In Session: Jim Powers and John Stegemann of West Field Productions

AVERILL PARK – Oftentimes, the passion and interests that childhood friends share together dissipate as life moves forward. This is certainly not the case for Jim Powers and John Stegemann of West Field Productions, who’ve taken their love of films and filmmaking well into adulthood, even going so far as to make it their careers. Working together, the team, which also includes Jim’s brother, Steve, works towards crafting projects on both a small and large scale, all while sticking to an affordable budget. Working in tandem with the 518 Film Network and their own clientele, they definitely have a way of keeping themselves busy.

I had a chance to sit down with Jim and John earlier this week. What follows is our conversation.

Jim Powers (left) and John Stegemann (right), receiving their Addy Awards.

Lucas Garrett: Jim and John, thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk today. How are you?

Jim Powers: Doing great.

John Stegemann: Awesome. Thanks for having us.

LG: Talking with members of the 518 Film Network, both of your names kept coming up. I wanted to reach out and learn more of what it is you two do.

JP: It’s nice that we kept coming up. We’ve got a lot of friends that are making movies and trying to get movies made. We fill a lot of gaps, I think – I hope. Between John and I, John does the art department of a lot of things as well as a fantastic producer. I’m a cinematographer and producer and we get to be a part of a lot of films that way.

JS: Recently, within the last couple of years, it seems the whole community has expanded a lot, which is interesting. It used to be mostly our projects, through the APB and John Yost, and Jim’s brother, Steve. I grew up with all these guys. It started as mostly APB shorts and features – things we were producing.

LG: Elaborate on that, please.

JS: The APB is a film collective we started together, mainly as a way to produce short films and bring short films to the area. John Yost was the initial catalyst; he has a lot of friends that were interested in doing things. One of our goals was to facilitate filmmakers being able to make film in this area, be it first-time filmmakers… [or] people that’ve been doing it for years. Great way to make interesting projects, and make them cheaply, while looking much better because of access to resources. That’s kind of how it started. Jim and I grew up together. Initially, shorts and

LG: So, you, John, Jim, and Steve (Powers) make up West Field Productions, correct?

JP: In 2012, we got together after college and started a company to produce commercials and documentaries. Through different tiers of the last decade, it’s been our main job. We were like, “Oh, we’ll do a job that could be something related to filming and making movies. We’ll make documentaries; we’ll make commercials. In the off-time, we’ll make movies.” Over the years, it became viable to be a full-time job. Now, it’s starting to allow us to finally be able to fully realize that.

LG: When did that become a full-time job for you two?

JP: From the get-go, it’s been our full-time job. Whether or not it was viable in the beginning was questionable.

JS: Hahaha.

JP: We’ve made it our full-time job since 2012. We’ve been able to parlay that into bigger projects, bigger brands, bigger documentaries. We’ve been lucky enough to have it grow to the point where we can say it’s our full-time job without being embarrassed!

JS: Hahaha. With an asterisk!

JP: Yes, full-time job without having to put an asterisk.

LG: How did you guys navigate the pandemic? Nothing was going on in any of the artistic communities.  

JS: There was definitely… 2020, especially the initial part ‘til the end, it was dead dead. We were fortunate at that point – which is what probably kept us afloat – to have two or three projects where the initial production part had wrapped. In our industry – especially the commercial side of things – post is where the bulk of the project ends up being by about eighty percent. In this particular case, we’d probably done two or three projects right before that that gave us that crossover for a little bit. New York expanding unemployment for freelancers during that time was clutch!

JP: We did come together in November of 2020 for Devour.

JS: Devour was with the talented filmmaker, Victoria Diana, with Micah Kahn producing on that. That was through APB. The biggest struggle of that was [Diana] had gotten a great grant through Central NY. A large percentage of that budget went to COVID safety. Michelle Polacinski, from the 518 Film Network, is the COVID safety officer on that film. That’s where we met; it’s great to know her and we’re great friends. That was a great experience. That was probably the most COVID-y movie we had.

Everything after that has been within the “dips,” and obviously we’re coming out of it now. But everything else was done at the time where it was much more manageable. [Devour] was quite the experience. We were all self-contained to one hotel. The filming location was in the hotel, and it’s quite interesting to look back on. It seems like another world, you know?

LG: Yes, it was a different world. So many things have entered the zeitgeist. Like, you say things such as “COVID-y” and it makes sense. So, moving on to your roles, Jim, what does being a cinematographer encompass?

JP: A cinematographer is basically a conduit between the director and the screen, whether it’s in conjunction with what the shots are or if it’s making the director’s look happen, visually; setting the frames, doing the lighting with the crew, with the grips and the gaffers. That’s pretty much the job.

LG: John, you are listed as a producer. In music, if I were to say that I’m a producer, that could literally mean hundreds of different things, depending on the project. So, when we’re talking about film, what does it mean to be a producer?

JS: I would say within APB and the film world on this end, I’m more of a production designer. That’s my main role within all these productions. I do producing more in the commercial world. I think the beginning of this answer is showing you how nebulous that term is, right? Hahaha.

There’s all kind of producers. Producers that are keeping the logistics straightened out: make sure locations are all there; make sure we have the right personnel; facilitate all the creatives around you. There’s also creative producers that are working alongside the directors and cinematographers – all these people… keep everyone’s brain fed. As far as the other stuff, I would definitely say my actual creative role is production designer.

West Field Production’s latest endeavor, the documentary “Uninvited,” which is up for four New York Emmy’s.

LG: Outline that role, please.

JS: The way I kind of treat it is Jim, as a cinematographer, is responsible alongside the director for the way the camera moves – the way the shot moves. The director is responsible for what is happening within the shot. How the story is being told; everything overall, as well. The production designer is responsible for what is physically in the frame; what these guys have the ability to show. Create a world, be it sets, collaborate with your costume designer, have everything on theme – color palettes – work alongside cinematographers and directors to create the world you’re seeing.

LG: I’d like to hear both of your creative influences that have informed your work.

JP: I grew up watching Westerns with my dad and working with my brother out in the woods with a camera. We built stuff based off of those Westerns. Continuing on that, coming to an understanding of what makes a good lighting choice – how to make something look cool. Watching those older movies and saying, “OK, there’s shadows there. Why are they there? If I put them in something I make what is that going to look like?” Feeding off people I like watching and wondering how they did that, then testing it and trying to figure it out. The creative influence is curiosity.

JS: I started, when we were kids, filming with Jim and Steve. A lot of my stuff comes from that. I loved Indiana Jones growing up – I used to play around as Indiana Jones. I would get obsessed about different worlds. Different objects. But I just got obsessed with things and when I couldn’t find them, I’d want to make them. I’d make my own props as a kid and go into different places and realize, “Oh, I can do this for a living.” It was a natural flow of things to get here.

LG: Are you two working on anything right now that you’d like to discuss?

JP: We’re working on a bunch of stuff, luckily. We have a lot of friends, locally, that are close to getting projects off the ground. John and I are working continuously on commercial and documentary projects. We’ve got two documentary projects in the works and a feature, like most of these projects that are at the five-yard line. It’ll be a substantial feature film that we’re hoping to at least get off the ground this year.  

JS: We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now. We’re coming off a lot of big projects. Spencer Sherry’s The Monkey. We were both on that. Another Sherry project, Anomaly, is in post right now. We have some features that we’re really looking forward to either begin pre-production at the end of summer, beginning of fall, or fully launching into production by next year.

LG: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I may have missed?

JP: The funness of local film has expanded drastically. The people are all so nice, and welcoming, and creative, and especially collaborative. All of the sudden, I feel a surge of people coming together to make movies with a very low-ego-stakes environment. It’s super refreshing and fun.

JS: I very much agree on that end. We formed our own community right off the bat. I don’t want to speak and say there wasn’t film in this area – there definitely was – but we weren’t getting access to it in the beginning. Now, the 518 Film Network is starting up, and they’re doing great things. It seems like there’s such a great, growing community around here. There’s no ego and it’s just looking to help each other. It’s just fun and that’s where we’re at: we’re looking to help out and make movies. It’s a fun way to do your day-to-day.

JP: We’re lucky as hell.

JS: Definitely.

LG: I’d like to thank you again for taking the time out of your afternoon.

JP: Well, thank you!

JS: Thanks, man.

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