The Watchlist - Stefon Bristol
Stefon Bristol is a filmmaker from Brooklyn. The award-winning director talks to us about the pressures of the industry, police brutality and the support of his mom.
When did you first discover your passion for filmmaking?
You know what, I actually started really late. I was 18 years old sitting in my mom’s house when Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came on TV. So I watched it and, honestly, it changed my life. I knew from that moment that I wanted to be a filmmaker.
So I marched downstairs and announced it to my mother, and she said: “No way. I’m not paying for you to go to college to study how to make films.” So that was my first obstacle.
What did you do next?
There was a lot of back and forth between me and my mother – she’s from the West Indies and her views can be fairly conservative. I decided, at that time, I wasn’t going to be able to attend film school. So I went to my local community college - Suffolk County Community College - to train in what I believed to be the next best thing – teaching. There are a lot of similarities between the two jobs: being a teacher is all about telling stories and finding ways to communicate your message.
During my degree I had to complete a placement at a local high school. I remember on the first day the teacher came into the class and started cursing and yelling at the kids. It was 7 a.m. and I thought, “this is no way to start your working week”. I graduated, but I knew teaching wasn’t for me.
How did you break into the film industry?
The short answer: I worked my ass off!
I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, which is the best college in the whole United States of America! While I was there Spike Lee was showing a special screening of one of his films nearby.
Now Spike is one of my heroes, he’s the reason I got into filmmaking. So I went up to him and asked for an internship and he told me to send him my resume. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear back from Spike. However, a few months later I went to another one of Spike’s screenings and I asked him again. Once again he said yes, and told me to get his contact details from one of his old professors at my college. But – would you believe it – the professor wouldn’t give me his details.
So I had to ask Spike a third time at another event. I explained it was the third time we had discussed the opportunity, and he told me to send him my resume there and then. A week later I got a call from Spike’s office offering me an internship.
The internship itself was great, but it was also really hard work. It was unpaid so I would work for Spike five days a week and then elsewhere on the weekend. I knew I had to make the most of what was an amazing opportunity, so I asked Spike if he would write me a recommendation letter for NYU Graduate Film School – which he kindly did.
It’s eight years later and I’m still working with Spike. He started off as my mentor, and he is now working as the executive producer on my upcoming film. It’s invaluable having his guidance, it’s really special.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve found when making films?
It’s having people believe in you. I’ve always believed in myself, as I think that’s one of the most important aspects of being a filmmaker. It’s having others believe in you that is the difficult part. I can goof around sometimes, and I think some people looked at me and didn’t think I’d be able to make a movie, they didn’t think I was ready. Luckily, I proved them wrong.
Can you tell us about the two films you have made? They are quite different.
One of my earliest films I made was called The Bodega. It’s about two friends who grow up in New York, and one day one of them decides to rob someone to help pay off a debt for his father. To be totally honest with you, I am not a big fan of the film. It was unoriginal, and the scripting was poor. But, I’m still glad I made it. I needed to get a film like that out of my system, it made me realize what I want to do.
My NYU Graduate thesis film is See you Yesterday, and it’s completely different. I realized that I was sick and tired of seeing the same films about young black kids in America getting involved in crime. We’ve seen it all before with Boys in the hood, Juice, Menace II Society – which are all great films – but I wanted to do something different.
I needed to create a film which reflected our society – and the atrocities that are happening around us. In 2014 Eric Garner and Michael Brown were murdered by the police, and I knew that’s what I had to talk about. That’s what I had to address in my script.
You’ve been nominated for many awards; how does it feel to have your work so widely recognised?
It’s humbling and terrifying all at the same time. I know I have to deliver, I’ve brought pressure on myself in that sense. But you’ll never hear me complain, because that’s what I want. It’s pressure that forces you to do your best work. I’ve recently had my NYU thesis film picked up by HBO, which is amazing.
Has being from New York affected you as a filmmaker?
Absolutely, 100 percent yes. I am part of the Caribbean community in this city, and there are so many incredible stories to tell. I see a lot of films now about the hipster movement in Brooklyn but that’s a foreign concept to me. It’s not the New York that I know and love.
My favorite thing about this city is the different types of people you meet. From filmmakers to artists to everyday people, there’s so much to draw from – there’s a special type of energy in New York that you don’t get anywhere else.
We’ve got to ask, how does your mum feel about your success?
I am so glad that you brought that up! My mom is well and truly my biggest fan. She’s helped me so much, she flies out to every award ceremony and she even refinanced her house to help fund my film. I wouldn’t be making movies if it wasn’t for her, she’s been there for me.
For details of Stefon’s upcoming screenings, click here
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Awards:Best HBO Best Short at Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival, Best of the Festival at Hip-Hop Film Festival, Best Short Film at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival
Films: The Bodega, See You Yesterday