To be at all familiar with Kristen Stewart — she had a small role in some vampire movies, maybe you’ve seen them — is to know that she’s not particularly comfortable in the spotlight. She’s a kinetic speaker, elliptical and often self-deprecating, so perhaps it’s no surprise that at 24, she’s already making the move to the other side of the camera. As part of its ongoing Blank Check Series, the denim/lifestyle brand Buffalo David Bitton offered Stewart a modest-but-undisclosed amount of money to “embark on a new creative journey,” which the Twilight star used to co-direct a music video for her friend Sage Galesi of the country-rock outfit Sage + the Saints.
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“I’ve been saying I want to direct movies since I was 10 years old,” says Stewart, on the phone from somewhere in New Orleans, where she is currently filming the action comedy American Ultra. “And then I started making movies and working with such incredible people that I realized what I was up against. So it was like, no way, now I’m gonna get more attention than I ever should just because of who I am. Basically, I’m grateful to Sage, because she was like, ‘I have this little thing, no one could tell the story better than you. . .just do it and stop being such a pussy.’”
So Stewart, along with co-director David Ethan Shapiro of Starlight Studios, cinematographer/editor James Gallagher, and some mutual friends, decamped to Tennessee for five days in February to shoot the video for “Take Me to the South,” a song off of the Saints’ 2013 EP I Will Lie. (Galesi just launched a PledgeMusic drive to help fund a full-length album.) Filming in and around the L.A. songwriter’s adopted hometown of Nashville, Stewart and Co. shot documentary-style footage of Galesi performing at the High Watt, playing downtown street corners and goofing off with pals in the back of a pickup truck. “We wanted it to feel like a glimpse of her life,” explains Stewart. “And that’s fucking hard. As soon as you start rolling, everyone turns into deer in the headlights.”
Your Twilight costar Nikki Reed produced a video for a song called “Edie Sedgwick” from Sage’s solo days, right?
That’s how we met, yeah, It was on the set of a movie in Vancouver seven years ago, and then we became really good friends.
The video has an improvised, homespun feel. What, if any, narrative did you come up with?
Sage lived all of this; we fabricated nothing. I wanted the video to feel really captured and found rather than set-up and executed. The story is that she’s insanely courageous to be this kid from L.A. who doesn’t hang out with anyone that listens to country music — and suddenly she realizes she wants to be a country star, and drives to Nashville by herself to see if she can meet people and be in a band. Then she did it all. It was so easy, once she presented me with the idea. I was like, well, that’s what the video is. It’s done. Basically, I didn’t want it to feel…I mean, nobody wants their shit to be pretentious, but like, I didn’t want it to seem like we wanted to be cool at all. Country music’s not cool. It’s truthful and it’s sweet.
Are you a fan of country?
No. This is what’s so funny. This is something that Sage and I have not shared, and most everything in our friendship is. . .we have so much in common. So I was like: What? You want to do a country song?
Did you do anything to prepare?
Well, I sat down and watched a lot of country videos before we started doing this. I just didn’t really see anything that wasn’t trying so fucking hard to be something. But I need to specify something about what I just said: I wasn’t talking about all country music. The country music that Sage is playing — she’s not trying to be cool. And the story was so clearly in front of us, I didn’t need to look elsewhere to get inspired. Also, you go to Nashville and everyone eats, breathes and sleeps country music, [so] being there was this transformative thing. All of our friends were, like, “Hey baby, hey darlin’, how you doing?” It’s a really contagious and super-welcoming place.
What was the primary challenge you faced as a first-time director?
It’s such a different pressure than the one that I’m used to when I act. It’s this very consistent strain that never lets up. Whereas with acting, there’s small bursts. . .you alleviate bits of tension for the camera and then you go off and, I don’t know, wait to stress out again. But there wasn’t one second that I wasn’t sitting with my head in my hands. It’s your responsibility to hold this thing together, and I was always concerned I was missing something. Missed opportunities are the most gut-wrenching, painful, nauseating thing. As an actor, your job is to lose yourself in the moment. Losing yourself is the last thing you want to do as a director, so it goes against my instinct. I had to harness my energy rather than let it explode all over the set.
Sage and David, how would you describe Kristen’s technique?
Shapiro: She’s very passionate. She either loves something or she hates it.
Galesi: She was a natural. She was good at not over-directing, but making sure that certain beats were captured, and telling me which moments they were going for. Being friends just makes it easier, because she could tell me something very easily.
Stewart: I felt so funny making Sage do things more than once. It was a strange experience, because I wanted to never have to do that. But there were a couple of moments where I made her do something 10 times. Most of the time it felt like we were doing a documentary, but that’s when it felt like a movie.
Like in which scene?
Stewart: We’d done so many takes of this one shot of her looking over her shoulder and it felt planned, like she was on cue. But then I caught her standing backstage for a show, looking at this guy, and she doesn’t necessarily have a crush on this dude. . .
Galesi: Let’s make it very clear that I do not have a crush on that guy!
Stewart: Yes, that’s one thing we made up. Anyway, basically she’s standing there watching this dude play, and he just so represents everything that makes Nashville so different to anything we grew up with in Los Angeles — because he’s so goddamned country and I just loved pointing a camera at him. I caught her looking at him, and it’s very silhouette-y, so you’re straining to see it more, which I really love, because she’s having this private moment. And I was like: “Hey, Sage, what are you doing? You’re being so obvious.” She’s like, “What? No!” Cut. We got it.
You’ve worked with an impressive list of actors and directors: David Fincher, Sean Penn, Jodie Foster. Is there anybody you’ve learned a lot from or tried to channel here?
I mean, specifically, no, but absolutely everything that I’ve done has changed my every desire. It sounds ridiculous naming these people but [On the Road director] Walter Salles and [Into the Wild's] Sean Penn work the same way I would like to work. It’s about being able to always, always, always sniff out bullshit and refuse to eat it. You honor whatever you’re working on so much that to make a mockery of it would be so principally wrong. That’s the feeling those guys have. I feel so safe with them as an actor, because I know for a fact that I can try things and fully let go and they will never allow me to do anything untrue. I definitely want to explore this avenue of my life, and that’s the way that I would definitely strive to do it.
Do you have any plans to direct any future projects?
I have been working an insane amount recently. I definitely need to take a break and reorient my mind, because if I’m going to put that much time in, it needs to be something I’d die for. There’s a couple of shorts that I’ve written that I want to do really badly. I’ll probably move forward and fuck up a few times. Typically you’re allowed to throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks. You don’t have people staring at it, going, “K-Stew’s making a movie!” It’s embarrassing. I have to figure out who I want to work with. This video is four of us — me, Sage, David and James — collaborating, and that’s not me not wanting to say I directed something. It’s people, for lack of a better word, “vibing.” A director is only as good as the people they work with. I gotta figure out who my boys are!