How to Be a Father and a Filmmaker: Interview with Jeff Stern, Director of The Morning of Everything

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Creative parents know the struggle: be good fathers and mothers, be good spouses, bring home the bacon, and then in their spare time — Ha! — find time for their passions. No problem, right?

Alas, being a grown-up supposedly means accepting the loss of youthful freedom, and having to sacrifice the free time our pre-long-term-relationship, pre-childrearing years gave us. Being a dad means say goodbye to those dreams of writing that novel, starting a punk band, or inventing the next bestselling gadget in the garage. Or does it?

That’s partly the subject of Jeff Stern’s short film The Morning of Everything. “Losing your identity,” Stern says, “is something that all parents struggle with, whether they want to admit it or not.”

The son and the giant owl from The Morning of Everything. (Image courtesy of Jeff Stern)

His new film, subtitled “a fever dream about fatherhood,” concerns a father (Stern) losing himself in the world of childrearing, and the three-year-old son (played by his real son) who must journey through a treacherous adult world of fun-house encounters in search of his lost owl. Eventually, the son helps the dad find himself again.

MOE Official PosterAs for Stern, he finds it’s possible to do it all — almost. The director and occasional actor is also a college professor, father to two sons, husband and artist. After earning his MFA in film production from Boston University, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Stern went on to make over 50 films. But this latest effort is his first film, he says, to feature “his son, a giant owl man and a backhoe full of watermelons.” When he’s not juggling all those poopy diapers, heavy equipment and fruit, Jeff works at Bentley University where, in his words, he teaches “business students how to be auteurs.”

Disclosure: Jeff is a compadre of mine in the tight-knit creative community here in Boston. I’ve even played softball with the guy. But despite being his friend, or perhaps because I am his friend, I can appreciate his accomplishments. His mesmerizing, gorgeously-shot, thought-provoking The Morning of Everything is not to be missed. The narration, a sort of Dr. Seuss verse on steroids for adults, is both clever and poignant. Already, the short is making the festival circuit. It was screened at the Ashland Independent Film Festival, where it was a finalist for Best Short Film. This weekend, on April 24 and 26, it will be screened at the Independent Film Festival Boston.

I had a chance to sit down with Jeff over virtual beers and ask him some questions about balancing life and creative work, the themes of The Morning of Everything, and creating a custom-made camera called Black Betty to shoot the film.

Jeff Stern - MOE Headshot
Jeff Stern and his son Leo, also star of The Morning of Everything. (Image courtesy of Jeff Stern)

Ethan Gilsdorf: Please talk about your path to being a filmmaker. Did you make films as a kid?

Jeff Stern: My neighbor in Wadsworth, Ohio, had a VHS camera. When I was 12, we started making movies in which I played an investigative reporter named Jeffrey Putnum Stern. The big story I broke was “the Oatmeal Creme Pie that time forgot.” Because those movies failed to have the cultural impact we expected, I didn’t pursue a career as a filmmaker until much later in life. In college I had an epiphany while watching a mailbox explode as The Ronettes sang “Be My Baby” in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. After that, I decided to get serious about filmmaking. I honed my craft with some Super-8 epics, and then got an MFA in Film Production from Boston University. My goal with everything I make is give people the same thrill I got when I saw that mailbox explode as a 60’s girl group sang.

Gilsdorf: How do you keep the creative juices flowing, and time management issues under control, as an artist and also full-time teacher, husband, father of two?

Stern: My advice to anyone with a job and a family who wants to be a productive artist: Marry someone who believes in what you do. My wife Anna could not be more supportive of my filmmaking. She is an artist herself and she understands the sacrifices that grown-up artists have to make in order produce work. In terms of time management, the nice thing about having kids and a job is: I know how valuable my free time is. So when I have a few hours here and there, I am a thousand times more disciplined than I used to be. I think I’m actually more productive now than I was as a single slacker in my twenties.

Leo in the woods. (Image courtesy of Jeff Stern)

Gilsdorf: The story of The Morning of Everything has a lot to do with the struggle of being a grown-up and accepting adult responsibilities versus mourning your past freedom, that time of pre-kids and pre-marriage. Can you talk about that struggle?

Stern: I call this movie a “fever dream about fatherhood.” It’s a story about a man who loses himself in his child. That idea of “losing yourself” appealed to me because it can mean different things. You can lose yourself in a movie, a book, a person. Those are positive associations because they involve getting out of your head and living purely in a moment. That also means that you are valuing something or someone above yourself. But the other way of losing yourself is literally losing your identity, which is something that all parents struggle with, whether they want to admit it or not. The choice to have kids means you are giving up a kind of youthful freedom that will never again return. It is the freedom to spontaneously walk out your front door and do whatever the hell you want. Would I trade my two wonderful sons for that freedom? Not in a million years. But, would I like to go for a walk with my wife to get ice cream every once in a while on a sunny afternoon without spending three weeks finding a babysitter and paying him or her $25 an hour? Yes. Yes, I would.

Gilsdorf: What’s your advice for young newbie filmmakers?

Stern: Make stuff. Find a group of positive people who you respect and like to work with and then bang stuff out. Also: Everyone likes spectacle. Show the audience something they’ve never seen. My personal favorites are fire, dance sequences in public spaces and violently competitive basketball games. Oh, and giant owl-men.

Gilsdorf: You and your DP (director of photography) came up with pretty cool hack on a video camera for your film. Can you geek out a little about that? What look-and-feel did it bring to your film?

Adam and the Black Betty.
Adam Van Voorhis and the Black Betty. (Image courtesy of Jeff Stern)

Stern: Adam Van Voorhis shot this movie on a one-of-a-kind, custom made camera called Black Betty. Adam designed and built the camera with a super-smart filmmaker named Mike Szegedi. Mike also happens to be a good friend of mine. Here is your daily dose of geek: Black Betty is a custom camera housing that combines an SI-2K Mini Camera Head and an Apple Mac Mini into a cohesive, portable camera system. In more layman’s terms, it is a rugged HD camera that produces an image that resembles Super 16mm film. Because it is built on a Mac Mini, it can be used to edit and upload footage without any external connections. The camera was finished literally hours before we began shooting, which added an extra layer of suspense and excitement to the production. You can read more about Black Betty here.

Gilsdorf: Anyone can be a filmmaker now, it seems, given the proliferation of technology, YouTube, and iPhones. Does all this make your job as a filmmaker harder or easier?

Stern: Both. It’s way easier to make things that look great and professional. But there is so much more competition than there used to be. Film festivals routinely get thousands of submissions now. Online exhibition allows for anyone to potentially find an audience of millions, but we all know what tends to get the most hits on YouTube. Ultimately though, I think it’s great than so many people have access to high-end technology. I’m looking forward to seeing what my sons produce when they start making movies.

You can read more about The Morning of Everything on the film’s Facebook page. Or watch the trailer here.

(Image courtesy of Jeff Stern)
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