Tuesday, August 12, 2008

10 Questions for...Stolis Hadjicharalambous

Don't even try to pronounce it! Really, you don't have to worry about his last name, just call him Stolis. While his last name may be challenging, what isn't a challenge is seeing just how much talent this young guy has. Barely into his twenties, Stolis has numerous film credits to his name, including the brilliant editing job he did on Alan Rowe Kelly's The Blood Shed! And now, with his directorial debut for the feature film Crossed upcoming, it's my supreme pleasure to get a chance to ask 10 Questions for… Stolis Hadjicharalambous!

1.) Dave: Did you have one of those famous "a-ha" moments where you realized that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Stolis: I don’t think there was one “a-ha” moment in my life that made me realize that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but it was a series of moments that kept leading me down that path. It started from when I was a child obsessed with movies and that passion never changed. As I kid I never really played sports or studied cars, but I was extremely fascinated with movies. I would watch movies like Robocop, Ghostbusters and Jaws on replay, over an over again. I never got tired of watching films. I would always escape into films. In school I would always try to con my teachers to letting me make short films or plays for the class instead of writing reports. Most of the time they let me make them. They too saw how I was hooked on films.

I can say that the time period where I deeply considered and decided to make it a career was when I was in high school. I had joined a film club that my English teacher ran, who now is coincidentally my cinematographer, Bart Mastronardi. It was here that I learned to examine films not just for entertainment, but also as piece of art and storytelling. I learned screenwriting by studying the opening to Friday the 13th: Jason Lives (laughs). In fact because Bart is such a fan of horror films he made us appreciate the cinematic value that horror films hold.

We started off as six guys and a VCR and as the years went on we started expanding and getting equipment. I discovered my love for directing and editing in the club, and soon I was doing research on how one would make a living with filmmaking and discovered that it was possible. So I think all the moments that I have had in film club all lead up to me deciding to pursue a career in filmmaking.

2.) Dave: How did your family react when you announced you were going to be a filmmaker?

Stolis: Great question! I consider myself extremely lucky and proud to have such a supportive family. When I told them that I wanted to make films they weren’t so shocked about it because growing up they saw how obsessed I was about movies. My parents were completely responsible for raising me on film. They would always take me to the movies to see the big blockbusters and rent movies all the time from Ultra Video down the street from my house. And when I made my short films in high school they were my number one fans. They encouraged me to express myself through film. My mother cried the first time I showed her my first short film, she was so proud of me. Unfortunately she passed away during the filming of Crossed, but I knew how much she loved that I found my passion and that I was working so hard on accomplishing my goals as a filmmaker. So I honored her by going out and making the best film I could with Crossed.

It’s funny, I consider her my assistant director now because when I find myself in jam on set I always take a moment out of the day and ask her to help me out and somehow it always works out. She gives me a bit of peace of mind on set. My father, Harry, helped me invest in camera equipment and an editing studio. He felt it was just as important to invest in the equipment, as it was to invest in college. Some kids beg the parents for a new car, I begged them for a Final Cut Pro studios and a Mac computer. Whenever I needed a hand in anything with making films he has never said no.

I learned so much from him about being a director from working weekends in his deli. He showed me how to deal with deadlines, reliable and unreliable people and how to run your own business. I took the name of my production company Hilltop Studios to honor him and his first deli Hilltop Deli. I think I got my entrepreneurial gene from my father. My dad went off to successfully start his own business, and I as an independent filmmaker, which essentially I’m going off to make my own career path. My father always brags to his friends that I am the next big thing and is always busting my chops about when the money is coming in. I always laugh because I call him the studio head, always asking about the money. But he has been super supportive. My brother Christo, got me my first directing chair, I got choked up over it because it was the nicest thing anyone has gotten me. He basically showed me that he was behind me on my career choice and I love him for that. So I am very blessed to have the support from my family and friends. Their support pushed me to go further with my career and to be as successful in my field.

3.) Dave: Your upcoming film, Crossed, is highly anticipated by those of us who love independent movies. How did the idea for Crossed come to fruition?

Stolis: The idea of Crossed was originally conceived as a short black and white movie that I was going to shoot on super 16 mm film to cut my teeth with working with film. But it spawned into an intense action thriller. My co-creator and writer/actor Christopher Otis was a fellow film student with me in high school. And we became good friends and bonded over our love of action films. After high school we wanted to make an action film that was a throwback to the grittier, intense action flicks that we grew up with. We were sick of these watered down action films that were coming out. So we developed this idea of a young assassin on one of his first hits. But as we started to develop the film we couldn’t stop the flood of ideas from coming in. So eventually we decided that we could expand the idea and take it to many different and exciting levels. Crossed is the story of a young hit man named Frank Archer (Christopher J. Otis), who is on this quest to find out who murdered his father (The Blood Shed’s Jerry Murdock). Archer searches for the truth about his haunted past, eventually crossing him with a sadistic assassin known only as ‘The Ripper’ (Javier Rodriguez). Archer is also trying to find his place in the world but the only way to move on with his future he must learn about his past.

Once we had a solid grasp on the material, I began to pitch the film to Bart Mastronardi, the DP of Crossed and all my short films. He was my film teacher at the time, and he loved the idea and he too was trying to expand his way into the film world, so we both said if we want filmmaking to be our career then we need to step it up and go full force. I then decided to take the leap and develop Crossed into my first feature. Bart agreed that he would invest in the Panasonic DVX 100A camera, the best Mini DV camera at the time. And I agreed to invest into Final Cut Pro and become the editor. Now we had a studio in the palm of our hands. We had the best equipment at our disposal. But most of all we had a great concept and different story to tell. So we had all the ingredients to make a spectacular film expect of course the money! Finally another one of my former classmates and actor Javier Rodriguez loved the script. Otis and I created the character “The Ripper” for him.

After hearing our goals and plans for the film and the potential it had he decided to become the producer of the film. He saw how everyone was investing themselves into the project and he felt he should invest as well into it. Crossed then began to evolve into a massive monster with a talented and dedicated cast and crew. Besides Christopher Otis and Javier Rodriguez, I was able to work with talented actor Henry Borriello, who is a force to be reckoned with; Keith Frasier (Vindication) steals the show as Wilhelm; I got to work with the talented Miguel Lopez; Talia Morreno and Ashley Bernardes, Jessie May Lauhman are the female beauties of Crossed; and most recently we signed Andrew Roth (FrightWorld) to play a pivotal role in the film, he was a blast to work with. Also after working with director Alan Rowe Kelly (who stars as Ed) on The Blood Shed, my first feature film that I edited, I was able to meet some amazing talented actors. Alan Rowe Kelly lent us his amazing talents as well as Jerry Murdock, who plays Frank’s father, Murdock is going to be the next action hero, just wait and see. Both of these guys I admire and respect so much. They always give 120 percent every time. I always pinch myself because I still can’t believe how far CROSSED has come from just a little idea. It was an idea, a seed, which blossomed into something I hope audiences will enjoy.

4.) Dave: You co-wrote Crossed with Christopher Otis. What was your writing routine like and what was the process of writing Crossed?

Stolis: Crossed was born from Chris and me and our love of action films. I loved films like El Mariachi, Escape from New York, and Robocop where the story centers on one main character who interacts with other colorful characters. So Otis and I came up with a cool character that was a hit man who would become our strong anti-hero. We would watch the films that inspired us and shared similar themes. We studied what made these characters like Snake Plisskin or Indiana Jones interesting. We studied the characters and made sure that our characters were not flat but had the depth and life that our favorite characters had.

Otis & I developed the story for two years. We would have long conversations about where we wanted to take the characters and ho w the plot should evolve. I become the idea man, coming up with the ideas, concepts, character ideas and Otis was the man who put the dialogue on the paper. So he did most of the main writing. My influences came into play when creating The Ripper character because he was the most fun to create for me. He was the strong silent type. He was brutal and nasty. He is a mix of Snake Plisskin from Escape from New York and Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. Otis loved writing for Borriello and Wilhelm. So he took over those scenes. But the character I most identified with was Frank Archer. He is this young kid not sure what path to take in life and dealing with the grief over losing his father. In my case I was going through the same thing with my mother’s passing. So I would try and take my experiences and my personal feelings and put them into Archer’s world. For me as a filmmaker, I needed to feel as if I putting myself on the screen. If I can see my personal values or qualities within the story and character then I feel more invested in the story. Archer was my canvas that I projected my thoughts onto, but at the same time Otis put himself in there too. It’s a mix of all these creative forces at once that make great stories.

The best trait that I admire about Otis as a writer is his attention to detail. He is always trying to close up any holes in the plot and keep the story consistent and in control. He is a writer that is always thinking of what could happen down the road for a character. One change in the scene could ripple through to the rest of film and affect the other characters. I love that he was always aware of that. Otis is a very hands on and collaborative writer. We would meet up and have lengthy conversations and sometimes argue for hours about the scenes or the edits to make sure we were on the same page. And since I was the editor I was able to make certain calls in cutting down the script before filming.

The best thing about working closely to a writer is that I am not limiting the story to one point of view, but by collaborating with someone who will help make a better film. Working with Otis has been a dream because we both knew what kind of film to make. We loved and respected the genre, we loved the characters and we always tried to make the film better. We pushed ourselves back and forth to get the best ideas possible.

5.) Dave: Many aspiring independent filmmakers out there get deadlocked when it comes to finding financing for their movies. What was your strategy for financing Crossed and was there ever a time when you felt like it wasn't going to happen?

Stolis: I don’t think I had a moment where I felt the film would never happen because of money issues because going into production, my producer Javier Rodriguez and I decided that we would do this on the lowest possibly budget. We felt the more money we spent the harder it would be to make our money back and turn a profit. We would just save our pennies every week and then when we had enough money to shoot, we would shoot.

Since Crossed was a learning experience as well we wanted to limit the risk of losing money as much as we could. Also I am a firm believer in utilizing every single resource you have available to you. We never wrote something into the script that we either couldn’t afford or we didn’t have free and immediate access to. All the locations in the film were location that we had instant access to. Either a close family relative or friend, if they had an interesting location or prop, we simply ask them and about 95% of the time they would say yes. We shot a huge torture scene in the basement of my father's deli that I worked in over the summer. The basement looked like a mini crypt so we wrote a scene knowing what we could do in the space provided. Also since my father owns his own deli (Hilltop Delicatessen – Shameless plug!!) I would be able to save tons of money on feeding the cast and crew because my father would donate all the food. Javier works in his family run Spanish restaurant, so we get free delicious food for his restaurant, and his basement was used as the hide out for his character, The Ripper. The cast and crew loved it. Since we couldn’t pay them anything, we made sure we feed them as well as we could. A fed crew is a happy crew. Also most of my cast and crew take on double jobs on set to cut down on the number of people involved, because sometimes the more people the more headaches arise on set. So a lot of them are pulling double duty.

I learned a lot from reading Robert Rodriguez book Rebel Without a Crew that book has become my filmmaking bible. The book described Robert Rodriguez’ journey in making his first low budget action feature El Mariachi. I modeled a lot of CROSSED shooting and financial methods around his strategies of not spending a lot of money but using your creativity to make the film. The limits that low budget films have are great catalyst for your most creative moments. As a filmmaker you have to be open mined and see the possibilities all around you and utilize them to the fullest.

6.) Dave: What is the most difficult job you have ever had while working in film and how did you manage to get through it?

Stolis: That’s a tough question because I don’t really find any job working in film difficult because I have so much fun trying to do all of the different types of jobs. I direct, edit, write, sometimes grip, help light the set, and even work the catering table. I find all those jobs so satisfying and enjoyable. It’s hard to say that film is difficult; I find it more challenging and engaging then anything. I would say the most difficult aspect of working in film is to always making sure that your pushing yourself to better every single day.

I think the idea of growing and expanding and never becoming stale is a tough thing. It’s easy to feel comfortable in a story or genre. It’s hard to push the envelope because you feel you need to reach to everyone. I feel we took a lot of chances with some of the action and violence in CROSSED. There is some stuff in this film that I feel I have never seen done before. And it excites me that I am able to do those things and not feel restricted. I like challenging myself and not knowing everything. I like taking risks and doing things the most people wont do or find taboo or too intense. I like to think that after a day of shooting I feel I have grown from the experience and the next day of filming I have become better and stronger storyteller.

I love the directing process and working with different actors because every actor is a different challenge. To get into there mindset and figure out there process. What makes them react and give the best performance? How they interrupt their characters. If there was one thing I can say I don’t like doing on a film is to be in front of the camera (laughs) I am so uncomfortable as an actor. I love doing theatre acting but I can’t do film acting. I give actors a lot of credit and respect because film acting is very intimidating. The camera is right in front of your face and captures everything. As long as I don’t say anything and stand in the back I am fine (laughs). It’s a good thing I work with top-notch actors. Some say casting is 80% of the job, I agree.

7.) Dave: What sparks your creativity?

Stolis: I have so many tools I use to get the creative juices flowing. I love going for walks with my headphones blasting music. Music is a big motivator for me. I love movie scores the most. John Williams, Michael Giacchino Hans Zimmer & John Powell’s scores are amazing. Since I am an editor I like to use music to create certain rhythms and beats in my mind when I sit to edit a scene. Editing is not much different then conduction an orchestra. You have to be aware of creating rhythms and moments. And to be able to give your film's story its peaks and valleys. So music helps to stimulate those ideas. Watching great films is always a good motivator. Movies by Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Martin Scorsese are great motivators because they remind me of why I fell in love with movies and that movies can stand the test of time. Jaws is probably the most perfect film ever made. It has everything you want in a great film. Also watching bad films can really motivate me because it shows that other people out there are doing the same thing your trying to do and they are bad but somehow are in theaters and DVD and people are watching them. It shows you there is no such thing as failure. Someone out there will dig your film. Plus it helps you to not make the same mistakes they did. I also love to walk. Walking helps to clear my head and to give myself some alone time to my thoughts. If I get stuck on an idea, I’ll usually take a walk because it keeps my minds racing and allows me to absorb the world. Subway rides help me write. There is something about the movement and the energy that subways have which helps me to focus. I’ll take a notebook on the train and start writing it’s very weird, but I find so many story possibilities just riding the subway. If you ever get stuck on an idea, go on the subway look around and spot someone on the train. Absorb what he or she is wearing and what they are doing try to guess what their story is. You will be surprised how far you imagination will take you.

Funny, but I also do a lot of writing when bored in class (laughs). I hate when boredom sets in so the only way to keep my mind going is to keep thinking and using my imagination. So I get bored the majority in class and I would start doodling and those doodles some how emerge into something creative. Sometimes going out with friends and having dinner inspires me. Just listing to their stories or certain things they say or do will spark an idea. I have one diner that I go there religiously called Mark Twain dinner, ill grab a cup of coffee and a notebook and I do my notes. I’ll go there with my friends after a shoot or just to kill time and we discuss everything and anything. Most of my friends are actors so by hanging out with them all the time I am able to craft my stories and characters to their strengths and qualities. It helps them to put themselves into the work.

Whenever making movies becomes stressful, I usually try and take a day off and head into the city. There I just walk for hours, grab some food and try to get in a double feature at the multiplex. It just relaxes me. A trip to New York City is my jumpstart after a rough few days.
I also find myself more creative at night. I will get my ideas while I am lying restlessly in bed then ill bolt up and jot them down. And since I have more creative flow at night, I started switching my schedule to nighttime. I edit my films at night. No one calls to bother you. Its really quiet and I can focus on the film. I get into a safe zone when I work at night. So for the last few weeks CROSSED and I have shared several sunrises after long editing sessions. But I am a firm believer that life experience will help you expand as an artist. Some film school kids get so caught up with studying movies and spend all their time watching films that they forget to go out and experience the world. That’s where the stories are. Go out and live life, have adventures. Do something your were always afraid of doing and then document it then come home and write what you know. I guess filmmakers need to find what inspires them and when they feel the need a creative boost they need to embrace that.

8.) Dave: You have a solid working relationship with fellow independent icons Alan Rowe Kelly, Bart Mastronardi and others. How has working with them benefited your filmmaking capabilities?

Stolis: I find that people become successful when they surround themselves with great company and others who strive to be the best they can be. Both Alan Rowe Kelly and my mentor from day one Bart Mastronardi, are some of the best company anybody can ask for. Alan gave me my first big editing job on his film THE BLOOD SHED. He took a huge risk trusting me with his baby in the editing room. I was 18 at the time and I hadn’t edited a feature before. But I had edited countless shorts, commercials and music videos and Bart recommended me to Alan and showed him a bunch of my work and the next day Alan emailed me with the offer and its been non-stop from there.

Alan helped open my eyes to what its like to run a set on a big independent film like THE BLOOD SHED. It was my first experience in film where I was working with people outside my circle. So I got to meet professional actors and crewmembers like Jerry Murdock, Zoe Dahlmen Chalanda, Tom Burns, Don Money and Andrew Roth just so many nice people. Alan helped open a lot of doors for me in this business, I was extremely proud and honored to meet Fangoria editor Michael Gingold who then let us grace the pages of FANGORIA MAGAZINE. That was a trip. I never thought I be a part of Fangoria and share it with people I respect and admire like Alan and Bart. Alan has given me a lot of crucial advice and knowledge and despite my age he treated me like a professional. Bart has actually been my best friend since high school, like I said he was my English teacher then he ran the film club and soon because we both love movies so much we became good friends.

I still can’t believe that I am working side by side my English teacher from high school to make films. We started working on each other’s short films. He would shoot mine and I’ll end up editing his films. We are like the Tarantino and Rodriguez of our group. He is an artist behind the camera as a cinematographer. He approaches each scene with a unique look and paints it with wild colors. The best quality I find in Bart is that he doesn’t overcomplicate anything. He lights sets with very minimal lighting that make things more simple and efficient. Instead of lugging around heavy lights he simply uses Home Depot flood light and creates amazing shots with those. He doesn’t need big massive lights to achieve his style. He really has created some of his best work as a cinematographer on CROSSED. Much like myself he always pushes himself further each day on set. He always trying to out do his own work. That is a rare quality I find in many people these days. We are both making features at the same time, Bart’s is a horror film called Vindication, which I am editing.

There is a metaphor Bart and I say, CROSSED and Vindication are our children, like brothers. Because we are good friends we know what each of us enjoy in making a film and we are more comfortable to share our ideas and thoughts about a project. I think that being comfortable is priceless when making these films. Bart has been a mentor to me, teaching me what he knows about film and storytelling. He took me under his wing for a bit and when it was time to finally make my first feature he has been the most supportive person I know. He still guides me today. We have so much fun together editing his feature Vindication. He gives me all of freedom to go wild with my editing and that means a lot to me. It shows how much he trusts me in the editing room handling his baby. And I like to think I educate him as well since he comes from the school of film and I am as a child of digital, so I like to think I keep him young (laughs). But there is no other person whom I have shared such a profound and meaningful friendship then with Bart. And if it wasn’t for Bart running his film club in high school I seriously don’t know where I would be right now. So I thank the world that I was able to meet Bart and that we both had the opportunity to inspire each other in going for our dreams

9.) Dave: When you were in school, you won consecutive Filmmaker of the Year awards. In your opinion, what did you think your films offered that the other entries lacked?

Stolis: I don’t think it came down to the other projects lacking anything because some of the other projects were truly amazing. But I think it was a combination of energy and creativity that earned me the title of Filmmaker of the Year. My very first short film was a horror film called Schools Out, I was a junior in high school, my father at this point knew I had been bit by the film bug and on Christmas bought me my first DV camera, so I started playing around with the camera, filming my dog Nugget around the house, annoying my mother while cooking, but I was searching for a story to tell. Soon I became eager to actually make a film with a story, I made it not for a completion but just because at that moment I wanted to make a film, I wanted to uncover the veil of what it was to actually make a film, to discover what a close up was, how o cover a scene for an edit, how to talk to actors.

Before I made Schools Out, I had read book and articles, watched the making of documentary on the DVDs for the movies I loved to see how they did it, I sometime argue that DVDs have become the new film school, you can listen to an commentary from filmmakers like Scorsese or Coppola and find out how they do it, so your learning from the best. So I learned a lot just from DVDs, but once I started filming, I just kept at it. I never stopped. I would stay late at night in school editing alone in a classroom. My teachers would call it the tower, because the Mac computer was in classroom all the way up on the third floor. No one would bother me up there. Whenever someone was looking for me they just respond, “Stolis is in the tower”. At one point I got locked in well after school was done. Instead of freaking out I saw it as more time to edit. But I think because when ever I go out to make a film; no matter if it’s a short or feature, I always carry the philosophy of making a film that I as an audience member would personally want to see. And the movies I want to see are pack with style and action and have strong stories. I let my imagination go wild. So I think my short films in school really translated to the audience because I set out to make a great movie filled with those things and people saw that.

I studied what made good movies good. I applied those aspects to my shorts, and I had such great guidance from Bart Mastronardi who never let me go astray. For me making the shorts in school was a learning ground because the best way to learn how to make a film is to GO OUT AND MAKE ONE! Grab the camera and shoot till your blue in the face. Don’t stop. Make as many mistakes as you can because you will learn more from them then your successes. And till this day I still will make mistakes. Mistakes don't have to be mistakes, everything is subjective - a mistake to one person is actually a piece of art to someone else. Hide behind that, tell everyone its art, you can get away with a lot. Your mistakes, your shortcomings suddenly become artistic expression. I always try and remember that because that thinking eliminates the fear. And once you lose the fear of failure then you're unstoppable.

10.) Dave: When is Crossed set to be released, what projects are you currently working on and what can we expect from you in the upcoming months?

Stolis: Right now we are in the last stages of Post-Production. I am currently tweaking the scenes for pacing now and doing last minute trims. After that, I am going to be working closely with my good friend and talented musician, William Archiello, who has been composing all my work since day one and has been doing great work on CROSSED. During the editing process William has been creating the themes and music cues, which gives me ideas and inspires me in the editing room and in many cases before I shoot certain scenes. I always have a blast working with William on music. Also I’ll be working on the sound design with Javier Rodriguez who will divide his time with promoting the film as well as producer. When just hired a very talented PR person Gloria Borriello who will help get the word out there for us.

Once the film is done, it’s off to festivals and to show the public our little baby we have been raising. Hopefully the public will enjoy our little action flick and have a wild ride with it. Besides CROSSED, I’ll be wrapping up my editing services on Bart Mastronardi feature film debut. VINDICATION, which is one of the most disturbing and imaginative films I have been a part of. Bart has such a creative and unique vision, and I hope the fans get a kick out of it. Vindication will be a breath of fresh air in the horror world. After all this, I have been developing a great comedy idea that I will use for my thesis film at my last year as a student at School of Visual Arts. After all the blood and gore, I wanted to shift gears from the heavy horrors/drama I have been apart of. I had so much fun making a short comedy DING DONG DATE last year that I have been craving to do another one for a while now. And the idea I have for it will be so much fun to do. So stay tuned for that. And who knows what is in store for the future. I just living it day by day and enjoying every moment of this wild ride. But the ultimate goal is to always be working in this industry for the rest of my life. To always be behind the camera directing. To be working with the best cast and crew nonstop. And to tell amazing fresh stories that I want to be told and will stand the test of time. And hopefully my films will inspire someone like me growing up, a little fat movie geek from Queens, New York, to discover his dream and become a filmmaker as well.

I want to thank Stolis Hadjicharalambous for allowing me a glimpse into the mind of a talented, up and coming filmmaker. A true student of the art, Stolis has already far exceeded the norm in his short time working in film. Be sure to keep an eye out for Crossed when it is released! For more information on this filmmaking whiz, visit his Myspace page at http://www.myspace.com/hilltopstudiosproductions and for more info on Crossed, visit http://www.myspace.com/crossedmovie.