A Conversation With Kansas City Filmmaker Stephen Wallace Pruitt

Kansas City-based independent filmmakers Stephen Wallace Pruitt and Mary Settle Pruitt tackled their first feature when they were 50 and 47 years old, respectively. However, the husband-and-wife team have already parlayed this fashionably late arrival into the world of indie cinema into two award-wining features (“Works in Progress,” “The Tree”), a forthcoming mini-series (“Terminal”) and a new film that is now commencing production.

Joined-at-the-hip collaborators, the Pruitts work as co-writers and co-producers, with Stephen acting as director, cinematographer, editor and any other role required to complete a project. Their latest film “The Tree” screened at the 2017 St. Louis International Film Festival, where we caught up with Stephen to discuss his inimitable DIY approach to filmmaking: eager, self-assured and meticulous.

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Joicie Appell in “The Tree,” Photo credit: Stephen Wallace Pruitt and Mary Settle Pruitt

How did the screenings of “The Tree” go at SLIFF?
Mary and I gave a seminar on filmmaking there and then attended the first screening, where it was well-received. After that, we had to leave, but I’m told it was also extremely well-received at the other two screenings. I’ve been incredibly gratified by audience reactions to the film. It’s won five different awards at different festivals.

Including an Audience Choice Award at this year’s Kansas City FilmFest.
Yes! Also Knoxville, [Tennessee]; Iowa; Colorado; and Columbus, Indiana.

I understand there’s a real-world basis for the film’s story.
Yes. We had used this tremendous actress, Joicie Appell, in our second film, “Terminal.” She’s in her 80s, and we wanted to do another film with her, to write it for her. I got an idea to do a film about my mother and her best friend, Pat. They were only friends for a brief time, but it stuck with me how much my mom talked about her. Most of the film is fiction, but some of the incidents in it are based on real anecdotes.

Joicie Appell’s charisma is what makes it work, I think. Not to diminish the efforts of your other performers, but she is the film.
She’s amazing, really. I don’t know how she found out about “Terminal,” but she was the last person to audition for that film. She plays this deeply emotional role in that feature, and she had me in tears. We knew that we had found somebody very special.

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Caroline Kelley in “The Tree,” Photo credit: Stephen Wallace Pruitt and Mary Settle Pruitt

You came to filmmaking relatively late in life. You’re also a professor of finance at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, correct?
Yes, finance and economics. I’ve been working full time as a professor for 31 years now at various universities around the country. My wife, who is my “partner in film-crimes,” has been a homemaker since we’ve been married. We always do things together, and when I decided I wanted to make a movie, she was with me 100 percent of the way.

What was the genesis of this new life direction? When did you decide, “I want to be an indie filmmaker?”
The short version is that I was in a rock band in college [Laughs]. It always really bugged me that we never made it big. Years later, one of my old band mates from college flew out, and we started working on an album. We had gotten pretty far along with it when we decided to make a music video.

I did some research on cameras and bought this nice Panasonic HD camera. It was expensive, a real nerve-wracking investment. I thought, “I don’t know if we should be doing this.” After I bought it, however, I learned that that model of camera was being used to make a lot of indie films. And I realized that’s what I really wanted to do. I set the album aside and dove straight into making a feature film. Our friends thought we were completely mad. “You don’t know anything about making movies!” they said. Which was true. But I was confident we’d be able to pull it off. Fortunately, that confidence wasn’t misplaced. That first film that we made, called “Works in Progress,” was picked up for distribution. Of course, that company subsequently went bankrupt [Laughs]. We went on from there, however, and here we are, getting ready to shoot our fourth feature.

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Joicie Appell in “The Tree,” Photo credit: Stephen Wallace Pruitt and Mary Settle Pruitt

A bit of overconfidence can be a beneficial trait if you’re a green indie filmmaker based in the Midwest.
I guess I’ve always been confident. Even if I had failed at it, it wasn’t going to let it destroy me or anything. I just wanted my shot. When we looked at the footage from the first film, though, we knew we had something. It helped that we ended up shooting that first film on the Red One, which was a digital camera that changed filmmaking. I showed some footage to Robert Butler, a film critic here in Kansas City, and he said, “This is astonishing. It even sounds good. Indie films always sound terrible.”

Given its $60,000 budget, “The Tree” is a very polished-looking film. The sound is very crisp. Did you have to utilize any public domain music?
No, not at all! The entire film was scored top to bottom here in Kansas City, except for one piece we had to purchase. We take great care with everything: the sound, lighting, color. I do all the post-production myself now, and I’m fastidious about it. I can’t afford to pay people out in Hollywood to do this stuff. Someone I used on the first film said, “You have the one thing we don’t have: time. You can work on it until it’s done.”

That cuts both ways, though. If you’re a perfectionist, all the post-production can be a time sink.
Absolutely. These are your babies, and you’ve got to take the time to make it great. “The Tree” actually came together quickly for us, though. I was editing every night when we were done shooting. However, our second film, “Terminal,” which is actually a mini-series, hasn’t even been released. It took a long time to complete in post. It’s finally finished, though, and will be released soon. We’re getting ready to sign a deal with a distribution service for that, along with “The Tree.”

Cover image photo credit: Sean Christensen.

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