Stan Brooks chats to INFLUX Magazine

by Nav Qateel

Stan Brooks is a well-known producer and has been a filmmaker for almost 35-years, and having won an Emmy in 2007 for his miniseries, Broken Trail, directed by Walter Hill, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, which went on to win a total of four Emmy’s out of a huge sixteen nods, with three Golden Globe nominations, decided to turn his hand to Directing. Mr Brooks has a lengthy list of achievements within the film industry, and has worked with some of the biggest names in showbiz. He graduated from Brandeis University and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from the AFI (American Film Institute). Mr Brooks was kind enough to chat with Influx Magazine about his move from Production to Directing, and about his Directorial Debut film, Perfect Sisters. The beautiful song by Macy Gray, Hallelujah, from Stan’s second film, The Grim Sleeper, is attached. Please give it a listen.

Nav Qateel: You won a Primetime Emmy in 2007, with a nomination 2-years later. You’ve been producing and in the business for almost 35-years. Why get into directing now, and is this something you always wanted to do?

Stan Brooks: Great question. From the time I saw my first WC Fields double-feature at age 11, I knew I wanted to be in the film business, some way, some how. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Producing Fellowship at The American Film Institute – and graduated with a Masters. It seemed a natural fit for me to start on the track towards producing. My career started in a mailroom but caught fire quickly and I was President of The Guber-Peters Television Company and developed Rain Man in my 20s. From that point forward I was a Producer. Started my own company in 1990 and produced Television Movies for 20-years. About five years ago, shortly after winning the Emmy for Broken Trail, I was beginning to feel bored and a bit burnt out. There weren’t a lot of challenges left in the TV Movie producing world. I decided to attach myself to a couple of TV movie scripts as the Producer/Director – but, alas, when those films were greenlit – I was told they wanted me to focus on the producing – not the directing. Three years ago, my eldest son went off to college and I had an epiphany. Life is short – and the years go flying by. It was clear I was going to have to give up producing if I was ever going to really give directing a chance. The time had come. I had to make a choice. So I closed the company and went about trying to find something to direct. Perfect Sisters was the first.

NQ: Did you find the transition easier than expected, and did being around directors for so long and seeing them work, help you?

SB: I thought the transition would be really simple. I lived on sets for 60 films – more if you count the ones I did for Guber-Peters. Over my last 25 films as a Producer, I pretty much handled the director’s work during Prep and I was usually the only creative force during Post. I usually re-edited most directors – and then I was the one to hire the composer and sit on the mixing stage and in the color correction suite. The only part that I hadn’t really done was between saying “Action” on the first day and “Cut” on the last day. How hard could that be? BOY WAS I WRONG. To direct – and do it well – the level of focus and preparation and complete immersion in the material needs to be 1000% more than a Producer. I was stunned by how much work went into prepping for the shoot – how intense each day would be (and how fast the hours would zip by). In hindsight there were lots of directors I hired that had done barely adequate jobs – some had just mailed it in. I didn’t realize that until I stepped into their shoes on set that first time.

NQ: Going into directing for that first time, what was the best bit of advice you were given and by whom?

SB: Before my first day of shooting on Perfect Sisters, I reached out to four directors I had worked with over the years – four I had really admired (Walter Hill, Jason Ensler, Charles McDougall and Norma Bailey). They all gave me great advice. Perhaps the best advice came from Charles (who directed, among many, the pilots to Good Wife and Desperate Housewives). He said “Wear comfortable shoes – you won’t believe how much you’ll be on your feet. And don’t sit at video village (where the camera monitor lives) – be in the scenes with your actors all the time. Be present. Be available.” That was such a simple suggestion – but so important.

NQ: How did you come to be involved with Perfect Sisters?

SB: I had optioned the book to do as a TV movie at LIFETIME – it seemed a natural, since it had all female leads. We even wrote a couple of drafts of the script with writers, Adam Till and Fabrizio Filippo. The more we worked on it as a TV movie, the more it became clear that it was far too dark and intense – and required provocative language – to ever work as a TV movie. In one of the only times in my career, I asked for the project back – and opted not to make it as a TV movie. When I gave up producing and was looking around for a project, I remembered ‘Class Project’ (the name of the book) and I asked Adam and Fabrizio to do a feature rewrite on the last script we had. It was when they turned in their darker, more intense draft that I knew this was the movie I wanted to make.

NQ: Do you have a preference for biographical movies, and if so, why?

SB: I like telling good stories. No matter where they come from. That said, I would say that five of the best TV movies I made as a Producer, were all true stories and biographical. From Prayers for Bobby to Behind the Camera: Three’s Company, and The Heidi Fleiss Story to The Capture of the Green River Killer – those were the best tales I had told as a Producer. I am comfortable in that arena – and I feel there is an extra weight and power to the material when the audience knows this really happened!

NQ: I’ve seen both films you’ve now directed, Perfect Sisters and The Grim Sleeper, which I enjoyed very much. What impressed me about both films was the casting, particularly in Perfect Sisters where it was key. Was it the producer in you that helped decide who would be cast in certain roles, and how did you finally settle on Abigail Breslin and Georgie Henley?

SB: Casting is something I take great pride in – always have. Lots of actors got their movie starts with me (Johnny Galecki and Dane DeHaan are two examples). Abigail was my first choice to play SANDRA – and I was lucky to be able to get the script to her. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. I had worked with her older brother, Spencer, on two very successful TV movies (before his huge feature career took off) – Ultimate Christmas Present for Disney, and Moms on Strike for ABC Family. I got to know Spencer’s Mom – and their agent (Joe Funicello). Abigail read the script – loved it and came aboard. She was the first piece of casting. I then went on a nationwide hunt to find someone I felt could match wits and talent with Academy Award nominee, Miss Breslin. We did auditions in NY, LA, Vancouver, Toronto and Winnipeg (where we were shooting). I found nobody even close. We were getting precariously close to the first day of shooting and the whole rest of the cast had been hired. Late one night – perhaps five days before our first day of principal photography – I called my LA Casting person (Shana Landsburg). We started going back through all the auditions and names. She then mentioned that she had gotten an audition, but she didn’t even want to show it to me. It was from a girl who lived near Leeds in England and had put herself on tape from her bedroom and bathroom. Shana didn’t even think there would be time to get her the necessary travel documents to get to Canada. But we were desperate. So she forwarded me this girl’s audition tape. I watched it and felt the hair go up on the back of my neck and then I burst into tears. This was Georgie Henley. I yelled out to anyone that could hear me “I FOUND BETH!!! I FOUND HER!!!” And then came the nightmare of actually figuring out a way to get her to Canada for the first day.

NQ: Were you familiar with the story of the sisters before making Perfect Sisters?

SB: Not from newspaper accounts – but from reading Bob Mitchell’s book ‘The Class Project.’ I optioned the book several years before we made Perfect Sisters.

NQ: The sisters were shown in a sympathetic light. Was it important to you to have the story told that way?

SB: I was ONLY interested in the story if I could successfully make the girls sympathetic. I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who spoke of the challenges of directing – and said that the best work comes from when “you paint yourself into a corner and then have to find a way out…” As a parent of three boys myself – two who were just a bit older than Sandra and Beth – I felt I understood teens and this behavior. And I wanted to explore HOW this horrible situation could have happened – and how many adults must have abdicated their responsibilities to these two girls for this to happen. Where were the Dad, the Aunt, Family Services, the high school – in identifying the horrors in this house? Teen girls don’t find themselves believing this is the only way out of a terrible situation without lots of bad things happening that go unnoticed and without response. I want the audience to decide whether these girls had choices. I want the audience to feel both sympathy and disgust – perhaps at the same time. That’s what was interesting to me.

NQ: I noticed your second film, The Grim Sleeper, felt more sure. Did you feel more confident going into that project after Perfect Sisters?

SB: Very perceptive. Unquestionably. About 10,000% more confident. I was incredibly frightened the day and night before we started shooting Perfect Sisters (full-on panic attack). Here I had wanted to make this little independent – and now I found myself about to direct an Oscar-Nominee (Breslin) and an Oscar-Winner (Sorvino). Uh oh. Well, I did it. And I’m proud of the film. That said – The learning curve was ENORMOUS. The night before I started shooting The Grim Sleeper – I wasn’t nervous at all, just super excited to get started. I still have tons to learn – but I feel like I now know what I’m doing and can be the leader and creative voice on the set.

NQ: The closing track for The Grim Sleeper was by Macy Gray, who also co-starred. Was that your idea to have it included?

SB: Yes. My idea. But I have to give some props to my editor – Ron Wisman. He was the one that dropped in part of the Jeff Buckley cover of HALLELUJAH under a piece of the final scenes where the victim families learn that Lonnie Franklin has been arrested. It was after we worked with that version of the song that I called Macy and asked her to cover it. There was no question that it needed to be a female voice – and I was lucky enough to have one of the greatest female singers in my cast!

NQ: How did you first get into producing movies?

SB: From the first mailroom job, I then answered phones for a producer, then got a job as a Casting Assistant (on Rocky 3), then as a Development Associate at a startup TV company. Always with my eyes on the prize of producing. When I went to work for Jon Peters and Peter Guber – at the time, the hottest producing team in Hollywood – it was only natural that I would eventually produce film or television, myself.

NQ: What has been your most memorable moment in your 35-years in the business?

SB: Hard to beat watching 150 horses come over a hill on Sergio Leone’s sets in southern Spain, as the first TV producer to shoot a Western there – or standing next to Robert Duvall and accepting the Emmy for Best Miniseries. But saying “ACTION” on that first day of Perfect Sisters comes awfully close.

NQ: Who have been your biggest influences?

SB: In life – probably my Grandfather and my kids. As a filmmaker – I’m constantly watching and rewatching Sturges, Wilder and Kubrick. And Citizen Kane. There’s so much to learn from them. If I could have a career like any of them – it would be Billy Wilder. Comedy and drama – and both with equal aplomb? Wow.

NQ: Is there a film you’ve always wanted to see made?

SB: There’s a Preston Sturges film I think is ripe for a re-imagining in contemporary terms – and I’d like to find the time to take a crack at that. And I have a true crime four-hour miniseries I developed a long time ago that is the best story I’ve never gotten produced.

NQ: Now that you’ve successfully directed two movies, do you have more planned?

SB: Yes. I have a pilot at TNT and I’m attached as a director to a couple of other true crime TV movies – and I’ve several projects in the works I want to now return to as my next feature.

March 2014