Filmmaking | Interviews

‘Could Be Worse!’: An Interview with Director Zack Stratis

1 Feb , 2001  

Written by Devon Damonte | Posted by:

Vaudeville performances, singing family members, and thematic screenings are some of the many highlights you will see in the Boston premiere of 'Could Be Worse!'

It’s been exactly one year since local filmmakers Zack Stratis and Vilma Gregoropoulos had the world premiere of their feature film "Could Be Worse!" at the Sundance Film Festival. Now at last, the suspense is over for Boston audiences because Zack and Vilma are finally presenting the Boston premiere of "Could Be Worse!" The exclusive Boston engagement begins with a bang at 7:00 p.m. Monday, February 12th at the Stuart Street Playhouse (200 Stuart Street at the Radisson Hotel). It’s "a movie and more" as the stars of the film — the whole singin’ and dancin’ Stratis clan — will be there to introduce the show and take questions afterwards. Plus special performances are promised from surprise guests.

If this sounds like something more than your average night at the multiplex, you’re beginning to get a sense of the whole idea that brought the entirely unique creation that is "Could Be Worse!" into existence and to the screen near you. So enough extemporaneous preambling already — what exactly, is this movie about you ask? Well, no description can ever do it justice, but since we’re in a cynical world where most audiences are shy about taking that leap of faith, I’ll give it a shot.

Zack is the filmmaker, and he’s also the star. And the film is really about how, incredibly, he convinced his adorable, loving, more or less normal (whatever that means) Greek American family to star in this movie. It’s really a slice-of-life style story, and for Zack and his family, a big slice of their lives is about Zack telling them all that he’s gay, something they really would rather not hear. And did I mention it’s a musical? In a big way! Lots and lots of songs from mom and dad and everyone, and a few big, lavish, costume numbers. Add all these elements together, and you get something quite phenomenal.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, "This sounds like the last thing in the world I’d want to go out and pay money to see when I could be home watching Temptation Island." But the most amazing thing about "Could Be Worse!" is that it works. That’s why Sundance chose it, and why audiences at festivals around the country love it. I recently talked with Zack about his experiences of the past year, and about "Could Be Worse!" in preparation for the Boston opening. The way Zack describes his motivation perfectly summarizes what makes the film so successful.

Zack Stratis: I’m always looking for a place to celebrate life with people. In this film I was able to do that by combining three elements: my family who are so wonderful and wacky; a meaty topic like coming out as a homosexual to a resistant ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of family; and involving the audience more than a regular movie by having performances a part of the show, and by putting a lot of focus on the discussion after the film. Hopefully this all adds up to an experience that’s fun and entertaining and that also leaves you thinking.

Devon Damonte: How do you classify the genre of "Could Be Worse?"

Stratis: I’m very interested in pursuing this blend of elements — what some people have dubbed the ‘Zackumentary.’ It’s not exactly documentary, because much of it is scripted, and I enjoy that quality that you can never know just what’s real and what’s not. You can’t trust the camera anyway, so it doesn’t matter what’s real — [what is] more interesting is the blending of fact and fiction. It’s not a ‘mockumentary’ because even though there’s a lot of humor and I’m having fun with it, I’m not mocking anyone or anything. There are serious elements there. It’s not quite drama because everybody plays themselves and the fictional story parts aren’t central. And it’s not a standard musical because none of us can sing very well!

DD: You shot "Could Be Worse!" on Digital Video, and your first film "Midburb" was shot on film. How do you feel about the differences?

Stratis: Vilma Gregoropoulos shot it on a Sony VX-1000. We did some tests to transfer to 35mm but decided to bump it to high definition video instead because Sundance was screening digital video for the first time last year, and it just made sense. For one third of the cost of a film print now we can launch our premiere and put the money into marketing and promotions. So we’re kind of riding the crest of the new potential offered by DV. I think digital video is wonderful — it was really the only way we could have made this film, for the flexibility and economy. Of course I also miss some things about film — the creaminess of it, and that you can hold it up to the light. Vilma says that film is poetic and video is conceptual. With video you’re literally dealing with the concept of light, and with film you can actually feel the light. So it depends on the project. I would shoot film again if the project were right for it.

DD: You’re planning a series of different performances with each screening of "Could Be Worse!" every Monday at the Stuart Street playhouse. Do you see yourself fitting into a Vaudeville sort of tradition?

Stratis: Sure. There’s definitely some of that hammy tradition in the film, but also I really [want] to have a way of framing the film, and to change the dynamic. We’re using this as a chance to showcase local talent to come and perform. We’re doing different themes, like a Midburb night, a Greek Pride night, and a Pridelights night. It’s a family-feel-good kinda show. We’re continuing a tradition like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes performing before the movie. But instead you get the Stratis family! It’s a way to make a truly interactive experience — in the old sense of that word — and to engage audiences with the movie. And then it’s really exciting to have this community in Boston and to discover [new] ways to approach distribution.

DD: What led you to make "Could Be Worse!"?

Stratis: After I made "Midburb" I moved to LA for a year and worked on some bigger movies for other people. I was close enough to West Hollywood to enjoy being a gay man 3000 miles away from my family. But after awhile I felt motivated to come home and tell them about my life and deal with that. I quit filmmaking for awhile and really focussed on getting my debts paid and being together with my family. That’s what’s so alarming about Bush and everything that’s happening now with Ashcroft and laws about marriage and everything. It’s serious stuff to deal with. We have to find common threads among us and our families need to stand by each other. Shame only magnifies our problems as a society.

DD: Do you think you’ll stay in New England making films, or move somewhere else where it’s easier?

Stratis: It’s not easier other places. I’ve found New England very open and excited and much more willing to pitch in on other people’s projects than other places. There’s more non-film people available – it’s not like everybody’s in the business. And there’s much more neighborhood community feeling, which is important to me. I’d like to keep working here.

DD: What are some highlights of the past year with the film?

Stratis: Well Sundance totally changed my life. It really put us on the map. So now we’re able to submit to every major festival and they take our calls. Vilma is handling that – she’s wonderwoman — cinematographer, producer, agent, plus she’s shooting other films. When we screened in Miami the audience was just perfect. They laughed in all the right places – even the scene when the bread comes out of the oven. Denver was a really great festival, and Provincetown we won an award. There’s so many stories, and every city is unpredictable and different. Like in Newport, we didn’t know what to expect with the audience filled with sea captains from big boat houses, but they loved it.

DD: Any last words before the big show?

Stratis: Come on out and you’ll have a great time. The worst that could happen is that after seeing "Could Be Worse!" you’ll go off and make your own movie. Then we’ll show that!

After the February 12 premiere, "Could Be Worse!" will be showing every Monday at 7 p.m. at the Stuart Street Playhouse, with different performances each week. Scheduled theme nights include:

  • Feb 19th "Midburb Night" a salute to cities like Everett, Malden, Revere, etc., featuring a Big Hair styling contest with celebrity judges
  • March 5th Pridelights Night
  • March 26th Greek Pride Night

Tickets are $15, and can be purchased at the Stuart Street box office with no surcharge, or by calling Telecharge at 1-800-447-7400 or online at (there is a surcharge). See you at the show!