Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Steven Scott Adams
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Steven Scott Adams started out making a home movies with a Super 8 camera, but took a 30-year detour working in music before returning to filmmaking. After studying film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and training in acting at Playhouse West in Philadelphia, Adams wrote, directed, and starred in the heartbreaking short Beautiful Butterfly, about a Vietnam vet’s search to deliver his best friend’s last letter to his adopted daughter. His follow-up Zipper is a lighthearted change of pace about a couple whose petty disagreement over a broken zipper leads to some very embarrassing high jinks.
PFS: What inspired you to get back into filmmaking?
SA: I started getting back into film when I was at my older brother’s house, and we were watching a Wong Kar-wai film called In the Mood for Love. He’s just an incredible, incredible filmmaker. That movie really clinched it for me, so I went back to school. It was a career change for me.
PFS: How did studying acting at Playhouse West play into your filmmaking goals?
SA: I saw this documentary called Tales From the Script. I was listening to one particular director who said that to be a really good director, he had to learn how to act. Playhouse West opened a school out here on the east coast, so I attended there for three years. I learned to act, became a better writer, and a much better director. I was in a play called Welcome Home Soldier in which I played a Vietnam vet dealing with the latent effects of societal rejection upon returning home. Through the play, I did so much research that when the show run was over, there was a lot of energy left for the character. I got some of the people that were in the play to be in that short film which was called Beautiful Butterfly.
PFS: So how did Zipper come about?
SA: After Beautiful Butterfly I wanted to see if I could do something funny. But I didn’t know where this was going to come from because, personally, I can’t make a film just because I feel like I should. I have to be motivated by something. I was driving my car, and I was just surfing the stations. I came across this pastor on a Christian station. He was teaching a marriage seminar, and he told this story about this guy who was zipping up his wife’s dress and broke the zipper. It was basically a story outline. I got home and adapted it, in about 45 minutes.
PFS: Did you work with actors you’d met through Playhouse West?
SA: Everyone in the movie I went to acting school with. Samantha Parry is just hilarious, she’s got a very good range; and also a talented writer/director. And Peter Donnelly is one of these guys that can just stand there and he’s funny. He’ll take a scene a step further and make funnier than it was. They both read the script and loved it. And Ed Wasser, the guy that plays the pastor, is fantastic. He’s also a very talented writer and director. The thing I have to say about all of them is that they deviated from the script. A lot of things that happened in the film weren’t even in the script. But because they’re good actors, they knew the space they had to work with, and they knew how to fill that up and still tell the story. Those are the kinds of actors I love working with.
PFS: How would you say your background in studying acting informs the way you go about making films and working with actors?
SA: You learn the language of acting. A director and an actor need to speak very similar languages and understand how to get to a moment with depth—emotional depth or comedic depth—by understanding what the other one wants. You can’t just tell an actor “I want you to cry here.” Everybody makes fun of the cliché, “What’s my motivation?” But some clichés exist because they’re true. Good actors will find the motivation. If you can give them that—something that’s legitimate, something that’s real, something that can take root in their soul as an actor so they can live that out—then you’re going to have something that’s real and connected. A good actor will find that in research and rehearsal, doing the work and give the audience something that’s’ going to move them.
PFS: Was making Zipper a collaborative experience between you and the actors?
SA: In terms of communicating what I wanted from Samantha, Peter, and Ed, I really didn’t have to say much. If you’re smart when you’re directing a film, you won’t be the smartest guy in the room. That’s a big mistake. Listen to your actors. Especially when you know they’re connected to the material. For instance, in the opening scene Peter originally had these pliers, claiming he could fix the zipper. Sam just said to me, “That just doesn’t feel right to me.” Peter agreed. I thought about it for like three seconds, and they were absolutely right. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not funny. So the pliers went away. I think directors that go out to make a film are really robbing themselves if they try to hang onto to their stories so tightly that it doesn’t breathe. Because good actors will allow your story to breathe and bring your script to life with the work and research they’ve done.
PFS: Is that sort of actor focused improvisational style of working the way that you want to continue working in your future projects?
SA: Yes it is. Because actors that can do that are the best actors, in my opinion. If you have someone that has already planned out how they’re going to deliver their next line, you’re going to have a very cardboard performance and there won’t be anything for their scene partner to work with, because there is no real exchange in the moment between them. We never worked that way in school, and we never worked that way in the films. Good actors know their point of view and they’ve prepared in a way that gives their perspective an emotional life. So they play off one another very organically. They’re authentically living it out. This gives space for the unexpected… And when it happens, they react more naturally.
Zipper will screen on Thursday, February 22 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.