From journeying the deep South alongside ‘Dirty Kids’ to exposing the young brides market in Bulgaria, London based filmmaker Alice Stein doesn’t shy away from the unsettling frights of the social underbelly.
Here Ella Marks interviews Alice Stein to gain insight into the evolution of her film making, her process and undoubted affection for the weird and wonderful.
With the new issue going green, there has been a lot of discussion around ideas of growth and rebirth. You began your career in the advertisement industry, what was it that brought you to documentary and short film making? How did your career evolve?
Growing up it was my dream to make films but I never thought it possible for women to direct. I’d never heard of any female directors or seen any photographs of women directing. From what I understood, directors had to be extremely ‘technically minded’ - something I also understood to be a ‘male trait’. It seems crazy to think about it now! Later in life, as I entered into advertising I learnt more about the filmmaking process and the role of a director….. you don’t necessarily need to know EVERYTHING about physics and colour science to operate a camera. Most of the time you work with a Director of Photography anyway. With this new found knowledge and some encouragement from my sister I threw myself into my first project at the National Rainbow Gatherings in America where I found the ‘Dirty Kids’.
The subjects within your work are wildly varied, from two young ballroom dancers all the way through to eighty year old Nora - how do you decide on your projects and the subjects you explore?
Nora and Tiny Dancer were originally a photo series by my sister Emily which we then decided would translate well into film. I read about the Rainbow Gatherings in America in an article online …I spend a lot of time researching, looking for inspiration and checking out events where I might find interesting characters. Nowadays I’m usually pitching to commissioners/broadcasters so it depends what they are looking for and what fits in with their scheduling.
Dirty Kids and Young Brides for Sale seems to be a jump away from the aesthetic pleasure and light subject of Tiny Dancer and Hello, I Am Nora. Where does the difference lie and what drove you to such different projects?
The films I make with Em tend to be much more aesthetically considered. We had time to storyboard and compose each shot together. With Dirty Kids I was a one-woman-band filming and directing. The spontaneity and intensity of the events and characters meant there was little to no time to art direct anything...Brides for Sale specifically had to fit in with Vice’s style of broadcasting. I feel it’s quite early on in my filmmaking career and I’m still trying to develop and figure out and my own style - there’s still much I still want to try.
You work closely with your sister, photographer Emily Stein. The notion of envy has perpetually surrounded the dynamics of sisterhood - how do you work so closely with each other without friction developing?
Em always inspires me so much...I don’t feel there’s ever been any notion of jealousy between us, I’m just so proud of her! The only friction that happens is when it’s not clear what specific jobs we have to do so we just make sure we’re both clear on who’s doing what.
Colour palette is fundamental to the KLEAN, with the new issue being guided by green. How much of an influence does colour have on your filmmaking?
So much! I’m fascinated by colour, aesthetics and how they psychologically affect us and our senses. They’re both so important to the language of film and connecting with the audience.
With recent heavy backlash against discrimination in the arts, there is a sense that the current is shifting for talented but marginalized individuals. As an emerging female filmmaker in a typically male oriented climate, have you found yourself facing challenges in light of this?
Right now I think it’s a great time to be an emerging female director. I’m just gutted I started so late and wish I’d had the confidence to start earlier. I think growing up there are so many young boys that are taught to be brave and instead girls are taught to be perfect. I think that fear of failure and lack of female role models holds a lot of young women back. A few years ago I worked in a various production companies creative researching. At that time literally ALL of the directors were men...It would be great if filmmaking could feel just as accessible to young women as any other career.
Social media is ever present in our millennial sphere, with many artists utilising it as a platform in which they can exhibit their work - how do you feel about social media in relation to your own work?
I’m terrible at Social Media and all my friends give me a hard time for not using it to promote work...I’m quite judgmental on anything I make so I find it hard to post anything at all!
There is an overwhelming sense of transcendent beauty and raw humanity that ties into all of your works, what or who would you say are your most noted influences?
I am inspired by all kinds of art but I love photography. Some of my favourite photographers are Joseph Szabo, zed nelson, Tom Wood, and Richard Avedon.
The idea of a ‘process’ may feel a little broad, but I must ask, how does it all come to fruition? Are you a keen planner or do you get manically struck by an idea in the middle of the night?
I’m definitely a keen planner and love figuring out the logistics of a project. Once I have the outline of an idea I spend A LOT of time researching - contacting and interviewing potential contributors...reccing events, writing treatments and pitching to commissioners...It’s a lot of work but really fun!
You’ve covered so much, with such a wild and diverse approach - what are you working on next?
I’m working on a project I shot recently in New Orleans...I was on my own filming so it was tricky to cover everything I wanted. New Orleans is so inspiring...We are working on the edit at the moment so it should be out shortly!
Watching a project like Dirty Kids their comes a real sense that you are wholly absorbed into their world, unearthing very personal truths for these people. With the nature of your work being of such a personal nature do you find that subjects are sometimes hesitant to participate in your projects?
It all depends on the project - for Dirty Kids, originally it was a real struggle to film at the Rainbow Gatherings. Anyone who saw me filming asked if I worked for the government! In the end I wore a cardboard sign around my neck to let people know I was filming in peace...Things became much easier when I met and became friends with the group of Dirty Kids that you see in the film - after a while people just assumed I was one of them.
Is there anything you’re thinking of experimenting with next?
At some point I would love to start writing/ directing short fiction but that’s a whole new venture. It’s also a dream of mine to eventually direct a horror film...but I think that’s a long way off!
You can see more of Alice’s work at: www.emilyandalice.com
Follow her on Instagram: @alicestein.co.uk