Stephen Elliott ran an open mic night at La Habra’s It’s A Grind until he decided to leave to teach English in Korea. I interviewed him on June 24, the night after his last open mic. In the first segment of that interview, he talked about open mic nights. Here he talks about earning a living waiting tables while feeding his creative self by doing non-profit projects.
“They should teach bar-tending classes in film school.”
You have a job waiting on tables, don’t you?
Stephen: Yes. It seems like everyone I know that went into creative fields in college and studied commercial music, writing, film, music, that sort of thing… acting… they ended up waiting tables or they’re working for a catering company. They should teach bar-tending classes in film school so that you’d have something to fall back on… a minor in bar-tending. I should have thought of that.
Where do you wait tables?
Stephen: Morningside at Fullerton. It’s on Brea and Bastanchury. It’s actually inside of a retirement community. There’s like a little restaurant and there’s about 300 residents that come in there daily. We serve a whole three-course meal, soup, salad, appetizers, desserts. We even serve filet mignon every once in a while.
“Since I’ve been working there I’ve had to cater four different funerals.”
So, in other words, this is a retirement community that I’m not going to be able to retire to.
Stephen: Probably not. Me neither. They say if you stick around long enough the might just let you sneak into one of the empty ones. So that’s plan B. It’s gonna take me a good forty years and I’ll be right there.
Since I’ve been working there I’ve had to cater four different funerals. A lot of the people that you start off getting to know will develop conditions, get worse, and die. They probably have about four people die a month. It’s a large community, and the average age is about 85. It’s a part of life I suppose, though. It’s the end part.
Sometimes grandchildren or even great grandchildren will come to visit. There was this lady who sat in the corner, and she was practically blind. She just stared off into the distance and listened to the noises of people moving around. She was sitting with her friend eating dinner and there was a baby over in the corner, screaming his head off. He was just crying so incredibly loud, and as I was walking by I heard her turn to her friend, and she said, “Such a beautiful sound!” They just listened to that baby crying for like 15 minutes. It was a deep moment.
“You’re a grip. I’m gonna find out what a grip is and get back to you.”
You graduated a couple of years ago. What have you been doing since?
Stephen: A lot of life right now is about trying to survive. I got my undergrad in film, and I tried to find work there, but I felt like the people were too panicky. They were always frantic, running back and forth. Their boss was always like whatever they wanted was the most important thing in the world. I got in trouble for calling the wrong person on the phone when I was working the switchlines at this tv production studio. I got into trouble for forgetting someone’s cream with their coffee. They were super upset. They were yelling and stuff…. but it’s coffee, and you’re not the president of the United States, even. So I decided to just cut out of that industry altogether.
Kind of in the tradition of open mic night, we didn’t have a platform, so we made one for ourselves. That’s what I’ve been doing with film. I’ve been working on the side. It does not pay my bills. As a matter of fact, it gives me more bills.
I’m doing short films. I just had one premier at the Fifth Annual Talent 1 Media Film Festival last weekend. I grabbed all my friends together and I said, “You’re a producer, you’re an editor, you’re a grip… I’m gonna find out what a grip is and I’m gonna get back to you.” And we made a movie. Spent all our money.
“I could stay up all night doing this. … I get into it and I don’t stop.”
Do you do your own editing?
Stephen: It’s a pretty fun thing when you get really into it. I can do post-production. I feel really bad for one of my producers. We were editing on his computer at his house because he has a better computer than I do, and I would be over at his house, at, like, one or two in the morning and I would have to go home because I could stay up all night doing this… I get into it and I don’t stop, but his wife is pregnant and he’s trying to go to work in the morning because he has a job. He’s not really a producer, we just decided he was going to be a producer. And I have to go to work too, but I don’t care, because I’ll just go all night and then wake up in the morning. It’s kind of addicting when you get into it.
What kind of software do you use?
Stephen: We’re editing on Final Cut right now, on a MacBook Pro. It’s amazing, the technology. When I started editing films I was in high school, so I was maybe like 15 years old, and I had this big computer, and I remember telling the guy at the computer shop that I wanted a gig of ram on the computer, and he said, “You’ll never use a gig of ram, you’re just wasting your money,” and he wouldn’t give it to me. And now you look at these laptops, and you can hold it in your hand, plug in a little hard drive to the side, and you can edit anywhere, and it’s ten times as powerful as what we were using back then, about a tenth of the size, and it has more than a gig of ram. So I was right.
I don’t even know what we’re going to be doing in five years or ten years.
“How do we treat people that we want to ignore?”
What was the name of the film you did for the festival?
Stephen: It was called “An Unfortunate Situation,” and it’s about a thing that I’m really passionate about, the issue of homelessness, and it was also about family ties. It’s about two kids who find the body of a homeless woman in a park by their school. One of the boys is the son of the principal of the school, and they tell him about it, and it’s just what his reaction is and how that’s different from if she was a different kind of person. Really, the film is about: How do we treat people that we want to ignore?
We ignore them.
Stephen: We ignore them. Right. Is there a better solution? A question I want to ask is, when you ignore someone that’s on the side of the street — and I have this answer myself because I’ve been able to befriend a lot of homeless people and get involved in their lives: Are we missing something? Like is it them that’s poor when we can’t even speak to someone that’s on the street? Who’s really poor, you know? Where does that poverty come from?
“This is my little brother. I want you to meet him because I think he has a good story.”
You mentioned a blog. What’s your blog address?
Stephen: PoorReflections.blogspot.com. It’s nothing professional. I just talk about my life and try to be as interesting as possible. I try to be as open as possible with it. And sometimes I get comments from complete strangers that are like, “Hey, I appreciated this,” or “I think you should think about this before you go there with that thing.” It’s interesting.
I feel like — and this is something that applies to my film-making career — I like it when it’s personal. I think people like it when it’s personal. When you say, “I feel this way. I think these things.” You know?
I did a documentary last year called “A Soup Kitchen Romance.” It’s about my little brother, a story about how he met his girlfriend working at a soup kitchen. I went in and I videoed him and her preparing food together, working… They’re working there to this day, maybe three and a half or four years. When they started they were like 15 or 16, and they loved these homeless people in the Salinas Valley. They know them by first name, remember when their birthdays are.
I thought that was a beautiful story. I did the voice-overs myself as opposed to getting someone who has, I don’t know, a better voice to read it. I said, Hey, this is my little brother. I want you to meet him because I think he has a good story, you know?
People really connected to that. I think a lot of people who saw it at the premier appreciated that it was personal and that I cared about it and that the people who worked on it cared about it.
“If you’re doing it for free, people are willing to let you get away with stuff.”
I also do slide shows, often for non-profits. Some of them are doing work that I agree with and I just want to support them. But for the most part, if no one’s paying me to do what I’m good at, I should do it anyway, because it’ll make me better. So I did a lot of work for free after graduating from college. I’m doing less of it now, but I’ll probably still continue to do it because also there’s more room to experiment. If you’re doing it for free people are willing to let you get away with stuff. I can approach each project with my own eye.
“You can be what other people say you should be and everyone will think you’re alright. Forget that!”
Be yourself, be honest, be true, and some people will love you and some people will hate you or you can be what other people say you should be and everyone will think you’re alright. Forget that!
In the previous segment of this interview, Elliot talked about running open mic night at It’s A Grind, a coffee shop in La Habra.
In the next and last segment, Elliott will discuss how going to work in Korea fits in with his life’s goals.