Avocado Toast - With a Side of J Stevens (cinematographer and director)

Updated: Nov 9



INTERVIEW WITH J Stevens (they/them) - Cinematographer and director, and creator of 'Slo Pitch' which is also available on OUTtv in Canada and on KindaTV worldwide. J talks with Perrie Voss about coming in last minute to help out on the Avocado Toast the series set, getting inspiration on a cross-Canada road trip and what makes their creative clock tick!


Perrie Voss:

This is the J Stevens, cinematographer director extraordinaire, show creator, filmmaker, all things incredible. And we were lucky enough to beg for them to come on and save the day as our camera assistant when we were in a bit of a bind halfway through shooting. And yeah, we were really lucky to have you. So thank you for chatting with me today.


J Stevens:

Of course. And it was awesome to be a part of, as you alluded to there, I don't assistant camera very much anymore but Sam Coyle, the director of Avocado Toast, is one of my best friends and she also directed my first feature as a cinematographer. And so I got a very like hurried panicked text [message] one night being like, “anyway, you're free for the next 10 days and can help us out because we had someone who can't finish, to finish the rest of the show” And I was like, for you Sammy? I got you. And then it was really lovely and such a talented group of people. And I think a very important story to be out there in the world. So yeah, it's not something I do often, but I was happy to jump on board because I think it's an important story that deserves to be seen.


PV

We were very lucky to have you.


JS

And it was really fun. I hadn't met Cam [Roden], the cinematographer, beforehand at all. So it was really fun to get to know him and wonderful human and super talented orange few things from him too. So yeah, it was a good experience.


PV

Yeah, Cam is awesome. So having the two of you is just like a total dream, so yeah, that was fun. So, J is also an incredible filmmaker, as I said, and has a series out called Slo Pitch, which is also airing on OUTtv as well as KindaTV.

JS

Yeah. It's on OUTtv in Canada and then KindaTV, which is a YouTube channel pretty much worldwide, but it's yeah, if you don't already have it getting out TV subscription, you can get, you can see both of the shows. It's just fun and cool.

PV

Ya 2-for-1 content, female and non-binary driven stories and yeah, very, very cool. It's an awesome show. So yeah. So you did that, you shot that around this time last year, right?

JS

Yeah, I guess so beginning of October last year is when we shot it. Yeah.


PV

And so what else have you been working on in the COVID times? How have you, how have you been coping?


JS

Pretty good. Yeah, we earlier we were talking about COVID wall and I like to say that there's been many different COVID walls of different sizes. ‘Cause I feel like some days it's like not so bad and some days it's like, Oh my God, I just want to go hug everyone. But I can't. And that sucks. I spent the first three months with everyone else just not doing anything at all. And at first it was like, ‘Ooh fun. I can do whatever I want'. And then I was like, 'okay, this is now dragged on for much longer than we thought it was going to'. But I used it to kind of think about what I wanted to do. Because it can be very easy when you're just jumping from project to project to not really think about what you want to do and just be like, ‘okay, I've been offered this, I'm going to jump on it’. But having the time to be like, ‘no, what, what is the impact I want to make?’ What are the roles that I want to do? I thought was very, very helpful in figuring out what I want to do and what I definitely don't want to do. It can be equally as helpful.


PV

Did you find anything that you were like, ‘Hey, I didn't actually realize that I really wanted to pursue that’. Or like, is there a part of your career that you're now sort of like re-emboldened in to explore and discover?

JS

I don't know if there was like, ‘Oh, I've never thought about this before’, but I think that I always saw myself as a director and like, that was, that was my end-goal. I never really saw myself in the camera department to be honest. And then I went to school and right out of school, got a job as a PA and then the camera assistant dropped out the night before the shoot. And so one of the producers was like, ‘you know how to work with cameras, right?’ And I was like, ‘yeah, I had to do it at school’. And they were like ‘sweet, tomorrow, you’re getting upgraded to 2nd AC’. And I was like, ‘okay, great’. And then from that just kept with the same production company, kept getting offered camera assistant or camera operator rules. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually really fun’, and my brain works this way’. So I started doing more stuff with that and then - oh, I’m from Calgary, so that was all in Calgary. And then when I moved to Toronto, it was just like the thing that hit for me was people hiring me as a cinematographer. And so yeah, I kept doing that and because they were great projects that I was working on. So I think [the downtime in the pandemic] just made me realize like, ‘Oh, I want to direct a feature film’. Like, I directed slow-pitch last year and hopefully there'll be a season two and stuff like that. But I was like, ‘what, other than that, do I want to direct?’, and making the steps forward to do more of that because that's ultimately what I do love to do.

PV

I think it's really cool that you're able to shoot and direct. Cause I mean, I know that like cinematographers and directors have to create a short hand together and that you can just do that in your brain

Directing and shooting on the set of Slo Pitch

JS

For Slo Pitch, it was the best thing ever because it's a mockumentary. So yeah, it was really easy rather than as a director having to go to the [camera] operator and be like, “okay, on this next one, when this person says this line zoom in just a little bit. And then when they say this next time, like crash zoom in”, like obviously with shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation it is done people do it and it works well. And but as a director, it was just so fun because I feel like that is my instinct to just get in there. And it's really adding to the comedy, I think in terms of like when you zoom in on something or, pan to someone else or whatever. Yeah. It was really fun to do both. And that's where I think that worked really, really well hand in hand.


PV

That's really cool. I mean, working with you, like where we have, I feel like I've seen you work with directors really well, and I've also seen you like take control and just like shoot and direct, which I think is really cool. Like I think it's an amazing skill that you're not just like, I need to do everything. Like you're not a control freak about it, you know?


JS

I hope it doesn’t come across like that!


PV

Not at all. It’s cool. It's nice to see that you can transition like that. There's a directness, but like there's like humility that comes with that. So I think it's really, yeah, I'm inspired whenever I work with you. So it's very cool.

JS

I think my biggest thing as a director is that I feel very passionately that when you're directing something, it should be a story that you should tell if that makes any sense. Like, I, there's just certain stories where I'm like, I think the story should get made. I think people need to see it, but I'm not the right person to tell this. And so what I love about cinematography is that when it is one of those stories that I don't feel like my voice is the most important one, I can just help support other filmmakers that I absolutely love. And then, yeah, don't feel like I have to be like, Oh, I should be directing like this. It's just fun to see them flourish and like see these other stories that are important, but aren't mine to tell come to life and support.


PV

That's really cool. And I think that is really important to be able to take that step back and let that sort of come to it actually leads me to my next question, you just nailed that segue for me.

JS

Haha!

PV

Thank you. Do you think that it is the filmmaker's responsibility to sort of like cater to an audience? Or do you, do you like to sort of release things to the world however it might be received, if that makes sense?


JS

Yeah. Nope. Hmm. I think I'm bad for this one because I think that I like to make stuff that I would like to see as an audience member. And so I'm not necessarily thinking of the other audience members, which maybe I should more but I'm never like, ‘Hmm, what are audiences craving these days?’ I'm more-so go about it and think like, ‘what do I want to see? What are the stories that I think should be being told’. And then I think growing up, I do think I was one of those like audiences that queer films were targeted towards. And so watching all these horrible, and some not so bad and some really good queer stories being told, and then talking about it with different friends and stuff within the community, I could kind of tell when my opinions lined up with other people who are queer and when they, diverged and I believe I'm a pretty good litmus test for, if I think it is queer good content others might. So this sounds really egotistical but like, hopefully if I think that it's a story that should be told, there are others. I'm not saying the whole community. I'm not saying that, but like, hopefully there's more audience members for that out there. Does that make sense?


PV

No, it does. Because, and I think you've sort of talked about that with me with Slo Pitch that you're like, ‘I know what they want, this is exactly what I would want to watch. There's an audience for this”. I think the cool thing about Slo Pitch is that like, it transcends. You know, my mom watched it and she was so excited about that, which was cool. I think for both of us.


JS

I just think that like humans are humans and experiences are universal. And so when, when you're making content, that's not necessarily about being where you just have characters, experiencing other things. I think there's, there's like nuggets that anyone can get from that. Because so much is universal, but I think Avocado Toast had the same thing where like, in just your content, you cover more than just like a bisexual coming out story. But I think the reach as well is someone who's going through heartbreak. It's someone whose family is now like shifting somewhere other than what they thought it was. And I think those are things that regardless of your sexual orientation audiences can connect with. And I think that's what your show did. So there are universal themes throughout there. And then like on a few queer characters also.

PV

Yeah. Always. I mean, more queer characters for everybody!

JS

Cheers to that!


PV

Cheers to that. Were there any characters that you learned anything from in Avocado Toast or were there like favourite characters that you're like, ah, like that's something that means something to me for X,Y,Z.

JS

Yeah. Well, first of all, I do think it's awesome that you had some positive bisexual representation in there because it's often something that's overlooked, or not overlooked, but full out judged by the queer community. And I know that like, I don't identify as a lesbian anymore. I identify as queer because of my own gender identity, but I know that there are a lot of lesbians out there who think that people are bi until they decide basically, which is garbage. So I think having a show that shows someone who's bisexual and kind of coming to terms with that and showing different people's reaction to that is awesome. But in terms of learn, I don't think I learned [about that] personally, I can see how other people would. I don't think I necessarily like learned about that. But I do think I'm fortunate - I don't know if that's even the right word - my parents are still together. And so seeing someone dealing with a parent's divorce is very interesting for me because like seeing someone dealing with that. And I think the story is often like a five-year-old's parents get divorced and then it obviously like sucks and they're trying to deal with that because their parents are still their entire world. But in terms of like an older person whose parents get divorced, I hadn't seen that. So it kind of, I was like, ‘Oh, okay’. And then it's easy to judge Elle and be like, ‘grow up, you're fine’. But then I was like, no, if, if one of my parents was having an affair and then like I had to hang out with that person, I'd be like, [gives the finger].

Elle running into her mom and her new boyfriend in Avocado Toast the series

PV

Yeah (laughs) Well, that's cool. That's cool. Because I like, that was actually something that we came up against often in development stages and even shooting. And it was interesting, like, there's actually like a lot of older human beings who like in their twenties, thirties, whatever, whose parents get divorced when people don't talk about it. And it's the exact reason that I wanted to write that because I'm like, we're expected to just be okay with it, you know? And I think that that sort of is part and parcel with just like, quote, unquote, being an adult where like you're supposed to just be okay with everything and no, like knocks you sideways all the time. So that's cool. That was, that resonated with you.

JS

I also think it's that idea of like, yeah, there's certain things that you're not prepared for that really throw you for a loop. So even like, it doesn't necessarily have to be a divorce, but there's so many things that like, as a society we're like ‘get over it and just like, move on, continue your life’. But sometimes it was like, ‘no, I wasn't, I wasn't expecting to have this reaction to this thing, but it's fucking me up right now, so like, I'm going to need a second to process”. Yeah. I think we can be really quick to judge. So I think it's good representation to have.


PV

That's really cool. Thank you for that feedback. That's very cool.


JS

Oh, wait, wait. There's another part of that question, which was 'favourite characters'. The moms! Because so often we don't see people's families and or we just see them serving the plot point of, the lead and, yes, there's those elements, but to see the parents having their own lives and their own problems outside of their children and being awesome. And Brenda [Robins] and Mag [Ruffman] were so good and so fun to watch in person. And then it came across on screen. I thought they were like bad-ass women. I found them very magnetic and awesome. And really enjoyed watching their journeys as well.


Brenda Robins and Mag Ruffman "the moms" in Avocado Toast the series

PV

That's so cool. I totally agree. Being able to create that representation of like vibrant older women was like extremely exciting for both Heidi and myself. So that was, that was really, really cool. I'm glad that resonated with you. That's really cool.


JS

Yeah. And then like Molly's mom, when she comes out as bi, and she’s like, ‘well we're [in an open marriage]. I think also a good twist to then show like Molly's own - I don't even know what the right word would be, but the fact that she doesn't handle that well, and she starts judging her parents when she was worried that they were going to judge her. And it kind of shows her like a bit of a hypocrite in that moment. But I think that people are full of that where it's like, ‘I want my own acceptance’. And then when someone else is a little bit different than ourselves, we still have an issue with that. And I think similar to the like lesbian, bisexual conversation. It's like lesbians just want to be accepted and seen as valid. And then when someone's like, ‘I'm bisexual’, which is different than you. They're like, no, you're not though that doesn't exist. That's so interesting.


PV

That makes me really happy that that resonated with you. In terms of - because whenever you're creating something, there's always a chance that you're going to fail. And often when we fail, that's where we get our biggest learning experiences from. Can you speak to things that you have like deeply failed at in your process of being a filmmaker that like you feel sort of illuminated by and then you were able to like go forward and have a success from that, like a teachable moment?

JS

Yeah. I'm trying to think of a specific teachable moment. But as a filmmaker, if you're not prepared to fail at almost every thing, then you're not going to make it. Cause I feel like so many things that I've made like two people see. So it's like, what is your definition of a failure? Is it how many people see it? Is it their reaction to it? Is it being a bit of a on set? Like I think that there's so many different ways to measure failure in this because technically most, like I said, most of the things I've done have been a failure cause no one has watched them. But like to me, they're not a failure because I learned something that then helped me go onto the next project. Or I met someone who, who helped me make the next project that I love the process of making it.

PV

And so as long as that process is good and healthy and like, I love things to be fun and collaborative. So to me, as long as the process was good and you learned something, it's not a failure. But I'm also not often putting out my own money that then could be lost if it's not a success. So yeah. I don't think it should be about views, but I think other people look at it as views, but I don't give a shit about that. I don't know. I've learned a lot, honestly, from being a crew member on other people's sets and I've for like six years was a camera assistant, a lot of different projects. Yeah. And to me that was the most helpful thing and why I will still take the occasional camera assistant thing, but I always have looked at camera assistant jobs as free film school, essentially.

And getting to watch Sam direct, then getting to watch Sam and Cam interact, you can like learn stuff from the way that other people are doing it. That then you can either go, ‘Oh, that's really helpful. I'm going to start doing that’ or ‘Oh, that looks unhealthy, gonna avoid that’. And even like, I learned the most about directing from being on set with Jordan Canning who's now who directed part of Schitt's Creek now Emmy award-winning! But I worked on an indie feature that she was the director of and I saw directing in a way I had never seen it before. It was like kind and gentle and she would just go up and like have private conversation with the actors for notes. Whereas before that working with like mainly CIS hetero, white dudes, they would just like sit at the monitor and yelled the directions at the actors.

And I just saw gentleness and effectiveness that perhaps I hadn't seen before. This isn't the answer to your question at all (laughs), but is the thing that I found the most helpful in and just be like, ‘Ooh, I never want to do it like that. And I'm like, Ooh, I do want to do it like that’. I think subconsciously you just shift in like redirect and correct course for the next time and be like, ‘okay, learned a lesson on that’.

PV

So like you didn't sit behind a monitor and yell at your actors ever?

JS

Oh, I do that all the time! (Laughs)

PV

Being able to do both cinematography and directing at the same time, I think is like an asset, but it's also a multitask. Like I don't think everybody can do that. So do you like doing that?

JS

Depending on the project? Absolutely. For Slo Pitch I think it was amazing just in the way that my brain works. It would have been so much information to try and convey mainly to an operator. I also encouraged a lot of improv with our actors. And so things would be different every time. So if you had to relay to someone, ‘okay and then after this line zoom in a bit, and then after this line do it some more, it would have been really difficult because things were changing so much’. So I it's obviously been done cause like The Office and Parks and Recreation are amazing. And they're [two of] my favourite shows, which is why I made a mockumentary, but for myself as a director and like a slight control-freak over certain things, it was awesome to just be able to follow my own instincts, being like, ‘Oh, this is different’. But if it was this person's coverage, but this person over here is doing something hilarious so I'm going to like pan and zoom in on them because it's hitting a beat that we didn't even know was going to happen. So in that it was my favourite thing. Slo Pitch is supposed to be a little bit sloppy. We purposely put our shadows in it, like there's a lot of stuff that is intentionally not polished, which can be hard for me too. But with stuff that is supposed to be super polished, it's harder. Like it's hard to do both. It is pulling you in so many different directions, right. That like, maybe you're thinking about the lighting when you should just be watching the performance.

PV

Right. So you miss something in one of those areas because you're focused on the other


JS

Exactly. So yeah. And something that's supposed to be more polished and exact, yeah. I think it's harder. And I that's when I really don't mind doing one or the other. Someone was explaining it to me today and they actually were like, ‘you should be a director and an operator’ in that, cinematographers often hire operators to like actually hold the camera and handheld like do the stuff. Cause that's my favourite thing to do is handheld and like be in there with the actors. And I think it's such an intimate relationship, but it was interesting because then yeah, I can be like, you light the thing because that's one of my weaknesses and then let me, hold the camera and get in there and direct that way.



Working with dir. Knox during the Covid pandemic

PV

Do you have a time where - Sometimes when I'm out in the world, just experiencing things, I'm like, ‘Oh, this would make just like such a beautiful moment’. Or I'm just always thinking of like how things can be filmed or how things can be shot. Do you feel like you don't get a break from that in your brain? For example, you and I just went on a huge road trip


JS

Across Canada twice!

PV

Across Canada! And I mean, there were often times where my brain was just going like ‘this could make a, such a cool shot or moment’. Do you ever feel trapped in that? Where you're constantly thinking of shots or constantly thinking of story or like what you're seeing or hearing or experiencing that, like you can't step outside of that.


JS

I don't view it as trapped only because I love that as a cinematographer and as a director, your job is to find beauty in your surroundings and to like look at a space and be like, ‘what's the most beautiful representation of this space. And so I never feel trapped in the fact that I am constantly being like, ‘Oh, that would be a cool shot’. Like on my way home, just before this, I was grabbing groceries and this, the sun was setting and there's like beautiful light on a brick building. And I was like, ‘ah, I just wish I had something other than my iPhone right now to capture this because this is beautiful’. But I like it because I think there's like a beauty and a romance in like trying to find those movie moments in everyday life, which I think is what you're alluding to as a writer and stuff. It's like, Oh, even like, if this happened next, it would be such a good scene. And so like yeah, finding the like romantic version of everyday life is kind of cool.

PV

Yeah! For you what makes a good TV show or film.

JS

Isn’t that the frigging billion dollar question? Because if anyone could actually figure that out, they would constantly be successful. I’ve got the answer! Characters. And I think I say that because some of my favourite things go past so many genres. The reason why like a Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation is so great is it's just her and I obviously that's credit to Amy Poehler. And then Lovecraft country that I'm watching right now, and that you're also watching right now. It's not the genre that I would choose to watch consistently. But again, like to me, it's Ruby, who plays one of the lead’s sisters that I'm just obsessed with her as a character and also sort of queer, so that probably helps. But again, I'm just like magnetized to her whenever she's on screen. And so I think that also comes down to good actors. And I think also why Avocado Toast is successful because both you and Heidi are very magnetic on screen.

PV

Thank you.

JS

You're welcome.

PV

Very nice of you.


JS

And the moms!

PV

And the moms! What are you working on right now?

JS

Great question. I'm currently trying to develop a new web series.

PV

Yeah! We want more J Stevens web series.

JS

I'm trying to get it out there. Yeah! I shot a proof of concept for a new show that hopefully we can get some funding for and shoot in the Spring. I'm working on Sloppy season 2 - which is what we like to call Slo Pitch.

PV

Which I just learned from your podcast, the Slo Pitch podcast that you host (laughs) Oh you love these plugs, don’t ya?

JS

Yeah. Well done.

PV

But I didn't realize that you and Gwen coined that on the spot. I thought that was really cool. That that was captured in Live-time audio.

JS

Yeah, no, we've been calling season 2 ‘Sloppy Seconds’, which I really, really like.

PV

I love, I love it. It's brilliant.

JS

What are you working on right now? Perrie Voss.

PV

What am I working on right now? (Laughs) I'm working on a ton of stuff. We just sent off a medium-final draft to network and for some funding applications for season 2 of ‘Toastie’ as you like to call it.

JS

Yeah. I don't know if anyone else is doing this, but I really liked to call Avocado Toast ‘Toastie’.

JS

I love it. Yeah. I think you're the only one that consistently calls it Toastier. We call our fans Toasties. That I think Scott Cavalheiro (who plays Hunter), might have coined? It's a great term. It's a great term. Our Toasties

JS

Toastie for sure! Yeah.

PV

Thank you! But yeah, I think those are all the questions I have for you. Is there anything that you would like to say or sign off on or talk about before we depart?

JS

I have two questions.


PV

Oh, okay (laughs).


JS

One, what was feedback on season 1?

PV

People seem to love it! Some people wanted longer episodes, which I was like, that's bananas because they were longer than we had even anticipated making them. So thank you for wanting more. And lots of people just being like, ‘that's my story!’. And I'm like, how is that possible? Because I didn't even know that that could be a thing. So that was really cool. And not just for my character, like for both characters, like people are like, I just came out as bisexual and then my parents got divorced and I'm like, yeah, you're an amalgamation of both. So yeah. So stuff like that. And I think just connecting people globally was just one of the coolest things that I've ever done.

JS

Second question. Okay. What are you most proud of from Avocado Toast? Season 1?

PV

I think ‘doing the thing’, which I had so many ideas my whole life and I was like, ‘I want to make something, I want to make something, I want to make something’ and I did it.

JS

No, but that's, that's huge. And I think also, like you said about having different ideas and not doing it can also be so easy to like try once it not work, you'd be like, okay, this isn't the right idea. Or screw this. I'll just work on other people's stuff. This is too hard, but I give so much credit to you and Heidi, and Charlie, once you brought him on in terms of like not getting the funding the first year and then being like, okay, how do we make this better? How do we make this stronger? And then not giving up. Because honestly, when people ask me, like, how did you make Slo Pitch it was just like, you can't give up when people say no, because so many people are going to say no to you and your idea. So I also think it's amazing that you did the thing.

PV

Thank you. And I will say like, when times were tough and we were getting a lot of ‘no’s’, there were a lot of tears and a lot of like, ‘what the are we doing?’

JS

Yeah.

PV

And like, feeling like we're we were living in a vacuum of our story and like, nobody wanted to see this and, how do we make it viable that people will want to see it?

JS

Ya you went from 0 to 4000.


PV

Yeah.


JS

It wasn't like, let me make this little short film as like a feeler, it was like, let's make a bad-ass huge scale web series

PV

Way bigger than we ever set out to make ever!


JS

Yeah! And that was a testament to the story and how people do relate to it.


PV

Thank you J.


JS

You're welcome Perr!


PV

So yeah, I think that's the thing I'm the most proud of. I mean, I'm a proud of a lot of things, but that's yeah. The fact that it came out of our brains and now it's in the world. That's amazing. Now, what are you most excited about coming up for you creatively or otherwise?


JS

I recently got re-inspired about a feature idea that I have that I would potentially write, which I don't normally do. So I'm simultaneously most scared and the most excited about actually doing that and not just like putting it off and not trying to hire someone else to do it. And I have a story that I think is an important one to be told. And I want to do that.


PV

I agree.


JS

But also terrified!


PV

But this is how we do the things! Also, I should say you were one of the most, “let’s-just-do-it” person I've ever met in my life. And I'm constantly inspired by that.

JS

I will take that one because I do. Everyone makes all the excuses as to why making film is hard. And then by no means, am I saying it's not hard because it's tough, but it's always easy to say why you can't do something and I'm more so like, but actually what's stopping you right now. Pause and think about it. I have a camera, what's stopping you. So I feel very passionate about just fucking do it.

PV

I completely agree.

JS

And it might suck and that's fine, but you probably learned something and no one needs to see it.


PV

Yeah. And I've had people be like, ‘how do you, how do you make a web series?’ And like, you just do it. It's the worst advice and the best advice that I ever got from people. So I agree. You're you are a constant inspiration cause you just, yeah, nothing stops you. You're one of the only people that I'm like, if you say you're going to do something, I'm like, look out, because then in a year it's going to be around, or less time. I’m talking specifically about your feature [film], but if it's less time.

JS

Well thank you.


PV

You’re welcome. What can't you do J?


JS

Oh, lots of things.

PV

So yeah, you are one to watch and look out world.


JS

Thank you.

PV

You're welcome. No! Thank you. And thank you for being a part of our show.

JS

My absolute pleasure for all of the things. Thank you for creating content that's important for the world to see.

PV

You’re welcome! (Laughs) alright!

JS

Alright. You’re the best.

You can follow J Stevens on Instagram @the_j_stevens and check out their work at j-stevens.com


Thank you so much to Ontario Creates for their ongoing support! And support of these interviews!

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