Interview with Stephen Keep Mills | director of A CIGAR AT THE BEACH

Stephen Keep Mills

Please introduce yourself .

I’m Stephen Keep Mills from Los Angeles, California.

 When did you start your career?

I began my career as an actor. I graduated from Yale Drama School in 1969 and worked for many years in regional theatres in the US and Canada as well as in New York—Off-Broadway and Broadway. I came to LA in 1978 and worked a lot in television and a few films, again as an actor.

Can you describe us the reasoning behind A Cigar at the Beach”?

While visiting my father in Florida with my family one summer, I found myself right in the middle of birth and death. My father was dying and my wife was pregnant. Where did that leave me? I was trying to sort out my “man in the middle” status and the story came out of that tension, or rather, my suspension between those two worlds.

How long did the development of your short film take?

The development evolved lazily over a period of about 10 years. I wrote it pretty quickly on that Florida visit, but then I began to experiment.  I had a reading of it with a group of playwrights and actors I belonged to at the time in New York. Then I tried out different scenes from it in an acting class out in LA and then produced a theatre version of it also in LA and then at last came the film version, which definitely benefitted from all the previous work. The characters and dialogue went through some changes over time but I feel the film got the best results. I didn’t intend to do all these things with it, but I always liked this story so it stayed alive in me. There was always something more to do with it.

Can you describe what was most challenging about shooting your film?

Yes, casting. Never cast by photograph! I flew an actress out to LA and the instant I saw her, I knew I had made a mistake. She was at least ten years too old for the part (her photograph, of course, was perfect). I didn’t know how to get out of it. It was so embarrassing. I actually shot the scene with her much to the horror of the cast and when she left LA, I quickly recast and reshot the scene with a much more suitable actress. It could have been a disaster. It still gives me nightmares. I also had an unscrupulous producer who had been gathering the dailies and secretly editing his own version. I mean, this stuff just shouldn’t happen but it does.

 According to your artistic point, who or what is the main inspiration for representing the concept of your stories?

I love so many of the movies from the 50’s and 60’s, Nouvelle Vague, Bergman, the Italians. Those films all were a bit private and introspective and about the dramas we carry inside us. I call them Psychological Action Films. The Psyche has its own plot and life follows along. That kind of story-telling is more appealing to me and much truer than the formulas of logic.

 What’s the real link between the main characters in the film, which can be defined by the husband, the cigar and the sea?

Well, the link between the husband–and it’s interesting you say “husband” and not “man”. One of the points of the cigar is that it returns the husband, at least symbolically, to his manhood. Husbands are quite useless during pregnancy and his manhood suffers the virus of invisibility. The cigar also is an instrument of thought and power. It provides the “man” meditation on his own personal ground (free from the cares and needs of others) and gives him the power of insight. The man/husband is in a “selfish” state by
necessity, the necessity being his exclusion from the usual roles of husband, son, father. In the moment of the film, he feels unimportant as a step-father, useless as a son, useless as a husband, useless as a father-to-be. He is cast away by domestic life and wanders onto the empty beach to find his meaning, to put himself back together. The Sea is the spirit he has been seeking. He doesn’t literally drown himself at the end. He symbolically takes into himself the water of life, a baptism for his own self-rebirth.

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So the High-octane bikinis, Gypsy Siren are just a personal way for the main character to escape from daily life or they can be seen as common features in men fantasy?

Men define themselves by sex. It’s the only act that can answer their longing for identity and purpose. It’s natural the main character’s feeling of unimportance would lead him to find solutions in the various presentations of the flesh, but as you see in the film, each fantasy never comes to completion because they no longer answer his need which has become larger than flesh. In a way, each fantasy guides him to his final meeting with the Sea. He, to his own surprise, finds himself on a quest for soul, a quest for spirit—a personal transcendence from an earth that cannot provide this for him. So, really, the fantasies are not an “escape”, they are elements that direct him to his psychic goal which is contact with his lost sense of Self. But, as you suggest, Bikinis and Sirens are common themes that have many variations in the minds of men.

Did you decided to analyse male psyche because you feel more close to it or because you think it’s more easy to understand?

I didn’t set out to analyze the male psyche. I set out to analyze my own. I think when you touch something personal inside, it resonates universally. I like to write about the conflicts between men and women and while their “purposes” on earth are different, their thinking is very similar. A later film of mine with two female characters: LIMINAL (also screened at ECU) is about jealousy and control, common ground for both sexes. I do think men get overlooked and diminished by certain cultures, here in the US, for example—everybody thinks men are “the problem”. But, men have problems, too, and that’s what Cigar is about.

How do you see the role of an independent artist nowadays?

The role of the independent artist today is full of conflict, full of distractions. His/her film is going to cost too much and if there is no star in the cast there will be no distribution—so what is he/she going to do? I don’t think an independent artist can wait until he has achieved a 4 million dollar budget and the attachment of well-known actors. Independent filmmaking is all about the vision not the market and I would suggest that the vision remain the driving focus and motivation. Don’t get distracted by market temptations and don’t try to imitate the market world–do your work as cheaply and as professionally as you can. But, as you asked, the role of an independent artist is to make his private vision public.

 What’s next? Are there any other projects that you are currently working at?

Time gets short. I’m 67. Not the end of the world, certainly, but instead of chasing down resources to make a feature or a short, what I can immediately do is write and I think I will create short stories or a novel. It’s something I’ve never done and the Muse is always looking for a way to keep it moving.

Screening films online – what are your thoughts about that? What do you think is the future of web and films?

For the current population of tech-savvy folk, watching a movie or TV shows or a webisode online is now become habit. To me, though, the power of film is up on the big screen. I also think the appreciation of great acting has disappeared. You think anyone is going to watch Olivier’s Othello online? Viewing work online turns the audience into private, distracted scientists, stooping over and peering through their MacMicroscopes while texting. Their viewing mode is small. Art is big and demands a cathedral and a mutually gathered crowd of witnesses to share the event in darkness and in silence. Art makes magic and lifts us up. There is no magic online. If all the movie theatres go empty and everyone watches films online, I think the Muse will rise up like an Old Testament God and cause a flood to make people pay attention to the magnificence of creation.

And finally, what do you think about EuroIFC?

EuroIFC is exactly the right vehicle for independent films and artists. Scott has boldly planted his flag in the ground and declared a new country. This is not Cannes or Sundance or Venice or Berlin—this is a new country and EuroIFC is charting new waters and mountains and valleys and following the passion of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who, at the point of exile, turns on the unenlightened mob and denounces them by proudly declaring: “There is a world elsewhere!” In other words, the existing standard is not the only standard and I don’t have to follow the expected formulas, I will make a new world—a world that I prefer. That is what Scott’s vision is: a new world for independent work and the audience that wants to discover it. We can’t wish to be in the mainstream. We have deliberately forsaken the mainstream and now we have to make good on that separation. We have to keep making our differences into assets. EuroIFC is like a new island forming out of lava. It is dynamic, it is rich, it is volatile, and it is fertile.

You can watch the film  A CIGAR AT THE BEACH here.

Find out more about STEPHEN KEEP MILLS  projects and contacts here.