“A pretty robust to a financially dying business”: Producer Travis Stevens on Genre, Independent Film and 68 Kill

“With every decision you are making as a storyteller it’s to communicate something” says independent film producer Travis Stevens. The founder and CEO of Snowfort Pictures looks to cinema as the process of communication, whose company seeks to develop, finance and produce commercial genre films. Offsetting their commercial viability however is an aspiration the company states to, “…bring high-quality films to audiences hungry for something different.” True to the desire to work with not only established filmmakers, but first-time talent, Stevens and Snowfort were behind E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills (2013) and Ted Geoghagen’s We Are Still Here (2015), while supporting filmmakers in the intermediary, sophomore feature films including: Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014), John Carchietta’s Teenage Cocktail (2016) and Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster Mal’s Heart (2016).

In August of 2017, prior to the European Premiere of 68 Kill at Horror Channel FrightFest, Stevens spoke to Film Frame about the inhospitable landscape of independent film production and the effects of a film being perceived as “free entertainment.” He also reflected on the pragmatic relationship of filmmakers to genre and authorship, as well as the importance of discovering truth amidst expression.

Film Frame: Why a career producing, was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Travis Stevens: My very first conscious memory was watching a movie through the vent in a van at a drive-in theatre. So it has always been something that I’ve been drawn to, and as an introverted kid, spending a lot of time reading and drawing, getting sucked into the power of movies, I always knew I wanted to tell stories. One of the benefits of being a producer, and certainly the type of producer I am, is that you can collaborate with people – you can have an idea you are not solely responsible for. I sometimes think there is so much technical as well as specific responsibility on the making of it for a director, but as a producer it is very easy to be thinking: I want to make a movie about relationships. I want to make a movie about grief or greed. You can do all of that, it is just about finding the collaborators to help you to execute it.

Film Frame: Would it be apt to describe directors as like a palette of colours for you to paint with?

Stevens: Yeah, I think so, and that’s not to say that on each project I am choosing the director to execute it. Often the project comes from a director, but the decision making of what movies to make, what movies feel both personally and culturally relevant right now, that’s my job to say. If it’s not in the material, then it’s for me to help flesh it out, so that the end film has something that can speak to us as creatives, and also to a potential audience. Often, and especially in the genre space, you feel that fundamental question of what is your personal connection to this story, that people are not asking. So things become much more about form and function, rather than art. Communicating some emotional truth is one of the things you can do well on a lower budget level. You can communicate an idea, a perspective on something, and if you are not doing that and you don’t have movie stars, and you don’t have tons of explosions, then it’s not going to work.

Film Frame: Is the process of communicating ideas a mix of the intentional and unintentional? Are there the ideas you consciously express versus those that are organic, and which emerge from the film text?

Stevens: I use the analogy of signposts on a road. If you have an idea of where you want this to go, then you just make sure there are enough signposts throughout the script, and that’s sort of letting the audience pick up on what that is. Sometimes it comes naturally in the moment with an actor or in a location: Oh, I didn’t think of that. But if you’ve done your work beforehand and you have a clear idea of what you are trying to say with your movie, then those happy little accidents will magically appear. And that’s where it gets really fun because everything starts lining up, and you end up with something that gets better and better.

Film Frame: In order for that to happen, the groundwork first needs to be laid?

Stevens: Sometimes I feel the business of making a movie can be the worst enemy of the quality of the film. Often, as soon as someone says: “Yes, we’ll finance it”, people think: Okay, that’s it. The movie is good enough. No, it can always be better. You should always be spot-checking and reworking, doing your math again and again to make sure this is the tightest, most effective formula.

68 Kill is is a crime film, but it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women…”

Film Frame: I recall speaking with filmmaker Tom Holland about how genre cinema has chronicled the social angst across the decades. Whilst genre, namely horror is often looked down upon, it remains not only a useful social too, but it is an expression of our fears and anxieties, that allows us to safely experience our primal instincts.

Stevens: Absolutely! I suspect part of the reason why genre cinema gets a bad rap is because there is so much of it being produced. With the perspective of time, I think the best of the best really do do what you said, which is that they are commenting on the times, and tapping into some cultural zeitgeist that was happening. If you did the same thing with pop music and looked back, there would be thousands of crap songs, and then there would be a handful that did comment on what was going on. It is all about volume and what the filtering process is for evaluating the quality. Genre for me, it is almost like I don’t even see it anymore. In my mind 68 Kill is is a crime film, but it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women, and that’s the movie that we are exploring creatively. So just because there happens to be shots in it where violence or outrageous things happen, if that’s all you are paying attention to when you are watching the movie, then either we failed, or you’re failing as an audience member to pay attention to what’s going.

Film Frame: Whilst in the cinema the director is perceived to be the author, it remains a collaborative medium. Would you consider the auteur theory to be outdated and in need of revision owing to a possible oversimplification of the filmmaking process?

Stevens: There have probably always been movies made with a singular voice, and as a producer I suspect it is a very small number. The beauty of this format is the number of conversations that go into making decisions, even all the way through the screening process. In fact when I was in college, my senior thesis was on who’s making the film? Is it the filmmaker or is it the audience? Every decision the filmmaker is making is to satisfy what they think the audience needs in that moment, within the broad terms of the movie. So much of what we do is we talk, with who would be considered to be the auteur, the director. We talk, we figure it out, sometimes we will share a script with a small group of people to say, here’s what we’re trying to do, is it effective? With 68 Kill, we were super cautious as to how the female characters were going to be presented, and so sharing that with female director colleagues, actresses, and just friends to spot-check, and to say: Okay, do you think tonally this is conveying our intention, or is there anything that we are not aware of as white men that we should be pinging on? And that helps inform it. So as a producer, yes, it is easy for me to say the auteur theory is certainly dated, but I am sure there are still singular creatives out there. I like to imagine that the body of work that I’ve produced has a through line to it, that somebody could look at it and say: “Oh yeah, that’s a Travis Stevens thing.”

Film Frame: Genres often bleed into one another, from the melodramatic leanings of the James Cagney gangster films to comedy-horror. Do you consider there to have ever been a pure concept of genre, or have we created an illusion that continues to be cultivated to this day?

Stevens: Yeah, I think there are broad terms and it’s like with music. It’s rock n’ roll, it’s jazz or it’s pop. But all that stuff is just a marketing department needing to know how are they are going to identify what this thing is to a consumer base. Sure, it would be nice for things to be evaluated on what’s on the screen instead.

Film Frame: To play devil’s advocate, similarly to the auteur theory, the term genre even if flawed, is the provocation of these concepts not useful to compel a deeper conversation?

Stevens: Maybe. I’ve only had one moment where clearly identifying the kind of genre we were making impacted a film, and that was We Are Still Here. When we go into making these movies, we are not thinking in those terms. But on that film there was a moment in the editing process when we were testing cuts of the movie, and a trusted colleague said: “It’s a horror film, make sure it delivers what the horror audience want.” That one simple statement was the only time in what, nineteen or twenty movies where I had to go: “Oh yeah, we need to make sure there’s enough pure horror moments in order for it to succeed as a story.” But in general we are never thinking: Is there too much comedy here or is this going to..? With anything you are just creating, you are not specifically worried about what it’s going to be.

Film Frame: Over the course of your career, how would you assess the changes that have taken place within independent cinema?

Stevens: The perceived value of a movie has plummeted. I think we have an entire generation, and probably every generation from herein out will see movies as free entertainment. Therefore, the economics of selling movies has completely plummeted, the economics of financing a movie has completely plummeted, and your ability to tell certain types of stories has become a lot more restrictive. The talent pool you are working with, the experience level of the technicians you can hire, all that stuff gets impacted by the end user saying a movie is something I should watch for free on Netflix, or download illegally. In the twenty years I’ve been in the business, other people have been working longer and gone through it more, and we are talking about independent film here. Studio stuff is what it is, and it has gone through its own changes, but on the independent level, I would just say it has changed from a pretty robust to a financially dying business. That’s not to say movies will not continue to be made, and it’s not to say there will not be ways to distribute them. But as a birds eye perspective, if we were looking at this as a farm, a huge section of that property would be brown and not providing any fruit or vegetables.

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