Interview by David Grillo
“The biggest challenge of the film is that,
at a glance, we've all seen this structure before –
a bunch of people together in a house for a weekend…
So rather than trying to make this movie for our generation,
—Chris Lowell let’s just tell our story the way we know it. ” — Chris Lowell
A Georgia-born actor and director, Lowell is known best for his roles in “The Help” (2011) and the TV series “Veronica Mars”. His directorial debut “Beside Still Waters” (2013), which he also co-wrote, follows a man in Michigan as he copes with the death of his parents and reunites with old friends.
Already an actor on the large and small screens and on stage (starring in the Off-Broadway hit, “Jacuzzi”) and a musician (vocalist and harmonicist for indie band “Two Shots for Poe”), Chris Lowell added director to his repertoire with his debut film “Beside Still Waters.” In 2011, his role as Stuart Whitworth in the Oscar award winning film, “The Help,” gained him a Screen Actors Award.
With “Beside Still Waters,” Lowell reveals a talent for evocative storytelling as his protagonist navigates living after suffering the loss of his parents. Currently on the small screen, Lowell plays Derrick in the new comedy, “Enlisted.”
A motion picture format released by Eastman Kodak in 1965, as an improvement of older formats known as “double” or “regular” 8MM home format. The format gained popularity for amateur usage until the advent of video camcorders.
DG: Well first off, let me start by complimenting you on a very impressive debut. Did you feel that when you were making the film that it was going to be much bigger than maybe you expected and when did you know things were really coming together?
CL: I think the moment I knew we were going to be okay, where I felt like we had actually done everything correctly, was when we got the footage back from our Super 8 sequence. I remember seeing that and I could just tell the authenticity was there and it felt like the mood I was trying to create. I knew we were making the movie I wanted to make after seeing that footage.
DG: It’s also one of the better films to come out of Kickstarter.
CL: Yeah thanks, I mean that in it of itself was crazy. Mo, my writing partner, and I had no idea how to run a campaign, I mean none. You know Mo still has a flip phone, we are analog old school so we had to get people to set up our Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and get the campaign off the ground. And I really think it was our lack of understanding of social media that really helped us. It gave us room to be personal. I just didn’t realize it was strange to respond to every Facebook and every Tweet. We just didn’t know any better and it helped. We really invested in it and I think people could feel that investment and it was a big part of the reason we did as well as we did.
The practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people on websites like Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com. In 2013, kickstarter.com had 3M crowd funders pledge $480M.
DG: Will you continue crowd funding or are you past that now?
CL: I don’t think it’s a matter of being past it. I really think it depends on the project. We had a film that was very conducive to Kickstarter because it was a movie about friendship and a comedy so it was easy to promote. We rallied people together and it felt like we’re all a big group of friends and that was a really simple and clear message. As an example one of the projects I’m thinking about doing down the road is about drug abuse and teenagers in the South and that’s not necessarily something conducive to Kickstarter – you can’t put up funny videos about it. I really think crowd funding is just one of many different ways to realize your project, it’s a matter of finding the right one that suits your needs and the story you’re trying to tell.
DG: How were you able to make this movie your own and different from the rest of the films about friendship and reunion?
THE BIG CHILL
With a great ensemble cast that included Glenn Close, Jeff Goldbum, William Hurt and Kevin Kline and other Baby Boomer actors, The Big Chill was lauded as a smart comedy-drama with a good soundtrack, the first of many to come. Lawrence Kasdan, directed the 1983 film about seven former college buddies whose friend’s suicide brings them together for a weekend of laughter, tears, drinking, sexual encounters and revelations in the winter home of a friend in Beaufort, South Carolina.
CL: Well, actually that’s a great point. The biggest challenge of the film is that, at a glance, we’ve all seen this structure before – a bunch of people together in a house for a weekend. We all know it’s been done before. So initially the biggest challenge was how to make that movie our own and give it our own identity, but now that the film is finished how do we get other people to trust that it is not the movie they’ve seen before? The thing is people often arrive at this structure because they are trying to specifically do something on a budget or because they want to make “The Big Chill” for the millennial generation. Mo and I just didn’t work that way. We grew up in this house in north Georgia and when my parents moved away from it, it was really sad. So rather than trying to make this movie for our generation, let’s just tell our story the way we know it. Let’s write about the things we know and what’s personal to us and the more specific we are the more authentic the story will be and therefore the more universal it will be.
“I wanted to make the movie
where in 10 years I will look back and say
how did I get all these guys together?”
— Chris Lowell
DG: How old are the characters in the film supposed to be?
CL: It’s never really stated, but in our heads it was late 20’s – basically the same age as the cast, right around the time of your 30th birthday. But what really matters is it’s at time in someone’s life when you’re too old to be hung up on losing your childhood home and too young to be dealing with the weight of losing your parents. It’s a really weird adjustment period and there’s a lot going on internally for people around this time and we just wanted to mine that.
DG : What do you think the difference between your 20’s and your 30’s are these days? Your film seems to touch on this.
Scott Reid plays Henry. Reid is best known for his role in the HBO comedy Veep. A native New Yorker, Reid is now based in Los Angeles. His next role is in Phil Joanou’s, The Veil, starring Jessica Alba.
CL: I personally can’t answer that question because I just turned 30 but I feel like, of all the characters you see, it’s the character of Henry who is a little bit older than everybody else. There’s still in the other characters this sense of selfishness and blind idealism or delusion that reinforces the idea that we are all at the center of our own universe, and therefore what we want is right and we use that to justify our actions. When you get a little bit older, you realize you’re not at the center of the universe and just because it’s what I want doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. I think that’s something Henry shines an important light on in the story.
DG: What was the initial reaction of Daniel’s friends when they hear about the death of the parents?
CL: I think the initial reaction is, “That’s terrible but I can’t go all the way back there.” I’m sure everyone else will go, “I won’t be missed.” Actually the reason one of our producers really got into the movie was that this exact thing happened to him. One of his good friends lost his parents and he made the same mistake that these characters make. That whole, “I’m busy right now. I can’t go back” mentality and six months later he ended up meeting up with his friend and it was a real eye opener for him. Like, “I really should have been there for him, nothing was too important. I could have been there and I should have been there.”
DG: Do you think its hard for people around our age to deal with tragedies together, especially guys?
CL: I do and thankfully this generation for the most part has grown up during peace time. Obviously we’ve been in a war for a long time now, but in terms of the health of this country it’s been a pretty idealistic time. As a result the idea of loss is still a very shocking thing for people around our age to accept. And certainly losing your parents around this time is still very uncommon. So it’s really hard for people because nobody really knows how to deal with it. One of our good friends lost her parents recently, and she was the first one of our friends to go through that. What’s difficult is nobody knows how to be there for that person. Should you console them? Do you change the subject? Do you even talk about it? It’s a very difficult rope to walk because nobody knows how to walk it including the person who is grieving.
DG: What are the characters in the house trying to recreate, especially Daniel?
Ryan Eggold plays Daniel. The Southern California native studied theater at USC and began his acting career on the stage and a reoccurring role on the soap opera, Young & The Restless. Eggold’s recently played the treacherous husband, Tom Keen, on the critically acclaimed TV show, The Blacklist starring James Spader.
CL: For Daniel, he’s just not willing to accept that things have changed, it’s that simple. He’s losing his house, he’s got to be out by Monday and he hasn’t packed anything, all he’s done is go out and buy booze. So he’s delusional, clearly not accepting reality and he clearly needs to talk about his family. When he has that opportunity in the beginning he just keeps telling them, “I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to talk about it.” For him having all these people back, in his head at least preserves that illusion, that we’re all still young and we still have all this life ahead of us. Of course, by hoping that’s what’s going to happen, it’s actually that which breaks down all of his illusions.
DG: I felt when I saw the film that when we look back on those years it’s not so much out of nostalgia but really trying to figure out who we are again. Would you say Daniel got what he wanted out of the whole experience?
CL: I don’t think he got what he wanted; I think he got what he needed. That’s the big thing, I think what he wanted is essentially what happened that first night; silly drinking games, playful dancing, getting back together with his ex-girlfriend. I think that’s what he wanted, but what he needed is everything that follows, which is having to come to terms with the fact that his parents have died, that his friends weren’t there and then confronting them and finally confronting himself. There’s this cathartic acceptance of things as they are something that Daniel has to have to survive and I think that is accomplished.
DG: One of my high marks for the film were the great drinking scenes, what went into making those scenes so authentic?
CL: Whoa, that’s a loaded question. For starters Ryan was just drinking or at least he was making us feel like he was drinking and that was it’s own radical experience and approach. From a directing standpoint when you have an actor drinking on set and playing a drinking scene there’s this fear that it can just tailspin. It may seem like a great idea then all of a sudden your actually slurring and forgetting your lines and I remember really watching Ryan at the beginning of that whole thing and I realized he only had a couple drinks in him and really he just needed to give his mind permission to act like he was drunk without actually being drunk. He had a couple beers, not anything crazy. It’s just enough to allow yourself, as an actor, to feel like you can let it fly a little. And to his credit anytime we needed to jump back to a line or move forward to a line he was sharp.
And to that end, I was able to trust those actors to take scenes like those in whatever direction, especially in those drinking scenes where a lot of it feels improvised or very loose. Those actors were so profoundly respectful of the words Mo and I had written that it was only fair to show them the same amount of respect. But honestly what made those drinking sequences successful is something that speaks to the general chemistry of the actors, who I cannot be more proud of.
All of those actors auditioned for the film, none of them were offered the film, and they all had to commit to chemistry reads. I wanted to see how Daniel and Olivia, Martin and Ashley, and James and Charlie all looked together, spoke together, communicated together and flirted together; that was important for me. So we got to Michigan where we shot a week early and we did a week of rehearsals in that house. Everyone cooked their meals together, played drinking games together, went skinny dipping together, basically living the lives of the characters before the film even started. Normally when you’re shooting a movie it takes time to adjust and get into rhythm, but for us come day one of shooting all those actors already had stories about the other and we all had our own memories and jokes with one another. You can really feel that chemistry.
DG: Where did you find all these great actors?
CL: They’re amazing right? Probably the thing I’m most proud of with this film are the actors we assembled, because we really rolled the dice. Like I said, I made it a rule that anybody cast in this film would have to audition. Mo and I watched every single possible reunion movie that exists – we watched a lot of the good ones and all of the bad ones and what we learned about the ones that don’t work is that they’re stacked with celebrities cause it feels like a recipe for success. The problem is when you see all these characters get together you as a audience immediately say, “You’re not all old friends, you’re from this movie and your from that show,” and you know they all got offered the role and never knew if they had any chemistry.
I want actors who want the part bad enough that they are going to audition, they are going to do rehearsals and they are going to commit. I also wanted to cast out of New York and out of Los Angeles. We got to work with great casting directors Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee and Allison Estrin, who did “The Help,” and you know they’ve done amazing indies, “Winter’s Bone,” “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” so clearly you know they are very good at identifying the actors who are about to explode and I told them I want to meet those actors, that’s who I want to bring in.
The SNL comic, Beck Bennet, is an American TV and stage actor. The Illinois native plays Tom in Beside Still Water, a character whose own struggle paves the way for his friend, Paul to be true to himself. Bennet is best known for his AT&T commercial campaign, “It’s Not Complicated”. He has been proactively building his reel of work with appearances in TV shows, web series and films. His latest film Intramual was released in at the Tribecca film festival.
Martin is played by Will Brill, an actor known for his work in several independent films among them, Not Fade Away, (2012) and King Kelly, (2012). He is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon. While not acting on screen, he is the co-creator of the Shebly Theater Company in New York.
Drake plays Martin’s wife Abby. She is known for her work in the critically acclaimed film, We Need Tot Talk About Kevin (2011). Drake also had parts in the 2011 comedy Young Adult and The Wolverine (2013).
The actress, Jessy Hodges, who is still a student at New York University, plays the lively and sex crazed, Charley. She has appeared in a number of TV series including HBO’s True Blood.
The TV actor, Brett Dalton is best known for his work on the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Killing Lincoln (2103); he plays James in Beside Still Waters. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and a former classmate and friend of Oscar winner for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong.
The actress, Britt Lower plays Daniel’s “ex-girlfriend” Olivia. Beside Still Water is Lower’s third film. Her previous films include Rommie (2012), The Letter (2012) and Mutual Friends (2013).
I wanted actors who had a good theatrical background and who weren’t afraid of scenes with a lot of dialogue and I remember when each one of those actors came in you could just feel the talent. I wanted to make the movie where in 10 years I will look back and say – how did I get all these guys together? And already a year after we finished the film, Bret’s on “Agents of Shield,” Ryan’s on “The Blacklist,” Beck’s on “Saturday Night Live,” Reeds on his fourth season of “Veep.” It’s like these actors are catapulting into success and I just couldn’t be more proud of them.
“I honestly think that
trust is the most
important tool between
a director and an actor.”
— Chris Lowell
DG: How has your own experience as an actor helped you with your direction?
CL: I think being an actor helps me tremendously as a director, for starters I got to be on set and work with so many directors that I got to see what works and what doesn’t. I’ve gotten this lesson that a lot of directors don’t get because they’ve only been on set as a director. Part of the reason I wanted to direct is because I think doing that totally let down their guard and allowed them to be as vulnerable as possible with me. It takes a lot of trust and I honestly think that trust is the most important tool between a director and an actor. Making sure the actor knows you’re on his or her side; that they can make mistakes and make fools of themselves. They could do a bad take and not be scolded for it, that for me is how you get the best performances.
DG: You mentioned wanting to make a film about teenagers in the South and drug abuse, is that what your working on next?
CL: I’ve written two more films that I want to make next, both of them set in the South, where I’m from. One is a very straight drama about a 16 year-old kid who gets arrested for trying to rob a pharmacy and is sent away to a kind of wilderness therapy. Half of the film is him going through the therapy and the other half is flashing back to the events before the robbery. That’s one film, it’s called “Isolation Tribes.” The other film is much more fantastical, the easiest way to describe is that it’s a movie about imagination and folklore in the South and the difference between how old people look at the past in the South and the way the young people today look at the world and the past in the South. Those are the two projects I’m trying to get out to the world.
DG: Do you see yourself continuing to work with some of the same cast and crew in the future?
CL: Very much so, I think one of the greatest gifts of being a filmmaker is that you have the opportunity to continue working with the people that you love. It’s the opportunity to work with your friends all the time. There were so many people on this film where the movie wouldn’t have worked without them and I would love to keep working with them.