THE LONG HAUL, Part One: An Interview With SPLIT LIP Director Chris Sheffield
2019 will be another good year for genre titles going forward, and if you’re extra keen on the kind of cinema we follow, you might have an eye on Chris Sheffield as we speak.
His latest film, Split Lip, has one hell of a title to ring itself into the new year, and actress Dorée Seay looks nothing short of tough and tenacious in Sheffield’s new presentation. Its journey toward completion is not without its fair share of toils – eight years of such, in fact.
It’s an exemplary highlight of Sheffield’s own growing acumen of filmmaking in today’s age, and in learning even more aspects of the business now more than ever before. He talks to us about it in the interview below, and we hav two exclusive clips to share from the new movie as well.
Greetings Chris and thank you for taking the time to discuss your career with us. How has the 2018 been for you?
Greetings to you! I’m extremely happy to be talking to both you and your followers! 2018 has probably been one of the best years for me personally, and as a filmmaker in my early career. For one I was finally able to get both of my feature films (‘Run For Your Life’ and ‘Split Lip’) moved forward into distribution, my personal Indie-Film Advice Blog @sheff_shoots_indie got off the ground to a wonderful reception on Instagram, getting to direct and shoot the Batgirl webseries ‘Gotham Nights’ has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and here just in the last few months I was able to finally purchase and upgrade my personal camera package to full on Cinema 4K, so despite the many many challenges that come with living a freelance Artist life, I really feel like 2018 was a huge step forward for me.
Tell us about yourself and how you first got into directing. What makes you tick?
I was always one of those kids who ran around with video cameras. I used to have one that could only record and one that could only playback, so I had to switch tapes back and forth to see what I shot. It started out just me and my action figures, then it turned into me and friends, then I was walking to Barnes & Noble each day and writing scripts with my buddy after school while binging on cult cinema, and next thing I knew I was in film school making short films every week with my classmates.
Film has always been something I’ve had so so much fun doing, and I think it was just that driving determination to make something tangible of it that kept me going through all the financial rough patches, and it still keeps me going now. Professionally it’s all I know and it’s the only path forward that makes unquestionable sense to me. I’ve dabbled in a bunch of art forms, I’ve recorded some (bad) music, I love to draw comic book art in my free time, and writing has been in my blood since I was in middle school, but nothing has my heart in its entirety quite like film does.
I think for me it’s really the audience that holds all the magic. At a base level I just want to affect people the way movies affect me. When I’m in a really really good movie it just elevates me, sometimes I realize I’m holding my breath, sometimes I get that wave of goosebumps, and sometimes I leave the theater just pumped up and so emotionally satisfied. That’s what I want to do to people. The moment somebody starts watching something I made in front of me my heartbeat just ramps up and I can’t help but stare at them to see if my little magic tricks are working.
Talk about working with Heather Sims on your Gotham Nights series. This is actually what drew me to your work earlier this year, I believe.
Heather Sims, both personally and professionally, has been an absolute treasure to work with. She was actually one of those contacts you have on Facebook from forever ago, you can’t remember how they got there, and you never really talk to each other. Well one day, shortly after it was announced that Joss Whedon would be taking the Batgirl solo film, she had posted about how badly she wanted to audition for it. It kind of reminded me about how Ryan Potter (now playing Beast Boy on Titans) had put that fantastic stunt video out online when he wanted to play Robin, and I just loved the audacity of that. So I reached out to Heather and basically said ‘Hey, if you’re serious about this, and you buy a real good costume, I’ll shoot and direct this thing for free’.
Heather is a true go-getter – she didn’t waste a second, she essentially said ‘hell yes’ and we got moving on it right away. She brought on her good friend (and absolutely fantastic stunt coordinator/martial artist) Billy R. Smith, and between the three of us we plotted out what became the first ‘Friday Night in Gotham’. It was a blast to shoot, a blast to edit, and the audience feedback blew me away. I had no idea we’d hit on such a wonderful vein of fans who were craving something just like that, and it was immensely uplifting to scroll through those comments and see all the great things people had to say about it. Naturally, after a reception like that, we decided we’d give the audience a little more. So we moved forward in writing the second installment, this time a two parter ‘Saturday Night in Gotham’ the first part of which is available online right now, and the second we’ll be releasing in December. This time we were bold enough to include more story and a few more familiar faces from Gotham, including Tim Drake, The Riddler, and Victor Zsasz. I’ve been a comicbook fan my entire life, since I was a little kid getting random Superman and Iceman comics from gas stations, so to be able to finally get my personal filmmaking style and apply it to such a great character like Barbara Gordon was just a nerd’s dream come true.
We’ve got more story to tell too! I’m a little wrapped in in the release of my latest feature right now, but once that hits the markets we’ll be able to switch gears back to Batgirl and finish out with the epic ‘Sunday Night In Gotham’, which honestly is a wildly ambitious script already, but we’re really hoping to gain the attention and favor of the folks over at DC Universe. I think they’re gearing up to release some awesome content, and I’d love to be able to do some great work for them! Growing with the DC Cinematic team would be an absolute dream! (There are some potential meetings in the works for a different property but it’s such a far off concept with so many other factors involved that all I’ll say about it now is this incredibly cryptic and unhelptful statement. ?)
Your new feature release is finally in tow with Split Lip and this is a project that’s been in the making for a while, isn’t it?
Oh lord, yes. ‘Split Lip‘ as a concept has existed in my mind and online for about 8 years or so I believe, the first of which was a fight video I shot in college on the Canon Rebel T2i when that camera had first hit the market, and then subsequently there has been almost one new fight video every other year or so since then (all of which were essentially practice for the film itself and a few contain actors who had major roles). In it’s feature film state I want to say it’s been about four years or so in the making.
When you’re dealing with high concept production on an Indie level there are thousands of challenges both big and small that are gonna come at you, and I think the most important thing to remember as a filmmaker is to stay dedicated and to stay patient. Sometimes you have schedule shooting days months apart, sometimes actors shoot one day and then stop being available and you have to reshoot material, and sometimes you have to delegate jobs to other artists and just trust them to do right by your movie. I was very thankful to have been able to cut my teeth a bit on my first feature ‘Run For Your Life’ so I was already a little accustomed to how tough it was to see a film through to completion when your budget runs out.
With ‘Split Lip’ we of course wanted it to be an elevated product all around – a better film, a bigger release, a bigger step forward for everyone’s career that was involved with it, and with all said and done I think we’ve succeeded in doing exactly that. By the grace of the many friends who’ve stepped up to pour their art into it, whether that be the wonderful cast who literally and figuratively beat themselves up, the crew who worked loooong hours and put in so much effort just to get that extra production value out of it, to the post production and marketing help I’ve had. I’ve said it a hundred times, but filmmaking is a team sport, and I honestly couldn’t have been given a better and more dedicated team of friends to help bring this movie to life.
Tell us about casting your lead actress, Dorée Seay, and what she brings to the table for her latest role as an ice-cold hitwoman.
Dorée Seay was introduced to me many years ago by one of my closest friends Chris Labadie, who also plays a lead in ‘Split Lip’ the film, back when we all lived and worked in the Arizona film scene. She, along with another lead of the film Maryam Cné, are the only two women who ever participated as combatants in the original ‘Split Lip’ YouTube series. When I started writing this movie, Dorée Seay was one-hundred percent the only person I wanted for the lead. I remember telling another mutual friend of ours that If I couldn’t get Dorée to play the lead, I’d have to shave any other actress’s head just to get them close to same intensity Dorée carried all on her own. There has just always been this perfect quiet gravitas to her, so much sharpness in each expression, so much weight in her voice when she speaks a command, and I’ve been lucky enough to see her take on a multitude of roles in our time as friends, so I was well aware of her performance capabilities as an actress going into it. I remember the first time I told her I wanted her for the part, I had already spent the last five months going to Crave Cafe in Studio City every other night and writing the script, and we were at the premiere of another friend’s first feature that I had shot and she had acted in. We were sitting on stage for the Q&A and I leaned over and told her I had a film and I wanted her to be the lead, and she basically said ‘Ok, let’s do it.’
All throughout the experience, from the first test shoot where we shot the initial five minutes of the film, to the first six days of principal photography, and through the five or six days of pickup shots since then, Dorée has been an absolute dream to work with. She’s dedicated, she’s on time, she’s feisty, and she’s goofy as hell when the camera isn’t rolling, and I’ve always felt that her and I have had a wonderful short hand when we work together. I think we’re just both always about the business, what’s happening on screen, and if one of us isn’t happy with the take, no matter how many times we need to do it, we will always give each other the grace of ‘one more go’ to make sure that, on the other side of it, we come out with the strongest film it was in our ability to make at the time.
I don’t think there is another actress I know or have met since we started all those years ago that could have become the character ‘SET’ quite like Dorée has, and as much as I’d love to continually gush about her, I honestly think her performance will speak volumes when you see the film. She carries the whole damn thing on her shoulders and never flinches once.
What are some of the biggest hurdles you deal with when filmmaking? And what are some of the rules and conventions you stick to for troubleshooting? Can you give any examples?
A life as a filmmaker is choosing a life of hurdles. I have so many rules I repeat to myself daily, because in our world of immediacy it’s really easy to find doubt creeping in. It’s important to remember that when you’re building a career you need to be in it for the long haul, and you should expect upwards of ten plus years of professional commitment before you even start seeing major career opportunities. Filmmaking is just like any other art, the moment you stop doing it or step away from it, you begin to doubt your abilities. It’s so easy to remember your mistakes over your victories and sometimes, especially in the midst of a long form project like an indie feature or a series, it becomes very easy to find yourself overwhelmed by doubts or fears of the project’s future. That being said, I think learning to absolutely trust yourself and to really trust the process is a huge hurdle for young filmmakers, and one that I actually have only recently overcome through the process of making this film. You have to stay dedicated and you have to stay patient. Nothing comes together quickly without vast amounts of money, so on the indie scale you have to take your time and make each piece as strong as you can in the time you’re making it. None of that in between nonsense matters once the film is done and ready to stand on its own two feet.
If I had any advice for filmmakers young and old, new and established, it would be to never ever stop making things. Creating is in our blood. It’s the ultimate outlet for us, and the kinds of opportunities that become available to those with successful careers only come to the people who are constantly creating regardless of their resources. Don’t let years blow by while you wait for the perfect budget to come along for your masterpiece. Go out and make a bunch of affordable mistakes instead. Mistakes are the lifeblood of success, and if you want to be great then you better be ready to make one giant mistake per day.
What’s the status of Split Lip so far? Any festivals lined-up?
‘Split Lip’ is thankfully finally done and being handed in to our distributor! The first step for it is going to be a nice big L.A. premiere (most likely looking at the Laemmle Theater in Glendale, which will be very exciting for our cast and crew to be associated with such a classic name in L.A. cinemas) and a week long theater run following that (where you can all catch it on the big screen!).
Since so much of the production and cast take place in Arizona, we’ll also be looking to have a simultaneous premiere and theater run there as well, so everyone can get in on the action! After that we’ve got some potentially lucrative exclusivity deals with an up and coming movie (ooh mysterious ?) and once that’s fully hammered out, ‘SPLIT LIP’ can explode outward into the other major platforms like Amazon Prime, ITUNES, Youtube Movies, Google Play, Playstation/Xbox, and more (and we’ve already gotten together Spanish subtitles and a Spanish poster ahead of an international release!)
Although festivals are awesome opportunities, for me as a young director with a cast full of people whose names you don’t know just yet, the absolute best move for me first is to show the industry that my films and this team of artists are financially viable, and that means turning it into a commercial profit first. The best case scenario from a festival is gaining distribution, and I’ve been insanely lucky to get an incredible offer like this straight out the gate, which really goes to show how much faith everyone has in this film to kick ass in front of a wide audience!
Can you share any details on what other projects or concepts you have in store?
Once ‘Split Lip’ is finally out the door and in all of your wonderful homes, I’ll be able to turn my immediate focus back to ‘Gotham Nights’ so that I can see that story through to its insane conclusion. While I’m working on that I’ll be finishing up a script that I started working on two months ago in August that I’m really really excited about and ideally go into pre-production on right away.
My true hope is that I can keep my ‘Batgirl’ audience entertained enough to follow me over, because this will be an original indie superhero film. I’m in love with the script so far and I’ll be partnering with one of my best friends and VFX masterminds Mychal Kawika Banis on it. Our plan is to really ramp up the production value to even greater heights than ‘Split Lip’, and thankfully we’ll be able to bring in all sorts of talent including Heather Sims and Billy R. Smith, as well as a few returning favorites like Dorée, Chris Labadie, and Maryam Cné, to really round out the project and make it something special.
A good friend of mine once told me that if you weren’t going to add anything new to a genre to stay out of it, so I’m excited to throw my hat in the Superhero ring that I love so much and do my best to make it a memorable impact!
What are some of the biggest lessons you now take with you going into 2019 that you feel will help you and maybe others improve in the business of film and TV?
Marketing has been such a huge lesson for me. I felt like I’ve taken so many years to learn how to make a film properly that I never noticed how much work it was to make something of it once it was finished. Rule number one is you need to go into every project with marketing in mind, that means hiring a behind the scenes photographer when you’re shooting it for promotional use, that means pulling your actors aside mid shoot day and getting promo photos of them in every outfit for production box art and posters, that means keeping track of every element of your production (such as credits/synopsis/loglines/taglines) that could possibly be required to be written up in an EPK (electronic press kit) and just in general giving yourself every opportunity to be able to sell your product when its complete.
A trailer is great, a screener is great, but the reality of our business is that all those other things are going to be the only reason anybody clicks play on your film, so you NEED to have them in line if you want the face of your film to stand up to the big leagues as a professional product. In my eyes the film is still the King, but no one would believe it was a King if it was dressed like a peasant.
Is there anyone in mind you hope to collaborate with in the immediate future? I’ll tell you right now if I know the person and have a good rapport, by all means I’ll be more than happy to pass the word on.
Oh man this is a hard question for me to answer off the top of my head and I’d probably spout a bunch of random names, but you’d be hard pressed to show me a working talent I wouldn’t be excited to collaborate with. Considering the next two films of mine I want to make, it would be an honor to work with genius creature creator and art designer Patrick Tatopoulos. The guy is an unsung legend of cinema. But honestly I think at the moment I have a really strong team around me, especially of up and coming actors who are just so watchable and talented, so Ideally my next couple projects can be a vehicle for all of us to rise up in the ranks a bit and get our work in front of larger and larger audiences!
Thank you kindly for sharing your story with us Chris. On that note, do you have any final thoughts you would like to finish with as we close this interview?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you and your followers! I hope everyone out there who is thinking of making a movie realizes that no one will ever do it for you, you gotta get the process rolling right away because it’s gonna take years of dedication, but it is oh so worth it to get to that glorious finish line! Come see ‘SPLIT LIP’ while its in theaters, but if you don’t get that chance then follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and we’ll get the movie in your hands one way or another! I can’t wait to entertain you all!
Respective photos by Chris Labadie and Lorenzo Cuevas, and courtesy of Chris Sheffield.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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