April 15, 2018 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
For “Bernadette” director John Psathas, something crucial has been missing from young adult films in recent years: a groun-ding in the ordeals that real teens experience.
“I can’t relate to what it means to survive a . . . werewolf in my high school,” he points out, “but I remember bullies. I can’t truly understand the struggle of being in the middle of a love triangle while in the midst of a dystopian future homage to Battle Royale . . . but I can remember missing the game-winning shot with everyone watching. I also remember being so hopelessly paralyzed by teenage desire that I couldn’t speak.”
It’s those more down-to-earth moments that intrigue and inspire him. “I’m really drawn to coming-of-age stories—the moments, choices, and relationships in our young lives that have far greater impacts than we are able to comprehend at the time,” he says.
Psathas and his production partner and co-writer, fellow DePaul University professor Patrick Wimp, started swapping stories from their own past. “Each one started with the phrase, ‘I remember this one time . . . ’ At the end of the day, we realized how much we wanted to capture those wistful emotions onscreen.”
The film continued to evolve as they brought their students into the process. “Over three sequential courses, [we] led 14 sophomore-year students through each stage in [“Bernadette’s”] production—from story revisions all the way to festival strategies. Over the course of that entire year . . . we collaborated with them as peers.”
He set the film in 1994, a watershed year for him that also harks back to a period when many classic coming-of-age films—“The Sandlot” (1993), “Camp Nowhere” (1994), “Clueless” (1995)—dominated the box office. “It was not only a big year for events in pop culture but, more importantly, it was the last summer before the Internet really exploded … That summer, my world was smaller and I knew it well.”
Originally from Cleveland, Psathas has attended prior Festivals and is excited to have one of his creations play in his hometown. And, as both a filmmaker and film professor, he has wonderful advice for aspiring film-makers.
“Don’t make anything because you think other people or film festivals will like it—make films that you’ll love, because you’re going to live with them forever,” he says. “Always hold onto the heart of the film, but don’t be afraid of change. At every stage, the film will evolve—that’s just the reality for independent, low-budget filmmakers—it’s your job to make sure that these changes are for the better and stay true to the story.”
What makes the final cut can, in fact, be a painful process. “Sadly, many terrific scenes and moments were left on the cutting-room floor … As a director, it was simply heartbreaking to let that go, but the truth is that it’s just part of the process. That’s what director’s cuts are for, right?”
We had a similar problem here at the Daily; Psathas gave us so many extraordinary answers that there wasn’t room for all of them. Below is the unexpurgated Q&A, with everything he had to say about Bernadette and Filmmaking.
CIFF: How did you first come up with the idea of “Bernadette,” and how did it evolve for you from those first days to now?
John Psathas: Bernadette has been a roller coaster, for sure. When I began writing the film in 2014 with my longtime collaborator and producer/DP, we started off just telling wild stories about our own teenage antics. Each one started with the phrase, "I remember this one time...." At the end of the day, we realized how much we wanted to capture those wistful emotions onscreen.
In all honesty, one of the main reasons we started writing and producing Bernadette was simple… we missed the coming-of-age films of our youth. Looking around, they didn’t seem to exist anymore- something nostalgic, funny, touching but, maybe, tinged with a little sadness. Lately, coming-of-age films seemed to have conflicts that revolved around some very intense stakes. While they can be very entertaining, their conflicts didn’t seem to express some of the more commonplace struggles that most teenagers grapple with and that, as adults, we wax nostalgic upon… first love, first heartbreak, friendship, parents, courage, identity.
I can’t relate to what it means to survive a serial killer/werewolf in my high school... but I remember bullies. I can’t truly understand the struggle of being in the middle a love triangle while in the midst of a dystopian future homage to Battle Royale... but I can remember missing the game winning shot with everyone watching. I also remember being so hopelessly paralyzed by teenage desire that I couldn’t speak. I remember the laughs and good times that forged the strongest friendships of my life- friends I have to this very day. I remember being shocked as the black-and-white dichotomy that was my understanding of people and the world slowly, painfully, revealed itself in shades of grey. Those bittersweet teenage milestones are shared. The way they make us smile- and sigh- is the reason we made Bernadette.
Like all indie films, Bernadette evolved organically- changed by each person that helped collaborate on it. In the editing room, however, it got really challenging. We had so many great moments and characters that it was impossible to keep everything. The world we created was just too big. Sadly, many terrific scenes and moments were left on the cutting room floor. That last stage of the storytelling was the hardest, where major story elements were reshaped in order to provide a laser focus on the narrative. As a director, it was simply heartbreaking to let them go but the truth is that it's just part of the process. That's what director's cuts are for, right?
CIFF: What kinds of stories are you drawn to as a writer and a director?
JP: As a writer and director, I'm really drawn to coming of age stories – the moments, choices, and relationships in our young lives that have far greater impacts than we are able to comprehend at the time. A huge fan of the genre, I had always wanted to tell a story that captured the naivete, confusion, and comedy of being on the cusp of adulthood— that time when you mistake teenage lust for true love, when every choice and every day seem both tantamount and trivial. Lately it's been comedy, absurdity, and bittersweet moments that are at the heart of stories that I like to tell.
CIFF: You set the film in 1994. Why did you choose that time for the setting?
JP: At first blush, my reasons might seem selfish... I was a teenager in the 90s and a lot of my own memories and stories are woven into the film. But when it came to picking an exact year, I went with 1994 because it was not only a big year for events in pop culture but, more importantly, it was the last summer before the internet really exploded. In my own life, it was the last time that the rest of the world was not at my fingertips. That summer, my world was smaller and I knew it well. It was more intimate and, despite that knowledge, so much more delicate. In a way, that reality made 1994 feel like the perfect setting for first love.
CIFF: As a film professor, what advice do you feel is most important for aspiring filmmakers?
JP: Keep making films. Never give up. Never settle. Embrace your voice. Lean into your style. Don't make anything because you think other people or film festivals will like it— make films that you'll love because you're going to live with them forever. Always hold onto the heart of the film but don't be afraid of change. At every stage, the film will evolve—that's just the reality for independent, low-budget filmmakers—it's your job to make sure that these changes are for the better and stay true to the emotion of your story.
CIFF: Every year, the CIFF has a theme, and this year’s theme is “Embrace Curiosity.” What does that mean to you, and how do you “embrace curiosity” through your work?
JP: "Embrace Curiosity" is a terrific theme— it's a driving force at the core of every single filmmaker and the impetus for viewers to watch our work. Whether that's exploring a new genre or style, presenting new worldviews, or revealing characters and stories so that they speak to, surprise, shatter, and amaze all of us, curiosity is at the center of who we are as storytellers. For me, it's about always challenging myself to create films where I'm trying things that I've never done before- pushing myself to experiment, learn, and grow as a filmmaker.
CIFF: What are some of your upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
JP: Right now, I'm developing a couple films and a series, all spread across different genres. While I've never been a huge fan of horror films they certainly fascinate me on a conceptual level. With that in mind, I'm looking to try my hand at one— from a coming-of-age angle, of course.
CIFF: Do you have anything else that you would like to say to the CIFF audience?
JP: Thank you so much for having us and coming to see “Bernadette!” Being from Cleveland and attending CIFF as an audience member in the past, I'm so honored to be a part of this year's festival. There is one other thing that I'd like to mention— something that I always try to share about Bernadette that I think surprises most audiences. This film, a feature length period piece, was made almost entirely by a crew of undergraduate film students. Over three sequential courses, another faculty member and I led 14 sophomore year students through each stage in its production— from story revisions all the way to festival strategies. Over the course of that entire year, my colleague and I helped these students grow as filmmakers and, eventually, we collaborated with them as peers. I can say, without reservation, that this one-of-a-kind experience was my most rewarding as both a filmmaker and educator. The film you see before you is a direct result of their dedication and commitment to the project and a testament to their capabilities as filmmakers- we really hope you enjoy it.
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