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SXSW '05 Interview: 'The Self-Made Man' Director Susan Stern

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Self-Made Man' Pitch: Is it ever rational to choose death? On Independence Day at Stern Ranch in central California, 77-year-old solar energy pioneer Bob Stern finds out he is seriously ill – possibly dying. Meanwhile, an elderly in-law is slowly declining on artificial life support in a hospital. Bob decides to cheat that fate and take his own life. His family tries to stop him. Bob sets up a video camera. Daughter Susan Stern (Barbie Nation) tells the story of her father’s quirky, inspiring life and the difficult end-of-life choices faced by an aging population. Part King Lear, part Western, The Self-Made Man is a true-life family drama about a controversial issue: Should we control how we die?

"Is it ever rational to choose death?"

Will this be your first time at SXSW? Any other film festival experience?
This will be my second time at SXSW. My first film, Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour, about the cult of the Barbie doll, debuted at SXSW in 1998.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
Lois Lane.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
I was an investigative reporter married to the underground cartoonist Spain. Spain was in the film Crumb. Our daughter invented the game "Jealous Barbie." I got laid off my newspaper job. I was forced to play "Jealous Barbie" for hours on end. The rest is history.

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?
I am busy doing press stuff.

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or film festivals in general) in mind?
I just envisioned people watching it -- in no particular place.

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
I start by writing a lot -- lots of journal entries and proposals. Then I collaborated with great people. Associate Producer Laura Salcido makes things happen, Charlie Gruet did principal cinematography, Jennifer Chinlund was the editor, Elizabeth Finlayson did additional editing, and Marco d'Ambrosio did the score. It wouldn't have happened without money; A San Francisco Art Commission grant got us started, then came funds from the Creative Work Fund, KQED Public Television, ITVS and the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund.

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?
Don't make 58 minute films. Next time -- more than 90 minutes.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
Many. For this film, I was particularly inspired by the films of Alan Berliner.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?
Can't think of a thing.

Two parter – name an actor you'd KILL to work with, and then name an actor in your own film that you really think is destined for great things.
I work in non-fiction.

The festival circuit: what could be improved? What's been your favorite part of the ride?
I love it all. I love arguing about film with complete strangers, snowboarding at Park City and dancing till 5 am in Austin.

Have you ‘made it’ yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say ‘yes’?
I'm thinking, maybe, on my deathbed.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
The Self-Made Man and Barbie Nation are by me. I did use that credit. They are told from my point of view and reflect my strengths and weaknesses. Every film should be that personal. But the enormous art of everyone else who works on the film -- cinematographers, composers, editors, actors, engineers, sound designers, etc. --should be recognized. These peoples' names and styles should be appreciated -- and I think as audiences become more sophisticated, these artists are being recognized.


The Self-Made Man, directed by Susan Stern, will premiere at the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more information, and be sure to check out the official Self-Made Man website!.

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originally posted: 03/08/05 22:32:58
last updated: 03/11/05 06:56:47
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