Steven Williford directed the film festival darling The Green. After many years as an award-winning theatre director, while simultaneously balancing a decade-long gig as a soap opera director, his first feature, shot in a miraculous 17 days, is currently in release. By the end of this year the film will have screened at festivals in nearly 50 cities worldwide, and has already gleaned 16 awards along the way, two of which honor Williford as Best Director.
People call you an “actor’s director” because of how passionately and intimately you work with actors. I think I might label you as a “thinking man’s director” because you have such a facility to get deep inside the story, no matter what the medium.
I can’t remember a time even as a child when I wasn’t telling stories. I definitely have a storytelling gene. I attribute that to two factors: growing up in rural North Carolina and the rich storytelling legacy in my own family. My paternal grandmother was a reader. Every month, the Book Mobile drove 12 miles out of its way to stop at the country store she and my grandfather ran so she could borrow more books.
I will never forget the story she told me throughout my childhood of a little boy named Epaminondas. She told the story to me so many times that I memorized it. Several years ago, I came across a book called The Story of Epaminondas and His Auntie, originally published in 1907. It was the story she had told me hundreds of times. My grandmother either read it or had it read to her so many times that she had memorized the book. I thought she had made it up!
What kinds of stories did you tell when you were a kid?
In middle and high school, I was always relied upon to tell some kind of story. I was always fascinated by the paranormal, so I became known for my ghost stories. I went a little further with them at home, staging incredibly elaborate events to try to scare my sisters. I remember hearing about “happenings” during the hippie movement of the '60s and trying to recreate what I thought were happenings. Later when I was studying theatre history I learned about happenings. Clearly, what I had done with my sisters was not a happening at all, but just an elaborate prank designed to scare them.
You always have film, television, and theatre projects in your mix. If I took two of these media away, what would you choose?
I’ve had 25 years in the theatre, 31 if you count the years I spent acting. I feel lucky to have fulfilled a lot of my goals there. I can’t see a time when I wouldn’t be working in the theater because I still have a list of plays as long as my arm that I would love to tackle. When my schedule allows I will always grab a theatre opportunity.
But, if you are making me choose one, I would choose filmmaking. It’s still brand new to me, and I haven’t worked with the tools of filmmaking the same way I have in theatre. So, I still have many ideas and dreams in that field.
The story of The Green has many layers. How did you capture such a deeply nuanced story in 17 days?
Part of that is due to years of shooting up to 100 pages a day on a daytime drama. It was like training as a boxer: some days conditioning, a little sparring, strategizing, studying other fighters, etc. Daytime television put a camera in my hand, day in, day out, year in and year out.
Also, I trust the actors to act. I work with them on the details of story, character, and circumstance, and then I try to get out of their way.
What do you love most about filmmaking?
How deeply you can crawl inside the story. It’s different in the theatre. In theatre, you work to expand the story to fill the space, whether it’s a Broadway house or a 50-seat theater in the round. It’s the director’s responsibility to expand the event of the storytelling out to the farthest reaches of the room. In film, you bring the spectator to the story. Then you release them into a sort of a freefall into the film. Also, after working for so many years in a multi-camera environment, I am drawn to the grace of a single camera shoot in film.
You’re in an industry that is very label-conscious, with even me labeling you at the beginning of this interview. How would you want to be labeled?
I’d like to be labeled or known as someone who is an inspiring collaborator. No matter the medium, story-telling requires a collaborative effort, and being part of a story-telling community brings me a great deal of joy. Stories are primal. They are necessary. It’s how we order and filter our dreams and experiences.
For more about The Green, visit the movie's official website.