Dartmouth Senior Shooting Feature Film in Hanover
San Luis Obispo, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, has at least three claims to fame. The first is that it is the home of the world’s first motel, built in 1925; the second is that in 2011, in one of those frequent polls about the best places to live, San Luis Obispo was named the happiest town in the United States. And for William Randolph Hearst, who was very rich and possibly quite happy as a result, it was a 40-mile drive south from San Simeon, his opulent Xanadu on the coast, to San Luis Obispo.
This trivia is courtesy of Cooper Stimson, a filmmaker and Dartmouth senior, who calls San Luis Obispo home. Stimson always thought San Luis Obispo was a small town until he came to Hanover, and saw what small really is. He also saw that fluffy white stuff coming out of the sky, which is something that doesn’t happen often along the Pacific Coast.
“My mind was blown by snow,” Stimson said, in an interview at the Dirt Cowboy Café in Hanover. Tall, with reddish brown-hair and a beard, he has an easy-going, thoughtful demeanor.
Stimson is in the middle of making a film called Paddling Like the Dickens, a romantic comedy about two pairs of potential lovers that he is shooting in and around Hanover, with an ensemble cast of nearly 18 actors. The film has an $11,000 budget; a recent Kickstarter campaign didn’t meet the goal, so it’s back to the drawing board for money.
Paddling is the first of his films that will run a feature length, about 90 minutes. His previous work includes the short films My New Sister and Chemo, which won a Diamond Award at the 2012 California Film Awards.
Stimson took the title for Paddling from an interview with the actor Michael Caine, in which Caine was asked his philosophy of life. Live like a duck, Caine answered, serene on the surface even if you’re paddling like the dickens underneath. Ducks are not the only birds to which Stimson alludes in his work; the name of his production company is Elementary Penguin, a stray phrase in the Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.
A math major, Stimson has numerous interests, from literature to theater to computer science to sci-fi. But film is a long-standing avocation. He started making short stop-motion movies at age 10 with his younger brother, Connor, who is also a filmmaker, and has made films ever since.
Stimson had a tough early childhood: he was diagnosed with leukemia just before his second birthday, and while he was ill, his father abandoned the family, leaving Cooper’s mother, Linda Stimson, to care for her two sons on her own. Stimson recovered from the cancer and at the end of first grade requested that he be home-schooled because the conventional A-B-C, 1-2-3 curriculum bored him.
This was a kid who, at age 9, began reading Dickens, he said, “of my own volition.” He and his brother were excused from a standard English class at home because they were both constant readers. At ages 12 and 13, the Stimson brothers read Shakespeare’s comedies aloud as part of their home schooling. And at Dartmouth, Stimson has written and directed plays as part of the college’s theater program.
“I’m really focused on telling stories,” Stimson said. Everything and anything can be a story, including mathematics, which he succinctly characterized as a “complex description of interlocking relationships. You tug on one thing and it’s going to affect everything else.”
The logic and language of math has given Stimson an invaluable way of thinking about the world, he said. “The world is a very big place and my brain is a very small thing. To fit all the world into my brain, my brain would have to expand.” Since that’s physiologically impossible, humans will always struggle to get “a little closer to an ideal understanding,” Stimson said. “There’s always room for improvement.”
This, in turn, leads to the complex equations found in romantic comedies, a genre Stimson never cared for, until he realized that romantic comedies and math are “both about interlocking relationships.”
In Paddling Like the Dickens, which has been shot mostly on weekends to accommodate the student actors’ schedules, Stimson throws into the same orbit a self-absorbed man and a woman whose head is in the clouds, “neither of whom are socially adept or socially aware.” Meanwhile, two best friends, a man and a woman, tentatively try to turn their friendship into romance. Apart from the complication of making the leap from friendship to love affair, the woman is gay but afraid to say so.
“She flings herself into a relationship hoping she’ll force herself straight,” Stimson said. “It’s clear from the beginning this was a mistake, but he thinks it’s the best idea ever. They have completely opposite understandings of their relationship.”
Stimson cites Woody Allen as a strong influence. “I think the way he approaches characters is really well done, particularly the way it plays out in Annie Hall. You stumble into these people’s lives and you just happen to be there.”
What Stimson wants to express in his films is how characters “do or do not learn from each other.” Learning is a theme that seems to run through Stimson’s life, from the education he received from his mother, whom he calls his main inspiration, to his self-education to his collaborations with his brother, and other writers and actors.
“I don’t want to be a directorial puppet master,” he said. “I think that ends up missing a lot of the potential of the process. Ideally film will have some insight into the human condition. For me, it’s more, Let’s explore human nature together, let’s explore situations and see what we can come up with.”
To learn more about Cooper Stimson’s films go to his website, epcinema.com.