Artist Interviews 2021

Zack Stauffer  
By Julia Siedenburg

Zack Stauffer is one of these multi talented guys that can do it all ( which is almost a bit annoying at times). Writing and Directing are his main passions, though he also does not shy away to produce , edit and even master visual effects work for his own projects as well as others. A Pennsylvania boy turned LA filmmaker.

His website shows the variety of projects he worked on. Not to long ago he directed a music video for Lost Kings that turned out beautifully and is a perfect example for his love for nature and slow paced realism and giddiness.

Another great example of that is his current short film Below The Pines that is making the film festival rounds and is already selected in a few of them. I was fortunate enough to see the short and it is a great suspenseful supernatural thriller which no doubt will continue to succeed and be selected.

Even after knowing this extremely goofy and creative guy for 5+ years, he keeps amazing me with his ideas, work and dedication for any field he is in. So as you can see he truly is a real filmmaker, someone that is willing to do and give it their all, but most importantly make it work with whatever resources he has in that moment of time.

Lastly, he is connected to Simian LA, a production company that Kyle Cogan founded and talked to me about in his own interview for this issue. I am beyond happy to have both of these artists part of our second issue, and I am even more excited to have had the excuse to ask my dear friend Zack all the questions about his inspirations and views, about this and his other projects. Something that I never really got to do before. Here is a raw honest conversation between two friends:

Um, and what does the word artist mean to you?

I would say just an artist is someone that finds success and likes bettering themselves and not in like a monetary value or necessarily like a, like a title. And then, you know, in the industry, I think an artist like, like Robert, uh, Roger Deakins is an artist as opposed to like Michael bay is a businessman, in my opinion. Um, I would say that is the difference between, or for me that's what an artist is, is someone that just wants to better themselves creatively and their end goal is to make something special.

Nice. I like that. Okay. So the main reason why I have these, it's different, you know, people just refer to, (an artist) you know, as themselves. So when they talk about what an artist is, they just refer to their qualities as an artist. I mean, some of them are very much just like, you know, the meaning of a creative yeah. Creative person who, you know, in the world of art creates things constantly. And, um, yeah, but it's really interesting. I actually, I don't ask everybody, but, uh, for some people, I think it's pretty interesting to know. Um, and he said the main reason why I have you here is because you're super talented. And because you have movie going through the festival circuit right now, and I know

Getting rejected. Haha.

You'll get there. You'll get there. I have a couple of people right now who have the same issue, but eventually you'll, you'll find the ones that, oh, we'll take it. Okay. Tell me how you got the idea and why you wanted to make that.

Yeah. So this was like, uh, at this point it was like two and a half years ago when I started writing this probably. Um, cause I finally, it took me like two years to finish. I finished it right as we walked down for COVID. Um, but when I decided to make it, I remember it coming from a place of frustration where I was like out here working, uh, for like a year, year and a half. And I was like, so impatient and I was just like, I need to make something now. And I felt like if I didn't make something now that I was just like, you know, going to fall into the world of like PA thing or, you know, any of the other career paths that you do when you actually get out here and you start working.

Um, I had to, I just wanted to make something that people could see and like, so (there is) proof that I can direct something. So that was like the initial reason why we made this one and I didn't have a, like the story per se, there wasn't a specific reason I chose to do this story. I just remember having a dream about myself, walking through a corn field and then I'm walking through the corn field and I find myself dead on the ground. And, uh, and I knew that I was dead and just like, I dunno, and that was, that was the dream. And then I think I, the next day, turned that into some type of metaphor.

Like I, I was thinking about what it could potentially mean, but then, um, yeah, so it was just weird, like finding yourself dead on the ground. And then it kind of turned into, uh, like a doppelgänger story. And that's essentially like what Belows the Pines is, is like a doppelganger , uh, story, which I have now found out since I've made it, that there was also a Stephen King book. That's like essentially this short film.

No, but I love it. It's great though. It's still different. It's so different enough that, you know, it doesn't seem repetitive.

Yeah. All, all the stories are the same. Right. I mean, yeah. It'd be different, different skins.

Yeah. Can you tell me about the process of, um, once you wrote it to, you know, bring, bring all your friends as a group together and then find the cabin shoot.

Yeah. So at the time it was kind of like a thing. I just remember kind of aimless, like when you do something for the first time out of school where there's like no due date and you're just kind of aimlessly, uh, like a real passion project or like, there's no one telling you, you have to do this. You don't have a time that you have to get it done and you, you know, and you're putting your own money into it. So it was just like, I worked really hard for like a year and a half, but realistically only started saving like two months, two, three months before we started shooting. And I basically worked on a bunch of jobs right before that, and then decided to, like, spend all of that (money) on the short film. Um, and I just kind of like everyday would wake up and I'd do something for it.

Right. So like writing it, send it out for notes, me and Shay got excited about it. And then while I was working, I was just slowly putting together a crew and figuring stuff out. And then I remember the first time that I was like, oh, this is happening was when I booked Brad Elliott's flight from Texas to be our sound guy. Cause I was like, oh, he's coming to LA. Which means like we're shooting this thing and it was like a date. Um, and that was kind of when it got real, you know, it was like the first, like the booking, the first booking that I did. So, yeah. And just kind of slowly put it all together. I reached out to a bunch of Airbnb’s up in the Yosemite area, um, and found a place that was awesome.

And uh, the woman let us shoot there and it was all the homies. So that's like the biggest thing about this one that was really cool. And I feel like I wouldn't be able to do it now if I wanted to. I was able to get like 10 people all from full sail to come up there and help me shoot this thing. Yeah. Without paying anybody, anything. Um, so that was just like a really cool experience. Cause like five days where we just went up there together and we were in this cool place. And for the first time we had like real gear to shoot something that we wanted to shoot. And, um, it was a crazy experience. We ended up shooting a 24 minute short in three days. So the script was only 14 pages, which means that I was not, not a very good writer just yet. I think I've gotten better since then, but uh, yeah, it was a crazy experience. Should I go through the shooting process?

Yeah. If there's anything new you want to talk about?

I remember feeling so defeated. Um, we got up there and we started shooting and like within the first half of the day I was like, oh. Like this is going to be really hard to get everything that we wanted to do. So we slashed our shotlist in half and we were behind every day until the last scene of the day on the last day. Um, but it was just challenging because I had no AD, no script supervisor, no art department. Uh, we basically had a camera, and G&E, and Brad for sound. So it was just Deborah doing makeup. Um, but the town, the town that I had was awesome. They were like super down just to like, we like all me Shea and the talent all stayed at the picture house and the crew stayed in like a separate crew house, but we all just like shot every single day, woke up early, called sunset shot until nighttime.

Um, and then we'd have a crude dinner and then we'd go home or we'd walk into our bedrooms. Um, but yeah, it was just like a very stressful experience because, uh, cause I didn't have that kind of support and it was my own money. So like when things were going wrong and really felt like I was screwing myself, like financially, cause I was just like, oh, this isn't going to be worthwhile, while we're shooting, you know, there's always bumps in the road. But when you're the financer producer and director and writer, it's like every misstep feels like a crushing defeat. And then I remember the second day, the last scene of the day we were doing a, like a sex scene and the in between a take, uh, we, the actress was going to go and get on the bed and uh, Levi, the father character picked her up and sat down with her.

And when he sat down, he snapped the bed and the legs flew off, like they flew out from underneath it. And we looked underneath and the whole bed frame was cracked in half. And I was just like, there goes my security deposit. I don't have any more money left. I'm going to get an overdraft fee. Like I was like, I was just feeling so terribly, terribly defeated. Um, and then the next day we woke up, we shot everything. And then the day after that we cleaned up the house and we went to this little bakery that was up there, it's called, um, sugar shack. Uh, so we went to the sugar shack and it was the best breakfast sandwich and coffee I've ever had. And we like had our camera in there with us and everyone was like, oh my God, you guys are from LA shooting your show up here, that's so cool. And I was, and we were just like sitting under these big pine trees and looking out over a big mountain, like all the homies from full sail, like up in Yosemite. I just like at that point, or that it took until the very end when we finished everything where I was like, oh, that was a special experience. And that was fun. But all throughout it was pretty rough. Not saying I wouldn't do it again because I probably will. Yeah, I'm just going to be a little bit smarter about it.

Do you think if you, if you wouldn't have written it, you would have felt less stressed? Do you think that the writing and the directing and it being “your baby” in every aspect, is the thing that stressed you out?

Cause I was just really putting myself in like a kind of a bad situation, which wasn't smart. Right? Like, I'll shoot anything that I write. I don't think I have a cause I'm pretty good at . I'm not delusional, which I feel like some people tend to be where they watch the things that they do and they don't think anything's wrong with it. And I think that there's no way to get better if you're writing and directing and editing something. If you don't look at it and critique it. So like, it's not stressful for me to do that to myself. So I know that I can cut the scene if it's no good and figure out something else to put there. Because generally I'm not married to it. It is harder to distinguish what the right choices are to make when you've made all of them.

But it didn't really stress me out. Um, which is because, I mean, by the end of it, it took me like ,we reshot two more days, uh, one day in LA, one day in Big Bear where I shot just a bunch of crickets coming out of trees. And then we went back up to the assembly for one day to get some more stuff at the climax. There's like this pond, we went back up there. So, uh, yeah, so that part didn't really stress me out. Like screwing up the creative. It was more just like screwing up my financial security that was stressful or just feeling like you're doing all this and spending all your money on it. And like, it wasn't, you know, it wasn't going to be any good. But if you don't give up, you can always try and make something out of anything, I think.

How long did it take you to finish the cut?

The cut, like after all the reshoots or like a year and a half, but I, the only reason that it took that long is cause I was with a company that, uh, that, and I worked a ton. Like I think if I was freelance, I would have been able to do it a lot quicker. Yeah.

So you are currently right now, you just became freelance again. While you were shooting you were full time with Simian and you directed a couple of things for them. What is the difference or how was the experience different directing a music video for a company then doing the short film for yourself?

Yeah. I mean, I think the biggest thing that I have struggled with for a while and what I'm still trying to figure out in myself is like, if I want, uh, like some people, like I have a hard time doing a music video, if I don't like the idea or the song. And really, I should like, if I want to be a director, I should not care about that. And just like, think about how you can shoot like detach yourself from it and think about how you can shoot it or what it is. It's think of it more as a job, like music videos have structure, like there's ways to kind of non-passionately, you know, make a music video. That's good. Um, and I think the biggest difference there is like the artist thing that we were talking about earlier, it's just like Below the Pines was something that I wanted to do artistically and then directing music videos.

Most of the time it’s something that you do as a job. And like, uh, the biggest thing, as well as just like music videos are almost more like documentaries than narrative. Because of the narrative, you can really kind of control and nuance how you shoot something and what that actor will do, obviously you want them to bring their own, you know, themselves to the table for the part. But you can still kind of mold around, create a world around them that you can more or less control stylistically or through the way that you shoot it or through the direction that you give. And with music videos, I think that's the biggest thing that I don't like about them is just that they're going to come wearing whatever they wanna wear, doing whatever they want to do. And uh, to me music videos really are like, just a visual, right.

We don't hear any dialogue. Um, so it's a lot more cinematography based and I like thinking about how to create setups that are going to look amazing because that's what music videos are usually about. And you can tell stories and music videos, but sometimes it's hard cause it's like you're making a montage, that is without dialogue. So I've seen some music videos that have great stories and um, but it just, to me, I'm always just like, oh, I want to get this sick shot for this reason in a music video. But then I'm like, oh, well, you're not going to be able to feel that, that reason or that motivation as to why you're doing this thing, when you're going to cut the fuck out of it, you know.

You do have a very specific style, um, that you kind of did see. I mean, you described it to me once and I really liked the way you describe it. When you say about your style, you like..

Slow and steady. Uh, I don't know. What did I say?

You said one time something like” its slow and steady. Do you remember exactly what you said? Because I don’t.

I don't remember either. I don't know if I have, I don't know. I don't know if I have a style yet or if I'm trying to figure it out, I know what , like ,if I could make a music video or I'm holding on shots, that's like, my dream is to find somebody that can like really perform and design a shot based off of like the focus of it. Not being crazy lighting or like crazy dancers. And it just being like, this person is a performer, you know, this person and then creating like a cool shot that you can hold on. That's my dream. I just love like a natural feeling, right. I feel like…oh, you know what? I might've been talking about this. Yeah. So I think my style narratively, or when we're talking about narrative or talking about anything, really, I think that I gauge it on a scale of, um, realism.

I mean, like, I feel like it always seems very, very natural, you know? Not just that it's like me, but yeah.

Yeah. So like you can look at a movie and you can think about it. And I try and think about like, where does this fall under in terms of realism to theatrical, like shape of water, is theatrical, obviously, because it's like, she's falling in love with this fish person, but then also just theatrical in terms of the way that it's shot. And it's lit like every frame looks like a painting, nothing looks ugly, everything looks like a movie. And then there's movies like uncut gems where it's like, there's weird, gross looking lighting, or like, you know, something that's very grounded. And, um, you don't necessarily have a shot pushing in to show him like, coming to an idea that is shown in like , a subtler and more realistic way.

And I think that, I want, I find that like a lot…generally you see art house movies that do realism or they do some really interesting things to the way that they shoot something. And then like a lot of blockbusters and a lot of movies that are for, like the general public are more theatrical. And I think I like my tastes or like what I want to be as in the more realism vibe. But then I also think, I don't know if I'm smart enough for that, because I feel like you have to, I don't know if I'm a person that necessarily has a story he has to tell, and it's more of just like, I want to entertain and I want to like make a movie that I would want to see.

Um, and I, so I think I'm more in the middle where it's like, I don't really like the, like the glitz and the glam, or like the perfect looking images. I like things to look more real and gritty. And, but I'm not, but I still like to have a little bit of fun, I guess, like to kind of mold a scene where I want to… I haven't had a chance to in a while, but, um, you know, to kind of control a scene where it's not just like, this person is like, we have coverage for this person. And it's just this real story. Or it's like this artistic story that it's just uh, now I'm rambling, but I’d say I'm right in the middle.

But it does seem like you are, when it is about your projects, you are the one drawn to, to nature and to shooting outside because (your short film) Scavenger was outside. And then this one you guys shot, you know, it has a big natural aspect to it? The same with the Lost Kings music video. And I think the other, one of the other music videos that you guys shot on the beach.


It's awesome. Mostly outside. So do you, even though it is harder to control the lighting and just in general shooting outside as style is a little more unpredictable. Is that something that you are always just drawn to?

Yeah. Uh, I think part of it is not a ton of money for anything. And knowing that if I go outside, it's going to look nice, but then I do love nature and I do love outside trees. And yeah, I do. Like whenever I think about, uh, like visuals that just come to me in my head, it's always like in a cornfield or like I'm writing a, I just wrote a new short film. That's just like, this guy wakes up in a little fishing boat on a lake. And the whole thing is just him in this boat, on the lake. So yeah, maybe something subconsciously I also grew up in, on a farm in Pennsylvania. Um, and now I live in a city, so maybe I just like to go out into nature because I hate the city. Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah. Talk a little bit about your background and childhood .Was film always a big part of it? Did you know from very early on that was something that you wanted to do?

Yeah, I think I made a rap song with my friend when I was like eight and me and him and my grandma went around town, filming a music video for it. And I edited that together with a movie maker and everyone at the school thought it was the coolest thing ever. And then I just kind of started always making stuff in my, I had like 40 acres of land. So we would just like to run around the farm and shoot stuff, me and my friends. Um, but I always thought it was a hobby. And I always kind of told myself that I was going to do film, but I don't think I ever really thought I was, that was like what I was going to do until I, I was about to play football for like a division three school in, uh, at Ithaca college. And I just didn't want to play anymore. And I wanted to go to a film school. And I didn't think about it until I decided I was about to sign my paperwork to go play there, go to school there. And then I told my parents, I was like, no, I wanna, I want to go see Full Sail. Um, and I think that’s when I made that decision, when I was like, okay, I'm going to do this. Like, this is what I'm going to do now.

How did you find Full Sail University (the University we met)? I think we actually never talked about that.

One of my buddies that I grew up with, like my first best friend, made music in high school. In middle school, he actually started homeschooling and then we kind of lost touch, but I became best friends with his brother because I played football with him. But Joe, my first best friend, went to Full Sail. So I heard about Full Sail and then I came to check it out and, um, and it was awesome. And then I went there. Um, yeah, so that's, I kinda heard about it from him. And then I just came down for a tour. Did the BTS tour and then signed up. I think I got accepted before I even went on the tour. Cause it was like, I think I was like two weeks and then I sent in my application in like two weeks. And I'm like, you're accepted. You can pay here if you want to come.

Cool! All right. So you did your own short film. Post school continues the writing wave. Now you directed seven music videos for Simian. And what now, what are you, what are you planning to do? Are you more inclined to use the writing right now and prepping for, for another short that you eventually gonna do? Or are you going to look to direct other people's projects?

I was actually talking to Shay (Director of Photography) about this also shout out to Shay because Shay was there with me throughout the whole thing. Um, Below the Pines you paid for some camera gear helped me write the script, colored it with Ryan. Uh, but, uh, I don't know. I was talking to Shay about it. I was like, we have to make moves into the movie industry or we're just going to stick in the music video and commercial space forever. So my goal is to, I'm probably only going to direct stuff that I want to do until it's movies. Like if someone gives me a movie or short form narrative or something and I like it I'll do that. Um, but I'm not trying to be a career music video director. Um, I would do commercials, but I make my money as a producer and I want to keep making money that way.

Uh, shoot stuff that I am interested in. That is what I want to make as an artist. Um, and my goal is to get into a festival and to meet people and we want to start going to festivals even if we're not at them. Um, and just networking with people and seeing how they, how they get into it. Because some people like me, my dream would be to be an indie filmmaker, but the big one. I mean, I could do the big ones if someone wanted me to, but I could be happy. Like, there's this one guy that Christina, the, the mother in the short film, she has a friend that I'm hoping that we can get together at some point, but he's a career independent filmmaker director and has been his whole life. His whole career has just been six movies. That's where he's done out here in LA. He's just made six different movies. He's like 40. So I mean, that sounds awesome to me, if you can just make a good living and do stuff that you really love and that you want to do and you probably have a little bit more control over. Um, and then if, if that blows up from there, you know, and who knows, but that's the kind of like a realistic goal that I think is possible that like, you know, isn't, uh, I don't think it has to be a stretch like people do it, you know.

If somebody would ask you to, to turn Below the Pines into a feature film, would you want to or do you think the short that you did is enough for that story?

I would probably pitch something else. I have another script that I wrote that's a short film right now, but it's kind of like the first act of a feature. And I think could very easily expand into a feature and I want to expand it into a feature. Um, like right when I finished it, I watched this movie it's called The Hole in the Ground and it is basically Below the Pines as a feature. But, uh, it's by A24 and instead of a tree with crickets, which is what is in Below the Pines, it's a hole in ground, but it's essentially the same story. So, which is crazy because like, I, uh, I got, uh, you know, it took me two years to finish it. So I had no idea that it was being made, um, when I was writing it and then I finished it and got so excited.

And then I was like, what's this, what's this new A24 movie. And I watched it and I was like, holy. I was like, holy. Like this person, like my doppelganger, do we have the same thoughts? Like it was, it was eerily similar. Yeah. So, and it's not even really, uh, like the short it's like the story itself, isn't like a super cookie cutter story, you know? So, but what I didn't realize is there's a Stephen King book that is about the same thing. And, um, so I hadn't read that either, but that's what the movie was based off of. I probably wouldn't, I probably wouldn't want to do that one, but if they liked it, I would pitch, I would pitch this other thing

Is A24 is still your production company of your dreams. Do you still want to work for them, are they still your favorite or are they becoming a little too commercial for you?

Uh, no, that's still, uh, still my dream recently, I have figured it out. So actually my high school girlfriend, her mom's father is best friends with, uh, John Hodge, John Hodges, I think his name can't remember right now. Um, and John Hodges is one of the co-founders of A24 and I talked to him on the phone and he just kind of explained to me, like, kind of what A24 was. And they rarely produce content. It is much more like a distribution than I thought it was. Um, sometimes they do deals with people, but very rarely so, but what's really cool about it is like doing what I want to do. A lot of their movies do get picked up from festivals. So like we have Scouts at festivals and they buy you out and they, you know, distribute and then the, maybe, and then they could potentially hook you up with another deal.

And then it could be A24, but like produced by A24, but it rarely happens. Um, but like Trey, Edward Schultz, who is one of my, the people that I look up to as a director, he did a similar thing where he got into, uh, South by Southwest and then from there went to Cannes. And then when it was at Cannes, uh, he got his movie bought by A24 and they signed them on for It Comes at Night, which was a big, um, inspiration for Below the Pines in terms of like look and tone and stuff like that. So it is really, it is, it would be awesome. That would be the dream.

I know you've been always talking about it since Full Sail. Since then you've been talking about A24 and wanting to work with them, for them making movies.

Yeah. They just do fun stuff. I also like dark and creepy stuff, and they're not afraid of that. Um,

Just, just unusual movies that you don't necessarily see anywhere else.

Yeah. Yeah. And they're not afraid to, I'm not afraid to make a slower smart movie. And I think that my other dream is to like, make a smart movie, something that you kind of think about a little bit. We are already slow.

Yeah. Because slow, most of your stuff is slower. It's slow paced.

Yeah. I need to get a little bit better at that though. I think that's being afraid to like, uh, I think like, I think of Below the Pines, if it was written better and then I could have like… information doesn't have to be so slow and you should pick the moments of like, when to kind of decide to slow things down instead of the whole piece being like, kind of on the slower side. I think that's how it works is like you just choose…being a slow movie is just like giving you lots of information all the time, but not really connecting the dots and, and the pace of you connecting the dots is a slow process throughout the whole movie, as opposed to, uh, like a lot, I think, like Below the Pines. Like there's not a whole lot of information there and it's just slow. So I do think there's a difference and I think you can get better at making slow that like, doesn't feel slow even though it's.

What else motivates you? Or what else inspires you?

My friends, I want to make stuff with my friends.

I mean, that's what you're doing for people that you like. Do you think music plays a big factor for you as well?

Music, yeah. Listen to a lot of scores or like weird ambiances and that tends to spark some ideas. I also like have a weird thing for sound effects, packs. I'll just buy sound effects packs just to listen to them. I love them. They like to give me ideas. Like I just got a paycheck. I'm going to buy the sound effects pack that I probably won't use for like a year and a half, you know? But I like it.

Do you, cause you said that, um, Below the Pines came from a place of frustration, do you feel like whatever you write through, whenever you making something it's very much based off of your current state of emotion, like how you currently feel, what is happening in your life or it doesn't matter in which, you know, would mood you are, you can write dramatic, you can write something funny. You can write something heartbreaking.

Yeah. I think really what changes, what I write is like the previous project, uh, and like what I felt like I learned from that, because like, I feel like Below the Pines is like very, uh, I hope I'm not like shitting on this too much. And then it's like a bad interview. Maybe there's ways that you can phrase this stuff. So it doesn't sound like I'm just shitting on the whole time. But, um, I feel like ' 'Below the Pines'' is very much one tone. It's very slow. It's very, always serious. And, uh, I think that's a big, uh, kind of flaw with it. And I just want to have more, like with this next one that I do whatever it is, I want it to be more fun and, and it can still be dark, but, um, if it's fun and then you have fun with it, then the characters more like, well, and then when you get to a dark place, your audience feels more connected with them as opposed to like something that's just kind of very serious from the get-go. And I feel like if it's like that good example is Prisoners, that movie is just a rollercoaster of tragedy and seriousness, right? There's a lot of good movies like that, but you just have the time, you have time to really, to do that well. Um, and the short film, you don't have as much time. So I think it's a lot easier if you have a little bit of fun with your characters. And, uh, so that's what I want to try and do with this next one.

Nice. Okay. I think we have enough. Do you feel good? Do you want to say anything else?

I feel good. Thank you.

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