Text by Alec Coiro
Photographs by Danielle Lurie
Much has been written recently about Stewart Thorndike’s pioneering new distribution method for independent cinema with her micro-budget, macro-quality feature Lyle. But the more Stewart explained her distribution innovation to me, the more I felt like it was something that very few independent filmmakers could pull off.
Here’s how Stewart is distributing her horror film, Lyle: She has made it available through her own website — lylemovie.com — where you can stream it for free (right this very minute); after you watch it, you then have the option of contributing to the second film in her tryptic of women-centered horror movies. This distribution-production hybrid is perfect for Stewart, but it’s hard to imagine a lot of other filmmakers ingenious and organized enough to pull off a film of Lyle’s caliber and already have the next project ready to go immediately. It also doesn’t hurt that Stewart’s next film, Putney, is about a “haunted Ted Talk,” which is just about the best three-word pitch I have ever heard.
Having the next project ready is particularly impressive because there wasn’t any lag time between finishing Lyle and distributing it. In fact, getting Lyle out almost immediately was part of the reason Stewart and her team eschewed the normal distribution routes. Stewart had several inboxes full of interest from distributors after its success at Outfest, but as Stewart puts it, “I had seen so many friends have features in major festivals, get a lot of buzz, get distribution, but it took a couple years, and then you’d forgotten about the movie. I just wanted to get it out there, and be a little more punk about how we got it out there, because that’s how we made it: cheap and scrappy.”
Stewart describes Lyle alternately as a “lesbian Rosemary’s Baby,” and “an arty horror movie for ladies.” Unique in the genre, a Stewart Thorndike horror movie is characterized by warm sunlight and “putting something scary in one of our safe places.” Stewart elaborates, “I like to take all those safe and contemporary things like Residence Inns and Starbucks and J. Crew catalogs and see them as evil. We all buy into an aesthetic and an atmosphere that we produce. I think the scariest thing is to not feel safe in a place where you’re supposed to feel safe.”
Apart from Stewart’s aesthetic and script, it is the two main actors who really make Lyle something special. Gaby Hoffman is the lead. Known for her work as child actor and then her drama and comedy work as an adult, Hoffman reportedly doesn’t even like horror movies, but her portrayal of motherhood and grief in a horror context is uncanny. Ingrid Jungermann, who plays Hoffman’s partner, was dating Stewart when the script was conceived and written. In fact, the idea for the movie came from Stewart wanting to have a kid and Ingrid — as Stewart puts it — “baby blocking.” Ingrid and Stewart are not dating anymore, but still live together, and have legendary banter at film festival Q&A sessions.
To make a one-hour feature in 5 days you need to be wily, a hustler, and know how to get bang for your buck. It also helps that Stewart is at peace with picking her battles, fighting for the complex shots she needs, and finding ways to let other things move quickly. For example, Stewart took the huge risk of shooting a number of different scenes with a single camera set-up that wasn’t covered with any close-ups; nothing could be fixed in editing. This will only work if you have an actor of Gabby Hoffman’s caliber in the scene. In fact, according to Stewart, you just generally need to have a really talented crew willing to work on an ultra-low budget project for it to succeed. And the more I hear about all the caveats to Stewart’s filmmaking style, the more it seems something only Stewart could pull off. She’s also the only first-time filmmaker I know who’s cracked jokes with Kubrick on the set of Eyes Wide Shut.