Love is Not Love: An Interview With Stephen Keep Mills

Early December, New York City, and everyone is on the hunt for love. Why? Because they haven’t found it and because they haven’t found it, they make it into a myth and chase the myth instead. That is not love in this romantic drama of fantasy, fate, and yearning.

Stephen Keep Mills (Writer/Director/Actor/Producer) started out as an actor leaving the Yale Drama School in the spring of 1969 to join the Guthrie Theatre and then appearing over the next seventeen years with many regional companies in both the US and Canada. He performed in "The Shadow Box", "Story Theatre" and "Metamorphosis" on Broadway and in several Off-Broadway houses including The Roundabout Theatre and The Public where his performance in Vaclav Havel's "A Private View" earned him a Drama Desk nomination. His television credits include guest-starring roles in over 25 episodic shows and Movies Of The Week, a regular stint on the series "Flo" and a recurring role on the Sci-Fi series "VR-5."

In the late 1990's, Mills began directing and producing his own written works on stage, gaining critical notice with "SquareOne" in LA as well as an Ovation Nomination for his adaptation of "A Christmas Carol: The Ghost Story of Christmas" which he directed in collaboration with DeafWest Theatre in American Sign Language. In 2003, he produced and acted in the film of his play "Hotel Lobby", and thereafter cast himself full-time as a filmmaker. He made his directorial debut with the 15-minute film "A Cigar at the Beach" (2005) which screened world-wide in 166 festivals, winning 47 awards. He followed up with another short "LIMINAL" in 2008 that accumulated 84 festival screenings and 30 awards. Mills is a member of Academy Award Winner Bobby Moresco’s Actors’ Gym and is included in Del Weston’s (AOF) Top 100 Indie Filmmakers In The World Part 1. He is mortally coached by the “living” ghost of Stella Adler. “Love is not Love” marks Mills’ first feature as a director.

It was our pleasure to interview Stephen Keep Mills.

How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?

I started by chance. I was having a reading of a play of mine, Hotel Lobby, trying to raise money for a small stage production in LA. After the reading, I was approached by a digital artist who said he wanted to experiment with what I’d written. It had a lot of dialogue and he wanted to put images with it. Working with him showed me dialogue and images can together be really impactful psychologically, providing an intimacy you don’t get with traditional action. We finished the 80-min film and played in a few festivals, but that was my personal film-start with my own writing. As an actor I’d been in films before with directors William Friedkin, James Toback, actor Steven Seagal. I much prefer working on my own material and having the freedom to craft the story. Hotel Lobby hasn’t made it to the stage yet, but it did get on screen and that was a turning point for me.

What genre of filmmaking fascinates you as a filmmaker and why?

I love the “European” genre, the Nouvelle Vague films of the 60’s from Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, Bergman, Malle, Demy. Two things: their plots were illogical and therefore psychological—you never knew what or why or where anyone was going to do what they did, but SECOND—their actors! So skilled and elegant and funny and attractive. America had our stars in the 40’s, but

who can top Mastroianni, Monica Vitti, Jeanne Moreau, Anouk Aimee, Belmondo each of whom qualify as addictions? And Bergman has all his darkness lit by the glow of Liv Ullman, Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson. It is the perfect combination of intimacy in the story-telling, incredible talent in the acting, and the visual appetite each star created in the viewer.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?

I smell an oxymoron. Industry and Independent are potentially at odds with each other. Industry denotes a collective whereas Independent screams individual. And I think unless you are a “cross-over” from the Industry you are going to find yourself on the Dali-esque plain in the sole company of your own shadow—which is great—but it’s not commercial which is the flashing neon of the Industry. So forget how much “industry” it takes to make an indie film, when time comes to take your cow to market, you’ll find there isn’t one. But still—you have your cow!


How difficult is it to fund indie films?

I would say impossible. I mean, you hear stories of people who shoot features on their iPhones for nothing, but if you have a story and a vision, you are going to need money. If you’re just starting out, maybe family and friends chip in (and I’m all for patrons of the arts even if you’re related to them) or if you’re older like I am you can choose to cash out your IRA which I did. The hope is always that someone sees your work and wants to help with the next project, but those odds are really slim and occur most often while dreaming. So then, is the Indie filmmaker trying to have it both ways? Leave me alone until I need your money? Not at all. There is room for the growth of the Indie market. The audience is there for it. They want these provocative and entertaining films. What’s missing is the entrepreneurs to bring back the Art Houses. That Indies can pull an audience means there is money in there somewhere. For the moment, film festivals fill that gap. That’s our audience.

Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?

Mifune, Max, Moreau. These aren’t directors, but where would Kurosawa be without Mifune? Begman without Von Sydow? Malle without Moreau? So while I love the scope of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Throne of Blood. While my jaw slowly drops with the gathering horrors of Shame, Cries and Whispers, and Sawdust and Tinsel. And while I glide over the tightrope of erotic encounter in The Lovers—what I love most about these directors is their CASTING. They found Gods and Goddesses and I think they were very lucky men because these actors brought to the screen extraordinary dimensions far beyond the concepts or capacities of their directors. So, their influence on what I do is this: to follow in their footsteps and find the most unusual and gifted players in the land. Players who will heighten and expand my ideas and words. Who is on the screen is who makes your movie.


What inspired you to work on Love is Not Love and how did the film go into production?

The script took the longest time and went through more changes than I thought I was capable of. So, two things were afoot. The script “wanted” to be better and something in me wanted to keep at it even though my logical self was losing tolerance for it. The inspiration was also my nemesis—what I call the erotic/domestic divide in my soul and in relationships. The mission was to work it out, to articulate it, to really dive into it and to not let myself out of it. I had to commit. Once you commit, you’re inspired. Once you’re inspired, you can get to work.


How did you find the cast and the crew of the film? Tell us more about the production of the film and working on the set of the film to create this feature.

Well, first you start with who you know and then go find the rest. I had worked with all three leading women before and also some of the Cameo players. Then, once you become signed on with SAG-AFTRA you have the validity behind you to put up casting notices that actors respond to. Actors Access is a great site and all Los Angeles actors look to it for job opportunities. Recommendation also plays in. Steven Fadellin our Cinematographer was recommended and he brings with him his crew and equipment, too, so all the technical details are there. Then you prepare, work out shooting schedules, rehearsing scenes—preparation is key. The more you know what you’re up to, the more flexibility you have to shift with the moment and, as you might suspect, the day always begins one way and ends another. It’s also imperative to establish an aura about the work, so that everyone is part of that aura. And the aura is: “my focus is on the film and we’re going to give our attention to the film.” And it is in this aura that you get your shot.


What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the distribution of independent feature films?

Distribution is the bone-yard of independent films. You go to all this time and trouble only to find yourself up against—not people who understand indie films—but people who seem to work only for the big guys. Who’s in it? is basically the first and only question you’ll be asked. But don’t you like my film? Too arty for us. Too small. Did you win at Sundance? Of course, there are strategies for the continuing life of your film, but I think this is where the work really begins and you’ll need a budget and you’re out of money. It’s a dream on dry ground for sure. So what I recommend is for clusters of entrepreneurial indie filmmakers to gather and start their own chain of Art Houses. Tough in a pandemic, but you can plan.

What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

Next film is an adaptation of a European playwright who died last century. I am trying to regain the rights to make it into a film. I had them for three years, then dropped them ten years ago because I was out of ideas and now I want them back because I have new ideas. Waiting to hear. For now, besides keeping Love is not Love active on social media, I’m putting together a short piece celebrating the costumes and the costume designer Michael Philpot. I have 26 mannequins in boxes ready to come alive.

Why do you make films?

I make films because I like stories. Stories that are intimate. Stories that have secrets. The camera can find those and find ours, too. Our secrets and stories need to be told, not to the world, that would expose them, but to ourselves in order to release them.


© Toronto Film Mag I 2020