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-Interview by Nic Brown-


Chris Conlee didn’t just dive into directing feature films like many filmmakers try to do. After film school he served his country in the Army for four years before coming back and setting up shop in Hollywood. His business: editing, and business has been pretty good. Now, with more than thirty feature film credits to his name, Chris has turned his critical eye to the director’s chair. His newest directorial venture: EVILUTION, has just come out on DVD and Chris is ready to talk about how he got his start in filmmaking, who his influences are and why the film industry today reminds him of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”!

Nic - Chris, you've been in the film industry for a while now, but it's only recently that you've started directing features. Can you tell us about your new film EVILUTION?

Chris - EVILUTION is my directorial debut. A few years back I edited a scary haunted hospital movie called BOO which Anthony C. Ferrante directed and Brian O'Toole co-produced. Flash forward a couple years, and Brian O'Toole wrote a script for a zombie-style movie that could be shot in the same location that BOO used -- the Linda Vista Hospital in downtown Los Angeles. I was working as an assistant editor at the time on TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, and I got a call from out of the blue. It was Brian asking me if I'd be interested in directing his movie. It was just that simple; he gave me a shot based on my background as an editor.

We set out to make an entertaining movie that fans of the genre would enjoy. I don't think we were trying to re-invent the genre or anything grand like that, but Brian did want to throw a few curves into the mix. That's why I called it a 'zombie-style' movie. Technically speaking, the creatures in our movie aren't zombies; they're possessed by an alien life form with a hive mentality.

Several online reviews mention that except for the exposition explaining this fact, you'd never know it because the creatures act like your typical running zombies. This is probably a failing of mine as the director; with a little more thought maybe we could have come up with a way to differentiate our creatures a bit more from the rest of the pack? Well, live and learn. I still hope the movie is fun.

Nic - How did you get your start as a filmmaker?

Chris - I moved to Los Angeles from a farm community in rural Oregon in 1991 or so, and went to the Columbia College Hollywood Film School. Of course I had big dreams of becoming the next Steven Spielberg, but as time went on I realized that maybe my calling was editing. I began to edit other students' short films and whatnot and really enjoyed the collaborative nature of the work -- helping to clarify the vision and make the story work....

After school I struggled along for a while, but the bills were mounting and the job prospects were slim, so I actually joined the U.S. Army for 4 years to pay off my college bills and get my head screwed on straight. During that time I pinched pennies, saved, and bought an Amiga computer with what was, at the time, a pretty revolutionary editing system. I think it was called the VLab Motion card and MovieShop software. It was pretty hinky, but for 1995 it was pretty cool.

After the Army I brought my computer back to Los Angeles and I started running ads in the actors' magazines to cut video demo reels for actors. Back then, very few people had the ability to edit movies on their computers. It was still a wide open field. So I cut demo reels for a couple years, meeting actors, producers, directors, etc. Then one day I just happened to meet somebody who was going to make a 'real' movie and they wanted to use my system. I did a little bit of upgrading to make it possible and then I assisted the editor they wanted to use. After that movie they did another one, and they used me as their editor.

The rest, as they say, is history. Once I had a feature editing credit I could tell people I was an editor with a straight face. Then I just kept looking for opportunities and took 'em whenever I could find 'em. Now, almost a decade later, I have about 30 feature film editing credits.

Now if I could just parlay that into more directing gigs, LOL!

Nic - What is the most challenging part of filmmaking for you?

Chris - Getting a job. It's not a career for the faint of heart, that's for sure. I've been working at it for nearly 20 years now and I still never know where the next gig is going to come from. And when you go a couple months without work, you start to wonder: "Will I ever work again? Maybe that's all there is, and there ain't no more...." Then suddenly something pops out of the woodwork and you're able to pay your rent again.

Aside from that, it's a business of egos and salesmanship. You're constantly running into people who tell you they're the greatest thing since sliced bread, or that they have access to millions of dollars to make a movie, or they're friends with Superstar Of The Week.... You find that you need to start sifting through the BS or you'll spend your whole life chasing impossible dreams. However, every so often, one of the folks who you think is spewing BS will surprise you, so it keeps you on your toes.

Nic - When you're not making movies, what are the films that you most enjoy watching?

Chris - I like all kinds of movies, but strangely I stay busy enough that I don't watch too many. When I do, my wife and I seem to check out comedies most often. She's a makeup artist. I think we both just like to shake off the stresses of everyday life and escape into a feel-good movie once in a while.

Nic - Who are some of your influences as a filmmaker?

Chris - George Miller, George Romero, Steven Spielberg.

I remember watching DUEL every year on television when I was a kid and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. At the time I didn't know Spielberg from anybody, but the movie definitely captivated my young mind. Then I saw JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and I sort of started to realize by reading magazines that it was the SAME GUY who was making all these cool movies!

My folks weren't really movie and TV people; they didn't dislike movies, it just wasn't a big deal around our house. But on Saturdays they'd let me stay up to watch Sinister Cinema being broadcast out of Portland, Oregon. They wouldn't stay up with me, because they weren't interested, and 9 times out of 10 I'd fall asleep well before the midnight show. When I did make it, usually I'd curl up under a blanket on the living room floor and be treated to any number of 50's sci-fi fare, or a lumbering Frankenstein's monster. But one night, holy hell! George Romero's masterpiece NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was on. I'd never seen anything like it and it almost blew my mind; I think I was probably 10, or so. I had to sleep at the foot of my parents' bed and I had nightmares for a week.

Then when I was in high school a friend and I went to the cinema and caught THE ROAD WARRIOR. Again, I'd never seen anything like it. That, in my opinion, is still a perfect motion picture. You can literally turn the sound down and understand what's happening because it tells the story perfectly with pictures. Awesome!

Nic - What do you think has been the biggest change in the film industry over the last ten years?

Chris - Well to quote Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...."

Making movies has never been more affordable. It's now possible with a thousand dollar camera and a laptop to create a movie that is technically deliverable. Something with enough quality that it could be shown on a movie screen and actually look good! That's amazing stuff!

Unfortunately, because of the glut of filmmaking that technology has spurred, it's becoming harder and harder to find legitimate distribution for your work that will actually pay. Therefore the budgets just keep going down, down, down. It makes it harder for people to actually make a living making independent movies, so it almost becomes a hobby instead. Which is fine, but a certain level of professionalism needs to be maintained, or else a large part of the audience begins to drift away, turned off by the amateurism of the product.

I'm sure there's a whole philosophical conversation to be had here, but I'm pretty ill equipped to lead it. The cheaper tools make it possible for more people to make movies, which is great. Conversely, because much of what gets made doesn't have very high quality control a part of the audience is turned off and looks for more 'Hollywood' movies. Therefore, with a shrinking market, the budgets keep going down, perpetuating the problems.

I imagine it'll all even out at some point and new modes of distribution are already starting to appear. For the truly micro-budget producers, the internet is now giving them a way to self distribute, etc.

It's an incredibly exciting time!

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