After Stephen Cone moved to Chicago in 2004, he taught himself to make movies and changed the course of his life.
He began by writing the short film Church Story; then a medium-length film called The Christians came next. Several more followed, with In Memoriam, about a group of students; then, The Wise Kids, a coming-of-age drama that did well critically. He created one called Black Box and then went with another coming-of-age film called Henry Gamble's Birthday Party.
Cone wrote, directed and produced his latest, Princess Cyd, which stars Jessie Pinnick as the title character. It premiered at the Maryland Film Festival in May of 2017 and recently played at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
Windy City Times: You were born in Louisville, Kentucky?
Stephen Cone: Yes, but I was born right as my dad was graduating from seminary for the first time and we moved immediately. I lived there two weeks. I grew up in the Carolinas.
WCT: Was [it] a conservative environment?
SC: Yes, but not psycho-conservative. Now I am in Lincoln Square [in Chicago] and have lived here for 13 years.
WCT: Are your films usually set here in Illinois?
SC: The Wise Kids was set in South Carolina, and Henry Gamble was shot in Lake Forest but could be taking place anywhere in the country. Princess Cyd is the first movie that is actively a love letter to Chicago.
Originally it was going to be a Southern story, but I transplanted it to Chicago last year. That opened up the style and what it could be.
WCT: How long have you made movies?
SC: Features for 10 years, and shorts for 12 years.
WCT: What did you learn from previous films that you could put into Princess Cyd?
SC: With each one, I learn a little bit more what I am doing. The idea is for each movie to be better than the last one.
Henry Gamble was 20 characters over the course of 24 hours, so it was nice to make something with just two main characters.
WCT: Explain the title "Princess Cyd."
SC: The lead character is a young teenage girl named Cyd Loughlin. She is visiting her aunt for the summer. She finds out she is named after a book her aunt wrote. Because she is so athletic and not interested in literature, she never put it together.
WCT: Cyd is sexually fluid?
SC: Yes, [but] she didn't know it until she gets to Chicago. She is much like Henry Gamble in that film. Her friends might be more aware of her sexuality than she is.
She is fluid. I have no idea what her life will become or if she will wind up with a man or a woman. She is struck by this handsome prince of a girl.
WCT: Talk about that character named Katie Sauter, played by Malic White.
SC: Malic was not originally available to audition. We lost an actor at the last moment; suddenly, Malic was able to be a part of it. Malic came onboard less than a week before we started shooting and was our casting director's original choice.
Malic is a non-binary actor playing a girl. I told Malic to play it pre-discovery of their identity. Malic is a little bit older than they look so I said to go back before they knew what "genderqueer" meant. I still feel Katie is more sophisticated than Cyd.
WCT: Katie was topless. Was that an issue?
SC: No. I had lots of conversation with Jessie and Malic separately. I wanted us to be on the same page on places they were willing to go.
I hope it resulted in a scene that is still balanced even though the same amount is not revealed across the board. The kisses and situation [are] really what matter.
WCT: I saw [local actress and former Windy City Times staff member] Amy Matheny in a role.
SC: Yes, and she is a producer, along with Jerre Dye. They have a company together called Hear/Tell Productions.
WCT: Where did the line "I like everything"referring to sexual preferencecome from?
SC: There is a European filmmaker that I like: Andre Techine. With Techine and Gregg Araki's work, you never know who is going to be attracted to who. Desires are so elusive and shifting.
I personally experience sexuality that way. I like everything! I identify as either queer or bisexual, so I am interested in exploring that on film.
That is not tapped into in independent film a lot. American films are very binary still.
I like people and to experience them on a person by person basis. They may date women or I may date men for most of life but it doesn't mean any experiences that veer off the course are less valid.
WCT: Here is another line: "Maybe if you had sex you won't eat so much!" Where did that originate?
SC: I write a lot of nice people so it is rare to give myself someone who is abrasive in a film. There are no brawls between this aunt and niece or have a third-act tension. This was my moment to go in deep. She says whats on her mind so it will eventually hurt someone.
The character Miranda Ruth is re-educated about sexuality, and Cyd Loughlin learns about books and literature. There is a role reversal that happens.
WCT: What would you like audiences to get out of Princess Cyd?
SC: I want people to fall in love with the characters and the city, to be reminded of open mindedness and openheartedness. We can influence each other for the better.
WCT: What are you working on next?
SC: I am going to make an ensemble movie down South next summer. It is tentatively titled Nudes.
WCT: A lot of nakedness?
SC: Yeahbut in smart, surprising, poignant ways.
It will be a combination between the progressiveness of this movie and the more repressed evangelical content of the other films. It will confront issues of repression and be about where body issues come from.
Princess Cyd will be released on VOD and DVD on Tuesday, Dec. 5.