By Cameron Saunders
The Manhattan filmmaker Sam Stillman is in town. Raindance is screening his newest work The Little Prince of New York, as well as London film mavens, Deeper Into Movies. It’s been a bustling week for the auteur; he missed his Raindance screening, says no way he’ll miss Deeper, but does he have time for us? About one hour. In a pub. On a very nondescript street. We were excited.
He sat down with Cameron Saunders to discuss moral convictions; trying to err on the other side of bullshit. Stillman has two prominent strains running through his work: the wild characters of the streets of New York City, and a profound concern with a brand of morality that is both philosophic and quotidian. The two meet seamlessly in Little Prince. We let him do the talking:
(What a week, what a life. Here I am, a few beers in after a hard day’s work, waiting for some New York motherfucker to come into the joint and tell me about his movie. He’s kept me waiting twenty minutes already when, out of the window, I see a shock of unnatural burgundy hair emerge from a black car. It’s Stillman. He finds me, greets me with apologies—both for his tardiness and his hair—and then he orders minced beef, mashed potatoes and a pint of coke. Well, that’s good company.)
WHO’S THE STAR OF YOUR FILM?
Alaeddin Djellouli. Well, going back, we wrote the Little Prince feature and then the world had other ideas about where we are all going. Everyone started dying [COVID-19]. Eléonore Hendricks, the casting director and producer, had met this kid, Alaeddin Djellouli, and put him up for all of these productions that didn’t see what was in front of them.
I saw a picture of him and wrote a feature in the first three weeks of lockdown, before we all knew what it would be. Then I sent it to people and they said they’d want to help pay for this. I said, that’s wonderful. Then I actually met Alaeddin and he was incredible. So we started rehearsal.
(I’ve seen the short. Alaeddin is a perfect casting choice for this tale of ennui, desperation and paranoia in this first quarter of 21st century American life.)
WHAT’S YOUR NEW FILM ABOUT?
The film is about a young man who’s been told that if he gets in trouble again his dad is liable, so he takes some desperate measures - robs a kid to run away - things go wrong. Maybe they start wrong? Then they get worse, but maybe get better.
(It’s like this: if a kid doesn’t go to school, they yell at the kid. But if a kid doesn’t go to school for a month, they start asking about the parents.)
He runs away because he’s told that if he keeps doing what he’s doing, his father can be arrested. But he knows that there’s a good chance he’ll keep doing it - so he tries to do what he can to help his dad.
THAT’S THE PLOT. WHAT’S THE FILM REALLY ABOUT?
A few things. I mean, it’s about me. I did really well in high school - so well that I went to five.
(Stillman, I am learning, can’t help himself with the quips. So much so that I am beginning to think it’s a defense mechanism. I simply encourage him to eat more mince. It turns out he was a complete fuck-up as a teenager.)
I had a really hard time in high school. But I can demonstrate that I was not bad, I was misunderstood - like actively not understood. I’m demonstrating it through the film The Little Prince of New York, trying to... to explain, I guess.
Another thing is we, adults I mean, we tell kids that your actions have consequences. The problem is that it’s true, like way, way too true. We have a whole thing - someone’s life - based on the decisions made by people when they are at their emotional and biological most insufficient, at least in terms of adult standards.
(I stretch my arms out over my head and consider unbuckling my belt and whipping this man in the face; the better angels of my nature stop me dead, for he is right and accurate.)
And they know. It’s not as if they don’t know. Kids know about the consequences, and they live a life that is very different from ours in that their day-to-day is of great fucking import. What we adults either get or lose is the result of a combination of many days: I had a good month, or a good year. Teenagers might have had a good morning, a bad night, and the consequences are total and immediate.
And then, death. It’s a special kind of death they know because they spend their life around adults - these other things, these elementally different creatures - and they know that one day soon what they are will end, will cease, and that then life will continue as something else; adults. They know they will die, and then something worse will happen: keep living, but as adults. They don’t think they’re immortal, that’s just something adults say.
It’s a special feeling. I remember it as a teenager, at night. I remember, like, a feeling of immediate power and a coming doom. That, plus everything else - where they live, every day going by. The feeling of flight and fall, all of each at once.
(He thinks teenagers are cognizant of impending adulthood. I certainly do not recall any sensations like that. Each to their own, I suppose; and it is his movie.)
It was going to be the subtitle of the movie: The Flight and Fall of Alaeddin. Anyway… they live lives of great pith, these teenagers. And they need love.
(Pith means condensed substance, vigour, significance, as well as spinal marrow and the part of the feather that is spongiest, closest to the stem.)
HOW MANY FILMS HAVE YOU MADE?
They’re on Deeper Into Movies.
AND IS THIS A THEMATIC CONTINUATION OF PREVIOUS WORK?
If there’s a theme running through it is that it is better to be good than be bad. I’m 34 years old. In my lifetime, every accepted construct of morality imploded with great speed and violence. Big one, for example: business. It’s pretty fucking apparent that it’s not only a criminal operation but one that is rapidly ending the world. One can make that argument. Or the city: the World Trade Center rapidly imploded and coated my lungs at a very young age. Or the family: how are your parents doing? Mine aren’t doing so great. They split a while ago, and I assume that’s true for much of your readership. Banks: how’d that go? Politics: how’s that going? Even the postman was in on the take on the last election. Every idea of moral fucking order that we were born into decomposed very publicly in my lifetime.
(In short order: the avaricious conquest of capitalist thought, 9/11, his parents’ divorce, the 2008 financial collapse, and Louis DeJoy, Trump’s appointee to head the United States Postal Service, undermining the 2020 election.)
Every country has a mythology and a morality that we live by. American morality was built, essentially, to propagate a genocide. Shooting someone is never moral, it’s not a good thing, murder. If you look at American movies, our entire morality is one of murder. It’s insane.
So in the sixties, we said fuck all that, let’s try this, and this was hedonism; in the seventies, let’s try apathy; in the eighties, greed; in the nineties, vanity; in the two-thousands, let’s try wrath. It didn’t work. Then we elected the seven-deadly-sins-president and 500,000 people died.
You can’t get good second-hand morality anymore. You can’t get it from the president, you can’t get it from the school, you can’t get it from cops, you can’t get it from religion. Second-hand morality doesn’t work - it doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work for us. We need first hand morality. It is better to be good, not because of prison or presidents or parents or profit, not even for hell or heaven or anything like that. Not for anything but us, for me, for you. It’s just better to be good because it's better. We have it, the kids today have it, and that’s my thematic continuation. You see, firsthand morality, I got it from movies.
(“Why do you speak in alliterated phrases,” I ask him. He tells me this is an interview, it’s very well rehearsed.)
WHERE DOES A FILMMAKER, IN THIS DAY AND AGE, GO FROM HERE?
The same place we all are.
(At this point we both had to go. He in his direction, and me in mine. I thanked him for his elliptical yet impactful take on American history. Then I took his fork up in my hand, I finished his mash and mince, the better for it.)
The location is a secret screening. It will be dropped on deeperintomovies instagram.