Full disclosure: I grew up with Stephen Parkhurst. I’ve known him since junior high school, where he and I, along with my brother Tony, bonded over our love of the cinema. When it came time for college, it was no surprise when Stephen went off to Keene State to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker.
Last summer, Stephen continued his pursuit, marking a major milestone in his life and career by shooting his first feature-length film, “Roommate Wanted.” The movie is a light psychological thriller that is distinctly Stephen’s in its tone, storytelling and characters. In true Parkhurst fashion, the movie maintains the filmmaker’s strange sense of humor while its lead character’s life descends into madness.
The film stars Seth Holbrook as Sean, a traditional down-on-his-luck central character who’s hit bottom. Sean’s a recovering alcoholic whose compulsion has lost him everything, from his girlfriend and living space to his driver’s license and job. He comes upon a stroke of luck when finding a cheap apartment for rent while he attempts to get his life back on track.
The one downside is his new roommate, Matt (Matthew Nichols, also a friend from childhood), who is straight-up crazy. Not only is he socially inappropriate, but as Sean begins to do some digging, he begins to suspect that Matt may have killed his previous roommate. Living with a potential murderer adds to Sean’s surmounting stress of trying to land on his feet, while trying to unveil Matt’s hidden past.
With his first feature film, Stephen knows the boundaries that come with budget restraints, and he works with what he has to pull off something that, I have no doubt, he’s very proud of. As he should be.
It would be impossible for me to slap a letter grade on a film I’m so connected with, so instead, I asked Stephen a few questions about his experience making “Roommate Wanted.”
Q: When you were making “Roommate Wanted,” who were some of the filmmakers and/or writers who you found to be an influence?
A: I specifically wrote the movie as an ode to Roman Polanski, with a little Hitchcock thrown in there as well. Sort of “Rear Window” meets “The Tenant.” Polanski’s early movies are very dark and claustrophobic, and they’re also really grounded in character and tension. “Death and the Maiden” is a good example. That said, his films generally aren’t very funny, and when I first thought of the idea for “Roommate Wanted,” of a guy who thinks his roommate is a murderer, it seemed inherently funny. I mean, how would a normal person react to that revelation? I think if you put normal, everyday people in the situations portrayed in thriller films, you’d end up with some very absurd, funny results. There’s an old anecdote that when Kubrick went to adapt “Red Alert,” it was going to be a thriller, but the more he wrote, the more it naturally veered into comedy, until he eventually decided to just go with it. The result was “Dr. Strangelove.”
Q: When you set out to make this film, what sort of end-goal did you have in mind?
A: At the time, I’d been toiling away, like so many who have graduated with a BA, in customer service jobs and random gigs with very little to show for it. I wanted to make something that would showcase, at the very least, my abilities as a writer. I never expected the movie to be a money-maker, hence it being available for free on YouTube. I just want people to see it and hopefully enjoy it.
Q: What were some of the challenges on working with a shoestring budget? What were some of the advantages?
A: I’ve heard some filmmakers say that a lack of money encourages creativity. I’m not saying it doesn’t, but I don’t think there are any great advantages to working with a shoestring budget. It’s nice that I’m not really beholden to anyone. I don’t owe any loan sharks my firstborn, so I guess that’s an advantage. The challenges are all the ones you’d expect: you can’t afford a crew or equipment or to lock a location or have a proper shooting schedule. Any filmmaker who chooses the 10k budget over the 100k budget has probably suffered a head injury and should be rushed to the ER immediately.
Q: What projects are you working on right now, and do you think you’ll do another crowd-source funded indie film like this again?
A: Crowd-sourcing seems like it’s going through some growing pains at the moment. It’s an amazing innovation and has given a lot of people the opportunity to do projects they otherwise couldn’t have, myself included. That said, I think there’s a big risk of opportunists taking advantage of the platform, and of backer fatigue. I’m not going to rule out another crowd-funded project, but at the moment I don’t have any plans for one. I’m focusing more on writing screenplays and expanding my YouTube channel with more short videos. Obviously it’s hard to resist the allure of making a feature, but in terms of gaining exposure, it’s a lot easier for a 3 minute video to go viral versus a 90 minute feature. I’m actually shooting a short next weekend, so stay tuned for that.
Q: What do you have for advice to other young, independent filmmakers?
A: It’s crazy-cheap to shoot and edit a movie these days, but it’s still not free. If you really want to shoot something, there’s two things you absolutely should pay for: food for your actors and crew, and an on-set sound guy. I didn’t pay for the latter, and I spent 8 months of post-production regretting it. Get. Good. Sound. I found a great guy who helped fix up a lot of the sound issues in post, but it still isn’t as good as it should be, and it’s my own fault. Save yourself a lot of trouble and pay someone, ideally a professional with his own equipment, to record your sound. If you can’t afford a pro, get a Zoom h4n, a decent shotgun mic (they start retailing around $200), build your own boom pole (I used a paint roller extension pole) and a decent pair of headphones, and pay attention to how things sound. Get the mic as close to the actors as possible. Get room tone when you’re done at each location. If the dialogue doesn’t sound clean, re-do it. The time you spend to ensure it sounds right on the day will save you quadruple that time in post production.
Finally: Check your ambition. Ambition is important, just make sure it doesn’t overpower reality. I’ve been involved in a few productions that never saw the light of day because the filmmakers were attempting “The Avengers” on a “Clerks” budget. Work with what you have. I designed “Roommate Wanted” to utilize a few locations, a small cast, and a story that could be told without special effects. If you can afford an epic car chase, great! Totally do it! Car chases are awesome! If you can’t, focus instead on making your characters interesting, your dialogue engaging and your story unique. Get trained actors too. Not just your friends. It makes all the difference.
You can watch or buy “Roommate Wanted” at roommatewantedfilm.com.
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