Bear With Us was one of the standout films at the FilmQuest film festival, a romantic comedy with the outlandish premise of a bear hunt in the woods. After I saw the film, I got ahold of director William J. Stribling for an interview about his film.
Stribling told me he shot Bear With Us in 20 days, with 15-16 taking place in the cabin. He was NYU class of 2012 and Chapman class of 2014. He went to grad school for screenwriting because he figured out that’s what he waned to do too late to switch majors at NYU. He was doing preproduction and casting during his final Chapman semester.
Bear With Us is in talks with distributors and hoping to be released by end of year. Stribling thinks audience is on Netflix and hopes it will be recommended after people view Wet Hot American Summer. It works. I discovered Bojack Horseman that way. A theatrical release, even limited at Laemmle art houses, is too expensive. A streaming deal can make back production budget, but he still wants the film to come out on Blu-ray/DVD. Stribling’s first feature, Lies I Told My Little Sister, is on DVD and he’s in talks for streaming and cable airings.
Did you notice my headline referencing Stephen Colbert?
I did, I did indeed.
Are you aware of his long running fear of bears?
I am, yeah, I thought was funny. I hadn’t really thought of that.
Wouldn’t it be great publicity to get a spot on his show and have him confront you on bears?
[Laughs] I would love that. That would be great.
So was I right that you or Russ were a reformed sufferer of Nice Guy Syndrome who realized the error of your ways?
Not specifically but I think it’s something that’s always in your head, especially these days where you’re trying to treat everyone as best as you can. To put it in perspective, the whole movie is a sendup of rom-coms. The classic thing in a rom-com is the perfect girl. So we wanted to start with that, what if this guy thinks that she’s the perfect girl and really it’s the opposite. They’re just not right for each other. That’s more of what we were trying to do with it, not so much that she is bad and he is good or vice versa. We wanted to start off with the idea of look at this great guy, look at this girl who doesn’t appreciate him. By the end, you realize she’s actually the one behaving appropriately and he’s the crazy one.
It’s also the rom-com thing of the perfect girl and if the guy just do enough elaborate Hugh Granty gestures, she’ll fall in love with you. And that’s dangerous too.
Yeah, and just the idea too of trying to change people to make them perfect for you. The idea of embracing each other’s flaws, that’s real love when you can acknowledge each others’ shortcomings and embrace it.
Or celebrate them.
Or celebrate them, exactly.
Was Christy Carlson Romano game to play a character like this?
Absolutely. I was nervous because you really have to get through the whole script before you realize that big reversal. Up front, you start reading the first act of the movie and it’s like okay, she’s definitely not a likable character. By the end, you realize she’s the sane person and he is totally off the deep end. I was really happy that she read it and it was very quick after she read it that her agent contacted us and said she wants to do it. Then when I first met with her, I sat down with her and her husband, who is a screenwriter actually. Everything that she does, she always passes through him first so he gets to take a look at it and give his two cents. He was impressed. He says he generally isn’t a huge fan of the stuff she gets sent but he loves this. They were both on board with this cool twist on a rom-com.
She is the sane person except you should tell someone if you don’t want to marry them. I understand it’s hard, but you have to be direct.
It’s so tough. I think proposals are so strange in general because obviously there’s a lot of nerves involved, but if you’re nervous that they’re not going to say yes, you probably shouldn’t be proposing in the first place. It should be something that has been discussed and you’ve kind of agreed upon it. One of my favorite proposals was on The Office when Jim finally proposes to Pam. It’s something that has been said, “I’m gonna do this so you better watch out for it” and she’s ready for it. There’s no risk of her saying no. It’s just a wonderful, beautiful thing, but in rom-coms the proposal is always like, “Oh, is she going to say yes or not?” What are you doing? If you’re asking that question, do you really want to be with that person?
For me, the amount of deception it takes to pull off a surprise stresses me out. I have too much anxiety for that.
Oh, me too. I love the idea of something big and romantic and even silly and deceptive like that, but my girlfriend say this movie and she was like, “Don’t even think about it. Don’t you even think.” You’re right, there’s so much deception that goes into it. The film is really over the top but I’ve heard some crazy proposal stories and you see a lot of stuff go on that’s like okay, this really isn’t that far from something that someone has done before. It’s amazing to me the kind of pranks people pull on each other that end up on YouTube.
How long did you have the bear for?
That was one day. Of the 20 days, one day was spent driving from the Poconos up to this animal agency in upstate New York. We brought our cast and our crew and shot with that bear for one day. Really, when it came down to it, it was a very lengthy process to get the whole crew up there. We drove for four hours and then you get there and you get situated and you scout the woods that they have on their property. By the time the bear actually comes out, we only had like an hour or two of usable time with the bear before the bear had to go away and we had to wrap our set. We had to be very efficient and economical about the bear stuff. Just working with a wild bear, it’s not wild. It’s obviously domesticated.
It’s still a bear.
It’s still a bear. They’re telling us you can’t actually train a bear. You can motivate it with food but you can’t really train it. So everything she did when she was walking from point A to point B or doing anything was just for food. She knew that if she got from point A to point B, there was food waiting for her at point B. That was a lot less flexible. It’s not like an actor you can just do another take and give him notes. We’re just rolling the entire time that bear showed up and we got what we could get and figured it out later.
Was there any shot you couldn’t get because the trainer said, “bears don’t do that?”
One shot that we kind of wanted to get and we tried was when the bear “faints” and then it wakes up and growls. We did want to get it waking up. That was something we tried and it just never really worked the right way. Mostly because the bear we were using had been raised by humans after being abandoned by her mother as a cub, so she was not a scary bear. She was the sweetest bear. I’ve got some videos on my phone somewhere of her rolling on her back putting her foot in her mouth. She looks like a baby. She’s adorable. That was the one thing. They gave us the option, they said, “We have another bear. We can get him to be scary and angry. The problem is the only way to do that with a bear is to actually provoke it and make it scary and angry, and we don’t love to do that.” We said we will get creative about this. We don’t feel right about pissing off a bear to get this shot. We can make it work without. I think it ended up working out pretty well and it’s fun because the first time you see the movie, the bear is cool. With the music and the way it’s cut, it has the impact it needs to. The more and more you watch it, if you try and step out of that and take the bear shots out of context, she’s really just a sweet bear walking towards these people very calmly. It almost heightens the absurdity of it, these people that are so out of their minds screaming and yelling and this bear is moving like a mile an hour towards them.
Did Cheyenne get this material as soon as he read it?
We actually spent a long time auditioning actors for that role specifically. We didn’t like any of them. We auditioned in New York. We had a few days of casting and no one was really doing it for us. No one really got into the material and no one really understood the comedy of that role the way that we wanted to. So we were kind of bummed and then we left New York. We came back to L.A. and I was talking to my girlfriend. Everyone else that we cast we were in love with. We thought they were amazing, they were going to kill it. This Hudson role was a lot trickier than we originally thought. Then I just asked her, “Who’s a New York based actor that we like that we know that can do this? Off the top of our head, dream casting.” The first thing she said was, “What about Cheyenne Jackson.” “That would be amazing. I wonder if we could even get the script to him.” So we told our casting directors, “Hey, do you think we can reach out to Cheyenne Jackson?” They sent the script to his agent and within 48 hours the agent called back and said, “He’s going to do it. He loves it. He’s on board.”
Did he show up with that intensity and rhythm?
Oh yeah, absolutely. He was excited for. He said he doesn’t get offered this kind of stuff very often. It’s a weird movie in general, but that role specifically is definitely not the run of the mill Cheyenne Jackson role. So he was excited for it. He got to grow a little bit of a beard. He got to be uber masculine. It was super fun. Yes, he came on with all of that ready to go. He was very, very excited about it and it shows I think.
What kind of movie was your first feature film?
My first feature could not be more different from this movie. I did not write it but it is a family drama/comedy. It’s a family reunion that spirals out of control on a vacation to Cape Cod. It is autobiographical for the screenwriter and it was her first screenplay. She was a horticulturalist and a writer who’s very successful and then she wanted to tell a version of a story that happened to her family after the death of the oldest of three sisters. She got in touch with me through her nephew who was a producer who I went to NYU with. I was shooting that film the day after I graduated from NYU. The day after, I was on set.
How did you hook up with Russ Nickel?
Russ and I went to grad school together at Chapman down in Orange County. Pretty immediately, I could tell he had my type of sense of humor, which is a weird sense of humor obviously. He and I were very fast friends. We were screenwriting MFAs. At that point, having gone through two film schools, I was a little fed up with seeing the amount of money that film students spend on their student films that go nowhere and no one sees. Short films and student films have an immense value. I did them myself. I’m very proud of them, but I always tried them for as little money as possible and be as creative as possible because I knew if I was ever going to spend or raise a legitimate amount of money, I was going to try and make a feature film. I told him, “What if we try and do a one location feature for the price of a student film?” I gave him this loose idea fort this elaborate proposal plot. We loosely outlined the story and tried to find the characters that interested us and the angles, the motivations. We kind of had a rough outline and then we started writing the screenplay the next year.
I went to Ithaca College film school because I didn’t want to go to a big university. What was NYU film school like?
I loved it. It was very cool. I had no filmmaking experience or background going in. I just knew it was something I felt like I wanted to do and I thought it was something I needed to be doing. So they start you from zero. There, you start with 35mm black and white still photography, just telling stories through individual still frames. From there you lose the images and go straight to radio dramas, writing and creating these audio only experiences. Then you go back and at the time I was there, they don’t do this anymore, they had us shooting our first moving images on these old Arriflex cameras that shot black and white 16mm. We were cutting by hand on a Steenbeck with razor blades and taping the frames together. That was the most valuable. You build from there and eventually, by the time you’re a junior or senior, you get to make a moving film in color with sync sound after having done all of the other variations leading up to it. So I thought it was a really cool approach. Some people don’t have that mentality. They’re just champing at the bit and just want to make a movie. I understand that but there was a really cool experience having to suffer through these creative restrictions for years until you’re actually allowed to make a real movie.
I think it’s vital. You have to learn the foundations, even if technology has moved past that. I’m really sad if schools stop using 16mm film at least. We had Bell and Howell cameras which I could never get in focus.
[Laughs] That’s funny.
What do you want to do next?
Russ and I almost have a draft finished for what we’re calling a low sci-fi film that we want to shoot in Louisville, KT which is the hometown of the actor Collin Smith from Bear With Us. We’re writing this for him specifically. We loved working with him and he’s got such a unique voice that we thought we’d write something where he would get to be the leading man and not the sidekick. So we’re writing. It’s kind of like Young Adult meets The Stepford Wives is how we’re describing it. A guy goes home to his hometown after being away for 15 years and some weird things start to happen. The town seems to be stuck in time, so it’s a little bit of a mystery, definitely a satire. We’re hoping to do it for more money than we spent on Bear With Us but still a low budget indie.