Cal Poly alumnus Kenny Stevenson always knew he wanted to make people laugh for a living.
In second grade, if his teacher had asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have said a comedian.
In college, if anyone asked what his hobbies were, he would have said stand-up comedy.
Fourteen years after graduating in speech communications from Cal Poly, yes, Stevenson is a comedian — and his first-ever film, “Missed Connections” is coming to San Luis Obispo for the SLO International Film Festival in March.
“Missed Connections” details the story of a man, Neal, who is struggling to find joy in a post-breakup life.
Once Neal’s friends convince him to manipulate Craigslist’s missed connections posts to meet new women, Neal’s life takes an interesting — and funny — turn.
“It works for him for a while,” said Stevenson, who plays Neal. “But then he keeps running into this girl who is also using missed connections in a manipulative way. It becomes the two of them, two kind of messed up people, falling in love.”
Don’t think this makes it a rom-com.
“I hate to say it’s a romantic comedy,” Stevenson said. “It’s about a man whose girlfriend is sleeping with his best friend, who hates life, who hates his job, who is miserable.”
But through the misery, Neal finds love in a character played by Stevenson’s real-life wife, Dorien Davies, who also helped him write the script.
“I love working with her,” Stevenson said. “We met doing comedy, so our relationship started with us doing comedy together. It’s very easy for me to pretend that I’m in love with her.”
And, Stevenson said, at the end of a day of “pretending” to fall in love, the cameras would turn off and the two would go home “and just be a couple again.”
“It made (the movie) so natural,” producer Lisa Rudin said. “One note we’ve gotten from a lot of people is how the actors seem so comfortable together. They have a real natural connection that’s really hard to get. It’s very clear that that relationship came through.”
A labor of love
Taking on an independent film of this style was a new experience for everyone involved in “Missed Connections.”
Rudin said her assistant work with “guerrilla-style filming” and all its curveballs on movies such as “Bruno” helped her prepare for producing, though.
But it was the attitude of those involved that made it a success.
“We had to be enthusiastic,” Rudin said, “and prepared for anything, and it started with Kenny. He is one of the easiest people I’ve ever worked with. We did not have your typical actor drama — thank God.”
Stevenson said he doesn’t have “an amazing story where I go on a date and try to meet people” and certainly hasn’t posted fake advertisements just to date women. But he did draw from his own heartbreak experiences while writing “Missed Connections.”
“I always look back at the time when my ex-girlfriend broke up with me,” Stevenson said. “I was moving from New York to Los Angeles trying to work as a comedic actor and there was a good year, a weird space, where I was trying to function day-to-day. I would always say that the worst thing was waking up in the morning and my bed being empty, so the first scene of the movie is this guy waking up everyday before his alarm goes off, just hating it.”
Stevenson said people can relate to Neal’s “helpless feeling after a major event like a break-up.”
The plot came to Stevenson while he was on a walk.
“I was going on a walk to get my brain going, and I just thought, what would happen if we were to place a fake ad on missed connections?” he said.
Stevenson said he has always liked the idea of uncertainty that comes after ending a relationship.
“Your life is going a certain way, and you have a trajectory that you think you’re going in,” Stevenson said. “Because my character thought he was going to marry this woman, he thought his life was going one way, and then the rug gets pulled out from underneath him. So it’s like how do you pick yourself back up? I was interested in using that.”
“You have to be a little crazy”
Filming the 77-minute “anti-rom-com” took a mere 19 days and $25,000 budget — mostly funded through Kickstarter.
“People we paid very little or working for free, we didn’t have money, everyone had two jobs and sometimes things would happen,” Rudin said, “like a grip truck wouldn’t show up one day.”
Stevenson said it took a little bit of “crazy” to pull the project together.
“A lot of times this is your own money, and you have to be really scrappy and really resourceful,” Stevenson said. “And it’s kind of crazy to be doing something where the odds are stacked against you.”
Even with the odds stacked against it, “Missed Connections” has won 10 awards at 15 festivals since March 2012. The SLO International Film Festival will be the film’s 16th and final festival.
“For us to have struck gold on our first try with this was really unique,” Rudin said. “I never thought that we would win all these awards, and this industry doesn’t always recognize projects like this. But I knew we had a special project in our hands.”
The film will be showing at the Downtown Centre Cinemas March 8 and 9.
“It’s a path I always wanted to go down”
The 1999 speech communications (now communication studies) alumnus considers his time at Cal Poly to be his first steps toward finding his voice in comedy and performance.
“College is where you start to get a sense of who you are as an individual,” he said. “You’ve broken away from your family and you’re foraging your own way. It definitely helped me progress.”
He started by participating in Backstage Pizza’s (now Ciao!) stand-up nights.
“I was always looking for that outlet to be funny,” Stevenson said. “That’s always where I saw myself going. I think if you talked to people that I knew at Cal Poly, they would say I was pretty funny — at least I hope so. That was always my goal.”
After his sophomore year, Stevenson became interested in film and radio, and decided to join KCPR as a radio disc jockey. He hosted KCPR’s only college sports show, “Soapbox Sports.”
“That was my favorite thing I did at Cal Poly,” Stevenson said. “That was the one place in college where I felt I could do everything I wanted to. I could be funny, play music, talk sports and everyone was like me — a little bit off. It was where I fit in.”
Stevenson said Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” atmosphere taught him to pick himself up and keep going when things get difficult.
“If you’re really passionate about something,” Stevenson said, “you have to know that not every day is going to be amazing, and you have to keep working at it.”