The entertainment industry is flooded with talent. Today I am speaking with an extraordinarily talented author, producer and director, Lorenzo DeStefano.
Hello Lorenzo, congratulations on the release of your movie Stairway To The Stars. Tell me what inspired you to make this movie?
Thank you David, for the chance to speak with you and Splash about my new narrative short film. The logline for “Stairway To The Stars” pretty much sums up what it is about…
“In a mythical place called Hollywood, where dreams of fame and fortune come and go, the only real thing left, is friendship.”
My film explores the complex relationship between friends who are enemies and enemies who are friends and is a tribute to Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust“, the plays of Samuel Beckett, and to the countless two-reel comedies shot in Hollywood over one hundred years ago.
A tribute to all the anonymous dreamers who have blown through this town in search of immortality, the film is based on a real incident I witnessed when I first moved to Hollywood from Honolulu. My first place in L.A. was an attic apartment in Beachwood Canyon, in the shadow of the fabled Hollywood sign. There was an incredibly steep flight of stairs next to the house, one of many still existing in the movie capital of old. One afternoon, I heard, through an adjacent window, an elderly woman and a very large young man berating each other as they climbed. It was clear that these two were at odds about undertaking this climb. The woman wanted to be left alone, presumably to die. The man was determined to force her up these steps in some kind of mission to save her life, even if he had to kill her doing it.
As writers do, I eavesdropped on this highly-charged exchange. When the two were out of range I hurried to his desk and wrote it all down. From these notes I fashioned a short film script, which was never made.
Many years later I discovered the manuscript, then titled “Westshire Drive”, in storage. I read it, found it even more topical than when it was first written, and revised it as a One-Act play, which was was first produced in 2019 at Play Builders of Hawai’I, where some of my other plays had been produced. The play was expertly cast and directed by Karen Kaulana. When I viewed the video of the production, I was amazed by the reaction of the audience. They were really engaged and actually found the piece touching and humorous. I realized for the first time that I had written a black comedy. This gave me the confidence to finally put the short film together.
How was it working with Sean Young and Quinton Aaron?
Sean Young And Quinton Aaron turned out to be the ideal actors to bring “Lavergne” and “Tony” to life. They both brought their A-game to the project. I knew I wanted two name actors in my piece as well as to continue the multi-racial casting that had been done for the play. Sean Young’s sister, Cathleen Young, has been a friend of mine for many years. When she heard about this script she suggested we get it to Sean for consideration. Fortunately, Sean connected with the piece and the opportunity to explore the complexities of portraying “Lavergne”, a troubled and alienated aging actress.
I found Sean very courageous in agreeing to do this part. As we all know, women in the film business are held to a much higher level of scrutiny than men in terms of how they look as they get older. It is very unforgiving out there. But I think Sean’s natural strength and individuality shone through as she dug deeper into “Lavergne”. She clearly saw something in this character that resonated for her, which for a writer is the ultimate compliment.
Quinton Aaron was my first choice to play “Tony”. I had seen his fine work in the Sandra Bullock movie, “The Blind Side”, and his subsequent work on “Halfway”, “Be Kind Rewind”, and other film and TV projects and felt he was the perfect actor for this role. Not only was Quinton physically right for the part, but he got a chance to really stretch the boundaries of what he had been called upon to play before. “Big Mike” in “The Blind Side” is a very quiet, internal character, as opposed to Tony who is a real extrovert, a fame-seeking young man who is determined to be the most famous fat man who ever hit Hollywood.
I rehearsed with both of them via Zoom prior to their arrival in L.A. for the shoot, which took place in early October, 2021. We continued rehearsing and revising the script to include their input and make the parts their own. Though they were both aware of the physically challenging nature of the shoot, we made sure to walk the incredibly challenging location with them, a set of 246 steps in Silver Lake, so that when the three shooting days on the steps arrived they would be as prepared as possible for what was in store for them. The pain on their faces in the film as they climb is real. No need for makeup effects here. The sweat and anguish are very real.
When deciding on what film you want to produce and direct next what is the creative process you go through?
While I keep my eye on the headline-grabbing “Breaking Stories” out there, my profound interest is in the lives behind the headlines, the people living in the shadows. It is there that I have always found the truly inspiring characters whose choices in life, difficult and perilous as those have been, are the kinds of examples I have always appreciated most and which we need more of in this world.
Of the three narrative feature projects I have in development, all have been on my radar for a good many years and are based on true stories that I have either acquired the rights to or developed from sources which I control.
“SHIPMENT DAY” (www.shipmentdayfilm.com) is an independent feature which I’ll be writing, producing & directing in Hawaii, based on the experiences of my cousin, Olivia Robello Breitha (1916-2006), who was diagnosed with leprosy at the age of eighteen in Honolulu in 1934. Imagine that you have stumbled upon a family secret, a relative in exile that no one has ever spoken about. Intrigued, you meet that relative, a Portuguese cousin, and spend the next seventeen years, until her death, getting to know the circumstances of her life, her struggles and her quiet achievements. Such was the case when I learned from his mother about our cousin. As someone born and raised in Hawai’i, I was thirty-seven before he learned he had a cousin with Hansen’s disease, known to the world as leprosy. By the time he met Olivia in 1989, the antiquated rules surrounding “the separation sickness” had largely vanished. This tough, razor-witted lady taught me more about humanity than any university degree on the subject. She was a woman for whom truth was an emotion and candor an essential card in her deck. She doled out both in ample proportions, whether she was asked to or not. Olivia spent seventy-two years of her life as “parolee” #3306 of the Hawaii State Department of Health. She lived to be ninety as a resident of Kalaupapa, the settlement on Moloka’i where Father Damien ministered to Hansen’s Disease patients starting in 1873. The script is based on Olivia’s memoir, “MY LIFE OF EXILE IN KALAUPAPA” (www.facebook.com/oliviamylifeofexile/), and on my produced play, “SHIPMENT DAY” (www.shipmentdayplay.com). I have also written a non-fiction memoir . titled “VISITATIONS – FINDING A SECRET RELATIVE IN MODERN-DAY HAWAII” (www.visitationsmemoir.com), about the seventeen years that we were able to share. It will be published in 2023.
“THE DIARIST” is a 5-Part Limited Series inspired by “THE INMAN DIARY”, by the notorious Boston eccentric Arthur Crew Inman (1895-1963). Published by Harvard University Press, from whom I have long held exclusive dramatic rights, Inman’s diary clocks in at 155 volumes containing 17,000,000 words, making it one of the longest and most fascinating diaries ever written. Arthur spent 60 years of his life, from the age of 8, creating this chilling epic of collective memory. Now, nearly sixty years after his death, Inman has morphed into the original blogger, a man obsessed with “connectivity” decades before that word was even conceived. A deeply curious but highly conflicted man of deep insecurities and profound inner strength, Inman’s mission was a singular one, to paint the parts of a connecting frieze that encompassed his life and times. Developed on the stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre, with a world premiere at the Almeida Theatre in London, both productions were helmed by the celebrated English director Jonathan Miller. More at www.diaristmovie.com and www.cameraobscuraplay.com.
“HOUSE BOY” is a 5-Part Limited Series based on my 2022 novel. An urban thriller with socio-political and racial overtones, it is a fact-based tale that inhabits a shadowland where ancient traditions take root and prosper in our so-called modern world. In the polite suburb of Hendon, North London, in an undistinguished house at 321 Finchley Lane, the lives of a young man and an older woman intersect as if decreed by history. Through their encounters with Vijay Pallan, the reader is exposed to the harsh realities of human trafficking, the boundless capacity for human pain, and the ultimate blessing of even one man’s survival.
More at www.houseboynovel.com.
These three narrative projects, as well as the three documentary features I have produced and directed, “TALMAGE FARLOW” (www.talfarlwofilm.com), “LOS ZAFIROS – MUSIC FROM THE EDGE OF TIME” (www.loszafirosfilm.com), and “HEARING IS BELIEVING” (www.hearingisbelievingfilm.com), share a common theme. They all explore the lives and work and experiences of people who could easily be overlooked in our obsession with fame and notoriety.
What do you think the film industry lacks?
I wish the film industry showed more consistent courage to back storytellers working outside of the what is often mistakenly called “the mainstream”, on subjects equally or even more fascinating than the topics we are overexposed to and force fed every day. While I understand how Hollywood hedges its bets to do anything to avoid so-called “failure”, more risk taking, even on controlled budgets, would be a welcome change from always playing to the widest audience possible. There are viewers out there hungering for alternative sources of entertainment/enlightenment. It has been shown by the success of offbeat and topical projects by great documentarians like the Maysles Brothers and Frederick Wiseman, and by powerful streaming series like “CHERNOBYL” and “THE OFFER”, that there is a significant audience out there waiting to be reached with innovative, mind-expanding content.
You published a book “ House Boy”. Why did you decide to write it?
“HOUSE BOY” has been unlike any other writing adventure I have been on. I first encountered the true incident on which the book is based in 1995 while in London for a reading of a play of mine at the Greenwich Theatre.
The small newspaper article I read one day, about a young man’s trial for murder of his female “employer”, tapped into my existing interest in and revulsion for the phenomenon of modern slavery. What I found initially compelling was that this victim of domestic and sex slavery was a young man while the perpetrator was a middle-aged woman. This contrasted with the usual dynamic of female sex trafficking that I and many others had gotten used to.
After inquiries were made, it was arranged by the solicitor of the accused that I visit the convicted young man in Brixton prison in South London to discuss his case and interview him for a potential magazine article. In the novel, I transferred many aspects of this experience with that of Detective Jayawan Gopal, in that the day before my scheduled visit the inmate was deported to India. This was, I learned, one of the terms of his conviction for “manslaughter with provocation”, a lesser charge than “capital murder” because of the extenuating circumstance of torture and enslavement that came out at trial.
Disappointed but glad for his second chance at freedom, I tried for several months to locate this young man in Tamil Nadu State through private investigators, to no avail. This was not a person with any social profile, no footprints to trace. No amount of web surfing turned up anything.
I gave up on the piece, at least how I originally envisioned it. But this was that kind of story that gets a hold of a writer and will not let go. Unlike many of my other fact-based film & theater projects, there was very little documentary evidence to follow. There were no first person witnesses available. As a result, I decided after several years away from the piece to embark on a major creative journey and write the story as a novel.
I worked on it for many years, in between film and theater and other writing projects. On subsequent trips to the UK, I visited the location of the actual incident on Finchley Lane in the borough of Hendon, North London. I photographed every house on each side of the street, knowing that in one of these dwellings these horrific events had taken place. I observed a number trials at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, to familiarize myself with the UK’s completely different trial system. After inquiring of the Court if a transcript of the trial could be obtained, I was told that as a murder case these records had been sealed. I did manage, through the kind intervention of a clerk, to receive a copy of the 28- page Police Summary of the case, which proved invaluable and was the single greatest piece of research I obtained.
With this in hand, I embarked on voluminous research into a culture not my own. This was an incredibly challenging process. A better word would be daunting. I did my best to infuse Vijay’s desperate search for salvation during his ordeal in the Tagorstani’s house with the kind of Hindu and Tamil prayers I felt he, as a man of faith, would cling to for inner strength. I found out quickly that Indian culture is fiendishly complex, especially for outsiders. I was determined, as a western writer, to get the facts and the history and the language right. This took a very long time and much trial and error.
What did you learn about yourself after finishing the book?
In the process of writing “House Boy”, which spanned twenty-seven years, from when I first heard of the true story to the book’s publication in June 2022, I learned much about the harsh realities of human trafficking, the boundless capacity for human pain, and the ultimate blessing of even one man’s survival.
During this epic process, I became fascinated by the way the caste system seemed to jump so effortlessly from the ancient world to the so-called “New World”. Over many years of writing and rewriting this piece, a major motivation was to try and nail down as much as possible why this happens in human society and how, with this book, there may be a way to illuminate this situation for the better.
I also came to understand a very sad reality – that domestic and sex slavery knows no cultural or geographic boundaries. This kind of oppression seems to lie so deep in the human DNA as to be something eternal, insidious, fueled by greed and a streak of cruelty beyond what most people are capable of, not to mention comprehend.
The criminal elements at work here should not be discounted, which is why I made Binda and her gang at the Pandit Advisory Group such experts at “affinity fraud”, the nearly foolproof method of criminal enterprise based on people lowering their guard when dealing with those they feel are like them and would, therefore, never abuse their trust.
All this makes for an unholy alliance of factors that create the roles to be played in this sinister drama called modern slavery – the oppressed and the oppressors. It’s like an epic play that never ends. The curtain on these actions never rises or falls. The drama just goes on and on, year after year, decade after decade, millennia after millennia, like a marathon session in this madhouse called humanity.
Who are people you have been influenced by?
So many writers and filmmakers have come before us. Many also stand beside us. Still more wait in the wings to lead us into the future. I’ve been influenced by so many people in so many fields, not just the media. Even more than those I could name, I seek to be influenced by the wisest man or woman or child, living and working and playing down the narrowest road, in the smallest town, in any country in the world, doing the simplest and most beautiful thing, with the utmost confidence and purity of heart, and the courage to change their mind about everything around them, when and if it becomes necessary, to preserve the love they have for life and for the passionate living of it.
What are some obstacles you face as a director/producer?
Creatively, none. Financially, many.
What is your ultimate dream you desire?
The freedom to explore the unlimited boundaries of human experience and bring those stories to life onscreen, onstage, and on the page.
What advice do you have for people looking to make it in the entertainment industry?
Reaching your personal goals can be a very painful and confusing process, but it is essential to accept what a lot of people have found out from bitter experience – that knowledge gained from our failures lasts longer than those from our successes. The concept of “Failure” is also a highly subjective one, as is the concept of “Success”. The higher you aim the riskier the journey. I know a lot of people who are “risk averse”, meaning they avoid putting themselves in situations where they could possibly fail. While I respect this as a personal choice, it lacks the boldness and dynamism I feel is necessary to “move the needle” on your chosen path.
It’s also essential to cultivate an alternate passion outside of the movie business. Whatever it is, it should be completely disconnected with your “career” and not reliant on the quixotic nature of Hollywood and all the uncertainty that implies. Don’t let yourself be defined by what others expect of you but of what you expect of your highest self.
Thank you for your time. Any words of wisdom to all the readers?
It’s up to each of us to decide where we choose to place ourselves on our creative life journeys, but we need to be ready to accept the consequences, both positive and negative. While some choices can literally kill you or leave you maimed, everything we do in life is a lesson we have to teach ourselves. All of the advice books and self-realization seminars are meaningless unless you have within you that fire that can be fanned into a kind of perpetuating flame. Without this there is no heat, no fuel, no energy moving forward. It all becomes a pose rather than a mission. That process never ends until you breathe your last breath. Until that time, it’s critical to read the turbulent waves and ride them as best you can. Though it’s tough sometimes to relate to people we feel we have nothing in common with, it’s also essential to remember that lack of empathy breeds hatred and misunderstanding. Walk in other people’s shoes. Seek out their stories. Don’t try and “convert” them. Just listen. You might be surprised what you learn about them, and about yourself.
Photos: Courtesy of Lorenzo DeStefano