The Southeast New England Film, Music and Art Festival wrapped on April 23, 2016. It featured Artwork at the Warwick Museum of Art, Music at the Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick, and film screenings in East Greenwich, West Warwick and Providence, RI. For a full list of Jury and Audience Award winners please go to the website, www.senefest.com. While in attendance at the fest, I was particularly impressed with one young filmmaker, Chris Esper. Only a few years out of school, he had three films accepted into the SENE fest, has won numerous awards around the film fest circuit, and has produced an impressive body of work. He just founded his own production company, Stories in Motion, and has a book coming out, The Filmmaker’s Journey, in June. Nothing seems to hold him back, so I took some time out to interview Esper about his career. He graciously gave his time to answer these questions.
Mary DeBerry: What motivated you to pursue filmmaking as a career?
Chris Esper: I have had a love for film since I was a child. My parents always let me rent a movie from the video store or took me to the theater, and I just always enjoyed it. When I was around age 10, I saw Ghostbusters for the first time and loved it for its comedy and science fiction elements. It was because of that influence that I attempted to write a sci-fi/comedy in that same vein about a boy and his robot, which I called Boy Bot. I went as far as to find the producer of Ghostbusters and sent him my 30-page script, thinking it could be made. About 6 months to a year later, I got my script back with “Return to Sender” stamped on it.
Surprisingly, none of this derailed me in any way. If anything, it just fueled my energy. Not only did I love movies, but I loved the arts altogether. During my teenage years, I tried my hand at acting, stand-up comedy, animation, photography, puppetry and much more. When I was 17, I got my first camera and started making YouTube short films. I did basically everything. It was a fun time of self-discovery.
When I was 18 I decided that film would be my career path. The way I see it, I could combine all the art forms I loved into one medium. Eventually, I attended New England Institute of Technology for video/film production and graduated in 2012, and have been professionally working in film and video ever since.
MD: You’re from New Jersey. What brought you to RI for school?
CE: I moved to Rhode Island in 2004 when I was 14 years old. Due to a change in my family at that time, my whole family packed up and moved to Lincoln. Currently, I live in Attleboro, Massachusetts. I chose New England Tech because it was a very hands-on education, which I loved. At first, I wanted to go to a film/art school more than anything else, but I realized that it wasn’t fully possible due to high tuition and other concerns. I think I made the right choice.
MD: What’s the up side, or benefits to the Rhode Island filmmaking community? What are the challenges?
CE: I think the up side to Rhode Island filmmaking is the close-knit community where everyone is willing to pitch in and help on any project, and also how personal and independent the stories are. They come from the heart. The down side can be trying to secure enough funding to capture the vision that we have in our heads. Because we’re small as a community, it’s hard to compete with the big leagues. It can also be challenging to deal with folks who are unrealistic in their approach. Instead of trying to hide your limitations, I believe you should embrace them, which can lead to creative ideas.
MD: You always seem to maintain a positive attitude. How do you overcome challenges, or do you only see opportunities?
CE: The way I see it, things happen all the time, and all you can do is face those challenges head on. Sure, I can be negative and even get aggravated by challenges I face, but everything happens for a reason. I see it as an opportunity to become a better filmmaker each time around.
MD: Which project are you most proud of so far and why?
CE: This is really hard because each project has a special place in my heart. If I had to choose one, I think I would say Still Life, purely from a story perspective. I say that film because it was personal and close to my heart. I always feel the need to make films that are close to me and dig into my soul. Still Life was that project for me, not just because I wrote it, but because it came from feelings I was going through at the time. The idea is very simplistic and perhaps has been done hundreds of times before, but it was my own story, which I think makes it stand out. It came from my days in college when I would present work to my classes and received feedback. At the time, I wasn’t very thick skinned about receiving criticism, so I took these feelings and expressed it in a screenplay and eventually on film. In the end, the film ended up playing at nine film festivals and received great critical acclaim around the world. Showing the film at a local theater was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as a filmmaker.
MD: I’ve seen stop action, comedy, music videos and dramas you have done. Do you have a preferred genre? Do you plan to remain diverse or develop a particular focus?
CE: Yes, I do plan to remain diverse. I think that’s one of things I love about what I do is being able to do almost anything and not be tied down to one genre or style. Certainly, there are certain genres or styles I wish to explore more than others, such as drama and psychological thrillers/horrors. The main thing for me is that the film explores something deeper and perhaps shed some light on life, no matter the genre I choose to work in.
MD: Who are your film influences?
CE: There are a lot of directors I love. Martin Scorsese is my favorite director by far. I love his visual style, his human stories and how far he takes his character exploration. More importantly, his passion for cinema is contagious. It was after seeing Raging Bull for the first time that I knew that I wanted to be a director.
I also love Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick for their stories and visual styles. David Cronenberg for his symbolic imagery and recurring themes, Terrance Malick for his beautiful cinematography, Francois Truffaut for his personal storytelling, Darren Aronofsky for his deep characterizations, Charlie Chaplin for his visual comedy and Jim Henson and Walt Disney for their imagination.
MD: How do you secure funding for your projects?
CE: I’ve self-funded my films and also used crowdfunding such as IndieGoGo to raise funds. I’ve been lucky in being successful in both areas. Raising funds is the hardest part of filmmaking, I feel. The more money available, the more I could create the images I see in my head. Sometimes, I simply just need to work with what I have, which doesn’t always satisfy my mind’s eye, but satisfies my ability to think outside the box as needed.
MD: I believe you said you’d like to be known as a director. Is that with a DP on set?
CE: I much prefer to have a DP. I used to shoot my own films when I was college, but I quickly discovered that while I knew how to light and shoot pretty well, I found it difficult to direct and also DP my own film. I find myself being so focused on my framing and lighting that I forget about my actors and story, and vice versa. It always helps to have that extra pair of eyes behind the camera to be objective and tell me what works and what doesn’t. The same goes for editing. I feel as though I can’t be objective when I do it all. At the end of the day, I feel it’s more important as a director to have a shot list and storyboard in mind, and shots and lighting I want, but my main focus is on my actors and the direction of the story.
MD: You have a vlog for filmmakers. How do you plan it and choose what to talk about?
CE: I started the vlog because I felt that there was a lot of information that filmmakers don’t know about. And they don’t know how handle the hardships of this career. There’s a ton of information about what kind of equipment to get and how to make movies, but there’s no information about the psychology of filmmaking, and how to handle rejection. Also, there is not much information available on where to submit to your work. I choose my topics based on subjects that I’ve always wanted to know to about, or wished someone had told me about when I was first starting out. I try to film about three to five episodes in one day to have episodes backed up and ready for each week.
MD: I hear you have a book coming out. When does it come to market and where?
CE: The book is based on my vlog, also called The Filmmaker’s Journey. The book is about the same topics I talk about in the vlog, but in a longer form. Also, there’s a lot of things I don’t always get to say in 5 minutes or less. It will be on Amazon both in digital on Kindle and on paperback on June 24.
MD: You had three pieces in the Southeast New England Film, Music and Art Fest recently; two music videos and a comedy. Which best represents your work? Please tell me about your awards.
CE: I think of the three projects that were selected this year, Please Punish Me best represents my work because it’s also a personal film about doing what you love without settling for less.
As for awards I’ve won, I’ve been lucky to have won awards both locally and also around the country. My short film, Still Life, won the award for Best Film Editing (Jill Poisson) at the Motif Magazine Theater and Film Awards, Steak Knives won an award for Best Opening Scene at the Stories by the River Film Festival and Best Comedy Short at the Culver City Film Festival, Always a Reason won an award for Excellence in Storytelling at the Stories by the River Film Festival, two of my music videos, I Hear the Future and Come Back won awards at TEXAS Ultimate Shorts Film Festival, my music video Hold Tight won the honorable mention award for Best Music Video at SENE Film, Arts and Music Festival in 2015. Finally, I was honored to have won the award for Outstanding Guest Director for Angelwood Pictures series, In the Bedroom for the episode Out the Window.
MD: You’ve gotten good press early on. I’m sure others may wonder how that’s done.
CE: It’s rather easy to get press for your work these days. With the advent of technology and the internet there’s a lot of resources. There are many websites and blogs that review independent films and short films. It’s great to get a review because then readers outside of your area will find out about your work, and it’s also a great way to see how others look at your work in an honest way.
MD: Any words of wisdom to other aspiring filmmakers?
CE: The best advice I could give is to just keep making movies and never give up. It’s easy to crack under pressure and just stop altogether because of how difficult it can be. But everything eventually falls into place with persistence and determination.
Chris Esper’s work can be seen at storiesmotion.com