From Shirkers, Then Back to NOLA: An Interview with Stephen Tyler

The great Sandi Tan, whose exploits in punk zine and filmmaking as a young woman are covered in her found footage collage/documentary investigation/exorcism Shirkers (now streaming on Netflix), assisted me in finding the contact information for one of her interview subjects, local film worker and director of locally shot 80s slasher The Last Slumber Party, one Stephen Tyler. Shirkers tells her story of idealistic dreams, stolen then repurposed decades later, and the confounding man at the center of this strange head game. It’s a tale that crosses continents before landing in New Orleans of all places.

Stephen Tyler knew this man, Georges Cardona, and formed a bond with him based on their love of movies and of this very city. Shirkers is one of the best and most memorable films of 2018 but left some curiosities open for interpretation for the audience. As a fan and a writer who tends to speculate often, I sought out Sandi, who turned me on to Stephen, who in turn filled me in on a period of pre-Hollywood South Tinseltown fantasies and adventures, of peculiarities with this individual known as Georges, and of a thread that moves along through the years, spinning a yarn that touches many a person.

What attracts the strange and the absurd to Hollywood seems to be what attracts the same to New Orleans. Schemers and geniuses – they go hand in hand.

Bill Arceneaux: How long have you been working on film and media in “Hollywood South”? What, for you, is the current state of the regional industry?

Stephen Tyler: I’ve been working some form of film/television media since I was a senior in high school, 1973. In 1968, when I was 13 years old I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the long – since – gone Cinerama Theater on Tulane Avenue, and it changed my life forever. From that moment on, for better or for worse, for poor or for poorer, I was a filmmaker.

I would see literally every movie playing in the city at any given moment (Thanks, mom, for all the rides to the theaters) and would stay up late watching the late show. (This remains a vital proclivity one must possess or attain in order to be a successful filmmaker.)

When I went to Tulane in the early 70s I began making Super 8  shorts, working with a loosely-formed but tightly knit repertory company of actors and technicians with similar interests. In many ways The Last Slumber Party (LSP) was meant to be (I guess it essentially was) a natural culmination of these efforts: the non-film school equivalent of a graduate film.  But, therein lies a completely different tale altogether.

By the way, I graduated from Tulane in 1977 with a BA in English. At the time Tulane had no media program of any sort, but fortunately, I was able to get Tulane to accept credits from the handful of film production courses I took at UNO. My feeling about some school is the same now as it was then: you really don’t need to go to film school (Soderbergh, Tarantino, Herzog, et al); what you really need to do is get a camera go out and make a film. Then another and another and another…

I don’t know if I can speak with any credibility about the current state of regional filmmaking, but even a cursory glance gives indication that it is exploding. Everybody’s making a film now because the technology’s so much cheaper. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are better films being made, there just are more of them.

BA: When did you first meet Georges Cardona, the man of mystery featured in Shirkers?

ST: I first met George circa 1976, when I was a student at Tulane. In those days there was a legendary boutique company in Cambridge Massachusetts called Super – 8 Sound. Super-8 Sound had carved out a niche in the Boston area by taking these high-end Super-8 cameras, particularly those made by the French company Beaulieu, and adapting them for serious professional work.

Their product line was designed to enable independent filmmakers to shoot films exactly the same way popular feature films were shot at that time: shooting double, i.e., cameras that were tethered to a separate tape recorder, either with a cable or wirelessly, and then you would process the film and sync it up with the separate soundtrack and then edit them on a flatbed editing machine. In a very real sense, the only difference between Super-8 Sound’s approach and “the big boys” was that the big boys were shooting 35mm or 70mm, and Super 8 Sound was shooting 8mm.

It was a company truly ahead of its time, and Georges was smart enough to recognize this and opened the only Super 8 Sound franchise south of the Mason-Dixon line. He placed a small ad in the now-defunct free weekly “Figaro,” and I practically fell over myself rushing out of my parents’ house to get to this place, christened by Georges as “Lighthouse Media Center.” Almost immediately, we became fast friends.

His charm and charisma were undeniable, and what really doesn’t come across completely in Sandy’s film was that he was also quite brilliant. But for all I know, he may not even have graduated from John F. Kennedy, and I’m certain he didn’t go to college. But he was a voracious reader and an impressive autodidact.

BA: New Orleans has a way of attracting strange people. Tommy Wiseau – of midnight cult hit The Room – has even claimed the area as his original home. Why do you feel Cardona settled in this town?

ST: God only knows. Probably for the same reasons as Lee Harvey Oswald. I always accepted the story that he perpetuated, the one that Sandi features in her film: that his German father took baby Georges and Georges’ Colombian mother on a transatlantic odyssey from Germany to New Orleans.

I assume he almost certainly was drawn to New Orleans for its muse-like qualities. The list of artists with similar experiences is both impressive and still – growing: from Tennessee Williams to Trent Reznor, from William Faulkner to Arcade Fire, and on and on…

There is another interesting side story to the Cardona saga that I assume Sandy simply didn’t have room for in her film: his friendship with David Duke while both were enrolled at John F. Kennedy High School.

As best as I can remember, Georges never uttered anything remotely resembling a racist comment, and I think he was essentially apolitical. In a rare case of my being willing to accept one of his stories as having some scintilla of credibility: GC claimed that Duke and Georges connected mainly through their mutual love of still photography. Duke wanted to be a better still photographer and George took him under his wing. However, the main reason they embraced photography was because they discovered it was a way to meet girls. “Hey, let me take your picture…”

Years later when Duke first ran for state representative, he hired George to produce a series of low – budget TV commercials (on Super 8.) When George asked me to be the only person on his crew, I put aside my disdain for Duke’s views because a) I never passed up an opportunity to work on a film of any kind in those days, and b) I viewed it as a fascinating anthropological escapade. I mean, we were shooting in the home of the world’s most recognizable racist, and it was fascinating. It was also frightening, conjuring the old idea that when the devil appears he will not be draped in fiery red and carrying a pitchfork.  No, he will be handsome, charming articulate etc.

Not long after this, George was hired by some company in New York City to direct a documentary on Duke and again he asked me to be his chief cameraman.   One night we were filming (in Super-8, natch) a cross – burning somewhere down in lower Algiers that was raided by NOPD. Only later did we learn that the woods that surrounded us had been swarming with S.W.A.T. sharpshooters with itchy trigger fingers.

Many years later (circa 1995) I was able to parlay this connection to Duke into PBS giving me $40,000 to make an hour-long documentary on Duke’s run for state Senate, the open primary that Mary Landrieu eventually won for her first term. He granted me unprecedented access to his campaign in no small part because I was “a friend of Georges.”

BA: In Shirkers, he takes Sandi Tan on as a friend, despite their big age difference. Only once in the movie is a possible romantic attraction to her suggested. It’s kind of left open to interpretation as to if that’s why he played this globe-trotting game with her. Can you provide some insight into his personality that might help explain his playing tricks of affection with younger women and girls?

ST: I have never told Sandi this but when this anecdote appeared on screen the first thing that came to mind was the Prince song “When Doves Cry”:

“Touch if you will my stomach
Feel how it trembles inside
You’ve got the butterflies all tied up
Don’t make me chase you
Even doves have pride…”

It’s so much the odd kind of erotic request I could picture George making.  It’s also quite consistent with Sandi’s recurring motif of George stealing from other artists’ work and claiming it as his.

I think the characterization of GC having a “romantic” attraction to her is a bit too gallant. I think the more precise description would be “sexual.” George was quite the ladies man had numerous relationships with women the time I knew him, during which time he was married, I’m sorry to say.

Speaking of marriage… I don’t think there’s even a hint of this in Sandi’s film, and I didn’t think about this until after my second or third viewing, but I think that George’s wife – I’ll respect her privacy by referring to her as “the widow,” as Sandi does – was truly the love of George’s life, at least as far as he was capable of having a love of his life. He was, if nothing else, a hedonist. He was perpetually seductive, and when it came to romance – sex? – he believed the ends justify the means.

BA: Cardona worked with you on The Last Slumber Party. What was the production of this Metairie shot flick like?

ST: Oh God, I could write a book about that but I’m not going to. It was a wonderful, terrifying, enlightening, one of a kind artifact. I was very much in love at the time with the work of Brian De Palma, especially Dressed to Kill, but was more immediately inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween, which had come out a few years before. I was young and experienced, in over my head, and in retrospect probably not temperamentally suited to be an effective director, at least at that stage of my life/career.

Also as a result of my youth and inexperience, the script was almost embarrassingly derivative, copping elements from the movies I listed above and then some. For example – the three girls were my lame attempt at replicating the bitchiness of the girls who torment the main figure in Carrie. Bad idea.

I was also not a very good producer, at least not in the sense of the producer being, “the person who gets the money.” We started filming with about $6,000 or $7000 in hand, with the promise of an additional $5000. The plan was for everyone, cast and crew, to be paid an hourly wage. Minimum wage to be exact (can’t remember what that was in 1981), but a full hourly wage nonetheless.

Second or third day of shooting the person who had pledged the $5000 pulled out. This could have been a crippling blow, but to their great credit, the cast and crew agreed to continue working with no salary.

On a technical note, LSP was also a departure from our previous undying devotion to Super 8, as we shot the film in 16mm, a considerably more costly endeavor that had we done it in the smaller format. All you rising digital filmmakers out there, keep in mind that we shot this film – mostly in the summer of 1981 – there is no such thing as electronic viewfinders or video assist. If you didn’t have somebody who knew how to use a light meter and was proficient at shooting the entire film by looking through the viewfinder, you were screwed. for this reason alone, George deserves tremendous credit, his dubious mythology notwithstanding. He did a masterful job and the film simply could not have been made without him.

Everybody involved in the film had been students of George’s of some type at one point or another, and LSP was meant to be the culmination – the graduate school thesis of the school of do-it-yourself filmmaking – of all we and learned both from George as well as our own individual cinematic journeys.

Eighty percent of the film takes place in one location: the suburban New Orleans home of a close high school and college classmate of mine, the older brother of a local political figure who will remain nameless out of respect for his privacy. We literally shot the film around the family’s schedule, ironically on at least one or two occasions slicing the throat of a teenage girl character in the room right next to one where a real-life teenage girl was sleeping. Too crazy.

The unfortunate, unavoidable casting decision was to put my dear friend, the heroic and irrepressible Jan Jensen, in the role that was specifically written for somebody completely else, someone (okay, my girlfriend at the time) who would almost totally be “playing herself.”

At the last minute, my girlfriend and I decided it was not a good idea for me, a novice director, to direct her, a novice actress, in a feature film in which she appears in practically every frame. She has a quality very much like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and the corny stuff that Jan has to say actually sounds quite amusing when coming from the mouth of the woman it was written for. But had we proceeded with my girlfriend in the role there would’ve been so much blood on the set there would’ve been no need to make any artificial stuff. Jan Jensen deserves recognition by the Kennedy Center Honors or something like that for her fearless and tireless contribution to what was supposed to be my dream project. She was – and is – the consummate professional.

We must’ve shot for five or six weeks I seem to recall, sometimes going two weeks straight without a break. My small crew performed heroic tasks both big and small, and I continue to work with a couple of them to this day.

Long story short, I edited the film in 16mm and sold the whole thing lock stock and barrel to a home-video outfit in Oklahoma for a fraction of the money we put into it, which was less than $10,000.

In Shirkers, Sandi fairly implies George may have absconded with some of the camera negative. I can’t prove that he did or if it was just negligence on the part of the film lab, and I was fortunate enough to have the work print intact, and the producers/distributors filled in the places where the missing negative would have gone with the corresponding work print. Unfortunately, the work print stuff in the final film looks slightly out of focus, because it was several generations down from the original.

After we wrapped, George did something that ended up being the beginning of the end of my friendship/relationship with him. During the first week of shooting, after we had lost the $5000 pledge but decided to keep on filming, I privately shared with George that if we got through the film and made any money at all, I would do whatever I could to compensate him in some fashion. But nothing even remotely resembling a concrete offer was made by me, or suggested by him. So one might imagine my surprise – shock – that after we completed filming George informed me that as fair compensation for his work on the film he was going to keep the expensive Sennheiser microphone and Sachtler fluid head tripod that we had purchased with the initial $7000. He was intractable in this decision and would not discuss it further.

Sandi clearly draws precise parallels between her George stories and my short stories, that after viewing the film I saw something about George’s character could I have not really conceptualized before that. What I mean is, whenever he started a project with you, in his own mind, on some level he saw it as being a business agreement that not only was drawn up in his own head in such a way as to unfairly benefit him; he also made a point of not sharing with you until it was too late that this was his position.

We drifted apart; I had a good gig for four years as an artist in residence as a filmmaker in the schools in South East Tennessee. During my periodic visits home to New Orleans, I would sometimes meet George and he would talk about his next exciting project that he wanted me to be part of. As Sandi’s film suggests, I’m reasonably certain one of these projects was Shirkers.

He kept offering me jobs on films that were his vision of some kind and I kept rejecting him. I remember one time thinking I could no longer go on having conversations with him where most of my psychic energy was directed towards trying to determine when he was lying to me or he was not.

Last time I saw George was sometime in the early to mid-90s. For 12 straight summers, I taught video production at a summer arts camp at an upscale private school in Metairie. I didn’t realize it at the time that one summer George’s daughter attended the camp during the time I was there. At the end of the program, there was a culminating festival that showcased all the work the different kids had done. George was there, taking still photographs of his daughter’s work. He made no attempt to make contact with me; I reciprocated. Actually, the more accurate characterization is, he pretended not to see me and I pretended not to see him.

BA: Where do Cardona and his/your crew ultimately fall in New Orleans independent film history?

ST: I think I shared this with you in other correspondence, but I am somewhat amused by this mini-cult following LSP has spawned. What puzzles me is that these guys – very nice fellows by the way – seem to think that I’m not “in on the joke.” One of them talks about how it’s one of the best films he has ever seen. If that’s truly the case, I have this recommendation: set aside one night to watch, back to back, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Citizen Kane.

The Last Slumber Party falls somewhere in between. I pray that, even if it’s just incrementally, my film is closer on this spectrum to Citizen Kane.

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