The Frida Cinema: Later Days: Interview with co-director and co-writer Sandy Sternshein

Later Days, the recent independent comedy film, features local film teacher Sandy Sternshein as a co-director and co-scriptwriter alongside Brad Riddell.

A Gen-X love letter to 1980s comedies, Later Days follows a married middle-aged couple, Mike (David Walton) and Pam (Majandra Delfino), with Mike planning a surprise 1980s prom-themed birthday party for Pam, with their friends and former classmates attending. However, the intended happy nostalgia-fest turns into an unexpected rollercoaster ride.

Sternshein originally from Long Beach, has had a lifelong passion for film. After attending USC film school, he took the path of indie filmmaking. Eventually, he became a popular film and media teacher at the local community colleges, Santiago Canyon College and Santa Ana College, as well as the popular arts charter school OCSA, Orange County School of the Arts.

In his classes, Sternshein encouraged students to follow their writing strengths in a variety of genres, whether it be comedy, action, or horror. He also exposed his students to a wide variety of filmmakers and films, including obscure documentaries, foreign, and classic films, to challenge the way they interpreted film, the filmmaking process, and inspire creativity.

Sternshein shares with us his path from becoming a film teacher, to making an indie movie, and the knowledge he inspires to pass on to others along the way.

Bonilla: What is your connection to Orange County?

Sternshein: I was born in Long Beach, but I grew up in Seal Beach and Los Alamitos. I’ve mostly lived in Orange County, even when I went to USC, I lived in Seal Beach. Jen and I, when we first got together, lived in Hollywood for a couple of years, when we were working in production. I’ve always felt like this is my home and I am much more productive here than I am in LA.

Bonilla: What led you to pursue an education in film?

Sternshein: I went to Whittier college as a religious studies major. The truth is, I wanted to go to NYU as out of high school because Spike and Martin Scorsese went there. It was the school of schools. But I ended up at Whittier. Whittier didn’t have a film major, but I think they had a minor.

I took a class called “Religion and Cinema”. We didn’t have a great film department at Whittier, but this class was life-changing. We’d watch Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby films.

That class exposed me to the idea that to create good films, you have to know things about the world. You have to read everything you can get your hands on and watch everything you can. That class changed it for me. I liked this class so much I decided to become a religious studies major and not a film major.

I ended up going my junior year to Israel, studying in Tel Aviv. I saw the world and the experience opened my eyes.

In 1999, I went to graduate school at USC, right after my wife and I got married. She went to law school and I went to USC’s film school.

Bonilla: What led you to go into teaching?

Sternshein: I knew I wasn’t going to make a million dollars right away at being a filmmaker. If I got an MFA, I could teach film. I had taught before in the Whittier City School District. I knew how to teach and was good at it. So, I could have a career as a screenwriter and make some money.

Bonilla: What film classes did you teach?

Sternshein: At OCSA, I taught screenwriting, production one, production two, and a web series class.

For Santa Ana College, I taught postwar cinema from 1945 to the present day, mass media, introduction to film production, directing/producing from film and television, and all three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

At Santiago Canyon College, I taught mass media and the three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

I’ve taught pretty much everything film-related.

Bonilla: How did you become affiliated with OCSHA? 

Sternshein: OCSA started at Los Alamitos High School when my wife was there. My son is at OCSA in Santa Ana. My wife Jena and I both taught there. My kids went to El Sol, a dual immersion school across the street from OSHA, on Broadway, in Santa Ana.

I re-connected with Ralph Opacic, who had been a teacher and friend, who also founded OSHA. Then, I started teaching film classes and screenwriting there. Later, I taught at Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College.

Bonilla: How did you approach film writing when you were teaching?

Sternshein: Like great literature, I wanted to introduce my all students, to this way of telling a story, this personal, independent way of making movies of writing stories. Though they’re small, little stories, they say something about us, about life.

I recently spoke to a class of aspiring filmmakers. I told them, “I know you’ve been through a lot of struggles in your life. Honestly, you can’t be a screenwriter, without some adversity”. I guarantee you’ll come out of it a better writer because you understand.

You have to go through suffering and pain to tell a story with empathy. When you come across people on the camera, or when you’re interviewing them, you have some empathy and bring some of that to the page.

Bonilla: What inspired you to go from teaching to full-time filmmaker?

Sternshein: In my class, at the end of the semester I would tell my students to, “Go out there. Tell your story. Don’t wait for the gatekeepers. Don’t ask for permission”. This is a pitch that I’ve been giving for years. But, I wasn’t doing what I was saying. The more I gave that speech, the less authentic I felt.

Finally, I did two things. One, I went to my wife and I shared, “I’m thinking about getting out of teaching, so I can go make a movie”. It wasn’t her favorite idea, but she agreed, “If your miserable and that’s gonna make you happy. Then absolutely”. And so I did.

Second, I went to Brad, who had moved to Chicago as a tenured professor at DePaul University. He ran the screenwriting program there. I asked him, “I want to try to raise some capital and make a little movie, at one location. What do you want to do?” We threw some ideas around and I pitched this movie.

In 2017, I pretty much walked away from teaching to make this movie. Here we are four years later and it’s finally coming to the screen.

Bonilla: Which film and/or filmmaker inspired your filmmaking?

Sternshein: Spike Lee for sure. I remember seeing Do the Right Thing and it changed me. This idea that the hottest day of summer where everything comes to a head was amazing. Ernest Dickerson‘s cinematography was so warm.

Then, I saw a flyer at McDonald’s that Spike was going to be at Cal State Long Beach. My mom, a teacher, let me take that day off from high school to see him. I was probably a junior in high school. Jungle Fever was coming out and he was beginning Malcolm X. It was life-changing just to hear Spike speak.

As an undergrad at Whittier college, I was in charge of the speaker series. We got Spike to come and speak to at Whittier. Then, I got to have dinner with him. He was so cool. At the time, his production company 40 Acres and a Mule West. He hooked me up with one of his creative executives and was really supportive early on in my career.

Bonilla: How did you meet your filmmaking partner Brad Riddell? 

Sternshein: My film partner Brad Riddell and I went to USC together. In our last year, in a scriptwriting class, my screenplay ended up on the first year of The Blacklist and his screenplay ended up becoming a part of American Pie Presents: Band Camp. Brad went the studio route, while I went the independent route.

Years later, we became friends again, and we wrote some comedy together, including a web series.

Bonilla: Where did the inspiration for Later Days come from?

Sternshein: 10 years ago, I threw my wife an 80s prom at the Orange Elks Lodge. She’s an overworked corporate attorney and works hard to support the family. I was home with the kids. At night when she gets home, we’d high five, and I go teach till 10 p.m. Then we’d finally get to bed together and immediately fall asleep. We were like two ships crossing in the night.

For the party, I got everyone in costumes. I thought it was going to be a fun night. But, what’s crazy, is when we put on those costumes, we realized that everyone diverted back to their high school self, and the cliques formed.

Brad had a band camp-like reunion. That didn’t go well. People had issues and all this stuff surfaced.

We thought, “What if the people on your Facebook feed, where everybody’s getting along, liking your photos, who you haven’t seen since eighth grade, all ended up in the same room for a night, and it all goes horribly wrong?”

Bonilla: How did you and Brad delegate the responsibilities of co-writing and co-directing?

Sternshein: We work well together and don’t fight a lot. We also had basic rules with the cast and crew, creating a nice environment on set. Somedays I’m working with the camera and he’s working with the actors. For the most part, we’re both weighing in on things, with one person delegated to speak to the cast and crew.

It was our first directed feature. We’ve been around a lot of movie sets, so it went well. I think in a lot of ways it went better than usual because there were two heads. Usually, a director is frantic since he’s constantly having to make multiple decisions in the same second on set. We still have chaos, but there were two of us making sure everything was going as planned and we weren’t missing anything. I would work again with Brad. I really enjoyed it.

Bonilla: What lead to the decision to film Later Days in Chicago?

Sternshein: We got a tax incentive to go shoot in Chicago, getting 30% of our budget back to shoot in Illinois. It was a huge deal.  Even though it’s supposed to be set here in the city of Orange. It ended up making it a Chicago story.

We raised all the money ourselves. Brad and I went to Chicago and pitched to the CMA, the Chicago Media Angels.  We were also selected by the SAG/IFP Table Read Series. Also, in Chicago, they had a series where they were reading scripts publicly. They chose ours and we were able to get more financing there.

We did all this about March 2019, before we shot that September. Everything was done in 19 days. We got everything edited by January/February 2020. But, in March, COVID happened.

The good news is that during that time, we worked on the soundtrack and everything else. We needed an authentic 1980s soundtrack. So, we have about eighteen well-known 80s songs on it. It’s pretty cool.

Bonilla: Later Days has a John Hughes feel to it. Was Hughes an influence on the film?

Sternshein: The John Hughes influence is huge. We’re going on 50 and were 13 when Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and all those movies were coming out. We love these movies. Brad also teaches a class at DePaul University which is a John Hughes film class.

When we sat down to write, we thought about The Breakfast Club, wondering, “What if Anthony Michael Hall was the CEO of Facebook?”, or, “What if what if Emilio Estevez, who was the big jock was a stay-at-home Dad?” Also, “How would those guys come to a meeting?” Imagine Anthony 25 years later, with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to everybody that he’s the man.

Since, Hughes’s films took place in Shermer, Illinois, a fake city, in his honor, our movie is set in West Shermer. Also, Audrey Francis who plays Karen in Later Days, is wearing Haviland Morris’ dress from Sixteen Candles.

Bonilla: How else did you inject the 80s film style into Later Days?

Sternshein: This film was shot to look like an old film, using a process to make the film look a little grainy. We really wanted that party to look like something out of the 80s.

The costumes were handmade by Sarah Albrecht. They’re amazing. Sarah did an amazing job. I’m so grateful for her. There’s a couple of Easter eggs we put in the film through famous-looking costumes and stuff in the background.

Bonilla: What does Later Days mean to you? 

Sternshein: Later Days is a very personal story. It was how I felt coming out of raising my kids with my wife. Adulting is hard, especially not seeing your wife all day. When you get this age, our parents are getting sick and dying, and all of the sudden, you feel mortal. You have to deal with that now.

Bonilla: How have audiences reacted to the film so far?

Sternshein: Everybody says it’s a sweet movie. Though it’s an R-rated movie, it’s wholesome. I’m kind of a sarcastic and edgy guy. So, when people I know see Later Days they say, “I didn’t think you have that in you”. It surprises them.

Bonilla: Do you have any upcoming projects?

Sternshein: We’re excited to continue to make more films and produce films. We’ve optioned the award-winning book called The Kindness of Strangers by Katrina Kittle. It’s a dark, but an award-winning book. Currently, Dominica Scorsese is attached to direct and we’re producing that.

Brad and I are writing a skateboard comedy called Back to the GrindTony Hawk is producing it, with Troy Miller attached to direct.

Bonilla: What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?

Sternshein: I hope people walk away thinking it’s a sweet and funny little movie, with a great soundtrack. I’m excited for people to see this and meet the characters. These are characters that we’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Overall, I wanted to make a movie for my wife to enjoy when she’s tired on a Saturday night, as she asks me to put something funny on. I feel like we made this movie for her and Brad’s wife, Tina. A movie that they could curl up on the couch, laugh to, and be distracted from all the complications of the modern world.

Later Days is now playing at select theatres nationally, TVOD, and digital platforms.


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