"People Want to See Something Different"
An interview with Patrick Stettner, writer/director of The Business of Strangers
By Grant Rosenberg

Gadfly: The Business of Strangers was released at the end of 2001. I don’t recall it getting wide distribution.

Stettner: They chose to release it in December because there was going to be an Oscar campaign for Stockard Channing, because a lot of critics were talking about her. They ultimately decided not to do it, but the film was still released in the middle of a very crowded time. If I had my druthers, I wish that we hadn’t come out when we did. Anytime but then, really. Because all the studios were putting out their adult-oriented films and you had a bunch of independent films coming out at the same time. It was a very crowded time for adult subject matter like this. Independent films work really well in the States during the middle of the summer, when you basically have stupid action films and independent films become an alternative. People want to see something different.

I saw the film at the Deauville Film Festival back in September. Have you been taking it to festivals this whole time?

I have. This is probably the last one. I’m making a commitment that this is the last one. I’ve been doing this for a year—Sundance was exactly a year ago. I’ve been doing a lot of them in the States, Toronto, and London.

What is that process like? To do festivals for a whole year, how does it work?

Well, it’s not continuous, but there is always the sense that you are gearing up to go, then you come back and settle down and then you go again. Closer to the release date it actually is going every other week to a different festival. Especially in the States, where there were over a dozen festivals that I attended, introduced the film, did’s a long process. It was my first film, so I wanted to make sure I supported it. You know, at the end of the day I don’t know if I would do that again, going to every festival.

Personally, or professionally?

Creatively. Because you put your other work on hold. I always thought I would be able to work in hotels. But it’s hard to have a continuance about your work.

I read an interview where you mentioned that your next project was altered after September 11th. Do you mean the content, or just generally?

I live right across the East River in Brooklyn. So literally where I have my coffee was looking at the Twin Towers. I was really touched by that situation, being there. Seeing a lot of people in serious shock. I can’t say today I’m in the same state of mind as I was when I did that interview, but at the time it all seemed a little frivolous, you know, press junkets and all that when so many people were dealing with loss. I have a friend who lost 25 people. It was an intense period.

I should have saved that question for the end, because now I would like to turn back to some frivolous things-

[laughs] No, no, no. You understand what I mean. The idea of talking about my film…it felt a little…it was just a weird situation to be in.

Even six months later, it’s still there hanging over everything. Like Tom Cruise’s introduction at the Oscars, telling us that it is okay to enjoy movies again, alleviating guilt.

I still have this sense of wanting to—for lack of a better word—bring a certain harmony to the thing. I seem to be interested in unearthing rocks and looking at what is underneath with a rather critical eye. I know a lot of filmmakers are dealing with these issues where maybe they were doing something dark at that point and felt it wasn’t the right thing they wanted to be working on.

So you went to both the Sundance Writing and Directing Labs where you worked on The Business of Strangers. How did it all come about?

I had done the short that had done well at different festivals [Flux, his 1996 NYU thesis film starring Allison Janney]. Sundance had contacted me about what I was working on. At the time I was writing a very complex epic, but they didn’t express an interest in that [laughs], and I decided I wanted to make a film no matter what. I wrote The Business of Strangers very quickly. Sundance was interested, and I went to the Writers Lab. When it all started I thought I would just get some actors and we’ll just do this thing. But suddenly I had a small studio interested and finally started getting notes from them. And I realized that they wanted to make a very different kind of film than what I wanted to. I even received a memo that asked, "Why do the two characters have to not get along?"

I managed to meet up with the production company called i5, which has three partners: Robert Nathan, along with David Siegel and Scott McGehee, the two co-directors of The Deep End and Suture. They basically gave me money and said, "Go ahead, make the film." We had the same start date for Deep End and my film, so I didn’t see them much.

Your film takes place in different parts of an airport hotel. I understand it was shot in only 24 days, but in different locations, not just the one hotel.

I wanted to bring a certain kind of value to the film even though we didn’t have a lot of money. I had very specific notions about those kinds of environments and what they represent for people.

In what sense?

Well, in how people do things in those environments that they wouldn’t normally because they are so alienated from the rest of society in a way. And I was kind of fascinated by that, how these environments are creepy and sexy at the same time. It was exemplified when we were shooting, one of the hotel managers approached me and asked that I not get any guests in the shots. When I asked why, he basically said that a lot of people who go to these hotels go there for trysts.

There are already a lot of associations people have with office politics and corporate culture, particularly as represented on film. I remember many people comparing your film to In the Company of Men, for better or worse.

These characters aren’t archetypes. Do they represent all women or all businesswomen? I think those are sort of naïve statements in a way. I think that In the Company of Men does make those broader strokes, and I guess that’s why I took offense at those comparisons because I feel that Neil LaBute is making general comments about men—not in a cartoon fashion, but there is a certain conceit in what he is doing. The humanistic aspect—who these individuals were—was very important to me. And working with Stockard and this character, making sure they weren’t archetypes and stereotypes. Which was kind of hard because there are certain conceptions of businesswomen. And what the character goes through is similar to them, but I wanted to add back story. Again, there are plenty of women who are very successful, powerful have kids and are very well-balanced. This is just an individual.

Rather than In the Company of Men, I would say your film shares a dynamic closer to that of Fight Club, in that it shows how one person preys on another, less powerful person’s insecurities to elevate an immoral situation. And with women it is manifested differently than for men.

Yes. I was exploring different issues of power, and of course it comes in many forms: financial youth, sexuality, class. Not having to give a shit is a real form of power. Not having to worry about one’s status in the world is its own form of power. These are two characters obsessed with power, or the lack thereof.

Given the issues at play, I’m curious about how the film has been received in different cultures. Has the reaction varied?

Surprisingly not. Within France, there has been a different reaction. I felt that the Deauville Festival audience was quite serious. I was particularly happy about the amount of humor the Parisians were getting at the Paris festival. They were picking up on the subtle jokes in a way I felt Deauville wasn’t. I don’t know why; perhaps it is that [the Deauville] theater is just too big and my film is just too intimate for that setting. A lot of people are relating to the business world aspect. I think certain cultures don’t get the aspect of the class difference between the two characters. There is a reference to their respective schools, Eastern Michigan State University and Dartmouth. It’s very American, and I had to explain to non-Americans that Stockard’s character came from a working-class background and so her road up the ladder was a little longer than someone else’s and maybe that explains a little of her sacrifice.

But I’ve been surprised overall. It’s played in Greece and Sweden as well, and it has been well received. I think part of it is an enjoyment of watching Americans stress about their work. This concept of Americans as working too hard. A little bit of the gladiator syndrome.

How much input did the actors have while you were shooting? Were there any Brando-Coppola all-day-long discussions about motivation?

Not really. Early on, Stockard and I were kind of circling each other. She had a certain conception of the script when she first read it, did her homework and came to the set. I think her conception changed a little. When she started to see where I was putting the camera, in terms of very far away, and these very architectural shots, she started realizing, "Oh, I’m in that kind of film. I’m a little bit on the other side of the Atlantic." But in a good way. She appreciated it. She signed onto the project because she thought it was something a little different. I kept repeating, "Have confidence in the journey. Everything doesn’t have to be a home run." If we slowly built it, I felt very confident we would really get this character. I think she was initially hesitant about it, but finally we were on the same page and got along very well.

Many reviews praised you for giving her a role, for recognizing that she is a valued actress that is so underrated and underused.

Part of my contention is that it would be interesting to watch Stockard read the phone book. There is something about her that is just…her technique is just amazing. There’s also an incredible intelligence about her, somebody who went to Harvard and is very well educated. She is one of those rare actors who could understand my mise-en-scene and kind of adjust her acting to that. A lot of times you don’t want an actress to even think about that. But she has the intelligence and the wherewithal to do that, where she can organically make it feel true but at the same time understand it on a conceptual level. She’s a smarty-pants, she is. My head would be spinning with references to Dionysius and Greek philosophy. I remember during rehearsal we were taking a break and she started going on this long thing about John Guare and Mike Nichols and my voice broke and I’m just like, "Okay, Stockard." [laughs]. "Yeah, let’s go back to this little film now."

What have people asked you in the Q&As after you’ve screened the film at festivals? Have people asked some tough questions or even attacked you?

Oh yeah. People get testy about Stockard’s character. It troubles them. On a number of occasions I’ve gotten into discussions about women in business and what I am portraying here. One of the things independent film should be is a conversation piece. It should bring up issues. Those kinds of discussions are healthy. I am fully aware that I am approaching material that is for lack of a better word, controversial. One of the reasons I made the film is to pose questions. And I know I don’t necessarily answer all of those. I know a lot of people get frustrated by that, but those are the films I usually like, the kinds of films that are not completely didactic and raise issues, with a sense of point of view.