Marie Tomanova captures the short film’s cast of real-life artists, including Girl Skin’s Stanley Simons, model Phineas Kirsch, and photographers Cameron Lee Phan and Nika De Carlo.
“You don’t respect me as an artist,” Nick, a writer who never writes, accuses his recently non-monogamous girlfriend, Nika, as they share a candlelit dinner with her paramour and their roommate. “That’s not true,” she says. “I think I’ve been very encouraging by letting you edit my work.” Here, Sam Centore’s latest short film, Tyler Works at the Gas Station, satirizes a scene that could take place around the table of any artist share-house in Brooklyn. The live-in boyfriend of an art world darling who has taken a chill new lover, Nick is creatively unfulfilled as others around him find success, or at least self-assurance.
The meta conceit of the film lies in the casting: Nika, a successful photographer, is played by real-life photographer Nika De Carlo; model and photographer Cameron Lee Phan plays Cameron, her artist roommate; Nick is played by filmmaker, model, and musician Stanley Simons, and Tyler, Nika’s intern-cum-lover, is played by Phineas Kirsch, who models but does not work at a gas station. Through these four characters, Centore explores the web of social intricacies that comes with being a creative in New York—where artistic inspiration, career success, social status, sex life, and self worth are all so closely intertwined.
Accompanied by a photoshoot of the cast by Marie Tomanova—whose sensitive eye has made her queen of capturing the vulnerability of New York’s artistic youth—Document debuts a teaser of the film. We also chat with its cast, director, and producer, Sophie Mitchell, about maintaining artistic integrity through commercial success and creative crisis.
Maraya Fisher: As models, photographers, and musicians living and working in New York City and Brooklyn, elements of Tyler Works at the Gas Station were probably familiar. Some of the characters were, perhaps, a funhouse mirror version of an archetype you identify with. How much did you draw upon your own life in your role? Which character’s struggles do you relate to most?
Cameron Lee Phan: I could easily trace the characters back to people I’ve met in real life, myself included, with these very familiar young adult crises. Most [are] in need of frequent affirmations of their life path. The inner struggle of navigating the ‘real’ world as a twenty-something, wanting to know the world as we’d like to creatively, and battling between what we want and what we are told to have accomplished by a certain age.
I was able to relate my character’s paintings to my photographs. I also prefer earthy vibes most of the time. I really feel Nick. He’s got this really intense inner turmoil going on over what he wants to do with his life. But I also felt very close to my character; they have this habit of moving from one project to the next, never putting their eggs all in one basket. I think they just want to try everything and see what bites.
Nika De Carlo: The main thing I related to with the role of Nika is living in a house with other creatives. I’ve always shared a common space with other people making their own different types of art; one time I lived in a converted hostel with about 12 other people which was pretty wild. Although [the character] Nika and I are both photographers, we are actually very different. ‘Nika’ is very confident in her art and in her role as the ‘mother’ of the house, whereas I am personally more passive about my art and role in these types of living situations. The main struggle I relate to with the role of Nika is making sure everyone in the house is taken care of at all times.
Stanley Simons: I come from a creative family, and being an actor and a person who also makes music, I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by friends and peers who are also in creative fields. This made working on Tyler Works at the Gas Station a fun study of the conversations I have with my friends and coworkers about art and what it means to us. Sam [Centore] really understands how to take the piss out of the egotism and pretentiousness that quite often arises in these conversations and in the art world in general.
Phineas Kirsch: I definitely drew upon my life a bit, but also thought about who the character is.
Maraya: The chemistry you all share in the film as well as in Marie’s shoot is fantastic. Did you know each other before the film was shot? If so, how was it acting with someone who you already had a relationship with? If not, how did you build the intimacy of roommates—and lovers in some cases?
Cameron: Nika and I have been friends for such a long time; we’ve seen and experienced a lot together up until this point, and I think that transferred into our characters. I think having that relationship created a softness for the home dynamic on camera. I was new to meeting Stanley and Phineas, but it didn’t take long to put down walls with our senses of humor. But I do suppose it was like going through the process of meeting new roommates again, which is a very common thing for the typical young New Yorker.
Nika: This was actually my third film with Cameron, who I’ve been friends with for quite some time! I’ve also known Stan for a while now, too—my boyfriend and his brother are in a band together. Phineas was the only person I met for the first time, but he has this amazing carefree quality that makes you feel like you’ve known him for a long time.
Phineas: One of my friends Sophie introduced me to everyone, and I really love the whole cast. I had a fun time.
Sam Centore: On this note, we wanted the cast to be themselves in front of the camera which I think is always harder than it sounds. A lot of the directing became about creating a safe space for everyone to play rather than trying to force someone into hitting a mark.
Maraya: I think a big theme in Tyler Works at the Gas Station is the way we define ourselves: are you a writer if no one sees you write or reads your work? Does what you do for money define you more than your passion? Is success or fulfillment as an artist determined by outside recognition of your work? As creative people, have you had to reckon with these questions?
Cameron: Absolutely. Receiving glamorous recognitions for your work is a very tempting source of motivation. Our titles are social identifiers: they identify our mediums, our craft, but they are not everything. Social media also makes sure you’re fully aware of everyone else’s successes too. It’s so terribly subjective. Isn’t the point of an artist to inspire? If someone is affected by your work or made to think differently, by [understanding] the way that you think, aren’t you successfully doing your job as an artist? What you do for money can still be something different. I’ve also come to the conclusion that releasing the tight grip on our lives, that very egoistic control, allows for other successes and fulfillment to flow into reality more naturally, to make more damn sense, and to actually be organic.
Sophie Mitchell: There’s no denying the value of public recognition in creative success, especially with the role social media plays in the landscape of our lives right now. This isn’t inherently right or wrong, as seeing others receive attention can act as a mirror of what we’re capable of achieving in our own artistic aspirations. But there is a point where your art can just become a talking point or act as a clutch, which is what Nick struggles with.
Phineas: Do it for yourself. Not external stuff. But be open to stuff too.
Stanley: What’s so interesting about the film is its ability to touch and weave in serious themes, that trouble me and a lot of other creatives, in a really funny way. I guess only someone so outside that hollow blanket of egotism and pompousness in the arts could write and direct a film about that very thing so well.
Sam: I think the urge is to be like, ‘I only make art for myself, and I don’t care who sees it,’ which is an awesome strength to have, but I think it’s harder to attain when you live in a competitive environment like New York.
Nika: This is something that weighs on my mind often. I struggle with the thought of how to get my work more ‘out there,’ however I am a firm believer that art should be made no matter who sees it. Making art is something that’s done out of necessity, but it always feels good when someone acknowledges it. True success and fulfillment comes out of making something that touches and haunts you, igniting the drive to create more.