By Andrew Buckner
Today I have the tremendous honor of speaking with writer and director Chris Esper! Welcome! Can you tell us about yourself?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. Growing up, I have always had a lot of love for the arts. As a kid, I thought I wanted to be an actor/comedian like Robin Williams, who was always my favorite. I tried my hand at acting when I was in my teens and part of the drama club. I also tried doing stand-up comedy. I found some success in both areas, but I ultimately felt it wasn’t for me. I was also really interested in puppetry and tried my hand at that as well. Again, I enjoyed it very much, but I felt my talents were in other areas. All the while, I was always a big movie buff and had a love and fascination with movies and most of the arts that I enjoyed always lead back to movies. I think this when I knew I should be in filmmaking.
What was the path to becoming a filmmaker like for you?
My path into filmmaking came to me when I was about 17 or 18 years old, but before that almost everything I did somehow lead back to film and I never truly realized it. For example, when I was 10 years old, I wrote a thirty page script about a boy and his robot which I called Boy Bot. I think I wrote it because I wanted to act in a movie. I was a big Ghostbusters fan and enjoyed comedy and science fiction, so I wrote this story in a similar vein. I also discovered that two of the actors were also the writers, so that convinced me that perhaps I should write something. I kept telling all my friends in school that I was going to make a movie and everybody wanted to be part of it. I went about sending the script to Columbia Pictures, thinking that if they made Ghostbusters then surely they would make mine. About 6 months to a year later, the envelope came back to me with a “Return to Sender” labelled stamped on it. For some reason, this didn’t hurt or cease my passion, even at age 10.
By the time I did reach age 17, I started to see movies in a different way. No longer were movies entertainment, but it was an art form. I trained myself in learning about classic cinema, different directors, etc. I also received my first camera at that age and started making movies on my own. I made a documentary, stop motion animation pieces and most of the time small experimental films and narratives I would star in while also directing, writing, shooting and editing everything. YouTube was new at the time, so I went about uploading these films to a channel. The films were not good by any stretch of the imagination, but other amateur filmmakers were taking note of my work and started following my channel. It was after making these films that I truly knew I wanted to make movies for a living. I found that I could combine all the art forms I grew up to love into one medium while also satisfying my passion for film and storytelling.
Are there any movies or fellow directors you look to for inspiration?
The movie that made me want to make movies was Raging Bull. Martin Scorsese is easily my favorite director. His passion for cinema is contagious and he’s also a filmmaker that’s taught me about the importance of personal filmmaking. To me, Raging Bull demonstrates all that he believes in in cinema and while also showing his own personality on screen. I love how its shot, the atmosphere, the acting and the overall story and how it unfolds. I recall watching the audio commentary and behind the scenes documentary and hearing Scorsese talk about what he wanted to achieve really inspired me. I feel that the rest of his filmography also follows suit with films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Hugo, The Last Temptation of Christ, etc. All these films carry qualities of himself as a person while showcasing his deep cinematic desires.
I find that I enjoy movies by directors that are personal stories and also movies that challenge me and take me to another world. I tend to lean towards films by Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining), Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo), Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Day for Night), David Cronenberg (The Fly, The Brood, Naked Lunch), Charlie Chaplin (City Lights, Modern Times), Darren Arronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler), Walt Disney, and Jim Henson.
My other favorite films include dark comedies, animation, sci-fi/fantasy and psychological thrillers. I could go on and on!
You’ve directed many short films. Among them is “Still Life”, a favorite of mine, which you have said is personal to your own experiences as a cinematic artist. How is this so?
I made “Still Life” when I was just finishing college. It’s a film about dealing with criticism as an artist and learning how to grow from it. At the time, I don’t believe I have ever been given an honest critique of my work until I entered college and we would present our projects to the class. I wouldn’t react negatively towards anybody, but I would beat myself up over any kind of feedback, thinking I failed. That side of me would show easily and many would try explain to me that it wasn’t a bad thing. I didn’t see it that way. So, I wrote the screenplay to “Still Life” as a way to express those feelings. In way, it was a therapeutic film to make because I learned something as I made it and it seems that audiences did too. My attempt was to show audiences that everybody faces of fears of criticism, but have to in order to grow as artists.
What is it like to release something that means so much to you individually out into the world?
It’s so surreal. On the one hand, you’re really excited to share your creation but at the same time you’re scared to death of how it’s going to be received. In the end, it’s one of the most gratifying feelings in the world when you’re sitting in a cinema and watching your film play and watching/listening to how the audience is reacting. This is especially true with comedy. You also know you do a great job when an audience member wants to talk with you further about your themes or how you made the film. That’s when you know your film left an impression on them.
You are currently producing your first feature called Higher Methods. It is going to be directed by Nathan Suher. What can you tell us about the project?
Nathan and I have been good friends for going on five years now. Higher Methods was a play written by Lenny Schwartz (who also wrote the screen version) which is about fame and the price we pay to achieve it. The basic premise is an actor, Matt, is in search of his sister who has been missing for 10 years. This search leads him down a rabbit hole where he comes across an acting class in which the professor employs unusual and sometimes sadistic methods in order to get a performance out of a student. The film then becomes an ultimate question of what is reality and what is fantasy.
I hadn’t seen the play, so when I read the script it was a huge treat for me. I was blown away by it. It’s exactly the kind of film I would direct and/or watch. Nathan had contacted me initially asking me to be the assistant director on the project, which I agreed to. Later, though, he asked me to be in a bigger position of co-producing with him. I was flattered and said “Yes”. We go into production next year.
You’re work has played at many different film festivals. You’ve also received a lot of acclaim for your material in these places. For instance, your short, “Steak Knives”, won the Festival Prize for Best Opening Scene in the Stories by the River Film Festival 2015 and In the Bedroom won the Outstanding Achievement Award for Writing in a Drama Series at the LA Web Fest in that year. How important do you think film festivals are to helping indie directors get their work out and recognized?
I think it’s extremely important. We live in an age filled with media saturation, so it’s very hard to stand out among everyone else who is also making movies. By submitting and then being accepted into a film festival, it shows that you’re standing out among the rest and that your piece belongs amongst other talented filmmakers. Awards are great, too, but just being accepted is a nice honor whether the festival is big or small.
You also have done several music videos. Among the most recent of these is Aaron K. Wilson’s “I Hear the Future”. Is directing a music video a lot like shooting a short film? If so, how?
I love directing music videos. I feel that I have more freedom in that I don’t necessarily have to follow a strict narrative structure with a complete beginning, middle and end. I can play with the medium and do something that is a visually narrative and experiment more so than I could with a short film. I also enjoy not having to think about sound when shooting a music video. It usually makes the day go by a little faster without having to worry about that factor. I do also enjoy doing music videos that include a complete story with dialogue as that’s not always done and its fun doing something different like that.
You have a book coming out on June 24th, which I highly recommend to everyone, called The Filmmaker’s Journey. It is based on a popular vlog of yours. What was this transition like?
I started the vlog earlier in the year. I have been doing this for about six years and I felt that I had a lot experience to share, especially still at a young age. Ultimately, I wanted to help other filmmakers who are either just starting out or thinking about getting into the field. There’s a lot of things that many don’t tell you before getting into it and I wanted to be the one to say what the realities were while also convincing others that this career isn’t impossible and can be done. The transition from vlog to book wasn’t really too difficult. I pretty much had all the information I wanted to get out there. At that point it was just about expanding upon it in book form.
At what time did this occur?
At the time I decided to write this as a book, I had only been producing the vlog for about a month. I didn’t have a big audience for it at all, but felt it had a ton of potential to be something bigger. I also like to keep my videos short at 5 minutes or less as that usually works well for the internet audience. However, I was a bit frustrated in that there was so much more I wanted to say that I didn’t have to say on video. So, I decided that in order to share my larger ideas and advice, it might be best write it as a book. I had never written a book before, so it was different for me, but also easy because I knew the exactly what I wanted to say.
In the book you share a lot of personal stories, experiences and dispense a lot of helpful advice for aspiring directors. Some of this is your definition of what it means to be a director and detailed explanations of technology and filmmaking. You are even kind enough to give A Word of Dreams a shout out in the “Web Sites to Get Your Film Reviewed” section. Thank you! Of all these bits of wisdom can you share one with us that you feel is among the most important?
You’re very welcome! I would say that most important is knowing that everyone faces all the struggles I mention throughout the book. I cannot stress this enough. I would always read so many biographies about my heroes and film idols, but they hardly ever mentioned what their struggles or failures were before they became the success that we know them to be. I think it’s very important to know that you’re not the only one as it puts things in perspective if they could face failure, you can too. We have a tendency as humans to look down upon failure and try to ignore, but I feel that it should be welcomed in order to understand that as much as it hurts, it’s what drives us to become successful in life. Every career, especially this one, has no clear path. It’s filled with detours and by trying to compare your failures to someone else’s successes if just a waste of energy.
What are the differences and similarities between the process of writing a book and publishing it and creating a film and releasing it?
The most obvious difference is one being so visual over the other. With a book, the goal is to keep the reader interested by creating the visuals through your words. Because I have written screenplays in the past and because I tend to be a visual person this was somewhat easy for me. The hardest part for me was writing sentences that made sense while also getting the point across. With a film, the camera work and visuals usually fill in the blanks but with a book the writer has to do that themselves.
In terms of distribution and releasing, I would say the process is somewhat similar because it’s all about independently releasing your work by way of digital technology. I do have the self- publishing process to be a little harder because it’s so difficult to find people willing to review your book. Many of the writers I found either charge an outrageous amount of money for a review or you genre isn’t what they want. With a movie, I can easily get 20 reviews for a single short film for very little money and also find a number of avenues to show it.
You also have your own production company. It is called Stories in Motion. How did that come about?
I started Stories in Motion in March 2016. By that point, I realized that I had making a living as a filmmaker/videographer for 6 years. But, yet, I didn’t have an identity to follow other than my own name. I wanted to create a production company in order to market myself in a better way and perhaps even create further opportunities for myself. In short time that I have had the company, I am finding more success and opportunities than I did in just using my name for 6 years.
You are currently penning your first feature film. What is this experience like?
It’s a very difficult experience. With short films, I do a little bit of outlining and character development, but for the most part I just dive right in and develop as I write. With a feature, I’m trying my best to do more of that before actually writing the screenplay. To tell you the truth, too, I’m kind of impatient when it comes to writing because I like to just get started and see what happens and experiment. I often feel tied down by first formulating what happens on each page and when a certain beat of the story should happen. Perhaps it’s not the best way to work, but I find it works best for me. It gets easier though as I do more pre-planning.
What can we expect from this work?
I’m trying to keep the overall story and premise under wraps at this time, but, much like “Still Life”, it’s a very personal story. The main character is basically myself and it’s also a psychological drama with similar elements as the films of Charlie Kaufman.
What do you want your audience to take away from your material?
I like to make an audience think while also relating to them on an emotional and personal level. I would hope that an audience walks away from one of my films still thinking about it, relating to the characters and maybe even take action for themselves or for somebody else.
Do you have any other upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
Yes, there’s lots of exciting things happening. My short film, “Please Punish Me”, is currently making its rounds on the festival circuit and just got into its 13th festival. I’m also in the process of finishing production on my latest short film, “A Very Proper Man”, which I’m hoping to release later in the year. My company also optioned a couple of short screenplays for this year including Pride and Money and Smartphone by the very talented Brian Pickard. Both will be produced in 2017. The company also recently optioned The Deja Vuers by Jason K. Allen. That project will be going into production later this summer. Finally, I’m going into production along with Massachusetts based production company, Stories by the River, this fall on a short comedy film I had written.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Thank you so much, Andrew, for the interview and your continuous support of independent cinema!
Thank you for your time! I look forward to all your upcoming works!
You can pre-oder The Filmmaker’s Journey on Amazon here.
You can connect with Chris Esper on Facebook here.