Thursday, January 09, 2014

TLR Talks With Chris Esper About His Short Film "Still Life"

After posting a review of Chris Esper's short film Still Life on Christmas Eve--I told the filmmaker that I would be in touch in early 2014 about doing an interview.....Recently we had that chat.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. When did you know you wanted to make films?

I think I caught the film bug very early on in my life. I grew up in New Jersey in a city where everyone knew everyone. Small city. I always went to the movie theater, but it was a video store across the street from my house called Broadway Video (Sadly closed down now) that started it all. I used to walk across the street every chance I got and rent a movie all the time. This was back in the "dark ages" of VHS. I would go home just watch all these movies and soon IMDb was born. I would be on that site for hours just looking up any information I could find and I had a file folder where I print the pages of my favorite movies and just keep it on file. No reason whatsoever. It was just something I did. Then, I had seen "Ghostbusters"  and a couple of other science fiction movies when I was 10. I liked them so much that I decided to write a movie in that vein called "Boy Bot". It was a 30 page script about a boy and his robot. So, I decided to to send it to Columbia Pictures because they had produced "Ghostbusters" (logical, right?) Of course it got sent back to me a few months later, but I just kept going soon after. When I was in high school I got my first camera and YouTube had just come out. So, I started making these little YouTube films that was just me and my camera. I had no crew or cast. It was literally just me doing everything. I even made little movies using animation and puppetry. I put these YouTube and starting getting a small audience out of them. Meanwhile, I was growing into more and more of a movie buff and started looking into movies that were before my time and becoming even more inspired. I can honestly say that after seeing "Raging Bull" and listening to Martin Scorsese describe what his vision was, that's when I really knew that I wanted to make movies as a living.

Which Filmmaker or filmmakers had the greatest influence on you and Why?

There are many. Again, Scorsese comes to mind as my main influence. I love his passion and love for cinema. I could listen to him talk all day about the craft. It's honest and contagious. I also really enjoy his range of stories that he's put onto film. They all explore something different and I love that. His visual style is also very striking for me. 

It's the kind of film making I aim to do. Same goes for Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Jim Henson, Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin. They, too, influence me a great deal.

How did Still Life come about?

"Still Life" came about from personal experience. I was in college and made a few short pieces for class and also outside of school and I wasn't feeling too great about the work I was doing. It was also a time where I had never been critiqued on my work. So, when it happened for the first time, I took it to heart. I wasn't sure how to handle. Like Martin in the film, I took it personal as meaning that I wasn't good at what I did. So, I just simply went home and wrote a script based on those feelings. At first, it was all anger. The character was angry at everyone that critiqued him. After letting others read it, I decided to change it and then he eventually ended up the way he is now in the story. So, it was all just personal experience. It's something that everyone goes through, I feel. Then, I came across a quote by Ira Glass. He talks about how those who do creative work find that, when starting out, that the work isn't that good. It has potential, but it's not good. He goes on about how some quit when they're in this phase and it happens to everyone. The only to get through it is just keep creating something every week like writing a new story. After seeing this, I decided to use that as my basis when rewriting the script. Thus the reason why I included the quote in the film.

Talk about the casting process.

Honestly, there was no process. It was my first film out of college and I just gathered actors who I've worked with before in other projects and trusted and thought they were all very talented. Tim Bonavita (Martin) I met when I was assistant camera on a feature film and then we ran into each other again when I was doing cinematography for a promotional trailer. I heard him mention how he does photography and I liked him and thought he was talented. So, I just simply asked him to play the lead. I sent him the script and he liked it. So, it went from there. David Graziano (Professor Lynch) I had known since 2010. I met him when I was, again, doing assistant camera work on a feature film. It was my first film job outside of school and it was David's first film, too, I believe. We just became friends right away and kept running into each other on other sets. We seemed to have similar interests in terms of cinema. He even starred in my first student short, "Tough Love". So, for me, it was easy to pick David to play the part. Peggy Passarelli (Elaine) I had met also in 2010 when I was a production assistant on a short. Again, we just clicked right away and I remembered her when I was in process of choosing my actors. So, I just asked her. Mike Daniels (Martin's friend, Josh) was a friend of mine in high school. He also attended the same college as me and he had acting experience so I wrote him a part into the script. Carlyne Fournier (Martin's mom) I just recently met, at the time. I liked her a lot and she was very nice. Very talented actress. It was a no brainer to ask her. Finally, Charlie Tacker who plays young Martin was actually recommended to me by Carlyne. They had played mother and son together a few times prior to "Still Life" and they had a great rapport together. She showed me his reel, which I was really impressed by. So, I contacted his mother and that's how he got on board.

Discuss your best and worst day on set.

The best day on set, for me, was the first day. One of the first things we shot was the street scene where Martin walks home from class and sees the inspirations that causes him to think of a photo idea but he rejects it right away because of his self doubt. It was fun to shoot and it was truly the scene where those feelings of doubt really come out for the character. I think all of us who do creative work think of an idea, but then right away a part of us rejects it because of previous bad experiences in creating something. So, it was really fulfilling to shoot that scene. The worst day was shooting the apartment scene. It was the middle of July and it was a very humid rainy day and room we were shooting in was hotter than Hell. I felt so bad for Tim and the crew. I had a long list of shots we needed to do and it was just horrible. In the end though, we ended up with great footage from that scene so I can't really say it was a bad day. 

What's the reaction been like to the film? Why did you decide to shoot mostly in Black and White?

We decided to shoot in black and white for several reasons. One, because when I think of photography, especially film photography, I think of black and white. Also, and the main reason, Martin sees things very black and white. He's either good or horrible. There's no middle ground gray area for him where he feels it's okay that something he did wasn't amazing but will get better. That's why the flashback was in color. As kids, we see things in color. Everything is great. Same for Martin. Those pictures he took with the Polaroid probably weren't very good to his mother at all, but she doesn't care. This is perhaps where Martin's, and most starting artists, downfall probably started. We're not always given the honest truth about our work from friends or family and we need up feeling almost indestructible as artists. This is something I'm guilty for as well and still try to understand. It's part of the growth process

Which leads me to the reaction of the film. We had a premiere for the film in October 2012. The thing I least expected happened. We got a standing ovation. I was shocked, yet happy. It was very rewarding. I've since sent the film to be reviewed by several websites, which has gone over very well. We've gotten some great acclaim. One of our first reviews wasn't very good, though. So, it was very interesting, for me, to try to handle professional critiques about a film just about that. I was living Martin's moment in the classroom all over again. The film also screened around New England and then had it's first festival screening in New York City at NewFilmmakers New York Film Festival. It was extremely well received. It has since been picked up for distribution worldwide by Twistflix  and was nominated for two awards for Motif Magazine's Theater and Film Awards. One for directing and one for editing (Jill Poisson). We won for the editing, which was wonderful. So, I'm very happy with the film's success. Many have approached me and told me how much they relate to the piece. It's that kind of reaction that inspires me to keep going and not give up on what I love to do.

What's your opinion about the state of the industry? Trends like 3-D or IMAX.

I'm really on the fence about it. For independent filmmakers, it's become a lot easier to make something and get your work seen than it was 30 or 40 years ago. However, that also means the population of filmmakers grows, which makes a bigger herd to try to break through to make it. So, while the technology has changed for our advantage, it's also become a disadvantage. As for Hollywood, I think they're just making what the public wants to see. I'm not a fan of the constant sequels and remakes. I feel it lacks originality, but people pay to see it. If a studio makes a profit then that's great for them. It tells them that people want to see these movies. The problem, to me, is that the system is run by business people and not by someone who's got their hands dirty on set. It's a business though. Show business. The 3D and IMAX don't help either. I see them more as a novelty gimmick. It's quite sad when I go to the theater now and a poster says "Also in 2D". I think this trend will come to an end like it did in the 50's and 80's. Each time 3D came out was when another medium was threatening cinema. In 50's, television hit and studios used 3D to try to garner an audience. In the 80's, home video became popular and again threatened the industry. Currently, we have video on demand, Netflix and such, which are great, but it's threatening the theater industry. I think we're in state where it's hard to see some really great independent films that have a fresh voice in the mainstream. It's always this time of year that I enjoy in cinema because of awards season. A lot of interesting films are being released that I would love to see and we something new and exciting. It's an interesting time for cinema. As technology has changed, so has cinema. It's exciting, but at the same time it makes it harder for indie filmmaker.

If you had the chance to remake any film you wanted which one would you tackle and why?

I don't think I would want to remake anything, honestly. I just couldn't see myself trying to redo something that was already done so well by the original director. If I liked the original film, I would be trying so hard to make sure that I stay true to it without even thinking about my own vision. I would be forgetting about myself. 

Any advice to aspiring filmmakers?

Pick up the camera and go. Make anything. Use whatever is at your disposal. Even if you don't have the best camera in the world or the best editing software, use it. Even if you don't have actors, experiment. Use animation, puppets or just filming anything and put it together into a series of shots as an experimental film to tell a visual story. Just keep practicing. Read about filmmaking, watch online tutorials. The internet is becoming a bigger source everyday for filmmaking. There's sites like Vimeo, YouTube and NoFilmSchool that have a way of showing your work and learning different techniques. Also, meet people. Network. Get your work seen anywhere you can. Just don't stop filming.    

As we wrap up it's your chance to say anything else...

Just a few things. I have couple new projects in the works right now. For one thing, I have a web series that's currently in post production called "A Guy Going Crazy". It's about a budding comedian, Felix, who's dream is to become a comedian but consistent obstacles like his overbearing mother, drama queen girlfriend, annoying friends and bad luck make it impossible for any of this to happen and it slowly unravels his sanity. The show was created by and stars Rich Camp. Rich and I have been collaborating for a few years now. He also wrote a short comedy that I'm directing called "Please Punish Me". That one is about Scottie, a businessman, who's tired of his good luck. He feels too blessed. The people around get the negative effects of his positive gain. So, he seeks to be punished for his "curse". We'll shooting that this month. I'm also about to enter post production on another short drama called "The Lesson". It was produced by Michelle Romano of Roman Media, Inc. It's about an elderly gentlemen who goes to play his weekly game of chess with his daughter. Plus, I have a few music videos I'll be directing this year as well and a few web shows like "Puppatics" and "In The Bedroom". For more information and other work, my website is Thanks for the interview!

My pleasure Chris it was fun! Be sure to check out the Still Life Facebook page for more about the film.

I will be keeping in touch with Chris. I am certain he will return to TLR at some point...


Patricia OHara said...

Excellent interview.

Patricia OHara said...

Excellent interview. Chris has amazing talent and is an extremely even keeled individual. Always a pleasure to work with.