Two people meet in a sex addiction support group. One is a young housewife. The other is a repressed young man who mistakenly thought he was attending an info session on sexuality. As they reveal their inner struggles to one another, they form an unexpected connection. This is the premise of “Support,” an extraordinary short film by Stephen Cone (director of excellent indies such as “The Wise Kids” and “Black Box”), who is earning a well-deserved reputation as one of Chicago’s top filmmakers. This year, Cone will be making his long-belated debut at the Chicago International Film Festival with “This Afternoon,” a 66-minute feature that uses “Support” as its jumping-off point, while reuniting stars Stephen Cefalu, Jr. (as youth minister Paul) and Nikki Pierce (as lonesome mother Hillary). It’s a quietly riveting, wonderfully acted drama with moments of startlingly visceral power, while presenting us with a protagonist unlike any in modern American cinema.
Indie Outlook spoke with Cone and Cefalu, Jr. about shooting intimate scenes, subverting expectations and embracing simplicity.
What are the origins of the short film?
Stephen Cone (SC): I teach a Cinema Lab course [at Acting Studio Chicago] where I make short films with a group of actors. “Support” was from Cinema Lab 1 in late 2012 and I’m now on Cinema Lab 8. All the shorts in that class come about just from improvisations and my brainstorming. We sketched out a sex addicts group, but I didn’t know what [Stephen’s character, Tim’s] place was in it. It started out as a circle of people, and I actually remember the moment where I was like, “This is the story: He’s accidentally there.” We wanted to push against expectations. What would happen if all these shamed people actually ended up enlightening somebody? That was the idea that made me think this was a viable short. We probably would’ve filmed it even if we hadn’t come up with anything interesting. Then it just would’ve been a nice sex support group short film with maybe a comic twist, but we found this extra layer.
Stephen Cefalu, Jr. (SJ): When we were improvising the first time, we were starting to come up with a name for the group, which was something like, “Sex in the 21st Century: How Much Is Too Much?” Through that, we discovered that my character mistook the name for meaning “advice on how to have sex.” So then we just sort of played with the idea that everyone in the group is comfortable with their bodies except him. Then we added the layer that my character was a youth minister, but it really just started with the basic theme of how to find comfort within yourself and [my character] finds that through other people being so comfortable.
SC: The youth minister thing came in the feature. That wasn’t a part of his backstory in the short. We shot the support group scene in a church, and the location may have influenced his character in the feature [Paul] becoming a seminary student.
SJ: We really had no structure for it in the beginning. We improvised for maybe an hour with just that scenario and then through that, somebody would say something in the group and Stephen would be like, “Okay, go with that.” Then somebody would say something that didn’t quite go with what we were getting at, so he was like, “Take that away, add more of this.” It was kind of like a coached improv.
SC: The “Support” short was entirely improvised, as opposed to the current Lab shorts, which are almost entirely scripted. For the first couple Labs, I improvised the shorts onset, but starting around Lab 3, we began writing everything. It wasn’t an improvisation class, so the short films just needed to be strong, and giving them structure made most of them stronger than they would’ve been otherwise. “Support” was the most successful of the improvised shorts because they weren’t improvising dramatic scenes. They were just improvising stories of their lives. That’s easier to improvise than—not to undervalue the accomplishment, because it’s kind of incredible that they’re all making that s—t up—but it’s easier to relax into improvisation when you don’t have a point to get to, when you can just riff on an idea or a story.
Some of the most powerful moments in your films involve characters simply telling stories. Sue Redman’s monologue in “In Memoriam” comes to mind.
SC: Yeah, I like confessions and catharsis.
What inspired you to turn this short into a feature?
SC: I was walking on either Montrose or Damen, and I was thinking about simplicity. I thought of that Eric Rohmer film, “Claire’s Knee,” where the whole film rests on whether or not a man is going to touch a woman’s knee. All of his films are very simple like that. And then later, as a reference, we used, “My Night with Maud,” which is nothing but an interior discussion on philosophy and religion that goes on for an hour and a half. I had been doing all these ensemble movies, so I just liked the simplicity of this concept. For one thing, I’m drawn to the material, obviously, just because it involves themes that I dabble in. I was also like, “What if the whole through line of the movie was, ‘Is this guy going to take his shirt off or not?’ What if that was a philosophical or moral quandary?” That very streamlined simplicity was what appealed to me the most.
SJ: There is a moment in “Support” where Nikki’s character touches my knee for just a second and we briefly make eye contact and you’re wondering if there’s something more about that.
SC: [Spoiler Alert] Those two characters were really lived-in and beautiful in the short. I liked Nikki and Stephen’s characters and I liked the idea of a really simple, streamlined film that confronts, very directly, things that I’ve danced around elsewhere. I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud—and this has nothing to do with any of my exchanges or meetings with Stephen—but my original idea was that the film would build to an incredibly graphic, unsimulated sex scene. We ultimately arrived at something equally intense and erotic but a little more subtle. That sort of graphic sexuality was part of the original conception, but it ended up not being as important as I thought it would be. It was the emotional through line and the spiritual through line that needed to pay off and could pay off in whatever manner we deemed authentic.
SJ: I felt that my character got fully realized in the short. He was dealing with issues that I deal with and a lot of people deal with, which is body discomfort. We drew some details from Nikki and my life. We’re both from the South—I’m from Louisiana—and I went to Catholic school my whole life. Stephen and I talked about how religion can sometimes be very anti-body and anti-body expression and really reclusive in some ways. I had a lot to draw on from that, just from my life growing up. I was always a smaller guy. Watching people grow around you makes you self-conscious and insecure about your body. Then you add in religion and the restrictions that sometimes come with it, and just through that, you can get a fully realized character. I have been around religious people, I have been around nonreligious people and I think what’s great about Nikki and my relationship is that we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, but we both have trouble connecting with another person. The characters have two different ways of being, two different ways of growing up. One is super-religious, one is not, but they have the same problem.
Paul is unlike any character I’ve seen on film, though he has his roots in the sexually repressed couple in “The Christians” and Jaclyn Hennell’s character in “Black Box.”
SC: We were very aware that he was a unique character, and we talked a lot about the sort of cool urban Christians who are underrepresented in cinema. We talked about the fact that he should be a Bible-believing, Jesus-loving guy who also doesn’t have any problem with drinking. It’s really important that this character doesn’t have a problem with premarital sex. So it’s not that he’s puritanical. He has actual nonreligious body issues and those coexist with his religious self. They’re actually sort of separate, and we touch on that later. It’s kind of funny when Paul and Hillary are on the steps, and she literally goes down a checklist of why he might be repressed. In the last third of their conversation outside, religion isn’t really mentioned anymore. She’s like, “Okay, let’s move on from religion. Let’s talk about your interactions with people: Were you abused? What was your relationship like with your family?” So I’m not convinced he’s like this because of religion. The reason that I think he’s an interesting character is because it’s arguably irrelevant.
How did you go about involving both lead actors in the writing process?
SC: I can’t even believe we pulled it off, but we did. We had rehearsal at my apartment two or three weeks before we shot. There was no script. Stephen and Nikki came over for about two or three hours. We improvised and I recorded stuff. Then a week before we shot, I wrote a screenplay, and that screenplay was never revised.
SJ: There was a lot of dialogue. The script itself was about 66 pages.
SC: We averaged 11 to 12 pages a day, which is a lot, because normally a feature would shoot 5 to 6 pages a day, or even 3 to 4. The script was based on my ideas and their improvisations, much like the Lab shorts are done now.
SJ: Even though it was written, we would still have discoveries that would happen as we were shooting.
SC: We would go off on occasional tangents. An example would be many of Nikki’s Texas stories—her experience with drugs and her memory from the nursing home. The movie is probably ten percent improvised.
[Spoiler Alert Ahead: Final scene is discussed]
The final scene between Paul and Hillary is all the more erotic because it’s shot above the waist, much like the sex scene in “The Double Life of Véronique.”
SC: You can’t rehearse that scene. I just turned on the camera and at that point, the actors are just jumping off a cliff.
SJ: That was the last day of shooting. At that point, Nikki and I had spent 30 or 40 hours in this apartment together. The comfort was there and we had gotten extremely close while performing scenes where our characters are revealing their personal issues. That last scene ended up being a nice cathartic moment at the end of the shoot. It was easy to jump into that.
SC: They did it three times. Since we don’t see down below and they’re clearly not f—king, we had to make it clear what they were doing. If we had gone the other way and tried to do something graphic, eroticism would not have been the goal.
SJ: We didn’t know what that last scene was going to be as far as the conception of it until maybe a week before production. Stephen had the idea of mutual masturbation.
SC: What I didn’t want was for him to hike up Nikki on the counter and f—k her. This isn’t the “F—k the Housewife” movie. It’s a little more nuanced than that. To me, the most powerful moment in the scene is when she takes his shirt off and it goes over his shoulders.
SJ: It’s really about need. We both needed someone to feel comfortable being with. For my character, it’s a problem, and then finally having that moment and being okay with that moment is what he needed, which made it pretty powerful in that sense. It didn’t need to be a graphic sex scene.
SC: It was really about baby steps. Mutual masturbation is a hell of a baby step. It gives his character strength and confidence. I watched that scene yesterday from beginning to end in its entirety without looking away, which I don’t think I’ve done since the first cut. [pause] It goes on a while. I’m proud of where it ended up climaxing.
“This Afternoon” screens Friday, October 10th, Sunday, October 12th and Monday, October 13th at the Chicago International Film Festival. Cone, Cefalu, Jr., Pierce and producer Shane Simmons are scheduled to be in attendance. For tickets and showtimes, visit the official CIFF site.