Paul Stone is having a moment. His most recent endeavor, The Boombox Project, premiered last month at the Grammy Museum during Grammy week inside the tape deck of a huge boombox. Possibly his most provocative film, The Prince of Elizabeth Street, is finally available online. And his new creative social networking site www.dropculture.com just launched this week. Paste caught up with the filmmaker and entrepreneur for a conversation about all three projects.
Paste: How did you get your start in the industry?
Stone: I was a total film and music junkie from the age of five. I got into the business right around high school and kind of grew up in the business; taught myself how to shoot and edit, which eventually led to me becoming a director. But it was a process over a decade or so of learning everything I possibly could. I formed my company in 1998, and there was an ad in the back of a trade magazine looking to rent out space for an editorial company, and I have a hybrid company, Firebrand Films, which is kind of a production company/editorial/ad agency. So I responded to the ad and showed up to the building, and it just happened to be Ridley Scott’s New York office. And I said “Give me the lease and I’ll sign right now.” I stayed there for about eight years, and worked with his sons, worked with Michael Moore on a Rage Against the Machine video, basically grew up there learning from all those people. I used to call myself the red-headed stepchild, The Scott That Nobody Knew. But they really supported me and helped me in a lot of different ways. I mean, think about all the producers and directors and actors coming in and out of that place. So not only did I learn, I built a great Rolodex. But the beginning part of my career was shooting and editing commercials; my first client was Donald Trump.
Paste: It’s interesting how many really good directors got their start in commercials. It really strips things down to their essence, and you have to learn to tell a story really damn quickly and really well.
Stone: It’s a great industry if you can survive in it, but you really have to have that survival instinct. It’s such a competitive industry because there’s so much money involved and so many people that want to do it. If you’re a Scott you’re most likely going to get a foot in the door, and you probably have the talent to make the most of the opportunity, but if you’re not it can be really tough. But growing up in it, yes, you do hone your craft, because every shot is a money shot in a commercial. There’s a lot of pressure involved in getting everything to look great and getting it done quickly. A feature is more of a marathon. It’s a different type of discipline. But from the visual and directorial standpoint, it really hones your skills so that with the feature, you’re actually ready to run that marathon.
Paste: How did you meet the Prince?
Stone: Well, I’ve lived in Little Italy for a really long time, for about twenty years. And I’ve seen it changing, from Little Italy to Nolita to SoHo. Brian moved here in 2004, and he was like a 21-year old kid at this building at Prince and Elizabeth Street that had been abandoned for about thirty years. It was boarded up, but it was a pretty big building. And Brian would set up his canvases and paint there every day. Someone had thrown out an old couch, and he dragged it over and had an ashtray, and he’d just sit there and paint all day. I’d seen him for years. And one day I walked by and he was painting something that was similar to a project I was working on, and I said “One day we should do a film.” And he said “Fine.” And in 2010, we finally made it.
Paste: He’s got a pretty distinct take on life. What’s your reaction to his philosophy?
Stone: Well, the reason I was attracted to document him was that, growing up in the ‘80s in that area, everyone was like that, everyone in the East Village and SoHo. Basquiat used to walk the streets here and get his drugs. There used to be a lot of dealers on Elizabeth Street, selling heroin to, like The Rolling Stones. That’s what I saw outside my window growing up. It was a lower middle class neighborhood. Vincent Gallo lived across the street from where I used to hang out. CBGB’s is two blocks away, and I grew up watching the Talking heads and Blondie. All this stuff was happening when I was growing up. So the reason I was attracted to filming Brian was that I felt like he was a guy that was still representing the neighborhood. Trading his art for rent, living the dream, not working at Starbucks. Just having coffee and cigarettes instead of selling out for a new pair of Nikes. And his personal take is basically his insecurity about his art, and about his dreams. And as artists, we’re always our own worst critics. To this day, as an editor, if I have my way I’ll never stop getting. You can refine until you get arthritis. Brian’s also questioning the art world that he lives in, who he is as a person and how he fits into that world. He knows he’s a pretentious person, and so is that industry. And I question the films I make in the same way. Your first screening at a film festival is pretty intimidating. I don’t think there’s anyone who has the first screening, their first Q&A, who isn’t shaking a little bit.
Paste: He’s almost a man out of time, dropped into the new neighborhood.
Stone: Yes, that’s it. And I wanted to celebrate that. It seems I’m drawn to stories about gentrification in New York. My first film, Tales of Times Square, was a total recreation of Times Square in 1980. I remember in my first few screenings, the young people there didn’t think it was real. They didn’t know pimps really dressed like that, or there were that many hookers on the street, or that there was a peepshow every twenty feet. They just got here last year, and they have no idea what it was like. I happened to watch the first episode of Sex and the City the other day, and I thought, wow, they’re really making this area look really sexy. And from a female point of view, it’s got to be a safe area for that, and when they first started filming, it wasn’t, really. When that show came out in the early Nineties, New York still had some edge. And they only come down to SoHo by private car. People who lived here felt okay walking around, but for other people it was kind of scary.
Paste: You don’t think of it as being that recent, but it really was.
Stone: Yeah, you look at those shots, and you see how empty SoHo looks in 1993. And now it’s a mall. It’s a safe mall, with just a better food court.
Paste: Even for someone not from New York, that homogenization of culture is certainly going on all over the US in different ways.
Stone: And it seems like in New York, we’re adopting more of the Midwest culture. It’s safe and well lit and clean. And it wasn’t ever about that. It was a rough and tumble city. And it was dirty and the trains didn’t run and they didn’t pick up the garbage. But there was a lot of great creative energy going on. And that’s what it lacks now.
Paste: Yeah, you kinda can’t imagine a Talking Heads or a Ramones or a whoever coming out of this current New York.
Stone: It’s so true. I look back at those days, and we didn’t really realize any of that, because we didn’t know about a city where you didn’t have to look over your shoulder. We were raised in a really tough city. I don’t think the people coming to New York now would be able to handle it.
Paste: What’s next for you?
Stone: I just finished a project called_ The Boombox Project_. It’s a short film about a photographer named Lyle Owerko, who is a photojournalist who happened to be under the World Trade Center on 9/11 when the first plane hit. His photo made the cover of Time Magazine. But the fame that followed wasn’t what he was expecting. And based on some other things that happened in his life, he became this extreme introvert, almost like an inanimate object. And on a shoot in Japan, he saw an old boom box and decide to start collecting boomboxes and shooting them, and he made a book called_ The Boom Box Project_. He collected like 100 boomboxes from around the country and shot them in his studio, and he interviewed people like Spike Lee and Kool Moe Dee and the Beastie Boys. The Grammy museum picked it up, and last month they had a boom box exhibit and showed the film inside the tape deck of a giant boom box. It was pretty cool. And Lyle has such an intelligent aspect to his creativity, so it’s really fascinating to listen to him talk about what motivates him. And then I also just started another company called dropculture.com, which is going to be a social networking site that consists of personal profiles that my team goes out and shoots of people in creative industries. So my first profile will be Lyle. And Brian will be there as well. We’ll have their life stories, and talk to them about what inspires them to get up in the morning and go do what they do. It’ll be a more exclusive Facebook, all based around short profile films. We’re really excited about it. We launch this week!