Stefanie Davis: Rising to the Challenge

#DirectedbyWomen team member Allison Michelle Morris recently had the opportunity to speak with Stefanie Davis, award-winning filmmaker and owner of the production company Bouncy Boxer Media. While Davis and her production team are well known for their comedic chops, they challenged themselves to compete in the 30 Day Action Film Challenge where they had to write, produce, and edit their short action film, I Now Pronounce You, from July 1-July 30. In this two-part feature, Stefanie and Allison talk about indie filmmaking, taking on film challenges, and the importance of representation of women within the action genre.

Preparing for the Challenge

DBW: Hi, Stefanie, thanks for chatting with us! How did you get started in filmmaking? Who or what inspired you to do what you’re doing now?

SD: I began as an actress! I moved to Florida in 2013 to start over after chronic migraines took over my life and acting seemed like a good way to start. So while I worked my retail management job, I would be an actress in various films in our area. I took classes, learned on set, and found a love for storytelling. I enjoyed learning the craft of breaking down the stories and really connecting with a character.

DBW: Is there a particular woman director or film that has been an inspiration to you?

SD: I saw Wonder Woman while I was in D.C. recently and – wow – Patty Jenkins is a beautiful storyteller. However, for the most recent project we’ve worked on, we did a Clint Eastwood type style. I rehearsed and did long takes with my cast, and we got 1-2 takes each time. This was a cast of eleven (yes, eleven, plus featured extras and background extras), and we had to keep control. The key was an authoritative presence with a sense of comfort for playing.

DBW: How did you start your production company Bouncy Boxer Media?

SD: Bouncy Boxer Media started as an outlet for me to make ebooks about things I thought were important. When my two best friends, Chelsea Wolf and Lexi Balestrieri, and I decided we were sick of the roles in our area, I brought up this company. We then began writing scripts and began production on Migraine Hell.

With that experience bringing in experienced local film folk, we immediately started Speed Dating, which brought in a large cast and a skeleton crew and a beautiful directorial debut from Cindy Krapfel. We’ve won four awards on that film and have screened in 14 festivals so far.

DBW: Can you tell us about your production team? How do you and your team decide which projects to pursue?

SD: Our production team has three core members: myself, Chelsea, and Lexi. We as a whole decide what we will be working on; sometimes, we write scripts based on characters Chelsea and Lexi want to portray. Other times, we are expanding on ideas we all feel are important. We use local actors and strive on working with local talent behind and in front of the camera. We also have two powerhouse collaborators and great friends, Alinda Harr and Cindy Krapfel. These ladies are true leaders both in film and in business.

DBW: What themes or genres do you and your team tend to gravitate towards?

SD: We are known in our area as being the “comedy girls.” We love working with all aspects of comedy. In fact, the project this weekend is an action comedy, and our My Rode Reel challenge piece is a comedy as well. We like bringing joy and laughter to our audiences while they feel emotions in other aspects of our films. Ransom has a very eerie feel with a comedic twist. BS Meeting was very dark, but we had so many quirky characters! I even have a horror comedy and superhero comedy ready to be developed.

DBW: You’re about to start production on a new project through the Action Film Challenge; can you explain what the parameters of the challenge are?

SD: The challenge is for 30 days. We have to write, shoot and edit a short film that is a minimum of ten minutes and a max of fifteen. We can come up with the concept, lock location, and assemble the team, however, we cannot do any creative aspects like write or production design until the first day. To make it even more challenging, there are four elements every team has to incorporate. For this Action Film Challenge, we had to have someone have a heart attack, include a doctor, a baseball bat, and the line “what do you expect me to do?”

DBW: Have you ever done a film challenge like this before? What prompted you to enter this year?

SD: In 2015 we did the Comedy Film Challenge for our short film BS Meeting. Another ambitious ensemble cast concept. We had to incorporate someone losing their keys, a plunger, the line “I don’t believe it,” and a character named Tony.

We decided to enter the Action Film Challenge because we’ve never done it before. We are always seeking out ways to stretch ourselves as filmmakers. Action has many comedic elements like the Fast and the Furious franchise and The Heat with Melissa McCarthy. My cinematographer and good friend, Scott Sullivan, had entered this particular challenge before so we teamed up to do this. I also worked on his entry, Lockdown, as a script supervisor. Scott has always been a great supporter of us and we of him.

On the set of I Now Pronounce You [Photo by Adam Breo]
On the set of I Now Pronounce You [Photo by Adam Breo]

DBW: Because you only have thirty days to finish your short film, do you have a strategy for completing within the challenge parameters?

SD: The least stressful way – is that even possible? – to finish this challenge is to film early. Since the Fourth of July weekend (and my birthday) was the first week, we opted to film the second weekend in July. Now that we have wrapped, I immediately go into rough cutting to give to my editor, Domonic Smith. From there, I’ll strategize music and collaborate with a sound team while we color correct it. The pieces all working simultaneously help get us a quality film on time. After the challenge is premiered and complete, I want to spend some more time trimming the film and getting an original score to submit to festivals.

DBW: Can you tell us about your short film or share the inspiration for your concept for this year’s challenge?

SD: I’ve always wanted to film some kind of wedding concept. I never knew how or what it would consist of, but someday it would happen. When we signed up, I started thinking of a concept, and I watched a video of two local Renaissance Fair actors’ wedding. They had someone object, and a big “fight” broke out. I immediately called Lexi and Chelsea. They loved the idea! We are calling it: I Now Pronounce You.

Still photo of Yvelisse Cedrez as Eve (2)
Still photo of Yvelisse Cedrez as Eve

Because of a fight breaking out, I collaborated with Chelsea and Scott for the story. We came up with the premise of an underground fight club type wedding. Two members fell in love, and this is their wedding day in the very venue they met. Cindy and Alinda immediately started working on finding location and we were lucky to come across Metal Supermarkets in Tampa. I went to the location with Chelsea, and we talked to the owner, Brian. We explained the concept, and he was ecstatic to be part of it.

Once we wrote the script, my production design dynamic duos, Melissa McNerney and Betty Jeune, got to work. Those two had such a vision for this wacky concept. The day of filming when they put everything together, I was overwhelmed with joy from the beauty of the gritty space. That really tells the story.

Stefanie and Scott Sullivan on set [Photo by Adam Breo]
Stefanie and Scott Sullivan on set [Photo by Adam Breo]

It was very important for me to assemble a team of people who could tell this story in the best way possible. It also just so happens this team has a woman in every single department of filming. We have so many talented women in our area and men who support women in film. I have six colors of a shirt that says “I Make Films Like A Girl” designed by Lynne Hansen. I wear them on set, and many of the men and women in our area have some too. Wearing that shirt in public also gets people talking. I always get a comment when walking around in it.

I cannot wait to see the final edit and show a beautifully raw short film that really shows off the talents of our Tampa/St. Pete filmmaking area. The performances will bring so many different emotions to the audience!

DBW: Best of luck, Stefanie!

I Now Pronounce You - Poster

Mission Accomplished

DBW: First of all, thanks for taking the time to chat with us again. And congratulations on completing the 30 Day Action Challenge and showing your short film, I Now Pronounce You! How do you feel now that you and your team have shown the film?

SD: Relieved! That was definitely a challenge in itself but I’m glad it’s over, and we got to screen it locally. [I Now Pronounce You] won for best makeup and best costume, and so far we’ve had really positive responses from audiences. We’ve decided to make the video public for a week on our YouTube channel so more people can see it and provide feedback via survey to improve the festival cut; we’re going straight into editing so we’ll be ready for the 2018 festival circuit.

DBW: How did production go, especially considering your tight schedule? Was there anything that went particularly well that you’re proud of?

SD: The casting was so on point! Our cast really brought out some killer performances to shine as individuals and as an ensemble. Our crew was also so on top of things, and we were all able to do one job which made it a lot less stressful. The challenges were mostly the stunts. We have never done any stunts before except a slap in our short “Ransom” (2015), so to have an all-out wedding fight was a challenge. Luckily, our stunt coordinator, Hoon Park, brought some colorful ideas to the film. This was his first time choreographing a “girl fight,” and he was super excited to put it together.

Also, our crew had at least one woman in every department. That was completely by accident, and we loved it! We had so many strong, amazing women behind the camera and showing what we can do. The men on our crew are all kickass supporters of women in film, and I love working with every one of them.

DBW: Did you encounter any challenges while filming? How did you adapt?

SD: Any challenges we encountered on set were solved by making sure the correct person was handling it. My 1st AD and Producer, Cindy Krapfel, is a beast and she definitely made my life easier delegating tasks. But, of course, our biggest challenge was the time constraints itself. We only had two days and limited time to film in our location, but my team was great, and I’m really proud of what we put together for this challenge.

DBW: Since I Now Pronounce You is your first action film, what was it like choreographing and directing stunts?

SD: Hoon and I had some time to talk about the characters and the main event. He came up with some really creative ideas based on each character’s choices and how they would fight. Our villain would fight dirty, so he suggested a hair pull. I thought it was a perfect addition to the story, so I was at the beauty supply store the next morning as soon as it opened to buy the fake hair for the stunt. We worked together, and he made sure our two leads were comfortable with the main event fight.

For our supporting fights, we collaborated with our actors; every cast member was fight-trained already, so it made it a lot easier on us. One, in particular, does parkour, so Hoon came up with the idea to throw him off the gift table — and he was totally game for it! While we were choreographing the main fight, the other fighters and I came up with some good fight sequences to put in the background. The big fight looks amazing!

Stunt coordinator Hoon Park works with actors Yvelisse Cedrez and Lexi Balestrieri in between filming [Photo by Adam Breo]
Stunt coordinator Hoon Park works with actors Yvelisse Cedrez and Lexi Balestrieri in between filming [Photo by Adam Breo]

DBW: I loved that your main protagonist, Eve, was both feminine and physically strong – kicking butt in a wedding dress, no less! Was that a conscious choice going into production or something that came about naturally through the story?

SD: It was definitely natural to the story we wanted to tell. I just loved the juxtaposition of the idea of Eve, an underground fighter, kicking ass in a wedding dress, and as soon as I brought it up to Yvelisse, who plays Eve, she was all for it. When I told Yve she would be playing our bride (the actor who plays our groom is her boyfriend in real life), she was so excited! Her first question was, “Do I get to kick in the dress because I have the perfect boots.” We went to a thrift store to search for the right dress, but it was kind of awkward when we realized other shoppers could hear our comments like, “Can you see my combat boots in this?” or “I can kick so high in this one!” or “This will look great covered in blood!” That was a fun shopping day for sure.

Even though it’s her wedding day, we didn’t want Eve to hold back. Lanie, played by Lexi, challenges her to the ultimate showdown, and, even though they both look beautiful, they’re fighters at heart.

Still photo of Lani (Lexi Balestrieri) and Eve (Yvelisse Cedrez)
Still photo of Lani (Lexi Balestrieri) and Eve (Yvelisse Cedrez)

DBW: Well, action films have a long and, frankly, unfair history of widely being considered “boy movies.” With recent additions to the genre like Jessica Jones, Wonder Woman, and Atomic Blonde, and now that you and your team have completed an action film yourselves, what do you think about representation, both in front of and behind the camera?

SD: Honestly, Wonder Woman had me sobbing in the theater. I need to see Atomic Blonde because, wow, Charlize just looks amazing. I’m currently binge-watching the first season, but Jessica Jones is the hero I’ve needed for a while, too.

DBW: I’m biased since action is one of my favorite film genres, but I was pretty emotional seeing Wonder Woman, too. It felt kind of silly to have such an emotional reaction to just seeing a character in a movie, but it felt so important and necessary to have [Wonder Woman] on the big screen and for her to finally have “her moment.”

SD: True. The darker and grittier feminine hero is a great way to represent women in action. In front of the camera, they speak to so many young girls and women with their strengths and weaknesses. Those who direct them behind the camera, like Jenkins, give those of us who also work behind the camera more reasons to push the envelope. [Jenkins] inspires me so much as a director, and I really think she pushed to have a greater meaning behind Wonder Woman.

I also listened to [Jenkins’] Q&A on the Directors Guild of America Podcast, and I was so blown away by how graceful and strong she is. She doesn’t apologize for her decisions, and she really stood by her vision for the film. She, as well as others like Ava Duvernay, are really changing the game and helping directors like myself join in the fight. I am far from their level of direction, but I work each project to inspire at a level of even a fraction that they do.

Still photo of Yvelisse Cedrez as Eve 1
Still photo of Yvelisse Cedrez as Eve 1

DBW: Now that you have one action film under your belt, do you think you might work on another in the future?

SD: Yes! Working on this project made me fall in love with action comedy even more. I’ve been working on a comedic take on a superhero origin story, which will involve a lot of stunts, and I have a full list of kick-ass performers here in Tampa to work with. And lots of costume and production design, too. Art departments can really shine in action [films], and many unfortunately forget that.

DBW: Of course, hindsight is 20-20, but if there is anything you could change about production (good or bad), what would it be and why?

SD: With every production, I always say, “Man, I wish we had one more day!” In reality, I do wish we had one more day to get some more great shots in that we missed, but that’s the nature of micro budget filmmaking. We were fortunate enough to assemble a dream team, and this film wouldn’t have done as well without every piece of the puzzle working together as well as they did.

And, after the screening, we will continue to improve it for a film festival run. The best part about this screening is it serves as a test screening to see what worked and what needs to be improved, which is why we’re also making the challenge cut of the film public so we can get more feedback. Honesty is really what we need because, if everyone tells us, “Oh, it was great!” there’s no way we can improve. I can see our film a hundred times and still miss something that someone in the audience picks up on right away.

DbW: If you could go back to July 1st, right at the start of the challenge, and give yourself a piece of advice, what would it be and why?

SD: I would tell myself to assemble the rough cut earlier. I’m the worst at procrastination, and toward the end of the month, we were in crunch time. Our last two days of editing were especially crazy; all of the filmmakers participating in the challenge in [Tampa] were starting to feel the panic, and we were sending messages back and forth to each other like, “Are we going to make it!?” But my editor, Domonic Smith, and I worked together to make this a great cut for the challenge.

I’d also tell myself to secure more sound equipment! We were in a large warehouse, so what I had was quite limiting, but thank goodness for Lucas and Ayla, who got creative and got everything that we needed.

DbW: What’s next for you and your production team?

SD: We have several other projects in the circuit that are being polished. We are also working on a compilation DVD for our best short films in order to recoup funds. All of our films are self-funded by me, and we now have enough content to really focus on finding ways to make money with them. We want to continue to push and grow as storytellers so that might mean doing the Action Film Challenge again next year.

DbW: Good luck! So, once you’ve recovered, you think you and your team will tackle another 30 Day Challenge?

SD: This is actually our second 30 Day Challenge. We did the Comedy Film Challenge in Fall 2015 and, while it is so challenging, it is a good test of skills. Because of the Challenge’s limitations, it forces you to be creative in new ways while also providing the perfect excuse to work on ideas we just haven’t gotten around to yet. I always say, “We’re never doing another one, ” but here we are.

DbW: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find and support your work online?

SD: You can find us online at our website and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We also have our YouTube channel where viewers can see other examples of our work, as well as the Challenge cut of I Now Pronounce You until Monday, August 21, so we can continue to get more feedback. But, if people are still interested in seeing it and providing feedback after the 21st, they can private message us.

Shortly before publication, Stefanie Davis’ young cousin, Vallen Zane LaVey Minor, a devoted fighter and action enthusiast, passed away. Stefanie is dedicating her film I Now Pronounce You in honor of Vallen’s adventurous spirit. The Directed by Women team would like to extend their deepest sympathies to Stefanie and her family.