Stephen Cone grew up the son of a Southern Baptist minister in South Carolina, where he led Bible study classes in high school while coming to grips with an emerging queer identity.
Now based in Chicago, where he teaches at Northwestern, the 37-year-old is the rare contemporary filmmaker whose work celebrates the act of questioning and makes introspection seem dynamic, even monumental. His remarkable micro-budget films represent an attempt to navigate the tangled, overlapping currents of faith and sexuality.
Earlier this month, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image staged a weeklong Cone retrospective, “Talk About the Passion: Stephen Cone’s First Act,” but he remains an under-the-radar talent. His eighth and most accomplished feature, the transcendent “Princess Cyd” — which opens Dec. 1 and comes to VOD Dec. 5 — represents Cone’s first theatrical release in Los Angeles.
“I’ve had the most bizarre, zigzaggy path,” the filmmaker says, speaking by phone from his retrospective in New York. “I didn’t go to film school. I was a theater major. In 2005 I was at a [terrible] day job, and I called my dad, and I said: ‘I’ve got to start making movies. It’s what I’ve been wanting to do forever. I’m just going to make one this summer.’”
Despite the inspiring origin story, five years and several movies after that phone call, he still hadn’t hit his stride.
Then in 2011 with “The Wise Kids,” a semiautobiographical ensemble drama about Bible Belt high schoolers, he made a breakthrough. After several festivals rejected the film, it was discovered by Kim Yutani, then a programmer at L.A.’s Outfest. According to Cone, “I got an email, essentially saying: ‘This never happens. I don’t know who you are. I just found your movie in this pile of submissions, and I think it’s really special.’”
“The Wise Kids” premiered at Outfest, where it took home prizes for outstanding U.S. dramatic feature film and outstanding screenwriting.
Cone’s next feature, 2013’s “Black Box,” was even more singular. It’s a fiercely moving portrait of a theater-school graduate student (Josephine Decker) directing her own adaptation of a cheap horror novel, a process that challenges her undergraduate acting ensemble in unexpected ways. The film, which merges the setup of “The Breakfast Club” with the occult intelligence of Jacques Rivette, is profoundly resonant on the subject of mentorship. But the film was not picked up for theatrical distribution and had its New York premiere just last week. “
“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party,” from 2015, is another showcase of narrative restraint and coiled emotion, an ensemble drama spanning 24 hours and centered around a preacher’s son exploring the contours of his homosexuality. It demonstrates Cone’s facility with young actors and his continued interest in high school as a spiritual staging ground.
“I’m interested in teenagers insofar as that is the most transformative portion of life,” says Cone, who has dated both women and men and identifies as queer. “The journey from 16 to 24 is a big deal, and it’s when a lot of sexual and spiritual discoveries are made.”
The title character of “Princess Cyd” is another teenager (Jessie Pinnick). She’s sent to spend a brief summer break in Chicago with a novelist aunt (Rebecca Spence) she hardly knows. Unlike Cone’s earlier ensemble pieces, “Cyd” is largely a two-hander, performed by two unknown Chicago-based actors, each a revelation. With his usual emotional precision, Cone stages a clash of sensibilities between a more-or-less chaste adult woman living a deeply rooted life of the mind and a blunt, precocious, sexually confident 16-year-old with the casual self-possession to admit, “Oh, I don’t really read.”
Although Cone is an ardent cinephile whose affection for humanist exemplars Jean Renoir and Jonathan Demme is increasingly apparent in his work, he has drawn sustained motivation from literature.
“‘Princess Cyd’ was largely inspired by my love of Marilynne Robinson,” Cone says, referring to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gilead” and “Housekeeping.”
“I was just sort of astonished that there’s this high American intellectual who has somehow managed to reconcile belief in Christ with a passion for science, a passion for community, a love of John Calvin and an obsession with language — to have all of these things in one person. I don’t call myself a Christian anymore, nor do I really believe in a supernatural realm in a traditional sense, but she’s made me realize that if someone wants to take a meaningful imaginative leap into faith, then it can be beautiful. It can also be corrupted, but it can be beautiful.”
Miranda, the novelist character who shares some of Robinson’s traits, draws strength from poetry, the American Transcendentalists and the platonic camaraderie of her academic peers. Although “Princess Cyd” confronts the character’s limitations, Cone clearly sees the value of her monastic conduct.
“We’ve progressed in so many ways,” Cone says, “and I’d never want to set the clock back and go back in time. But there’s something of the quiet, focused life of the mind in 19th and 20th century America that seems to be degraded and falling away, and I find it so alive and exhilarating. It doesn’t strike me as a stale thing. It can be electric. And we need to stay in touch with that.”
The centerpiece sequence of “Princess Cyd” involves Miranda’s semi-regular “soiree,” where a motley crew of intellectuals gather in and around her rambling house to drink wine, read poetry and confront one another with the force of ideas.
For Cone, the sequence cuts to the core of his process. “My closest equivalent to a soiree is when I’m making a movie. That’s when I feel like I’m in a community. To do a scene like the soiree is just putting a frame around a sort of secular church and celebrating it.”