot of cinema is a lot of times it's always on the front. But when you can get inside someone's psyche, or in their bones that you've achieved something, no question.
Stephen Karam 25:15
Well, thank you. I mean, it's a challenge, it is really hard. And you never know, you know what, what works for one person might not work for another person who, you know, I respect everybody's opinions and tastes. And so I also don't, you know, I don't think somebody is wrong if their adrenaline only gets fueled by like, you know, quick cuts. And I think, you know, we are who we are, and so, but they're sort of share that love of the like, you know, why can't I stop thinking about, you know, the tenant? It's like, these movies that feel deeply imperfect? Or why can I stop thinking about the shining? Why does the imagery still to this day, you know, more than a movie that might might be so hell bent on exploiting the why just dump blood in the hallway? That's not scary? What if we see should we be seeing people split open, that spills the blood into the, you know, so even the people come away from the shining, thinking of it as like the ultimate like, gory movie, it's almost like you have to see it again, to really remember that like, intestines, the movie is not about like intestines being being thrown and eaten at every, every turn. It's almost like, I agree with you that it's more shocking, how much it is about, like the architecture and the framing. And the fun thing about like making the humans was going down the wormhole of like, pre war, architecture and empty space. And, you know, there's, there's been a lot of like, interesting writing about, like, the horrors of empty space and that empty, the more empty the frame, the more horror is implied. But it's also a lot to like, take the leap. To hope that you know, cuz, because I think other people, understandably, are just like, fill the frame like, I've no, no, don't, don't I don't make me be patient. And, like, what you said was the goal, but also a lot of people in a way that I understand as somebody who likes to watch, like a good rom com every now and then, like, I literally will tune in, in those moments, to watch a movie when I want the hand holding, or I don't I want to a movie or a TV show that's going to tell me what it is, at every turn. I don't want to have to be like, what's going on? Why am I feeling this way? Yeah. And then, of course, my favorite movies are movies that, that, you know, take that journey and take that risk and feel like complicated people. Like, you know, my favorite movies have this. They feel like people to me, like in the same way that my favorite people on the planet are not all good or all bad. They're complicated. But they're specific, but there's, like so specific. And so you can revisit them again and again and again. And again. Because they never really bore you. Or there's something that just feels authentic about the fact that they're sprung from like, a vision. Instead of like, my biggest fear, which is like movies made by committee, you know, where you are too many, you know, I mean, I'm not talking about collaborations, like where people choose to work in teams, I'm talking more about like, you know, for writers got fired for the other writers got brought up and 17 more writers got came out of the project and 50 more on credited writers got brought on and then you know, and then three producers re edited the movie after it got taken away from the director of a few years from now, it's just gotten. So yeah, there's there's the beauty in a 24 and that they've essentially found success in movies that are those movies or that that let's just say they're just they're not fazed by slightly genre bending or harder to pin down. So I also feel like I had I had like, the right home to do that. Those kinds of things that you're talking about.
Alex Ferrari 29:01
Now, you know, the the humans is originally a play in that play won a Tony Award, I got to ask me, what was it like, winning a Tony?
Stephen Karam 29:11
Award? I mean, it's great. It's also like, the big gift of like, a words is that they don't, it's not that they don't mean a lot they do and that it's like, you know, it's like it's like a you know, it's it's affirmation, it's a nice thing, you're but the it almost like the real gift of like, getting the golden ticket, like in a moment like that is that it also shines a light on how to reveal, like Joy gifts, everything about what you do, it really just comes from, like, are you making stuff that you feel like how do you feel about what you're doing? Right? No external, you know, and so the moment you get it, or you get the brass ring, I'd say you kind of just confirmed like, why I was staying on my day job to make to write the plays that I was writing. Why? You know, I never took Like more commercial, screenwriting options that, that I just didn't want to, I think there's nothing wrong with taking them. But just, I didn't feel like drawn to the specific projects or in other words, I just think it's, it's not that it's a piece of hardware it has meaning. It's just that it also sort of reminds you that the the debt kind of looking to other people to give you a trophy is also is not where it's at. It's, it's kind of like a, it's a great lesson to learn. And I think I think I had that crazy good fortune that come my way. You know, in my mid 30s, which is great that it didn't happen to me when I was 22. Oh, God, I've actually thought I might have thought that it mean, something it didn't. Yep. That I actually am fancy. And it's that it was just a season like incredible. I mean, what's fascinating as it was, it was up against the father, which became a movie last year, the one with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman. So there's like two, it's fun to see, like, you go after there's often long droughts of like plays that become movies. And it's fun. funny to see in one season like that we both got our movies made. He did such a brilliant job. But just to say, I mean, does that answer your question?
Alex Ferrari 31:23
No, it does. No, it does. It's because I mean, I've had Oscar winners. I've had any winners on the show I've talked to and I always like to ask that question. Because I'd like to see, there's so many people listening think that's that's the end goal. And I always, like, when you win the Oscar, you've got maybe a three minute, four to five minutes situation, you don't even remember it. When you're up there. It's from what I understand. And then you're whisked away, you do a bunch of press. And then it just starts to wean away. But I've talked to so many people who've won those awards, who afterwards were depressed, because it's like, where now where do I go now because they associated so much to those awards, as opposed to know what you need to associate is the journey have fun in the journey, because that's a lot longer than that one minute.
Stephen Karam 32:10
And it's also it's just, you know, going back to like the staying connected to work that comes from your, your, your gut and your heart or just that, that that you're obsessed with, to make it like a Hallmark card. You know, the joy that comes from being obsessed with what you're making, you know, it feels very childlike and very cliched, but it's like, nothing is better than that. And then taking the journey to try to make something that has meaning to you that you want to share and make with others. It's just It's just where it's at. And the everything else is a red herring. It's just, it's it's just a red herring. It's just like dangling. It's like, what are all these sci fi movie? I feel like it's like, I just watched Lynch's dune again. And it's like, the spy. It's like, you know, it feels like the spice. It's like a hallucinogen.
Alex Ferrari 32:58
Stephen Karam 32:59
It's like, you know, it's like one of those movies where you spend the whole, like, looking for the golden Snicket or one of those things, and it's, and then you, you know, it's so cliched, but it's like, and you know, I experienced this with I have incredibly brilliant students, and I'm so impressed with everybody that I get the chance to work with every year. And then I'm just like, you have to, like leave room for how hard it is to their fears about like, the focus is like I want an agent and I want to get you thinking about all the wrong things. But you know, you also remember the hunger and how those things do feel important. Because before until you have some validation, you feel like that's what's gonna make you a writer that's gonna make you a director. And it's like, I do tell them that but it's it's funny to see you know, to make space for like, the feelings on both sides. But the best gift of it is it just for my case, it sort of refocus me to not just to see for what it is like, a great sort of feels like a like a slice of birthday cake. And just nice piece of birthday cake, eat it. It had too much icing on it, you end up feeling a little like, should I be cake but it was delicious. You don't regret it. And then you know, the next day it's gone. And so you're just I'd say the big thing that is true about Awards, which which is hard to admit because it feels as somebody who doesn't have a publicist and is not going to chase them. Yeah. They do get more people to see your work. And so So I would say like, it would be a lie to say that if you know you win the Tony Award for Best Play or you win the Academy Award for Best Picture. You know, the thing that if someone were to say like do they have any value? I would my answer is no in terms of personal value, but yes they do and marketing more eyeballs.
Alex Ferrari 34:55
Yeah, marketing and branding everything. Oh, absolutely. No question.
Stephen Karam 34:59
So So there's there's to me there's a bit of it's that isn't that like I don't the focus that gets put on awards. And I also hate that these things that I don't think have truth beneath them or literally mean that you wrote the best play of like, a godlike way. I hate that they do really result in, you know, and being cinephiles like we all have those screenplays and movies we're obsessed with where, you know, almost everybody's favorite movie did got ripped off or snub,
Alex Ferrari 35:30
Shawshank Redemption, Shawshank Redemption.
Stephen Karam 35:34
Or just saying I read some crazy article where someone was like, Will this be Paul Thomas Anderson tear where like he finally gets right. I was like Paul, Thomas Anderson hasn't been recognized.
Alex Ferrari 35:43
I, I know you read you read my mind. I'm like, wait a minute, did he does he not get like an Oscar for a script?
Stephen Karam 35:50
That's never been gotten gotten the golden ticket or something
Alex Ferrari 35:54
Neither did Kubrick neither did Kubrick
Stephen Karam 35:56
Of course, it doesn't matter. It's like is so you know, or someone like even you Stanley coupe. It's like, it's like, you know, we know these things. It's like, they're totally true. And sure, sure, sure. Sure. You know, I'd say that just so I don't sound completely like Guy Smiley. But I'd say the complex thing is that they really can help a movies get seen by more. Absolutely. And, you know, as writers and directors like, of course, it feels like a lie. To not say like that is part of the dream is that people also see your work, especially in the independent film market. It does feel like it's just so hard to get right. Especially in this landscape. How do you when you can't do platform releases anymore? Like what is? What does it mean for these movies? to just get blasted to very quickly to 1300 screens, and then to VOD, and,
Alex Ferrari 36:47
Right! You want to get people to watch it. You want to get people to watch it. I have to ask you. So I've talked to so many screenwriters and, and, and filmmakers in general, that they talk about the zone and tapping into that, that place that creative place where you can, you know, whatever comes I always consider myself a conduit. I think many of the people I've spoken to who are writers specifically, they're like, I don't write this, I just, I'm here and it comes to me and it just comes right through me. But there's certain people that know how to go there and tap into that all the time. What is your process to kind of center yourself to get to that place where these ideas flow in and you you can just like like Tarantino says it's so beautifully he's like, I'm not writing this. I'm just I'm just dictator. I'm just snog refer on these guys talking, you know? And he gets into that place and there's so many people who know screenwriters who know how to do that. Almost on demand, but it's rare. How do you do it? How do you do it in your work?
Stephen Karam 37:48
I I don't rush it. So I I'm not the person to hire if you need if you need like a very quick
Alex Ferrari 37:55
A quick two weeks, two to three week turnaround.
Stephen Karam 37:59
I become obsessive and I let myself I'll tell you what I do. I I like with this film. I very much felt haunted by Ali ferrets, the soul of Fassbender film because of the way it held its middle aged female character in this pre war architecture, a lot of frames within frames like you mentioned. Keselowski being very interesting colors like being very close, very distant. And so. So I had this concept of like, running with that and being something felt very right about not filming and traditionally being very close, or very wide, and not a lot of in between. So I let myself like do I do research trips a lot before I write. So to your point about the zone, I don't force it. I'm not the person that's still at 7am writing 10 pages of a screenplay. If I'm feeling stuck and a little blocked, I will go back to a really like visual place especially that tends to get me excited and gets me more in the zone. And it just gets me thinking in a way that is more filmic and more dimensional. And you know, I watched the by Edward Yang like 100 times, and it's just a movie. I mean, I found it years ago because it was on some obscure Thank you Martin Scorsese. It was like on one of his like, top 10 movies of the 2000s. I was like, What's this movie, but it's film very wide. It's also people's feel very like ozouf, people spilling in and out of the frame the very patient. And so I kind of just let myself when I'm not in the writing zone, like go into a watching zone and watching other people's work and feeling doing a lot of reading. And usually that points me back to the writing like back to where I'm ready to open final draft and get going again. But I don't have the practice of like pushing through five screenplay pages every day. I don't think that's a bad practice. I just you know that for you. You know part of creative is also figuring out what your own crazy and processes. And for me, I do really get sort of like fuel from more dimensional thinking and that that often involves reading, visual art and just and watching movies.
Alex Ferrari 40:14
Now, what advice would you give a filmmaker trying to break into the business today?
Stephen Karam 40:21
Great question. I would say the core thing that has never sort of altered is just is it focusing on work that comes from your gut level place, making, making, making movies or coming whatever, you're creating a short film, Play feature? Keep keep the focus on the kind of movie that only you could make. And stop looking at these external guides or Wow, that did really well, that film festival or that was a big hit last year. And you can you can play that game. And you can probably do it even really well. I mean, I think I think a lot of people probably do, I just feel like my advice would be, I've gotten the most traction, success, personal happiness on the journey in making these things. By by focusing just Yeah, being reminded that the largest thing you can make is often the thing that already inside you like the the kind of thing that the qualities and quirks and the sense of humor, and a weird sense of everything about yourself is that you actually have, it's so freeing to me, as opposed to thinking like, I got to make this movie more important with the capital I by writing about someone else's family, or I know, she'll be pregnant. Like, suddenly you start drawing from these ideas that are so external, and I think it's much more frightening and hard to remind like, especially young writers, how, once you if you actually accept that the biggest ideas are already some somehow like locked inside view. It's kind of like, it's almost scarier because it's, it's a nice like, scapegoat to be like, What am I What will my next film be i It should be something like that, or a war movie or big, it's, it feels very abstract, because you're drawing on influence in the wrong way. Instead of like, knowing from a gut level, like I want to write about my mom, or I want to write this comedy, I want to make myself like doing something that feels no matter how abstracted it becomes Right? Like, but when you're anchored in that, I just feel like you never go wrong, even when you're screwing up and you have to and you are failing, and you have to try to figure out what the structure is that'll hold that that gut level. idea, it's, it's just the the only way that I think I know you you go wrong in a million ways is when you start from the other place, like wow, it seems like these things are doing really well or No, I guess I should write a horror movie. You know, it's it's always it comes from the wrong place. No matter how talented you are, it comes it. It never sort of, yeah, the journey is never as rich,
Alex Ferrari 43:15
I always tell people that the best the only thing that you have that makes you different in the marketplace is your own secret sauce, is that thing inside you that nobody else has. And I was talking not to drop a name but David Chase, who is the creator of The Sopranos, of course. And he wanted to write a movie about his mom, his his and that's how the sopranos was brought to the world. You know, he wasn't going you know, what's, you know, what's big now superheroes? Like he didn't say. So it was that and what
Stephen Karam 43:43
Or like somebody that he's influenced being like, not knowing the people never know that the deep personal connections, even creators, right mob movies or write series about that. And so, so the hilarity is, so many young writers try to imitate the sopranos and create something that they think is about crime guns and they think that's what's underscoring this friend is which isn't this the reason sopranos is so unbelievable is is it's all the emotional undercurrent that clearly like David's connection to these characters is the undergirding you think it's the action and all this stuff and that's that's delicious, but it's the that's the secret sauce is not that is not the guns and the and the murder. It's it's that part of the I mean, I didn't know that he said that. That's amazing. Yeah. And I also I want to steal the secret sauce because it'll save me a lot. I felt like my answers get winded and yeah, it's about the secret sauce.
Alex Ferrari 44:38
It's about the secret sauce. It's the only thing that you have like it's the only thing your life experience your your interest your things like you like things that I couldn't write to humans, no one could write the humans only you can write the humans and you couldn't write, you know, the sopranos because only David can write the Sopranos. And that's the thing is you got to find that thing with inside you. That's so brilliant.
Stephen Karam 44:58
Like, do you feel the struggle Feel yourself though, like how easy it is, I guess the counter this should be like it is really easy to get away from it. Like it can be hard to keep reminding yourself like, oh, it's when you're getting from that place.
Alex Ferrari 45:11
I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what I I chased the dragon I call the chase at the drag chase that dragon so much like, Oh, that's hot or I'm going to be like that director, I'm going to write like this person. And I did that for so many years till I finally I guess in this only happens as you get older. You just said no, I need to, I need to focus on what's inside me. And the second I started doing that. My work got better. I was doors opened up. You know, I was thinking that things just started to lay themselves out at me where I didn't have to work as hard to get certain things. Whereas when I was trying to chase the dragon, all there was is block block block block. Oh, you're almost there. Nope. Take it away. block block. Almost there again. Oh, nope. Block. And it was just so fascinating to like, and only when you finally can show when you're comfortable enough in your own skin. And it takes a minute for you to do that in life. You know, some some kids, some guys have it in their 20s Some guys and gals have in their 20s I didn't. Like you said when you when you got your success was in the mid 30s and think it was because you probably would have lost your mind in your 20s. And I would have lost my mind in the 20s If I would have lost my mind. Yeah, of course we would have probably self destruct because we weren't prepared for that. One person have a friend of mine an actor said this a great comment. He's like, when you're when you fame is like a bucket of water. And when you're when you're young, you're a seedling. And inside the bucket, there's a seat and the water comes in and just swashes you all over the damn place. But when you get older, the roots take place. And then when the water comes in, you don't move as much. That's awesome. Isn't that amazing? Who do we have to Who do you credit that to? So that
Stephen Karam 46:48
Is that a friend of yours?
Alex Ferrari 46:49
That is Carlos. I was Rocky from Reno 911. And he was playing a character and my first feature. And his character was like a guru. And he just blurted that out. And I'm like, Carlos, I know you're trying to make fun of the guru. But that was damn good. And I quote that quote all the time. That's in the mail. I don't know if you got it from somewhere else or not. But that's where I heard it from. So shout out to callate parlous Ellis Rocky from Rio de illusion.
Stephen Karam 47:15
And what I see with with younger writers a lot too, is that what's very funny, it's like the first taste of any kind of success. People you're you're then the way that there's this illusion that the way to capitalize on it is that the opportunity that comes your way is often like people seeing your special sauce, and then trying to weirdly like capture your special sauce, but then add their own ingredients to it because maybe they want you to staff, right for a shot where Oh, your special sauce can easily get drowned out. And I think that's a hard lesson to learn for a lot of younger writers too, because who can fault anyone for wanting a good paycheck? And, you know, and and I went through one process. I mean, I don't have not written a ton of screenplays, I've written two before this both got made. One I saw a third of it got rewritten a gay character got turned straight, you know, but it was even in those things, that they're valuable lessons in terms of even like now going forward. It's like, well, what, what if I ever do write a play that I think could be a film, you know, the play before this son of the Prophet, I was happy to just let it not become a movie. Because once you but you have to sort of live through these things. And once you live through the fact that like, a little bit of extra money doesn't actually make you happy. Like if you're waking up and working on something that you Yes, that's causing you a lot of stress. And I'd fall asleep at night going like now there should be two gay people in this movie. Why? Why is one of them as straight, it's not going to be more commercial, it's going to be a disaster. You know, it's like, it's like, okay, well, you have to when you're in your 20s you have to learn that lesson, where you really feel the truth of it. Because in your 20s after like, you know, day job for 10 years, I was like, I think maybe I think maybe the security in this money for a year was gonna will make me exclusively happy in a way that I am under estimating. And then I had and I was like, oh, yeah, I forgot. Like, I don't like buying a lot of clothes anyway, like, I don't, I do want to pay my rent. I but once you have your shirt every day, like every week anyway. Yeah. And so. So this, so this didn't feel fancy in the way that I thought it would feel fancy. And I do think some lessons have to be learned. I mean, I guess I guess it's not easy, but I love talking advice like with you and this it's like it's like the it's like how to find that sweet spot of like, not forgetting that like you arrived with a certain degree of knowledge. But by also by like needing to learn some of it viscerally instead of like, thinking that like yeah, if I was 22 and someone gave me this talk, I would just believe them and would just,
Alex Ferrari 49:48
Oh no, if someone gave me this talk at 22 I would have said your chat, whatever. I know everything. You know nothing. I'm serious. No, that's the way you know it. That's the way it was when we were 22 Just like you look at someone would have had this conversation. They could have given us the keys to the universe literally. And like if you it could have been me from the future coming back talking to my younger self and I would go dude, I've gone through this don't do this, don't do this, do this, do this invest in Apple at $7 and everything is going to be fine.
Stephen Karam 50:18
Also Roth IRA, right? Where was the guy? Someone should have given me that lecture if you don't have parents that know obviously, you need some you got to Google it or your own rod
Alex Ferrari 50:34
And last question, sir, because I have to ask this question three of your favorite films of all time.
Stephen Karam 50:40
I feel like it kind of gave them away in the making of the human so it's like I listed three films but that Ali fury the soul incredible love story and clip incredible drama incredible everything about it I love striking movie in every sense of the word and completely surprising. I guess this is three movies, but the three colors trilogy. One of them are the bestsellers written loving
Alex Ferrari 51:10
Double life Double Life Veronique double life
Stephen Karam 51:14
I guess I could be giving a I guess that is three movies. Edward Yang is a favorite as well. And I feel like there's so much in the horror genre and psychological thrillers that like it's hard to be asked this question because the truth is, I just want to sit and just keep hearing yours. And then I want to say three back. And then I want you to say three more. I want to go oh yeah, because even in like with the Stanley Kubrick it's like how did not like 2001 like I still remember like actual feelings I had when watching something even the first time when I didn't understand it, I just remember like, like, feeling like things world's expanding like you because I didn't grow up with going to like some sort of sophisticated arts camp or something. Or I felt like I was in college really sorting this out in my 20s before I was even be exposed to a lot of incredible filmmakers and art tours. But Stanley is one of those people who like like 2001 weirdly slipped its way into my like, like Blockbuster experience in high school and I just do remember like like just kind of like understanding something you don't even understand that there's a whole way to reveal yourself and other worlds through art that is just like beyond what you even thought was possible. Because I didn't think people were allowed to do things like
Alex Ferrari 52:44
Not at that level not at that level now at that point you know without budget now would that budget my friend
Stephen Karam 52:51
So but basically I guess what I'm saying is like this game is only fun for me if we if it's just 45 minutes of us talking about cuz I don't actually happen the same way that I think all wars are bogus. Really believe in favorite films. I just believe in like the 170 movies.
Alex Ferrari 53:07
Right, exactly. And I feel like this conversation is something that you would have heard at three o'clock in the morning at a Denny's. After watching a midnight showing of a Kubrick film I feel this is what this conversation would be like, and you're laughing if everyone not listening.
Stephen Karam 53:22
I don't want to just go with you get the Grand Slam special and just go have that conversation. It's exactly what that is exactly what that takes me back to Scranton. And I do want to like the moons over Miami, Miami.
Alex Ferrari 53:37
You remember that? Of course I remember that. And you Oh God, it was a happy place. Yeah,
Stephen Karam 53:44
I'll go with go to the middIe let's find the next midnight screening. I'll meet you there.
Alex Ferrari 53:49
Oh my god.
Stephen Karam 53:49
We can zoom Danny's so we have no excuse.
Alex Ferrari 53:52
Oh my god. That's it.
Stephen Karam 53:53
We are next interview.
Alex Ferrari 53:55
Steven. Thank you again. So first of all, what can people see the movie?
Stephen Karam 54:00
So we're going to open in I don't know how public this is yet but we're going to be in about 20 cities on November 24. Okay, so anywhere you can google and find out which which arthouse cinema is playing your the new movies is that will be revealed very soon but November 24, day before Thanksgiving in theaters and then rolling out largely slowly after that, but that's awesome morning Mark 20 markets starting November 24.
Alex Ferrari 54:36
I am so you can I am so glad I'm so glad the powers that be gave you the keys to the car so you can drive this thing and I'm so glad that you that they gave it to you and I hope you continue to get the keys and you continue to make amazing films because I want to see what else you come up with my friend. So thank you again so much for being on the show and keep making great movies man.
Stephen Karam 54:59
Hey same to you thanks for having me.
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