It wasn’t so long ago when parents of a certain generation were the conservative ones, and the teenagers questioned the government and other authorities. Remember the Archie Bunker versus son-in-law Mike “Meathead” characters in “All in the Family?” Now that was the quintessential generation gap.
In the new short film “Crawdad,” written and directed by Princeton Township resident Kelly Patrick Stephenson, that dynamic has done a 180. In “Crawdad,” which screens on Friday, January 21, during the opening weekend of the annual spring New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers, an “old peacenik” father, Bill Dougherty (Mike Roberts), stubbornly objects to the fact that his son, Noble (played by Stephenson), is in the military. The gap is so seemingly wide, the father and son don’t speak — and haven’t spoken — for quite some time, even when they pass each other in the kitchen.
“That’s the back story we tried to relate,” Stephenson says. “The parents are liberals, and the son is in the Army, and there’s this basic philosophical problem. It’s the core difference between them, and their political opinions outweigh their love. The irony is, the character of the father is open to everyone else but a member of his own family.” Stephenson will make an appearance at the Rutgers screening.
Meanwhile, a granddaughter, Beth Dougherty (played by Stephenson’s daughter, Grace), comes to stay with Bill and his wife, Pauline, while Noble deploys overseas. Interestingly, Grace is just as stubborn as her father and grandfather, but her stay changes the family dynamic, and the story unfolds in a subtle manner.
A labor of love shot in just seven days in June, 2009, “Crawdad” placed as a finalist in the short movie competition of the festival, from more than 300 short films submitted for consideration. It’s another triumph for Stephenson, whose first screenplay won grand prize in the 2006 American Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest, with famed director Gus Van Sant as part of the jury.
“Gus read the 10 finalists, and he chose mine as the winner,” Stephenson says. “It’s one of those things that tells you you’re on the right path, to know a great director read and liked your screenplay. I bought a washer and dryer with the prize money.”
The award-winning screenplay is called “Midland,” a drama about a big city cop who moves to a small town in West Virginia to help care for his mother-in-law. He takes a job as a deputy sheriff and becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in which the town sheriff is the lead suspect. Ever since Stephenson’s screenplay was awarded five years ago, he has been determined to break into the movie business.
He has completed three more feature-length movie scripts, read countless books on the movie industry, learned the basics of using a high-definition movie camera, taught himself the editing software Final Cut Pro, and gained recognition from several more screenwriting contests.
With the help of family and friends, “Crawdad” was filmed in Adams County, Ohio, not too far from Cincinnati, where Stephenson grew up. His wife, Julie, served as producer and crew member. As mentioned, daughter Grace, 14, played the lead, and younger daughter Clare, 9, appeared in the film as well. “She plays the little ham in the workshop scene,” Stephenson says.
Close friends of the family, the Cassidys, provided their Ohio farm as the setting for the movie and also had parts in the film. “It was a ton of work, but it was a lot of fun and proved to be a great learning experience,” Stephenson says. “My friends have been actors all their lives. Keith Cassidy, my friend from college, who has taught theater at the high school and college levels, plays the drifter, and a couple of his kids have minor roles too.”
Stephenson says he wrote the story specifically for the Cassidy farm. “My daughter is a budding actress and singer, and this was also my first acting job, by the way.”
Film and movies may not have been Stephenson’s career goal growing up, but he always loved storytelling. “I always knew that I wanted to write, and I did write, but I never got published,” he says.
He grew up in Cinncinnati. His father, now deceased, was a general manager for a construction company; his mother is a retired bookkeeper. His parents divorced when he was 11, and Stephenson says he lived with his mother. “My father had no interest (in seeing me); he lived two miles away with another family.”
The strained relationship he had with his father informs this script, says Stephenson. “The inability to communicate, the inability to say what we really feel about one another and how that creates barriers, that’s the core problem.”
Unlike the father character in “Crawdad,” Stephenson’s father did support his joining the Army. “My father was very proud of my serving. I was the one with mixed emotions. I was a lost kid, and the Army was the first step in getting my life together. I went in on a whim and wound up liking the structure and discipline. I’m a pretty liberal guy, and it was always kind of a fine line between whether I was doing the right thing. I believe in the guys who are in the miliary but I sometimes struggle with the mission.”
After one year at the University of Cinncinnati, he enlisted from 1985 to 1987 as an infantry soldier, then was promoted to major, before returning to the university, graduating in 1991 with a B.A. in English. He spent another five years as an ordnance officer and also served five years in the reserves. He says the plot of “Crawdad” not only reflects the strained relationship he had with his own father but also the very real dilemma he saw in the miliary when both parents are deployed and have to decide what to do with the children.
Military life had the Stephensons moving around a bit, and until a few years ago, they were living in Waynesboro, VA (“not the hotbed of screenwriting,” he says), where he taught high school English and writing, an experience that he says helped sharpen his own writing skills.
“I had this dream to be this great American novelist, but I could never finish the novel, although I could do short stories,” he says. It dawned on Stephenson that the same short stories would translate well onto the screen, so he began writing screenplays, winning the Zoetrope award his first time out.
“Although I haven’t been able to sell that screenplay, a lot of people have read it,” Stephenson says. “I think it’s a really good story and I would love to make it myself. I’ve also written a fantasy, a boxing movie, and I’ve just finished a comedy, which we’re trying to shop around.”
The Stephensons moved to Princeton Township about three years ago when Julie, whose professional background is in nursing, was promoted to central New Jersey regional sales manager for Boston Scientific. She recently joined Medtronic as director of medical education. Both companies manufacture medical devices such as pacemakers and implantable defibrillators.
“Although her office is in our home, she travels frequently, developing educational programs for physicians,” Stephenson says. Meanwhile, he continues to learn as much about screenwriting and filmmaking as possible, while being a stay-at-home dad to Grace, a freshman at Princeton High School, and Clare, who attends the Cambridge School in Pennington.
Naming Woody Allen as his favorite writer-director, and “Tender Mercies” as his favorite film, Stephenson would like to take his storytelling talents and make smart, smallish, character-driven films. “After doing ‘Crawdad,’ I see that I can direct, especially stories at a personal level,” he says. “I have a good sense of what I see in the characters, and I write visually — these two things link up well. I can’t see myself doing something like a big-budget film. I’m more drawn to small-budget works, to characters and a good story to tell. Sometimes you can find a niche with this kind of film: something that tells a personal story but also makes money. Think about ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or ‘Sideways’ or ‘The Kids Are Alright’ — films in this style that were also breakouts.”
He says he and actor friend Cassidy have been doing sketches, a few short scripts that Stephenson hopes to shoot, maybe in the summer of 2011. But the real goal is to shoot a feature, and he has a script he’d love to see in the mainstream.
“I have this dream to be a writer-director. Woody Allen’s whole way of filmmaking is interesting. I love his stuff: it’s smart and funny, and he does a film every year. That’s the pie in the sky thing for me.”
Funded and sponsored in part by the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, the festival runs Thursday, January 20, through Saturday, March 5, and boasts more than three dozen films from around the world. Just to name a couple of other noteworthy works, Andy Warhol’s 1965 film “Beauty #2,” starring the late Edie Sedgwick, screens Thursday, February 24 in the Ruth Adams Building, room 001, and “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer’s 1966 masterpiece (starring Rock Hudson) will be shown Thursday, March 5, also in the Adams building.
Meanwhile, “Crawdad” has certainly resonated with the cineastes at the New Jersey Film Festival, and Stephenson hopes it will with audiences as well. “The (Bill Dougherty) character looks at the world as a universal family but forgets that he has his own family,” Stephenson says. “If the father can look at his son in a less strident way, he’ll realize he loves him, and he’ll find the things that they do share, and one of these is the granddaughter.”
New Jersey Film Festival, Voorhees #105, Douglass Campus, New Brunswick. Friday, January 21, 7 p.m. Screening of “Crawdad” about a young girl who struggles to understand the strained relationship of her grandfather and father. Director Kelly Stephenson, a Princeton resident, is scheduled to make an appearance. $10. 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.