By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
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By RFT Staff
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By Allison Babka
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He admits to his flaws as a director and screenwriter but prides himself as a microbudget producer who can get every dollar onto the screen. And he makes a product that finds its way onto DVD players and VCRs around the world.
"I believe I'm the only director in St. Louis currently making my living making movies," he says frankly, seated on a drab sofa in his South City apartment. "There are other guys who are not directors who operate on the more technical side: They're gaffers and directors of photography or something along those lines. Guaranteed, their income is way, way above what I get, but as far as directing movies -- producing and directing feature-length fiction movies that are released to a global audience -- I don't think there's anybody else in St. Louis doing that."
On his walls are movie posters -- Day of the Dead and Martin -- by one of his heroes, zombie-movie king George Romero. Stanze also has posters from his own early work, "The Scare Game" and "The Fine Art." Although those films are Stanze's juvenilia -- made in his teens for himself -- they've found an audience as well.
"My opinion is that the process of making a movie finishes with the release to the public," he says, the steel of a determined filmmaker emerging in his voice. "If you don't finish your movie to a point where it's acceptable for release and you don't give it up to the audience to either be embraced or crucified, you have not completed the process and you are not a real director. Releasing your product to the public is the final stage. If you can't make that final stage, then you haven't made a movie."
He doesn't try to deliver that product to St. Louis, however. Stanze treasures his anonymity locally, even as he enjoys cult status internationally.
"My product is not embraced by the local mentality," he says without complaint. "My product is a little bit beyond what most people in St. Louis would tolerate. I don't really feel like going through the effort of publicizing myself locally. I already have a global audience, and I'm pretty sure St. Louis will hate me when they see my work. Why go through the effort of screening it locally?"
So when the St. Louis International Film Festival offered to screen Scrapbook for its St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, Stanze told them thanks, but no thanks. He doesn't need the grief.
Chris Clark, SLIFF's sagacious programmer, reports that the prospect of screening Scrapbook for the showcase created controversy within the organization. Scrapbook is an intense, raw portrayal of a serial killer and one of his victims.
"To some people, Scrapbook is a couple notches above a snuff film, which is very scary," says Clark. "By rights we should honor Stanze as a St. Louis filmmaker, but upon viewing the material it is not the taste of most. I don't mind stuff like that. I've been desensitized over time. But other people who have seen it were completely mortified to even see the film. It was even worse for them to learn it was made locally."
Clark agrees, however, that Stanze, arguably, is the most successful filmmaker in St. Louis.
"It's certainly underground and certainly not for everyone," says Clark. "But he has this cult following, and in magazines such as Fangoria [the horror-movie monthly] he's a stud. And he's a St. Louis boy and we should be proud.
"But on closer examination: What is art? What is not? All those things pop up. That was going to be the heart of the discussion. Should we be proud of this guy, and should these films be made? There's certainly a market for it, and he deserves recognition, but at the same time I don't think he really wants it."
Vicki Woods, director of the Webster Film Series, hasn't developed an appreciation for Stanze's Scrapbook: "I didn't finish watching it. It's a very disturbing film."
Although women are often the heroines of Stanze's films, and the victim Clara eventually gets revenge on serial killer Leonard in Scrapbook, Woods notes that everything "leading up to her escape is debasing toward women."
She questions Stanze's stark approach to the film: "We want our violence spoonfed to us. We want music. We want close-ups. It was too raw. There's no backstory. There isn't much to the plot."
Stanze isn't surprised by the criticism. "It's Webster. What do you expect?" says the Jefferson College grad.
Why would Stanze suffer local outrage and further piss off his parents -- his mother once asked him to use a pseudonym -- when he can keep a low profile and make movies with his friends? Stanze may play it wild and taboo-busting in his films, but in town he plays it safe.
He has surrounded himself with an extraordinarily loyal crew. Since he hauled the family's Super-8 out of the closet to make a movie after seeing Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, Stanze has drawn an entourage around him. They are willing to suffer terrible conditions, lousy dialogue and gallons of sticky stage blood and give up their weekends to make movies with Stanze for no pay. "I ask for long hours," says the director. "I ask them to put up with uncomfortable conditions. When they're on the set, I expect them to shut up and do their job and not whine and complain about not having this and not having that. I've been doing this for 10 years now. I would not feel right about doing that if I didn't suffer a little on my own."