Remember ”Steve,“ the teen character in WSMV-Channel 4’s public-service commercials back in the 1980s? Or maybe you remember Steve Chambers, the actor who played the character. He appeared in countless local stage productions and founded the Nashville Shakespeare Festival before heading west in 1990 to seek his fortune in Los Angeles.
In the years since, alert viewers have glimpsed the actor on such television shows as The Young and the Restless, Dear John, and the one-hour mystery pilot Arly Hanks, in which Chambers starred opposite Kate Jackson. Along the way, the actor changed his name, due to Screen Actors Guild rules forbidding name duplication among its union members. Now known as Chambers Stevens, he has recently added filmmaker to his list of credits. His first film, Children of a Laughing God, made its festival debut May 7 at the West Virginia International Film Festival and screened recently at the Wilmington Film Festival in North Carolina. (The film’s final cut wasn’t ready in time to be submitted to this year’s Nashville Independent Film Festival, which unfolds June 9-13.)
Written by, directed by, and starring Stevens, the film is a lighthearted but occasionally stinging ”mockumentary“ about the weird world of child actors and their acting coaches. It’s a world that Stevens has come to know well through his work as a professional kids’ acting coach in Hollywood. ”I’ve always been interested in kids,“ he says of his unusual sideline career. ”My wife [Betsy Sullenger, a creative executive with Middlefork Productions] calls it the Pied Piper gift. She says kids understand that I am a big kid, so they respond to me. Ruth Sweet [the late Nashville acting teacher] noticed this too, and hired me years ago to teach acting at her Acting Studio in Nashville.“
It was an act of kindness toward a child that led to Stevens’ coaching career. ”One of my first jobs in Los Angeles was delivering packages. At my first delivery stop, there was a kid sitting on the porch crying because he had an audition, and he didn’t feel prepared. So I helped him on his part.“ The young actor got the role, and Stevens got a second career when the boy’s agent began sending other young actors his way. ”The next day I quit delivering packages,“ Stevens recalls.
In his years as a kids’ coach in Hollywood, Stevens has seen both the up side and the down side of the business. Despite the horror stories told by former child actors, however, most of his experiences have been positive. ”The most surprising thing about kid actors is how smart they are. The other surprising thing is how nice the parents are. Most are single moms. All of them are very protective, but by and large, the parents are extremely kind and generous.“ In fact, Stevens notes, his film could not have been made without their support: Some of his students have roles in the film, as do their parents.
On the other hand, Stevens says, some managers who promote and orchestrate the careers of child actors are ”real nightmares.“ Not surprisingly, the character most scathingly satirized in his film is a manager.
Stevens has also written two books for child actors, Magnificent Monologues for Kids and 24-Karat Commercials: Everything Kids Need to Know to Break Into Commercials, both published by Los Angeles-based Sandcastle Publishing. While his acting, coaching, and writing activities keep him gainfully employed, they haven’t made him rich enough to shoot his first film in the conventional manner. Instead, the actor shot his film digitally for a total cost of about $750a paltry 1 percent of what he estimates it would have cost to use traditional methods.
”We didn’t use film in the camera but a DV,“ he says. ”It looks like a mini-CD in a case. A number of award-winning films have been shot digitally. Breaking the Waves, which earned Emily Watson an Oscar nomination, was shot with the same kind of camera I used. Some people don’t think digital films look as good as films shot with a film camera. But if you have good lighting, most people can’t tell the difference.“
The real savings, according to Stevens, comes in the developing costs, which are nonexistent in the digital process. ”Most people don’t realize that film developing costs are hugetens of thousands of dollars on most independent films. Not to mention that you can’t record sound onto a piece of film. You have to record the sound separately and sync it lateranother huge expense. With a DV, you point the camera and, bam, you can go home right home and edit.
”In the old days, the only way to edit film was by hand, which meant a lot of cutting and pasting. But I own an Avid machine, so I just load my DV into my computer. I can mix and match shots, and when I decide on my choices, I plug the VCR up to my computer and I have my completed film. I did have to go to a soundstage to mix the sound. But my new computer will be able to do that too.“
In between attending the festival screenings of Children of a Laughing God, Stevens is at work on his next film project, one that will bring him back to his hometown this summer. ”Ever since high school, I have been very interested in the civil rights movement. Recently, my cousin Alison asked me to codirect a project with her on the role Nashville played in the movement. I should mention that my cousin is in eighth grade, is biracial, and is president of her class at Martin Luther King Magnet School in Nashville. Her hero is Diane Nash, the woman who stood up to Mayor Ben West and forced him to admit that segregated lunch counters were wrong. Alison and I are going to use the film to show what happened 40 years ago and also how what happened has influenced [Alison’s] life now.“ Stevens plans to begin filming the documentary in Nashville in July.
Stevens sees his various creative endeavors as interrelated rather than separate. ”I like the process of telling stories, whether through acting, writing, or making films,“ he observes. To that end, he plans to continue communicating stories in whatever form best suits the story. ”It’s all a means to the end,“ he says.
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