The documentarian

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Former Utah Valley State College student Steven Greenstreet documented some of the last visible demonstrations of activism on campus with his camera. His documentary, “This Divided State,” portrays passionate disputes between Utah Valley’s most conservative Republicans and defenders of free speech.

The clash was fueled by the acts of the student body president and vice president, who invited filmmaker Michael Moore to campus in 2004 to speak about his film “Fahrenheit 9/11” prior to the presidential election. Chaos ensued, and the radical right-wingers were only mildly satisfied when a compromise was met that brought Fox News’ Sean Hannity to Orem just days before Moore’s eventual visit.

Filming the action is Greenstreet, his future being shaped behind the lens by capturing the colliding ideologies and political protests — which also consequently brought about a lawsuit for exposing the movie’s archetypal villain, Kay Anderson. Greenstreet later went on to make “Killer at Large,” an exploration of the American obesity epidemic, and “8: The Mormon Proposition,” which details the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s financing of movements organized to promote the passing of Proposition 8 in California. Greenstreet documented Ke$ha’s world tours in “Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life,” which was released by MTV this year. He also recently shot a Thom Yorke set.

I caught up with Steven to talk about the vandalism of Murder, She Wrote books, dealing with various lawsuits, the reception of “8: The Mormon Proposition” at Sundance and his advice for storytellers.

Kyle: So I’m curious, what brought you to UVSC?

Steven: I grew up in Maryland, and I moved out to Utah to go to BYU film school. My grades sucked ass, so I had to go to UVSC for a semester to get my grades up.

Kyle: Did you transfer to BYU?

Steven: I went to two semesters at UVSC and then went to BYU. I went to a semester at BYU and dropped out.

Kyle: Did you ever finish college?

Steven: I dropped out of film school to make “This Divided State.” I never went back to school.

Kyle: Did you come from a religious upbringing?

Steven: All of my immediate family is Mormon. I did a Mormon mission in Venezuela.

Kyle: What inspired you to film the events leading up to Michael Moore coming to UVSC?

Steven: Before I even moved out to Utah, I always felt it was a unique and strange place. I had planned, before I moved, to make kind of an anthology of weird and strange stories through documentaries and things like that. At the time of the Michael Moore controversy, I had already been filming a whole bunch of documentaries, from stuff about news stories to people profiles that were odd or strange or interesting.

For example, up in Logan – I really should do something with this someday – there was this library that was being vandalized. Someone was checking out all of the Murder, She Wrote books, and was going through and crossing out all of the curse words and replacing them. For hell, they’d write heck; for damn, they’d write darn.

They were crossing out all of the naughty words and they were doing this to all of the books. They couldn’t nail down who it was because the Murder, She Wrote books were very popular. People were into them. So they started this little investigation to find out who was vandalizing, or censoring, the Murder, She Wrote books. So I went up there and stole a book and interviewed the librarians.

Little stories like that I was capturing, so when the Michael Moore controversy started up I thought ‘this is going to be another chapter of the anthology.’ But seriously, after about two days of filming at UVSC, I knew this was going to be something bigger. So I dedicated time to filming it.

Kyle: How did that experience have an impact on the films you’ve made?

Steven: I mean I dropped out of film school, mainly because I didn’t feel like I was learning that much. I was just tired of spending money on books and classes instead of making movies. “This Divided State” was my film school. I learned more in five months of making that movie than probably my entire school experience.

I learned everything about documentary filmmaking from that film; it was such a crash course, everything from how to book an interview, handling an interview, to the audio. Technical things too, like ‘how do I legally license Michael Moore’s speech and Sean Hannity’s speech? How do I draft a video lease?’ I got through it and a month within the film being released, I was sued. I experienced the whole spectrum of making a movie.

Kyle: Did that influence play any role in, perhaps, disillusioning you with the predominant LDS culture of Utah?

Steven: I was already having some issues. What’s interesting is that “This Divided State” happened at the pinnacle of me losing my faith. It was really this period. “This Divided State” marked the end of my religion as I know it. It all kind of led up to “This Divided State.” It definitely wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back, but during that time was the last time I went to church.

I had been struggling with my faith for years leading up to that film. There was a certain release, a certain independence. Once I finished the film and proved to myself that I could do that, I did feel a certain amount of independence from the culture.

You have to understand: when you are a documentarian, you’re an observer; you’re outside the box looking in. You’re observing the things around you. Establishing myself no longer as a participant, but rather an observer, I think freed me from the culture I had grown up in.

Kyle: I’m sure you were working on various projects in between, but following “This Divided State,” you made “Killer at Large.” What motivated you to make that documentary?

Steven: Probably hunger. My rent payment probably motivated me. I needed to pay rent. Seriously, that film was a whole debacle in itself. I was just hired as an editor to that film; there was already a director. The executive producer – a doctor – was funding the production of this movie, and the director was essentially embezzling this guy’s money and not doing anything. The director hired me at the last minute to save his ass. The executive producer wanted to see something, and he hadn’t done anything.

This guy had been given like $50,000, and he hadn’t done anything with it. So I came in and started pulling shit, doing research, shooting and editing some things. Long story short, the executive producer fired the director and hired me as the director. So I kind of took over and basically just started from scratch. I started over completely. I spent two plus years making that film.

That was the second time I was sued. The guy who was fired sued me for “stealing his client.” I was in court for like a year before the case was thrown out. In essence, it wasn’t like a film I was looking for, it was a film that landed in my lap.

Kyle: Is that a common occurrence? I mean, when you make a documentary, do lawsuits tend to follow?

Steven: In “This Divided State,” Kay Anderson, who some would say is the antagonist of the film, sued me because he no longer wanted to be in the film after signing a release form. I had a great lawyer, who happened to be one of Jon Huntsman’s lawyers at the time; Patrick Shea, pro-bono called me and said, “I’m going to protect you from this guy.”

He asked me if this was my first lawsuit, and I said, ‘yeah it is.’ He said, “If you’re going to be a filmmaker, get used to it.” He was right. From then-on out, it was like every film, every project I’ve worked on has involved some form of litigiousness.

Kyle: Is it fair to say that your experiences, with the LDS culture, led to a desire to expose a story the rest of America possibly wasn’t as familiar with by making “8: The Mormon Proposition?”

Steven: Yeah. It’s actually a really interesting story how “8” came about. After “Killer at Large” was done, I was done with Utah. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. So I took the first job I could get, which was in Washington, D.C., as a news-video journalist for the American News Project, which turned into the Huffington Post Investigative Fund. They hired me because of “This Divided State.”

I drove out and started instantly. My time there was spent between seven-to-eight-minute or 15-minute investigative journalism pieces. The financial crisis had been done as a couple of stories. My director and the color announcers were like ‘hey, everyone is doing stories on the financial crisis, what stories are we missing? Because everyone is focused on this.’

I raised my hand and said “Proposition 8 and Mormons in California,” but this is way before Election Day. They thought it was interesting, just because I had been following it and knew how things were going.

I pitched them this story about Mormon money and Proposition 8 and they were like ‘great story, do that.’ So I did this 7-minute investigative piece and I launched it. It was a big viral hit and was everywhere.

Reed Cowan, who turned into my co-director on the movie, was in Miami at the time and he saw my report. He calls me and says “hey, we should make this into a documentary.” I was immediately interested and said, “yes let’s start doing that.” He was an ex-Mormon, as well – a gay Mormon.

We hit it off really well and just hit the ground running at that point. I think we were able to do the film because, culturally, we had been involved with the church. We were aware of things that perhaps a Laman might not have been.

Kyle: Coming from the LDS culture, did “8″ generate more feedback than the previous films? What was the reaction that you witnessed?

Steven: Well when I did “8,” it was really a controversial film on multiple levels. It was a political topic that was in the news every week because it was going to the Supreme Court, but in a lot of ways, it had become a little forgotten because they released it so many years after Prop 8.

When we went to Sundance, which was my first time at Sundance officially, it was a big firestorm, politically. Not only were we premiering this film at possibly the world’s biggest film festival, but we were premiering it just a 25-minute drive from LDS headquarters.

I went up to Sundance expecting assassination attempts – crazy things like that, but I was surprised that the reaction was actually the opposite of that. We had Mormons coming to the screenings and crying, standing up in the Q&A’s and admitting that they had no idea, almost being apologetic.

This great conversation started. The film itself kind of created this great dialogue between those who had been at arms and odds before.

Kyle: Is that dialogue that you’re able to create through your films something that pushes you to keep making them?

Steven: I would say fear is my number one motivation. My biggest fear in life is to stop telling stories. If I’m not telling stories, I just wouldn’t know what else to do. It’s in my blood. It’s like heroin. If you’re a heroin addict, the only solution is more heroin.

I’m just addicted to it, and I’m always looking for the next story. Telling stories in feature films and shorts – I’ve done a lot of short films too – but I’d say my primary motivation is fear.

Kyle: I know that you’ve documented some of Ke$ha’s concerts for MTV. I also saw that you recently documented one of Thom Yorke’s sets. Are you interested in filming additional musical performances and possibly telling the stories behind the musicians?

Steven: Yeah, to a certain degree. Yes, starting with Ke$ha. Two of my favorite films of all time, two of the documentaries that inspired me to become a filmmaker, would be “Don’t Look Back,” which is D.A. Pennebaker’s film about Bob Dylan, and “Gimme Shelter,” which is the Maysles brothers’ documentary on the Rolling Stones.

I was inspired by those films, so when the opportunity to film Ke$ha came up, I was immediately drawn to it. Also, I had just come off doing “The Mormon Proposition,” which, to be honest with you, was a really heartbreaking, depressing, gut-wrenching, emotional experience for me.

The film is a very heavy film. I was kind of looking forward to doing something kind of light and fun for once in my life. Filming Kesha, we flew around the world with her for two years. It was a ton of fun and a nice change of pace for me.

Radiohead is the reason I listen to music. They are my favorite band of all time, probably one of the catalysts for my creativity back when I was 17. Filming and documenting him was great. If I could have one wish today, it would be to do a music documentary on Thom Yorke. I think that would be like my dream project.

Kyle: That would be amazing. Is that a possibility for the future?

Steven: If I’ve learned one thing in the last 13 years, it’s that I have no idea what the hell the future holds. I hope so, that would be great.

Kyle: On a random Reddit post, a person claiming to be a friend of yours said that you were working on the set of “Boardwalk Empire.” Was he right?

Steven: I did that on a whim. Basically, I have a part as an extra. It’s not filming, it was acting. I think it’s episode four of the season (four) that’s about to come out. I play a guy that gets swallowed by an alligator or something.

Kyle: Was that your first time acting?

Steven: No, I actually started out as a thespian back in high school. I always wanted to be an actor, but as soon as I started doing documentaries, that became my passion. I did a horror movie. I filmed and acted in a horror movie last year. Whenever I can, I try and step on the other side of the camera.

Kyle: Do you have any advice for aspiring storytellers that might want to travel a path similar to yours?

Steven: I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve done. I figured out a way for it to kind of work out. I honestly believe that a lot of this industry, and a lot of my career, is 90 percent luck and 10 percent preparation. So you have to be ready when an opportunity arises, but a lot of it is just happenstance. You have to start that path, though.

The advice I’d give to filmmakers specifically, is go out and make a movie. Go out with your idea and do it. My No. 1 advice for filmmakers is ‘go out and fail.’ Go out and fail. You’ll learn more from that one experience than you will in a decade at a film school. Once you have something under your belt, everything else begins to take care of itself.

Stop waiting and just do it. I mean if you’re a writer, write something. If you’re a painter, paint something. If you’re a filmmaker, pick up a camera and just film something. Even an iPhone, just pick up anything that records video, and go out and make something and you’ll learn a lot. It’s a very personal, intimate experience making a film. Those are the kinds of things they can’t teach you in a classroom. You learn a lot about yourself too. Making films for me has been like the equivalent of sitting with a psychologist.

Kyle: I really appreciate your time. I will let you know when we the article is published.

Steven: Yeah you guys are still weekly right?

Kyle: Yeah. It will run in the next issue.

Steven: Great. Do you guys have that new library?

Kyle: I believe it’s relatively new; it wasn’t there when you were at UVSC?

Steven: No. If you remember in the film, one of the things that was held over the school’s head by Utah Republicans was ‘hey, remember that funding we were going to give you for the new library? We’re not going to give it to you if you let Michael Moore come.’ By the end of the film, the funding had been pulled. I did check back a few years later and it seemed like it was being built, so that’s kind of good news. All of the bad news that happened at the end of the film kind of works itself out eventually.

Kyle: Yeah. I think a lot of them were just empty threats that probably never ended up coming to fruition. I really enjoyed it though. I think it’s incredible to see that kind of activism on campus. There’s never really been anything like it since, unfortunately.

Steven: Oh really? I got to tell you man, that’s one of the things that I was impressed with. Like I said: two days into filming, the hallways were full of people with signs and opinions. I’d never seen a college like that. I’d become disillusioned to the apathy of that generation.

Seeing UVSC students pack the hallways, fill up cafeterias and take the stand at microphones was pretty amazing. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I was able to document that.

Kyle: I saw it in one of my communication classes, and I’m sure it’s played in film classes, too. It’s playing a part in students’ education. Anyway, thanks again for your time.

Steven: Thank you.

Kyle: Best of luck in the future, Steven.

Steven: All right, have a good day man.