Jason Stefaniak is a filmmaker you’re going to hear more and more about in the very near future. He’s extraordinarily talented, dedicated to making stellar films, and loves to tell stories that make his audiences go “hmmmm.” And he’s just getting started. As a grad student in the NYU film school, his first film, “The Garden,” already won the PBS award (and it co-stars yours truly:), and his second-year film, “The Choi Family,” which explores the devastating effects of students opening fire on a college campus, recently premiered to critical acclaim at NYU’s Cantor Film Center. And there’s more to come…
Love+Water- I’m so honored to have played the “wicked mother” in your fabulous film “The Garden.” How did you come up with the concept for it?
Jason Stefaniak- I had just moved to New York for school and I knew the first film we had to do was a silent black and white film. I would pass this garden everyday and started thinking about how I could use it in my film. I’ve always done volunteer work that has to do with becoming more aware of the environment, so it seemed like a good idea to use. I came up with the idea for the story fairly quickly, and thought I would use that garden. But it didn’t work out, so I then went on to find a new one. I walked down 6th St. and passed the “Creative Little Garden,” which is stuck between two buildings. It was perfect, I saw how the whole film could play out, and so I ended up using it. It worked out perfectly. The main challenge was casting the little girl. We ended up casting until 5:00 on the Friday before we started shooting the following Tuesday, and that’s when I found Caroline. I scoured every casting website I could before she came along, and I knew she was right for the part.
L+W- How did you know she was right?
JS- She came in the room and I had a piece of fruit on the table. I had her explore the room and make discoveries and then come over to the piece of fruit and become really interested in it. She did this so well both times, the second time with direction. But I think what sealed the deal was when I asked her if she understood the story of the film and she repeated it almost word-for-word. That’s when I knew she was the one for the role.
L+W- The shoot was very smooth from my point of view. How did it feel for you?
JS- As you know, we shot it over two days for twelve hours each day. We were able to make the garden our home base and did a lot of shots- over 60 set-ups in two days, which is a high number. But the crew was so strong and the cast was so cooperative that it went extremely smoothly.
L+W- It has really been making a great run of the festival circuit- can you talk about that?
JS- It has been in the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, a couple of kids’ festivals, and it won a contest to screen on PBS so it was shown between two movies they aired a couple of weeks ago.
L+W- Your most recent film, “The Choi Family,” is an extremely moving film with a controversial story. How did you come up with the idea?
JS- I shot a documentary about a woman in Northern Virginia who is working for more sensible gun laws in response to the Virginia Tech shootings. That issue was still on my mind as I was starting to come up with an idea for my second year film. I was reading about the Virginia Tech shootings and about Columbine, and thinking of different ways into a story about either gun violence in general or about Virginia Tech. My girlfriend Melissa went to Virginia Tech and lived in the same dorm in which the students were killed. That made is very personal. I decided as a result to create a story about that.
L+W- You tell the story from an interesting and unexpected point of view. How did you decide to do that?
JS- I decided that instead of taking to so-called easy way into the story by telling it from the shooter’s perspective, I decided to explore the story from the family’s perspective. A lot of people were skeptical because they didn’t know what I was trying to do by telling such a story. That motivated me even more to tell it from the family’s point of view because I knew it would grab people’s attention.
L+W- What was the casting process like for that?
JS- I decided I wanted the family to be Korean, because even though I couldn’t tell the actual story of what happened at Virginia Tech I wanted to create that similarity. So not being Korean myself, I knew it was important to not subject myself or the film to criticism of not casting non-Koreans. It was a huge undertaking- I ended up casting for three months. It was relatively easy to find the acttress who played the daughter, but it was more difficult to cast the parents. I ended up finding a doctor who recently got into acting and was realyl enjoying it, and he was quite good, so I was pleased to have found him. The mother ended up coming to me from Los Angeles, and I cast her the weekend before we started shooting. She is a working actor, and has been on “Lost,” was in the movie “Crash”. I cast her over the internet.
L+W- Were you concerned you weren’t going to find someone in time for the shoot?
JS- I believed I was going to find someone. I just had to, and I didn’t stop looking. And it payed off.
L+W- How was the shoot?
JS- We shot for six days, including New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It was a challenge because I had never met the actor who played the mother, so when she arrived we began rehearsing and getting as prepared as we could to shoot the next five days.
JS- My biggest goal was to get people to feel something for this family, to see them as victims in their own right. This was the challenge in the editing process, because it was not working for such a long time until I began to make big cuts. I had to cut ferociously, and it was really hard. But that was how I got it to the point that I wanted it to be emotionally.
L+W- What was the most moving moment you had shooting “The Choi Family”?
JS- I was constantly worried while shooting about any shots coming across as melo-dramatic. We were on the set setting up for a shot and we did the tape and the actors left, and the boy who was serving as the gaffer, who didn’t come across as a sensitive guy, but more of a technical person, said to me that he was already feeling moved by what he saw happening in the room with the actors, and that he really felt bad for the family. I never had a conversation with him about what I was trying to achieve with the film. So I was really happy that it came across in that way, before the film was even put together.
L+W- Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your work?
JS- I’m trying to learn about other people and other cultures through the films I make. I try to find stories culturally or ethnically that I have a personal connection to that I can tell. I find telling stories with female characters much more challenging than stories about male characters, and stories about Korean-American families more interesting than American families. It’s a way of encouraging empathy in people by telling as accurate a story as possible about groups that are in the minority in American culture.
If you would like to see “The Choi Family” contact Jason directly at Stefaniak@nyu.edu