Fast Forward Friday with Peter Stass

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed writer-director Peter Stass. He is the co-author of the 2006 feature Relative Strangers, which starred Danny DeVito and Kathy Bates. He has also written and directed several of his own shorts, which have played at such venues as the Steve Allen Theater and the LA Comedy Shorts Fest. He has taught screenwriting at the Gotham Writers Workshop. He is currently developing his feature, Ackerman & Associates Meet Dracula.

Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.

I made a one-minute short comedy during lockdown called The Conversation, which has just played at its first fest (The Micro-Minute Film Festival appropriately.) It’s a satirical commentary on modern communication.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

I feel that phones and the internet have profoundly changed how we communicate, not entirely for the better. I wanted to address that through humor. Also, I made another (longer) short a year ago, which I made the mistake of producing myself. It showed. So this time around, I was determined to find an actual producer, which made all the difference. So often, independent filmmakers try to make something that is simply beyond their present means, and the film usually suffers for it. I decided that I would make the best film that I could with the resources I had. And that it was better to make a one-minute film that looks (and sounds) like a real movie than a fifteen-minute one that looks more like a Youtube sketch. 

Q: In this current time of unprecedented change and uncertainty, what do you believe your role is in this moment?

I think my role is to keep telling stories relevant to the moment we are in. Through stories, we encourage empathy and catharsis. When we see our experiences reflected on the screen, it makes us feel less alone.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

One of my artistic heroes is Sylvester Stallone. I have always been touched by the way he created “Rocky,” his own independent film, and held out on selling it to a major studio (even though he was a poor, unknown actor at the time) until he was allowed to star in it. This must have taken a great deal of faith and vision. 

Another is the director John Sayles. He has been writing scripts and script-doctoring in Hollywood for years and then using the money to finance his own, totally independent films. His films deal with many political and social issues, movies the Hollywood system would probably never make. He has found a way to do his thing, and I have to admire it.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?

I am always inspired when I see new examples of people making their own art, especially when it’s not in line with what is popular at the moment. Usually, it is young people who are not thinking in terms of limitation but merely expressing themselves. Some of the most beautiful things in the world come from this.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

One thing I’m working on at the moment is stand-up comedy! I’m taking a class at a wonderful performance space/learning center in Astoria, Queens, called QED. I don’t know where this will take me, but stand-up is something that appeals to me because it provides the opportunity for me to share my material (which is mostly comedy) directly with an audience. 

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

I think you are living in your vision when you are very alive with a project. You are not caught up in the practicalities of its success or failure, not thinking too far ahead, just immersed. It’s love, really. I felt this way when I wrote my first screenplay, and I didn’t even know what I was doing! I was very young and mostly self-taught, but I was so alive with it. I was constantly improving it and telling anyone who would listen about it. And actually, this led to my first professional job, working with Greg Glienna, who had just sold Meet The Parents to Universal. So there is something to be said for this approach!

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

If there were no barriers to entry, I would be making my own feature film, a horror-comedy called Ackerman & Associates Meet Dracula. It’s something that I really love and will make someday.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

Self-doubt. It can be hard to trust yourself, especially when people you perceive as knowing more than you tell you something isn’t right or can’t be done. Trusting yourself is very important, not just in art but in life. Bruce Springsteen said this in his excellent autobiography, but I’ve heard it elsewhere too (in regards to art): “Remember, life comes first.”

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

I like to look back at the things that inspired me to begin with; those films, that art, that first sparked my interest. I usually find that the thing it touched in me is still there, ready to be reignited. Whenever I hear the early music of Bruce Springsteen, for example, that exuberance, that sense that anything is possible, always inspires me. 

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

I would let go of the past, of “failures” and things I wish I hadn’t done. Or things I wish I had! It’s really just beating yourself up. All you can do is start from where you are, hopefully, use those lessons from the past, and move forward better than before.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

It’s so hard to pick a favorite piece of art, but certainly, my favorite film of all time is the original Rocky. We don’t tend to think of it as an independent film because it became this huge franchise, but really it was. It was made for a million dollars and had no stars in it. And we don’t tend to think of Stallone as an independent artist because he subsequently became associated with the excesses of the ’80s. But at the time, he was just an unknown actor with a slurred speech who could only get roles playing thugs. One of my favorite things about Rocky is that, unlike its sequels, he didn’t even win the fight at the end! Because it wasn’t about that. It was about proving something to himself. (And it’s also a wonderful love story.) We didn’t have to win in the ’70s. That all started in the ’80s when the only thing that mattered became “success.”

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

This is another tough one, so I will just pick one of the people I most admire. Bruce Springsteen is a major artistic hero of mine. He knew what he wanted to do from a very young age and made a bee-line for it. He built it from the ground up. No friends or family in the business, starved and struggled in the beginning, but wouldn’t even consider a job outside of music. He would rather sleep in a surfboard factory, which he did. This might not be possible (or advisable) today, but the bottom line is he built the life he wanted and did so on his own terms. Also, an example of a living icon who has never “gone off the rails.” He has no major controversies, no drug years, no sex scandals, and has always been down to earth and accessible. He is still doing it his way, in his 70s now.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

I would like to be known as someone who did what he wanted to do. If you can look back and say, “I did what I wanted to do,” then you’ve had a good life. Because most people don’t.

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?

These are good questions! (And very difficult.) Probably “kind.” I genuinely love people.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

My guilty pleasure. Sitting around watching crap on YouTube. Just a little of this, a little of that, and completely wasting time. A lot of it is nostalgia: an old Siskel & Ebert review here, a David Letterman interview there, a movie clip, a music video, etc. Pure comfort.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

I would say: “Trust yourself. You know what you’re doing. Enjoy your life. You have a really good one.” Artistically speaking, I would say: “Pick one thing and focus on it. See it through to the end. You are very good, and people will love it. Trust me. Don’t spread yourself too thin.”

Q: Where would you most like to live?

There is a place in Manhattan called Sutton Place. It’s gorgeous and old and kind of tucked away on the East Side. I would love to have a townhouse there. (And getaway to the country often.) But then I live in Astoria, which isn’t too bad either! I was born and raised here. 

Q: What is your idea of success?

My idea of success is doing what you want to do. If you have the work you want, the kinds of relationships you want, and you’re living life on your terms, you are a success. 

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

My idea of happiness is being able to appreciate what you have—being willing to be happy. Some people choose not to, no matter what is going on. They view the world through a lens of misery. You must choose a good lens. (Film metaphor!) When you do, everything gets better.

Q: Final Thoughts?

These are great questions! And it’s given me an opportunity to review some of my most basic values. So thank you! I hope it is of help to others. I guess the one thing I would like to say to artists who may see this (and remind myself) is to trust yourself. And love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Out of this, all good things will come.

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