Steven Taylor is a Trinidad and Tobago filmmaker who isn’t lacking in talent or ambition. His short supernatural thriller Buck: The Man Spirit—which was his thesis film for his degree from the film programme at the University of the West Indies—won him the audience prize at the ttff/12 for best local short film. Recently he was accepted to study for a masters in fine arts from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, the oldest and one of the most prestigious film schools in the world (alumni include the likes of George Lucas, James Ivory, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Zemeckis). The 25-year-old recently sat down to chat with us for this installment of our Filmmakers in Focus series.
Congratulations on your acceptance to the University of Southern California. How did you decide you wanted to attend USC?
It was very easy for me. I was inspired by Steven Spielberg. Jurassic Park was my initiation into film, at the age of seven. From then on I knew that’s what I’d be doing for the rest of my life. Steven Spielberg actually applied to USC, and he was denied entry twice. So getting into USC is like a major feat.
You’ve already done an undergraduate degree at the UWI film programme, graduating with first-class honours in production and film studies. Why did you feel it necessary to go further in studying filmmaking, and not just start making feature films?
One of the reasons I decided to do the MFA is that I haven’t worked with film [stock]. Yes, people are saying that film is dying out and the DSLR revolution is something that’s taking us by storm, but people still shoot on film. It’s something that you can decide for aesthetic reasons that you want to use. I also wanted to be able to understand the tools of large-scale production, to incorporate that with what I’ve learned as a guerrilla filmmaker, to become complete.
Your most recent film, Buck: The Man Spirit—the story of a taxi driver who unwittingly brings home a buck, a supernatural creature from Caribbean folklore—was your thesis film from UWI and a selection of the trinidad+tobago film festival last year, where it won audience award for best local short. How did you decide on the subject for the film?
I have always been fascinated by one’s imagination and the ability to bring it to life on screen. That’s why Steven Spielberg influenced me—his imagination has no ending, no full stop. On another level, Buck represented my family; the buck was more a symbolic character, some element that comes into an institution and destroys it. I decided to do Buck and use the mythical, folkloric thing we have in Trinidad to disguise a story about a family that was going through some kind of turmoil. The buck character was my way of bringing in all these things, and not just using it for blood and gore.
Your previous student shorts traded in genre material as well—suspense, and a bit of gore. Would you say then that you see yourself primarily as a genre filmmaker working in action, suspense, horror, those genres?
I can’t say that as yet until I complete the MFA and get to explore this film world as we know it. I’m still limited in the tools and the experiences that I have. The films that I’ve done so far aren’t really what I want to do. I haven’t done that as yet for a lot of reasons—budgetary, crew, etc. So I don’t know yet if I’d call myself a genre or art cinema filmmaker. I’m still experimenting with different styles to find one that is truly mine.
Why did you decide to go to USC as opposed to, say, schools more known for producing independent filmmakers, such as New York University or Columbia?
I’m really a fan of big-budget productions. I like to be able to do anything you want to do in a film. Filming is supposed to be something like a playhouse. Here in Trinidad we have a lot of constraints with doing what you really want to do. You have to sacrifice your story a lot of the time to make things work. Big-budget productions are the kinds of things I want to experience. I know it’s not as intimate as a small production, but I’ve experienced that, working with four people on a crew. And, well, I grew up in the blockbuster era with the Gremlins and Ninja Turtles and Jurassic Parks. So for me it’s about seeing how I can bring that sort of level of filmmaking to the Caribbean by tailoring it to us, by taking the elements that are necessary to make it happen.
How do you see yourself being able to do that given the obvious economic constraints that we have here? And how do you see a Caribbean film industry developing given those constraints?
I think in this day and age there really aren’t a lot of constraints. Now technology is accessible, cameras are accessible. What we lack is the knowledge. A lot of the time we find the money to pay German directors, American directors, to come right here and use our talent to make big films. There are a lot of examples of that. But what they come with is the know-how. For me it’s not bringing down a whole studio, but working with what we have, which is the innate talent, use the equipment that is not available to us. I don’t think technology is the issue; it’s the know-how. Hollywood has a great mechanism to keep those things away from us.
Getting back to USC, what was the entry process like?
It was like applying to any other school. There’s a form online, you show samples of your work, what awards you’ve won, make a mandatory statement of purpose. I basically took all the work that I’ve done until now and put it together and hoped for the best. And they liked it. And most of the things I’ve done, guess where I did them? In Trinidad and Tobago. I did all of those films right here.