Cross-Platform Storytelling

Stephen Dest directs his attention to film for My Brother Jack

Hank Hoffman

Sometime this fall, Stephen Dest will begin filming his life story. Sort of.

Actually, Dest’s My Brother Jack, a feature film to be shot in New Haven, shares just one crucial detail with Dest’s own biography: The lead character’s father dies on a holiday. But where Dest’s father died of a massive heart attack on Easter when Dest was 13, his character’s parents are murdered on Christmas Eve.

This is Dest’s second cinematic bite at this apple. His first professional fiction film was a short, Blind, which played the New York International Fringe Festival and was screened at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2008. Blind, filmed in 2006 and set in 1979, was a fictionalization that stuck closer to the sad, prosaic facts of his father’s sudden death. Like Blind, My Brother Jack is, in part, a tribute to Dest’s father and a meditation on his loss. But with My Brother Jack, Dest decided to take more artistic liberties.

“When you lose a parent by natural causes there is no mystery to it. But it’s hard not to want to create a mystery to it because you’re looking for the ‘why,’” explains Dest. There’s nothing romantic about a “bad ticker,” he acknowledges. “But when it’s your dad or someone close to you, you want to make it more. I want to sexy it up a bit – that’s my Dad! – and I’m allowed to do that.

“I’m doing something a lot of storytellers do – taking from my own personal life and trying to create something and make art,” says Dest.

In an interview at Neighborhood Music School – where he developed the Drama Department 10 years ago and teaches as a guest lecturer – Dest tells me he was adamant about using eight-millimeter film to shoot Blind.

“It seemed to capture the time period and the energy of it. It was almost as though another sibling or someone in the room was documenting this tale. It gives it that home movie feel,” says Dest, who plans to shoot My Brother Jack on high-definition video. In the fall of 2010, Dest raised $20,000 on Kickstarter.com to fund the making of a promotional trailer, a moody and compelling concatenation of images accessible online.

Dest’s deepest roots are in theater, in which he became engrossed during his college years. Prior to college he had been a rock ’n’ roller, playing guitar and fronting groups in junior high and high school. But storytelling as well as performance was in his blood. Dest describes himself as “that kid in elementary school who would tell stories and read fables.”

Photo by Harold Shapiro

He studied theater at New York University and Circle in the Square and hung out at nonprofit theaters in New York and Connecticut during his college years. Dest recalls doing a lot of improv in Greenwich Village during his college years in the 1980s.

Being turned on to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was the game-changer for Dest.

“An older guy – he was probably all of 22 – said, ‘Here,’ and handed me a play I’d never seen before and it was Waiting for Godot,” recounts Dest. “I read it like four times. I didn’t sleep. I kept reading it over and over. It was all making sense to me. Then it was, like, ‘Okay, theater, let’s get into it.’”

According to Dest, “The simplistic set-up of the characters and setting of Godot layered around such rich dialogue was what grabbed me.”

Getting into acting, Dest was fortunate. He did six national tours and some Broadway work. He played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Laertes in Hamlet, Roger in Rent, and Harry Houdini in Houdini.

“I learned that once you go professional, singing is pretty important. I had had voice training, which proved well for me. Once you go union, professional theater is predominantly musicals,” Dest says of his acting days, adding, “I was able to get into musicals fairly easily and got out of musicals just as easily because I blew my voice out.”

Dest transitioned out of acting around the time he turned 30. At the time, teaching wasn’t on his mind. His first option owed a lot to simple economics: He could keep his union card but switch over to stage-managing because stage managers were in the same union. And, he says, he had built good relationships with a number of theaters. From stage-managing, Dest began getting directing opportunities. Directing, he says, “took everything I’d done up to then and put it together.”

Dest likens being a director to being a “fancy traffic cop,” whirling this way and that to “make sure there are no accidents.” Dest has worked at award-winning theaters across the country, including Long Wharf Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and many more.

Dest says his style is to “stay organic,” by which he means that he seeks to engage the skills and vision of each member of the cast and crew in a collaborative manner. Where does this approach come from? Dest says a friend of his attributes Dest’s method to his improv background.

“Those first few days of rehearsal when you’re work-shopping – you’re barely looking at the script and I’m like, the script will find its way. As a writer, I’m always respectful of the story, but there’s time for it. In the early stages I want to weave in a little improvisation. You can often find things that way,” contends Dest. “Take ‘To be or not to be.’ Look, you’ve got to make choices. ‘To be or not to be’ to 50 million people means 50 million things. If we’re going to wait and let the audience decide, we’re in for a long night.

“Respecting a story means making a choice in believing what the writer is giving you and taking action with it. A lot of directors and writers are sometimes hesitant to take action, relying too heavily on the actual prose,” says Dest. “That’s great if you’re reading a book. But if you’re performing, perform.

“When I started to look at things I wanted to do as a director, I was seeing certain stories needed to be done with a camera,” says Dest.

His first professional experience was directing a documentary, The Forgotten Elm, about a children’s soup kitchen in New Haven. Dest funded the project with grant money and procured the equipment.

“It opened up another world for me – telling stories with a camera,” he says.

Blind began as a one-act play. My Brother Jack has been conceived from the beginning as a film.

“In film, everything spoken, everything visually has to connect. There are invisible lines that hold the film together,” says Dest. The director has to see these lines while the audience should feel them without being aware of them.

When he began writing My Brother Jack, Dest envisioned an “artsy tale of survival in harsh conditions.” But as he worked on the writing, the story evolved into a mystery thriller.

Dest’s Facebook page for the film offers a plot synopsis: “On Christmas Eve, celebrated artist Jack Burns and his brother Vincent witnessed the murder of their parents in cold blood. Twenty years later, the man convicted of the murders is released from prison and is found brutally stabbed to death the same day. Who killed the killer? All signs point to Vincent who battles the demons of mental illness and sleep paralysis – a condition that blurs the line … between the real and unreal. To protect his brother, Jack is forced to confront his own demons and uncover the truth of what really happened the night his parents died – a truth that threatens to burn away his life of fame and fortune with murder and lies.”

As the story became a mystery, Dest realized that he needed clues. The main character is a found-object artist similar to New Haven artist Silas Finch, whose sculptures are featured in the film. Also featured are the paintings of New Haven artist Lawrence Morelli, as the paintings made by the uncle who raised the two brothers after their parents’ murder.

“The art started to provide the clues. In theater it might not have worked but in film it made a lot of sense. The pieces were suddenly transforming in helping tell the story,” says Dest. In film, the camera can linger over an object in a way that isn’t possible on the stage. As a promotion both for the artists and for the movie’s pending production, the works of Finch and Morelli were showcased together at an August exhibit at Kehler Liddell Gallery in Westville.

Dest notes that the city of New Haven itself helped tell the story. Locations in theater, Dest says, tend to be left “pretty nebulous – ‘lights up, small village’ and then leave it up to the set designer. But in film, (finding a location) is a job. People make a really nice living looking for the perfect coffee shop, etc. And they deserve every dime they get because in film, locations are telling the story.

“New Haven is a great town to tell this story in because it works perfectly. It’s got artists but also there is an interesting crime element to this city. We’re not saturated in it but we do bounce back really quickly from tragedy because of the arts community,” Dest says.

He analogizes between the city’s bifurcated personality – a vibrant arts community and a high crime rate – and his script. “(It features a) crime, a horrific crime. But there’s this amazing beauty and trying to sustain things through your art. To me, that’s what New Haven tries to do.”

I ask Dest how My Brother Jack might have been informed by the classics of the stage.

“Tremendously, mostly from Shakespeare. While writing My Brother Jack, I never once thought of Hamlet. But now reading it, Hamlet is all over it. Hamlet opens with the death of his father. For me, my play opened with the death of my father. Up until then I was just in rehearsals like every other kid – playing baseball, I was blind, just a kid. That’s how it’s supposed to be,” declares Dest.

“Hamlet felt like it was written for me. I guess it was – me and a billion other guys like me. And Hamlet, I think of all Shakespeare’s plays, has so much room for interpretation,” enthuses Dest. “If someone asked, ‘Is there one show you could spend your whole life producing and directing?’ it would be Hamlet.”

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