Award-winning filmmaker joins Rutgers faculty

Patrick StettnerAs a teenager, Patrick Stettner hunkered down for entire afternoons in Manhattan movie theaters, inhaling the images of master filmmakers.

“I remember one year seeing over and over Raging Bull, The Shining, Kagemusha and The Elephant Man,” says Stettner, 46, an award-winning filmmaker and a recent addition to the faculty of the Rutgers Center For Digital Filmmaking. “My friends weren’t interested in those films, so I’d just go by myself. I remember one rainy day skipping school and being the only one in a movie theater on 86th Street, watching Raging Bull all day—four screenings in a row.”  

Stettner says he drew sustenance from all those hours in the dark.

“A good film was like a sacred text for me,” Stettner says. “It taught you about life, morals, ethics, character, relationships, the march of time etc.—it was all there for me.

“I want films to challenge my notions of the world,” he continues. “I guess those films just answered questions about life for me.”

Stettner’s 1996 short Flux, from his days as a grad student at Columbia Film School, features a pre-West Wing Allison Janney and made the rounds at several film festivals. He wrote and directed the disquieting 2001 feature The Business of Strangers with Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles—the film received a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance—and wrote and directed 2006’s white-knuckler The Night Listener with Robin Williams. The same year, Variety named Stettner to its list of “10 Directors to Watch.”

Dena Seidel, director of the Rutgers Center For Digital Filmmaking, says Stettner doesn’t take the accolades too seriously.

“He doesn’t bring any haughty airs with him at all,” Seidel says. “He’s opening boxes, building chairs for classrooms. He gets it. He’s not afraid to work. He’s humble that way—he’s hands-on.”

Stettner says he hopes to nudge Rutgers students to tell stories and ask questions. He says he sees filmmaking students as “journalists and explorers.”

In filmmaking, Stettner says, there is “that fundamental act of bringing back stories to the audience, revealing a part of the world that the audience did not know existed, even if it is just right around the corner. And like journalists, they have to do research. Those details are important, they can’t be faked; they elevate the material.”

Stettner is convincing when he says he believes film can serve as a kind of connective tissue between people.

“You see someone on screen and say, ‘This person is like me,’ ” he says. “Film is effective that way. You see something from another culture and see yourself. The question is always: How do we affect the audience in an unconscious way? We get them to care about the characters.”

Stettner, who taught on and off for a decade at Columbia, says he’s eager to work with Rutgers students.

“I get frustrated by the narrow way students are coming into film,” Stettner says. “I love that at Rutgers you’ve got film students who are neuroscience majors, etc. That’s valuable when approaching storytelling. The filmmakers I admire didn’t start out as filmmakers.”

Besides, Stettner says: “You want people to come from different perspectives. That’s the exciting thing with [Rutgers] students.

“And if I can convert them to film,” he adds, “All the better.”

Watch a trailer for The Night Listener.

Posted: September 2012