Film biz buzz
Steve Cawman likes his work in the movie business-- and his life in the big city
T he aftershock of a Los Angeles earthquake is what sent Steven S. Cawman '93 to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts graduate film program. He was visiting California while trying to choose between the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles and NYU, and just before he left, an earthquake hit. "That really motivated me away from L.A.," he chuckles.
Cawman, who has completed the three-year academic program at NYU, has spent much of the last year working on the culmination of his degree, a fifteen-minute short film.
The Wisconsin native, dressed in black, plain-front, straight-leg pants and black Gucci loafers with no socks, looks decidedly New York from the waist down. The upper half--a blue, checked shirt--is more traditional, perhaps a little more in line with his Wisconsin roots.
With the look of a greasy spoon but a menu that reads like a bistro, Restaurant Florent is a trendy place in the meat-packing district of Greenwich Village where a scene from last summer's blockbuster movie Men in Black was filmed. It's hard to tell if Cawman blends in with the crowd. The twenty-four-hour diner is almost empty at 10:00 a.m. "Florent is very New York," Cawman says, as he pontificates on what life in the city is like. "In the morning, it serves coffee to the guys who cut meat and at night it brings in celebrities, club kids, bikers, and drag queens."
Eating a hamburger that was ordered medium rare but is leaning a little closer to the rare side, Cawman doesn't express any profound missions or dreams as he discusses his plans after graduating with a master of fine arts degree--just a desire to make movies, plain and simple. He doesn't want to be the next Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, he just wants to make his films and, if recognition for his work, or even stardom, should happen along the way, he'll deal with it when the time comes.
"It all started at Kenyon," says Cawman, who majored in English, of his desire to make films. It was Associate Professor of Drama and James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod who pointed the way while he was taking one of her courses. "She at one point told me that the details in my script were more conducive to film than stage," he says. "That's when I really started to think about film."
Cawman reveals that his decision to attend NYU rather than the AFI was actually based not on earthquakes but on NYU's emphasis on making films. According to Cawman, the California program doesn't guarantee that its students will even have the opportunity to make a film. NYU, on the other hand, maintains a large collection of 16-millimeter cameras and requires each student to produce a film in order to graduate.
Cawman's project, Last Day at Lady's, is a coming-of-age film set in a small Midwestern town. Based on a short story by Kenyon classmate Alexandra Manias `93, the story takes place in a diner where a young man comes to grips with his sexuality. "Alex wrote an amusing story with unique and real characters," Cawman says. "I took the story and played up some of the more comical aspects of it."
In the film, written and directed by Cawman, the character Percy is working his last day at Lady's Lunchbox before he leaves for college. Percy, shy and unsure of his sexuality, is pitted against Simon, who has clearly come to terms with the fact that he is gay. The film's action represents the culmination of a summer of attraction and flirtation between the two. As the matriarch of the establishment, Lady makes sure nothing will stop the romance from unfolding on Percy's last day. In the end, her efforts succeed.
The film's working title was Bleached Out Chicken Water. It refers to the water Lady uses to kill the bacteria on her hands after plucking frying chickens. Metaphorically, it represents baptism and rebirth. When the water is spilled on Simon, he changes clothes in a back room with Percy's assistance. The sexual tension in the film is tangible, but the gay theme is nonchalant. "The story is very personal," says Cawman. "I hope to show something we haven't really seen before, while maintaining the truthfulness and integrity of my experiences."
The film was shot in ten days in Wisconsin, working at night in a local diner while it was closed. The actors and crew worked for free. After advertising in Backstage and other actor's trade magazines, Cawman received head shots of many talented and experienced actors looking to get national exposure on the film-festival circuit.
Free access to the services of actors isn't the only advantage film school offers. It provides access to equipment that is prohibitively expensive to rent and essential insurance for equipment and securing locations. With all of the students assisting each other, a student can watch a classmate direct while finetuning his or her skills as a boom operator, cinematographer, or production manager. "Film school is about warm bodies," Cawman says. "It's about people who will watch your equipment while you're shooting on the streets of New York so that no one runs off with it. Sure, you can go into film without attending film school, but it makes it a lot easier to get started."
He says he's always been exposed to the arts. "I've seen every animal on the face of the earth eat, mate, and die," says Cawman, as he speaks of growing up with PBS and the Discovery Channel. During his junior year in college, Cawman studied in London, where he was able to attend a lot of inexpensive theater. He sees film and theater in New York, too. "I've seen Titanic seventeen times!" exclaims Cawman as his voice trails off in laughter. "No, I do see whatever is out there, but I try not to pigeonhole myself into seeing only certain kinds of films."
While a student at Kenyon, Cawman was a founding member of GABLES, a support group for gay and lesbian students. He also ran several BILEGA programs, which are interactive presentations in which attendees "come out" to each other regardless of their sexual orientation.
While he notes that the proliferation of gay characters and themes in recent Hollywood films such as My Best Friend's Wedding, As Good As It Gets, and The Object of My Affection show the market for gay subject matter in movies is growing, Cawman doesn't see contributing to this as part of his mission. "There's been a shift in society that's making movies with gay themes more accepted," he says. "When I was in high school, it was scandalous that Madonna was singing `Like a Virgin.' We're over all of that now. The envelope has been expanded." Thus, if Cawman's career should lead him toward dealing with gay issues, it wouldn't be one of his goals, nor part of his "agenda," just part of his job or an expression of his creativity. "I'm not one of these people who've gotten lost in the gayness of New York City," he says.
So, what happens after film school? "Ideally, you screen your work at a festival and hope you get noticed," says Cawman. "You have a feature script that you've written, or that you're working on, and you pitch that idea. There's no set way to do this. Everyone has a different story." He likens the process to what viewers glimpse in Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player, a satirical inside look at getting films made in Hollywood, which, in Cawman's eyes, nails the gestures and lingo of making a pitch. "The Player is brilliant," he says, "really inside stuff."
While in film school, Cawman has worked part time as a photo assistant for a photographer. The work has helped him learn the ropes. "I can go to get lighting for a film and come out with twice as many lights at half the price that other people can. People say, `Wait, how'd you do that,'" Cawman says.
Cawman says he'd love to be able to stay in New York, but he admits he'll more than likely go where the job market takes him. He notes that the eclectic nature of New York is what appeals to him and points to his adventures in bowling as but one example.
Even in this huge city, a stroll down the street can be like a walk down Middle Path for Cawman. He's amazed at the number of Kenyon graduates he sees in the city. "I run into people all the time on the street," he says. "I've seen as many as three people in one day."
Cawman is proud to have been accepted to film school, and to have completed it, but he is quick to express his gratitude for his family's support in helping with his living expenses. "I really like what I'm doing, but I get so wrapped up in it that I forget that it's fun or interesting," he says.
"There are people at NYU who make really expensive, bad movies," he declares as he shakes his head. "Really, really, expensive movies that are so bad." Cawman admits his film wasn't cheap to make, but he didn't break the bank on it, either. He financed most of it through donations and "plastic," and he is still soliciting funds to finance the film's final touches.
The idea that New York is expensive and difficult to navigate is a myth in Cawman's eyes. "It's the most convenient city in the world. Cabs are cheap and there are a lot of great restaurants that aren't expensive," he says. "You can buy a lot of flowers for $5, which is great when you're in trouble. That's a really economical get-out-of-jail-free card."
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