When watching Stephen Cone’s new film “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” there was that tingling feeling that one gets from stumbling upon something new, as if the crisp, cool air that surrounds the day-long pool party that serves as its setting was wafting off the screen and allowing you to see the world without obstruction. So it came as a surprise to me to learn after that Cone had actually compiled quite the body of work before before “Henry Gamble” – though it was hearing the buzz around his last film “The Wise Kids,” which can currently be seen on Netflix, that led me to seek out his latest, the idea that the Chicago-based filmmaker has been making films for nearly a decade without much mention was aggravating, perhaps more so to me than the director himself.
“I feel like we live in a world in an indie film culture that’s fetishizes the first-time filmmaker,” Cone told me on the eve of the film’s release in New York. “So a lot of times, if something exciting comes along by someone we’ve never heard of, then we just assume that they haven’t spent a decade struggling, making work that no one will ever see.”
Even without revisiting Cone’s early films, one can be grateful for them since there’s is a confidence in both the craft and content in “Henry Gamble” that suggests a seasoned filmmaker. He also doesn’t appear to be tied to any past tradition, either as a filmmaker or in his personal point of view as he tells the story of a Christian family that, with a minister for its patriarch Bob (Pat Healy) and the fact they host the party of the title, would seem to be central to their community and the film’s narrative, respectively, yet each member finds themselves struggling to fit in. Though Cone gravitates towards Henry (Cole Doman), a newly-turned 17-year-old grappling with the realization he’s gay, the director sympathizes with all in the Gamble clan, which includes a mother Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw), who is increasingly aware of the discontent amongst her family, and a daughter Autumn (Nina Ganet), who having just spent her first semester in college is beginning to form her own beliefs about the world after accepting what she’s been told for so long. These tensions come to a boil when virtually everyone the Gambles know from their church, school and everywhere else are invited over to their house, an event where ultimately the burgers Bob spends the day tending to aren’t the only things that get grilled.
As hormones rage amongst the teens and the adults go against the tenets of their religion by clandestinely sipping wine while casually casting aspersions on others who they think are running afoul of the Lord, the film finds the Gambles struggling with being true to who they are and to their Christianity to which they’ve devoted so much of their lives. Cone handles all this with considerably more ease than the family does, capturing a panorama of different perspectives, respectful of all while mining the clash between them for drama. It’s a stirring film and recently, it was a privilege to talk to Cone about how his own upbringing informed “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” staging a pool party during a chilly summer in the Windy City and being reborn to some degree as a filmmaker.
I’m a Chicago-based filmmaker, but I grew up in the Carolinas, and my dad is a Southern Baptist minister, so I grew up in that world a little bit. I made another film called “The Wise Kids” that deals with similar things in a small city in South Carolina and a church with just two or three hundred people. It was a little more low-key and a little bit more serene, and I guess I just didn’t want to leave those things behind. I needed to revisit them in some way, so this is my attempt to make something with a little more bite.
While I loved growing up in the church and I loved the people that I grew up with, there’s a lot of really dangerous hypocrisy that goes on, though I still wanted [this film] to be a very humanistic, compassionate portrait of a community. I actually had another screenplay that wasn’t very good that I decided not to make, but culminated in a pool party. It was just 15 pages in this other script, but I wondered what would happen if that was the whole movie – this loaded, evangelical pool party. So that’s what I did.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you wanted to do something hard-hitting, because while this doesn’t pull punches, one of the things I was impressed by was how you capture what seems to be both a connection and a distance in the way that people talk about religion when it’s a community of such strong believers, because when it’s such a part of daily life, the obvious doesn’t need to be discussed, but it shapes the conversations.
I like to work on a subtle register, so when I say hard-hitting, I’d probably say that doesn’t mean it’s super-satirical, but by dealing with the character of Ricky and also some of the hypocrisy of Bonnie, the woman who’s obsessed with sex trafficking, it’s slightly edgier stuff that didn’t find its way into “The Wise Kids.” But I wanted to tackle here how the looks and the glances and the withheld feelings and withheld thoughts that ultimately can simmer on any surface for a long time and potentially cause great damage once it’s built up. A lot of what’s not said at the party directly causes this sadness and repression that makes Ricky an outcast.
Did that actually manifest itself in a visual way? There’s a way that the camera will pan across that almost seems to simulate the kind of observation you’re talking about and that feeling of being watched.
Because I knew that I was working in similar territory as “The Wise Kids,” I wanted to step it up visually, so I switched cinematographers for the first time ever and worked with someone new. My past films, which I’m very proud of, the camera work’s been fairly invisible and I’ve always had a slight aversion to overt style. But after 10 years of teaching myself filmmaking, and making a bunch of micro movies, I wanted to fire on all cylinders and try to experiment with a new style of expression. We wanted to create a sense of fluidity, a sense of movement, and feeling that there’s always something’s rippling underneath the surface.
You have a striking opening scene – where Henry’s in bed with his best friend, talking about girls during a sleepover — that pretty much lets a viewer know if they’re in or out. Was that actually always a starting point or did you return to it after you had other parts of the story in place?
Yeah, it was always there. Personally, I don’t know that I exactly enacted that in my life, but that is a vivid memory, the late night chats with people about forbidden topics. Actually, now that I’m talking to you and thinking about it this way, it occurs to me now that that late night bedroom space operates similarly to underwater in that it’s a safe, private space for secrets and buried feelings to be let out into the open. So I wanted to start in this subterranean place before they’re out in public [where they] aren’t allowed to have these feelings anymore, to be able talk about them.
Practically, is it difficult to shoot in and around a pool for as long as you do? Does the cast get tired of getting in and out of the water?
Yeah, it was challenging, more so for the actors, because we had a very unusually chilly summer in Chicago that year. A lot of that night stuff is shot in July and August, and everyone thought it would just be a blast – and it was – but it was 50 degrees, so [while] everyone thought that they would want to be in the water all the time, that turned out to not be the case because it was chillier.
It was also difficult for the cinematographer because we shot all of the daytime exteriors over the course of a week-and-a-half, and the light was always changing, so you’re shooting one scene that’s supposed to be 3pm, but we’re actually shooting it at 7 in the morning. Even with a little bit of color correction, we decided to just embrace the various looks of the day. Otherwise, I was fine. I wasn’t the one who had to be in the pool, but for the actors and the cinematographer, I know it was very challenging.
When you have as many characters as you do, dealing with this kind of subject matter, do you actually start with one character and it grows from there or are there specific things you want to express through different characters?
I stumbled into ensemble movies. When I made “The Wise Kids” and “Black Box,” I think they’re successful ensemble films, but they came out of a weakness of mine, which is not being able to make a decision about who the movie should be about, so I call them “accidental ensemble pieces.” I’ve been calling “Henry Gamble” my first “intentional ensemble movie” because from the very beginning, I really wanted all of these people to be there. That’s not to say there wasn’t a tug-of-war about who it should be about, but I never thought about it as Henry versus other people. It was about the family versus the rest of the party, so I tried find a balance between really being invested in the family of four in Kat and Bob and Henry and Autumn, while also meeting and caring about the members of the congregation and the friends from school who showed up. It was a tightrope. There was also a little bit of a subtle war between this “Ice Storm”-style family drama and an ensemble party movie. It was tricky, and I think some audiences really love following everybody and others wish it had been more about just the family, but I really love a challenge, I guess.
I’ve also heard that you like giving very specific instructions to the actors about their characters, but at the same time, you want to let them lead you. Since that seems like a little bit of a contradiction, what’s the balance there?
So much of it is just in the script that I give them, and what I like to do is A, cast brilliant actors — that’s the most important thing. Then B, I like to prepare them well and set them off on their journey, as opposed to nitpicking along the way. Whether it’s a phone conversation or an e-mail, in the beginning, I like to just say, “This is the war we’re in. These are my couple of very simple thoughts about this character. Otherwise, let’s just dive in and see what happens,” so for me,it’s like filling up a gas tank and going on a trip.
I was a theater major in college and I don’t have a film education, so it took me five years of making handfuls of shorts and features before I even started making good movies. That happened with “The Wise Kids,” and that was after five years of [asking] how do we do this? For me, it’s been a little bit slower, maybe because I was a little bit too ambitious early on, like my own cinephilia has slowed me down because it’s caused me to obsess over a final product and the kind of thing I want to do. So it was a slow education in learning just exactly how to put a good, quality film together. “The Wise Kids” was a big leap for me, and this is the first time I think that form and content have probably more or less succeeded in tandem.
I also like when people are surprised by the fact that there are other films out there because a lot of people think this is my second or third film, but in fact, whether it’s a shorter, no budget feature or an experimental film, I’ve made more or less one movie per year for the last 10 years. But everyone sees me as this new on the scene filmmaker. Some of us have just really been trying for a very long time to crack the culture, you know.