Filmmaker Francis Stokes studied his craft at NYU before moving to L.A where – after a short stint working as a guide at the Griffith Observatory – he decided it was time to get his movie projects going. His first major project is called “Harold Buttleman: Stunt Driver” which is being released on VOD in February of 2018. The Film, a comedy about a tuxedo salesman who decides he wants to be a stuntman, stars Oscar-nominated actor John Hawkes.

Francis Stokes recently discussed this film and his experiences making it.

Making movies and favored filming equipment

Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to become a filmmaker and how did you initially get your start and get paid for making films?

Francis Stokes (FS): I've always wanted to make Movies. When I was very little, it was animation. That changed in junior high when my dad bought us a video camera. It was the size of a briefcase! We took that thing on trips all over the world. It's hard to imagine, now. But I started making movies with my friends and never stopped.

As per my start, well, if you're talking about feature filmmaking then “Harold Buttleman” was my start. Before that, I went to NYU Film School. Then I moved to LA and made “Harold Buttleman” while I was working as a museum guide at Griffith Observatory.

Funny enough, my first paid filming gig was back in high school, a friend of my mom's wanted someone to film her stuff as a record for insurance. I didn't frame the check or anything though; she probably paid me cash.

MM: What kind of equipment do you prefer to use when shooting movies?

FS: “Harold Buttleman” was mostly shot on 35mm film.

Some scenes were written to be filmed on video. We used a Sony VX1000, which belonged to Kevin Baird (one of our producers.) I borrowed it for like, a year! He was very gracious about it. But now that we're in the digital age, there are so many options for indie filmmakers. My new feature was shot on the Canon 5D. A consumer camera, and it looks amazing.

We used an adapter and Zeiss prime lenses.

MM: If you moved away from making movies, what else might you try your hand at?

FS: Telling stories, in one form or another. Writing novels, maybe, or children's books! Or perhaps grabbing strangers on a street corner and screaming at them: “FADE IN…!”

Festivals, casting, and future projects

MM: How did the story of “Harold Buttleman” come to you?

FS: I was interested in people who filmed themselves doing crazy things, and then the video got around. This was on YouTube, but that was still an avenue for fame or notoriety. Now, it's a national pastime. It's a huge part of our culture - people like Harold are everywhere.

MM: And dare we ask, are you surprised the movie is taking this long to come out…and exactly how long has it been?

FS: We shot the film in 2001, and did the festival circuit in 2003! We played the festival circuit and won some awards, but failed to sell it to a big distributor. It was very frustrating - I knew this movie had an audience if it could get out there. After that, I did a web series, “God, Inc.”, set in the corporate offices of God, which became a viral hit. This was in the early days of YouTube, and they met me and proposed I put my feature up on their website. “Harold Buttleman” was the first narrative feature uploaded to YouTube. It was watched over a million times. But I still held out hope for a real release, like this one.

MM: How did John Hawkes get involved and were you an essential part of the casting decisions?

FS: I was a huge fan of his, even though he was only doing small roles at that time. I was flipping through the LA Weekly and saw that he had a one-man show going on in Hollywood. So, I went, and after the play was over, I went up to him and handed him a script. The film was independently financed, so I was in charge of all the casting. I had total creative control!

MM: What do you most enjoy about working in film and where do you want to go over the course of this decade from a career perspective?

FS: The people I've met and collaborated with are the best part. I've met some really great people, good friends. I have no idea where I want to go from here except to keep making movies in the future.

This is what I love. I refuse to give up. I'm a lot like Harold Buttleman in that respect!

MM: Do you have any upcoming movies or other projects that you want to tell people about?

FS: Yes! This is actually happening at the same time that my second feature, “Wild Honey,” is just starting to play the festival circuit. “Wild Honey” is an offbeat comedy about a lonely phone sex operator in Chicago who falls for one of her callers, and goes out to LA to find him. It stars Rusty Schwimmer, who plays Ronnie the bartender in “Harold Buttleman” as well as Timothy Omundson, Stephnie Weir, and Todd Stashwick.

MM: What advice would you give to kids out there who are aspiring to be filmmakers?

FS: Two things: If you're a writer or filmmaker, focus on your voice.

That's your best asset. There's a lot of temptation to try and give Hollywood what you think they're looking for and confirm. But your best-selling point is your unique voice. Also, remember to live your life. This industry, now more than ever, is fickle and unpredictable. You need to find something beyond career that you get out of bed in the morning for - whether it's family, or your love of nature, or your ukulele group (for me, it's all three)!

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To learn more about the movie, check it out on Facebook by searching “Harold Buttleman: Stunt Driver.”