Below is my transcribed interview with Dana Stevens, Slate’s residential film critic. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading her work, I urge you to do so. I could wax superlatives all day when it comes to Stevens, both as a writer and a human being. Alas, I’ll let the following discussion – in which we discuss an assortment of subjects – speak for itself.
Sam: How long have you been writing at Slate?
Dana: Including TV coverage that I did for them in the beginning, it will be ten years in October.
S: When was the first time you wrote about movies?
D: I started a movie blog called The High Sign (which is why that’s my twitter handle) in 2002 which I wrote for myself. Essentially I needed some sort of creative outlet. I had a bunch of academic jobs that were very undemanding, administrative work. I was starting to feel like I wasn’t a writer anymore. I had five years of writing a dissertation and suddenly I had no daily writing tasks. I set myself a task that I’d see a movie in a theater every week and write 1,000 words on it.
I kept that up for awhile and had a small following. In a way that a small, personal blog couldn’t be able to get now because everyone in their mother has one. It (The High Sign) was at the dawn of personal blogging. That ended up leading to the TV job at Slate. Which was not really my beat. But it was the job that was open, and I felt lucky to get it.
Then David Edelstein, who at the time was Slate’s film critic, got poached by New York Magazine to work there. He recommended me for his job, and I also had to compete for job with a bunch of other people. But I ended up getting it, and that was seven years ago.
S: When did you know you wanted to write about movies, or rather, write at all?
D: It goes way back to when I was seven. I clearly remember this moment being up a tree in our yard when I was seven and sort of swearing to myself that I would do it.
S: Was there something that inspired that?
D: My grandmother published a few books. She published this middle-reader mystery novel. And I loved the fact that my grandmother had written it. I became aware books were a thing people could do. They weren’t just objects that existed in your house, but that they had a history and that a person created them. Being a writer was always on my mind.
But as I grew up I had different ideas about what kind of a writer I wanted to be. You know the story about me writing a letter to Roger Ebert when I was 12? My interest in film probably started around 12 or 13. Partly through Siskel & Ebert on TV.
S: And you were around when the show first began?
D: I was very young when it first began (called Sneak Previews). But yeah, when it moved to syndication I watched it every Sunday. At that point I had more of an idea that I wanted to be a journalist. I remember the journalism entry in the world book encyclopedia we had at our house and I would read it over and over again to decide what type of journalist I would be.
As I grew up I had a love for literature, and then majoring in Medieval and Renaissance studies as an Undergrad – which is essentially the most useless subject you could major one.
S: I was about to say … that major probably didn’t open up a lot of jobs for you.
D: To be fair to my naïve self, at that point I wanted to be a teacher. But then when I started Grad school I started to realize that all the cool people and all the cute guys were doing contemporary literature and theory and philosophy — especially at Berkley. So when I started there I switched to contemporary literature with a more modern focus. I finally got my PhD after ten years of dropping in and out of school and being unsure about what I wanted to do with my life.
S: So when did you move to New York?
D: 1998. A couple years before my dissertation was done, so I was finishing it in part in New York. Essentially I moved to NYC for two reasons: a.) I just loved New York and I wanted to be there, and b.) I had some sense that if this academia thing didn’t pan out, I should be somewhere where writers go.
Sadly, I think New York is becoming a place where writers can’t go because it’s so expensive. I mean it was expensive in 1998, but it just felt like something could happen with me being here.
S: Alright. To segue into a topic where you don’t have to dive into your entire past, what’s your take on modern film criticism?
D: I would generally agree with the more optimistic take. Does it seem like a bad thing to me that everybody’s critic? Sort of. But I still feel the cream will rise to the top in terms of who can think and who can write. Like the video essay panel that we were at this morning, that seems like a very exciting new form to me that I want to get on the ground-floor of. Even though I’m really technologically incompetent. It would take me around a year to learn final cut pro because I’m so remedial to new programs.
I just can’t believe that every website and every magazine doesn’t have their resident video essayist. In terms of the job, it really takes huge dedication and willingness to go unpaid on there parts. I’m sure they get paid for their work. But they can’t possible get compensated for the amount of time it must take. Slate really needs that.
S: I was under the impression Slate did?
D: Nope. And that’s something I’d love to do so that they don’t pay anyone else to do it. What has always seemed to daunting to me about it is that Kevin B. Lee and Matt Seitz have the market covered, but that’s not a good way to look at it. That’s like saying they have the market covered on writing. It’s just a form of expression.
S: And there’s always room for new, knowledgable voices. Now, you’ve been writing for Slate for ten years.
D: And movies for seven.
S: So what advice do you have for aspiring writers? I mean, your job at Slate is one that is particularly hard to come by.
D: Yeah, and basically even though I feel drained by my job and sometimes I think I can’t keep having opinions on movies and I’m going to go insane, because I don’t have the endurance that someone like Roger Ebert had. Even though I feel that way I still feel lucky to have a job that pays me to write about movies. I’m going to cling to it for dear life.
I don’t know, I think my advice would be similar to the advice Ebert gave me: that you should just do what you do as well as you can do it. It sounds like you are. In terms of market driven advice, set your site apart in someway.
S: We’ve tried to do that. The issue for us is we’re a site that veers away from casting calls, trailers, posters, and Hollywood gossip. Which, unfortunately, people are interested in.
D: That’s what gets clicked.
S: Exactly. It’s a tough thing to figure out, trying to find that right balance.
D: It worked for Ebert somehow. He was like some editorial purist. Though, he started the site when he already had a huge name.
S: You were talking about how prolific a film critic like Roger Ebert was, I’m wondering, how many movies do you see a week?
D: I write on two movies a week, unless it’s pre-Oscars. I usually see more than two though — sometimes for futures weeks or I’m trying to decide what to write on, or I just feel I need some background information on a filmmaker. When the end of the year comes, even though I feel like I do nothing but see movies and write on them, I’ll often realize I missed a lot of the movies.
A lot of the times, since I have to cover the big weekly releases for Slate, my end of year list I will have reviewed only two movies on it. But yeah, I used to be able to jam more movies into my brain per day. Part of that is the full-time job and the child and doing other things than seeing movies.
There was this year in college were I studied abroad (Paris). It was a huge cinema town, and I was 20 and had no friends. I would see movies every day, and I still have a little notebook of everything I saw during that year. It was something like 300 movies. Back then I was able to do stuff like that: watch some great three-hour masterpiece and then see another three-hour masterpiece. Now I feel like I want more time for digestion.
S: To wrap things up let me ask: do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?
D: That’s a good question. I think of myself as a writer before I think of myself as a film critic. The me up a tree who decided to be a writer at age seven feels more essential to me than being a movie critic. If film ceased to exist, I would still write. And sometimes I do hanker for more space to stretch. I don’t think I’d like to be 50-years-old and still be cranking out 800-word chunks of copy. As much as I like it, it’s a very draining schedule. It plays to both my weaknesses and strengths as a writer. I can definitely envision not being a day-to-day movie critic. But I will always love film.
For the sake of this article I asked Dana if she could rattle off a few of her favorite films. Being the diligent person she is, I received much, much more. Published below is a list of movies that she would like to be played at her post-mortem film festival:
I Was Born, But …,
The Wizard of Oz
A Star Is Born (the Cukor version)
Gaslight (also Cukor version)
Some Like it Hot
In the Realm of the Senses
Children of Paradise
Imitation of Life
Letter from an Unknown Woman
Buster Keaton two-reelers: Cops, One Week, The High Sign, and The Electric House
Killer of Sheep
The Spirit of the Beehive
Truly Madly Deeply
In a Lonely Place
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach
The Palm Beach Story
Dana Stevens is a film critic based in New York.