One of the most memorable moments in “The Business of Strangers,” the debut feature from writer-director Patrick Stettner, comes when Julie Styron (Stockard Channing), a forty-something executive, describes to her young colleague Paula Murphy (Julia Stiles) the time when she first experienced hot flashes–while entertaining business guests at a NFL game. What’s remarkable is not only that the scene occurs at all (the realities of mature female life being rarely treated in films nowadays), but how it originated. “That story actually came from my girlfriend’s mother,” Stettner explained in a recent Dallas interview. Moreover, he said, not only didn’t she mind the tale being appropriated for the movie, but she’s taken her erstwhile guests to the film to explain why she’d been acting so strangely that day.
The anecdote was characteristic of the way in which Stettner wrote the script for “Strangers.” While he was finishing his film degree at Columbia, Stettner explained, “I was working as a temp in New York City at ad agencies and law firms,” where he encountered both female executives and temps and detected “a tension there” between the two groups. He began thinking about a story that would dramatize the interaction; “I did a lot of interviews–sometimes they knew it was an interview and sometimes they didn’t–where I was working.” It wasn’t until later, though, that he actually sat down and penned the script. “The actual writing process was kind of quick–about three months,” he recalled. “But it was an idea that had been germinating for a while.” The result was a narrative about Julie, a company VP traveling on a sales trip, who first clashes and then bonds with Paula, a young employee of the same firm; their relationship takes a sharp turn when Nick, a slick headhunter, shows up and Paula confides a horrible secret about his past to Julie. This leads the two women to take vengeance on him after a long night of drinking.
While writing “Strangers” Stettner completed his thesis film, “Flux,” and its strong reception earned him an invitation to the Writing Lab at the Sundance Institute, where he eventually took his new script. “Getting into Sundance was the big break for me,” the young director said. “That’s when it started generating interest,” particularly with one studio. “They started giving me notes. I got the fifteen-page notes, single-spaced. They had a lot of silly suggestions that I just didn’t agree with.” The studio readers were especially displeased with the ending. “They were very unsatisfied that I didn’t tie everything together,” he remembered. “At the end it’s a bit of an enigma. I didn’t want to tie everything up. I was adamant about that.” He was especially aghast at a suggestion that after her experience with Paula and Nick, Julie should leave the corporate world altogether and join Greenpeace!
Fortunately, Stettner was rescued from the studio by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the writer-directors of “Suture” and “The Deep End,” who met him at Sundance and offered to make “The Business of Strangers” through their production company. “They basically said they wanted to do this film,” he recalled with more than a hint of amazement. “They were willing to go ahead and start casting.” The quality of writing attracted Stockard Channing–whom Stettner described as “terribly generous, an incredible, formidable actress”–to the part of Julie, and she signed on after Stettner was able to secure Julia Stiles for the role of Paula. Stettner was thus able to make the movie he’d envisioned, ambiguities and all. “The film is a prism,” he explained. “It can go in many different ways. It’s not a male-bashing film or anything like that. It was never intended to be solely for women. It deals with issues of fear, of ‘Am I going to lose my job?’ or ‘What am I going to do with my life?'” And he added: “I think we all have to deal with that.”