The Business of Strangers was released at the end
of 2001. I dont 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 hadnt 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. Im making a commitment that this is
the last one. Ive been doing this for a yearSundance
was exactly a year ago. Ive 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, its 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 press...its
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
dont know if I would do that again, going to every
Creatively. Because you
put your other work on hold. I always thought I would
be able to work in hotels. But its 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 cant say today Im 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
it felt a little
it was just a weird
situation to be in.
Even six months
later, its still there hanging over everything.
Like Tom Cruises introduction at the Oscars, telling
us that it is okay to enjoy movies again, alleviating
I still have this sense
of wanting tofor lack of a better wordbring
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 wasnt 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 didnt
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 well
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
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 didnt 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 didnt 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 wouldnt 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 arent
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 thats why I took offense
at those comparisons because I feel that Neil LaBute is
making general comments about mennot in a cartoon
fashion, but there is a certain conceit in what he is
doing. The humanistic aspectwho these individuals
werewas very important to me. And working with Stockard
and this character, making sure they werent 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 persons
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
ones status in the world is its own form of power.
These are two characters obsessed with power, or the lack
Given the issues
at play, Im 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 wasnt.
I dont 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 dont
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. Its
very American, and I had to explain to non-Americans that
Stockards character came from a working-class background
and so her road up the ladder was a little longer than
someone elses and maybe that explains a little of
But Ive been surprised
overall. Its 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, Im
in that kind of film. Im 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 doesnt
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
technique is just amazing. Theres 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 dont 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. Shes 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
Im just like, "Okay, Stockard." [laughs].
"Yeah, lets go back to this little film now."
What have people
asked you in the Q&As after youve screened the
film at festivals? Have people asked some tough questions
or even attacked you?
Oh yeah. People get testy
about Stockards character. It troubles them. On
a number of occasions Ive 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 dont 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.