QFest St. Louis Interview: Dan Steadman – Director of the Shorts TABOO TEACHING and WOMEN ON THE THRESHOLD
Filmmaker Dan Steadman has two short films that are part of the 13th annual QFest St. Louis, a Cinema St. Louis event. QFest’s complete lineup of films and shorts programs will be available to view on demand anytime from June 19-28. Details about QFest St. Louis can be found HERE
Dan Steadman’s TABOO TEACHING is part of the ‘Documentary Shorts 1: LGBTQ Pioneers‘ program. TABOO TEACHING runs 26 minutes and is a profile of Missouri history teacher Rodney Wilson, who garnered national attention when he came out to his students in the early 1990s and nearly lost his job at Mehlville High School. Information about viewing this shorts program as part of QFest St. Louis can be found HERE
Dan Steadman’s WOMEN ON THE THRESHOLD is part of the ‘Narrative Shorts 1: Love and Sex‘ program. WOMEN ON THE THRESHOLD runs 13 minutes and is a short inspired by an old episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Faye, haunted by the death of her beloved Dolores, considers taking her own life when she suddenly encounters the Grim Reaper. Information about viewing this shorts program as part of QFest St. Louis can be found HERE
Dan Steadman took the time to talk to We Are Movie Geeks about his short films, his film school, and his career.
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman June 11th, 2020
Tom Stockman: Have you had your films in QFest or St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase before?
Dan Steadman: Not QFest, but my film SMILE played at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase last summer and also played at the St. Louis International film Festival in November.
TS: Are you originally from St. Louis?
DS: No, I am from Michigan and lived most of my life there, but I spent much of my adult life in Los Angeles. I came to St. Louis to make a movie called BELLEVILLE back in 2013, which I wrote and directed. I met my partner Rodney Wilson in St. Louis. He is the subject of TABOO TEACHING. It’s because of him that I stayed and ended up creating a film school in the Saint Louis area and Belleville. I’ve been making all my films in conjunction with that film school.
TS: Let’s talk about your film TABOO TEACHING. What drew you to make this story about Rodney Wilson time teaching at Mehlville High School back in the 90s?
DS: Normally I look within and try to tell personal stories, look at my own life to find stories. Rodney and I were in our basement sorting through all of this memorabilia and it was then that I realized fully what he had done. He does not talk about all those aspects of his life. I was just fascinated. We were gathering up boxes for an LGBT history project and I realized that my partner had been a real newsmaker. He was a real leader and I discovered that he was the founder of LGBT History Month, which happens worldwide in October.
TS: I was wondering about that. Are there two gay-themed months? June is Pride Month and I learn that October is LGBT History Month?
DS: That is right. Rodney is a historian and it was important to him in the early 90s, after all that had happened to him in Mehlville, that he wanted to recognize the historical treatment of LGBT historical figures. That really took off and is now a worldwide celebration. I don’t think the October celebration is as well recognized as Pride Month in June, but every October Rodney is very busy with interview requests and podcasts and talks.
TS: I thought you did a great job of digging up interesting file footage for your film TABOO TEACHING. The mid-90s was when I watched a lot of local news, and it was fun seeing some of those newscasters I hadn’t seen in so long people like Betsy Bruce and Roche Madden. You even have footage from the soap opera All My Children that used Rodney’s story about his teaching experience in some of its episodes. Was it difficult getting some of this footage?
DS: I worked hard hunting it all down but to me it was so important to have these visuals really tell the story.
TS: You definitely did a good job with that.
DS: What was surprising to me was when we went back to Mehlville high school to film, how many of those teachers from the 90s were still there, though one of them has since retired. I was able to track down a few of the students who had been in Rodney’s classroom when he came out to them as a gay man. Dana Workes was one of the 1990s students we interviewed. She was there when it all went down.
TS: I enjoyed those interviews as well. Was that Dana who has a glass of wine in her hand the whole time she’s talking?
DS: Yes, that was Dana, sitting on her front porch.
TS: Was there anybody that you wanted to talk to for this film that did not want to talk or did not want to participate?
DS: Fortunately no, we did not have any issues with that. Rodney had originally reached out to some of the people that he had worked with, but he wanted nothing to do with the interviews. He was not even in the room when I conducted them and he took no part in the editing process. He wanted me to tell the story.
TS: Where does Rodney teach now?
DS: We live in Farmington, Missouri where Rodney is a Professor of Comparative Religions at Mineral Area College. It’s quite a trek for me because my film school that I started is in St. Louis City and over in Belleville. Occasionally I’ll film down here in Farmington because it’s a great area to film in, but all of the actors I use are from the city or the Illinois side.
TS: Farmington is great. I went to Boy Scout camp there for many years as a child. Tell me about your film school?
DS: It’s called Circa 87. It has classes in both St. Louis and Belleville and we work together the first two weekends of every month. Of course this COVID-19 lockdown has affected things. Right now we’re doing online virtual classes but we will be resuming this Saturday when we start filming again together. This year we are doing multiple episodes of a sitcom about a nursing home called Precious Meadows. It’s a fictional nursing home in St. Louis. A little bit like Golden Girls, a little bit like Newsradio maybe, kind of an ensemble comedy like that.
TS: Is this a Web series?
DS: Yes, it’s for the web so we have to keep each episode down to about 10 minutes. It’s based on a pilot that I made out in Los Angeles 15 years ago. At the time we had Tim Bagley from Will & Grace and Mindy Sterling from Austin Powers involved. It was a really fun pilot that we shot in LA, then we have the writer’s strike in 2007. We had shot the show, and even though we were waiting for the results from our pitch to Comedy Central and NBC, the strike killed the show. Writer’s strikes kill all the projects that led up to them, and they won’t even revisit projects. They want a clean slate. You have to wait until executives are fired and new ones are hired and then just pitch it again with a new name.
TS: So you teach acting and filmmaking?
DS: Yes, I do. The acting classes are a kind of the consistent thing. I do directing mentorships and screenwriting mentorships. I meet with those people separately and they work on their projects and sometimes they want me to assign them to ideas that we’ve already have in the class. When it comes to a series like the sitcom, they get to write certain scenes. It depends on what their goals are. Directors always get to direct. My feeling is that in all three of the tracks of my school, I think people learn by doing instead of just sitting in a classroom hearing about it.
TS: Have you taken TABOO TEACHING to other film festivals?
DS: No we are premiering it here at QFest since it’s a local story. I’m not sure if we will continue to show it at film festivals. It’s just important that we got the story out here. The story has national and historical significance. If anything, we just want to make sure it’s available through public library systems and other archives.
TS: You talk about Rodney’s dad in the film. Does Rodney still have family here in St. Louis?
DS: His father is no longer living but his mother lives in DeSoto and is a huge supporter of her son. Her name is Pat and she called Rodney one day since she’s a big soap opera fan, and told him that she thought his story was being portrayed on All My Children. There was a gay teacher on the show who was teaching history and he had a bulletin board with references to Hitler and the Nazis and the pink triangle, Exactly like Rodney’s bulletin board at Mehlville High. She was right.
TS: I’m surprised the All My Children producers didn’t reach out to Rodney initially, perhaps to get some more details for their story.
DS: Yes you would think, but I guess they must’ve just read about it.
TS: Let’s talk about the other film that you were showing at this year’s QFest. I watched your short WOMEN ON THE THRESHOLD. What’s the ‘Q’ connection exactly with that film?
DS: WOMEN ON THE THRESHOLD is a story about love lost between a woman and her best friend Delores. It was kind of cheeky, the way we did it. What I was trying to do with that was have the narration mimic what narration would have done in the 1950s on television or film. Of course in the 1950s, no TV show or movie would have suggested that there was a same-sex relationship. My movie is sort of a “what if“. What if there had been a writer who tried to tell a lesbian story on a show like Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone without having to be censored or pulled off the air. Obviously the best you could’ve done at that time was to have this “best friend that she ever had and who she loves dearly.” Maybe you could have gotten away with it in the world of women, but you could’ve never had a man loving another man in any way shape or form.
TS: The music feels like it comes from an old Twilight Zone episode.
DS: Yes, that was an original score by Geoffrey Burch. What I did was use cues from the Twilight Zone in my temp track. They had actually put out an entire vinyl record of Twilight Zone scores. It was on YouTube so I sent it to Geoffrey and told him this was the genre we were going for. Geoffrey scores all of my films. He works out of Oklahoma and is more than adept at all genres of music. I told him I had a challenging one. What the score does is react to the moment, like an audience member, which does not happen a lot in modern scoring.
TS: He does a fantastic job.
DS: He does. I’m very proud of Geoffrey and lucky to be associated with him.
TS: Was WOMEN ON THE THRESHOLD shot in St. Louis?
TS: Where did you find that great old elevator?
DS: That was in an architectural firm in Belleville, within their building. Her high-rise apartment was apartment was the Mid Century Modern Architecture Museum in Belleville. It’s an Airbnb room that they rent out that is full of vintage furniture. We had to hide the flatscreen TV, but besides that, it was all original. We hung a backdrop out the window to serve as a skyline. I really wanted my film to look like television from the 1950s, even with dolly tracks that are sort of wobbly and all of the angles. It was very much influenced by early television. I studied a lot of shots from that era — especially from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. When she goes out into the hallway into the elevator, that was shot at an architectural firm in Belleville. Then when she runs out of a tall building, that was an old building in St. Louis called the St. Louis Antique Lighting Company.
TS: How did you get to look like it was shot on black and white film?
DS: We shot it on DSLR but did a lot of manipulation in post production. I didn’t want to shoot it in color, then change it to black and white later. I wanted to light the scenes like you would light a black and white film. Cinematographer Tyler Sandy and I spent a lot of time talking about the black and white photography. Then we added some outside grain and changed the contrast to look more like film contrast of the day. I wanted it to be mistaken for something that might have existed then. It was originally part of an anthology film, a full length feature we did called THE GALOSHES.
TS: Where did you find Tammy Duensing, the lead in WOMEN ON THE THRESHOLD?
DS: Yes she was amazing. Tammy Duensing is in my class. Everyone who is in my films is in my class. Tammy has a long history of doing theater in the Midwest. She was so perfect and I kept telling her she looks like Shelley Winters.
TS: Another St. Louisan.
DS: I wrote that role specifically for her. When it came to casting the other character, Grim Reaper, I had a lot of the younger actors in my class audition for that. Emma Grace Peper got the role She comes from Centralia Illinois. She has a remarkable confidence for someone still in high school! And an uncanny ability to mimic the acting style of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, that dramatic over-the-shoulder kind of look.
TS: Yes she was perfect. Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
DS: Yes I did. I did a TV show in my teenage years in Michigan called Danny the Clown Show. I was the clown. I immediately realized that I did not really enjoy the performing, even though I had done a lot of it. What I really loved was the making of it all — the assembly of it all, the production. I think I was just born a detail-oriented kid.
TS: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
DS: Nicole Holofcener is probably my favorite. I think all of my favorite filmmakers both write and direct their own projects. James L. Brooks’ BROADCAST NEWS was the movie that changed everything for me. Richard Kramer and all the writers of Thirtysomething probably have influenced me the most, with those 80 hours of television. They are my film school. But Nicole is my favorite “personal writer” of film. We were recently lucky enough to have her do a class for us. We interviewed her over Zoom for our May class. I’ve been bringing in a lot of Hollywood associates to guest lecture and answer some of the questions that our St. Louis actors have.
TS: What’s your next project?
DS: My next project, after the sitcom, and hopefully after everything clears up , will be making THE MUTTS, which will be my first family film. It’s Jim Henson-style, where humans and puppets exist in the same world. Actually it’s about a bunch of dogs. We’ve been doing the whole soundtrack first so that’s been interesting. It’s a musical as well, so there are seven or eight original songs. The dogs are played by puppet dogs that I commissioned from a puppet maker in England. That is what we are planning on shooting in the fall, assuming we are able to actually congregate and shoot like that by then.
TS: Well good luck with that Dan and all of your future projects.
DS: Thank you.