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