As a love letter to old Hollywood, Emily or Oscar is a 'Hollywood golden era' throwback romantic comedy. With silent film references and Hollywood studio life, everyone is sure to get a laugh as they take a ride through screenwriter, Sam Feldman's wild imagination. But what happens when a Hollywood director makes him choose between the Academy Award, and the woman of his dreams? It is our pleasure to interview the director of the project, Chris M. Allport.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
Growing up a child actor in Hollywood was magical. It was exciting for me to get a close look at how cinema magic worked behind the scenes, and I was hooked. Extremely lucky for me, a sound engineer at Buzzy’s Recording Studio noticed my BTS interest and started showing me how recording equipment worked. When I was twelve, Dwight Hemion, a director at Disney, took me into the director’s trailer and introduced me to multi-camera television directing. It was in that moment that I realized I’d eventually evolve from just performing and into directing and content creation.
With what I earned as a kid, I was able to put myself through Loyola Marymount University (LMU), where I majored in motion picture production, with a double minor in music and journalism. Quickly, I melded the three subjects together into creating a specific genre of classical music films that also told the stories of the conductors and performers. Back then, around the turn of the century, I was pioneering the concept of the digital concert hall.
The first film I directed is called Life is too Short to Sing Badly. It’s a documentary short that I produced for my thesis LMU project and features one of my greatest mentors. Dr. Mary Breden is a choral conductor, with a passion for detail and precision in the music. She pushed us to be better than we thought we could be — and that concept fascinated me. Not just better musicians, but better people. I always wanted to optimize every situation and make it better. That was the pedagogy that she was infusing into our university chorus. I was so inspired that I crafted my thesis film around her motto that “life is too short to sing badly.” More importantly, she continued, “life is too short to live it badly.”
Looking back at Life is too Short to Sing Badly now, I am sad that high-resolution formats weren’t available at that time, but even still, I was able to capture our choir’s world premiere performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Ubi Caritas with multiple cameras, while telling the story of Dr. Breden’s pedagogy. The film did well on the film festival circuit, and was noticed by Edye Rugolo, who at that time was the head of a remarkable organization, Young Musicians Foundation. Edye realized that my ability to cinematically convert live concerts into film and television programming was a valuable asset, and I was subsequently able to produce motion picture and sound classical music content for artists like Michael Kamen and Steven Spielberg (Band of Brothers BTS content), Randy Newman at the Annenberg, and even Maestro John Williams for a PBS special at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.
Getting up close and personal with instrumentalists and conductors, I treated the cameras and the microphones as if they were instruments in the orchestra.
What was the inspiration behind the making of Emily or Oscar?
After spending a decade enmeshed in every detail of the orchestra, watching bows on strings, valves on trumpets and nuances of conductors’ faces and motions, my heart and mind were overflowing with orchestral sounds, articulations, and musical gestures. It was impossible not to be overwhelmed with the notion that I needed to get my hands on an orchestra so to speak and I wanted them to play what I wrote. So, I got busy writing.
Music, and its notations, I concluded are actually very visual. With every note, chord, arpeggio or melismatic figure that I wrote, I realized that I was tone painting, attempting to evoke a visceral reaction and visual image onto the hearts of listeners. Film and music are really a match made in heaven. I don’t really believe that you can fully realize one without the other, and that is why cinema is the most powerful art form in the world. Cinema combines virtually every art form there is. But with the picture telling the story and the soundtrack evoking the emotion, Motion Pictures and Music are royally the king and queen of modern art. If you think about it, the influence that pair has on all of humanity is staggering. They console us, guide us, break down old ways of thinking, give us new notions, reflect existing thoughts and essentially validate our existence.
All of that is the underlying inspiration for what drove me to make Emily or Oscar. Practically speaking though, my collaborator from The Netherlands, Ismaël Lotz, wanted to make another short with me. We had just finished a two-minute comedy, Fokking Short, that did well on the short film circuit. We were poking fun at how difficult it is to break into Hollywood. In our next collaboration, I wanted it to be deeper and a little more serious. I was working with Maria Newman and her fabulous team at the Montgomery Arts House for Music and Architecture (designed by Eric Lloyd Wright). We were restoring and presenting original silent film content directed by the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Mary Pickford. Maria Newman was composing brand new, highly intricate scores for these films that were nearing a century old, and I was restoring them, making new edits.
But there was a moment that really caught my attention in the 1919 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, starring Mary Pickford as Rebecca: Rebecca is caught between obedience and self-gratification over a pie that her aunt has forbidden her from eating. She ultimate gives into the sugared temptation, but her silent and extremely visual deliberation process seemed to be the very moment that small film acting was born. In contrast to the more Vaudevillian stylings of other actresses like Sarah Bernhardt, who transitioned from stages to the flickers, Pickford’s acting was refined, subtle and let the camera lens amplify facial expressions, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. Without the wild Vaudeville gesticulations, left over from sixteenth century Commedia dell’arte, audiences’ minds became more engaged in the story, the cinema acting style became a less raucous and more pleasing experience.
Hailing from Toronto, Mary Pickford had travelled alone to New York City at the age of fourteen. She climbed a fire escape and knocked on the window of Broadway producer David Belasco.
“Mr. Belasco, I’ll hold my breath on your fire escape until you give me a job as an actress,” she called.
“Well, that is very serious business child,” he responded quickly ushering the teen into his quarters.
And Pickford was serious. She needed the money to send back to her mother and siblings in Toronto, left destitute by an alcoholic father. Belasco hired her for $5 per week — and Pickford negotiated her way up from there. Audiences loved her! Even though she was Canadian, she quickly became known as “America’s Sweetheart.”
In a stage production a decade ago, a colleague and friend of mine, the respected actress, Amy Greenspan, portrayed young Mary Pickford coming to New York and ultimately establishing United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Greenspan’s performance and Pickford’s story compelled me so much that I knew I would have to do something with this material. Several people pitched me script ideas that were extremely Mary-centric, but I didn’t think that they added anything new. They were all just retellings of how Mary Pickford essentially invented Hollywood.
Here I am, growing up in Hollywood — as if it was normal — ha! I realized that nothing that I had accomplished or wanted to accomplish would be even remotely possible if it wasn’t for Mary Pickford and the United Artists team. So I wanted to take a modern approach to the classical themes.
I told Ismaël that I wanted to do something that encompassed these influential characters. The idea was really small at the time: We wrote a quick fifteen page short, and after a series of less than stellar auditions, called our talented friend Casara Clark — whom we had worked with before on a production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.
The idea was that ‘The Mysterious Gentleman’ (played by Lotz) would be the ghost of Douglas Fairbanks, attempting to live vicariously through protagonist, ‘Sam Feldman’ (played by me). Casara Clark would portray ‘Emily Arthur,’ the romantic lead. As ‘Sam Feldman’ falls in love with Emily Arthur, the conflict foisted upon the young pair by the Fairbanks ghost became the central plot. A week later we were in production for the short, filming for a week late into the night — with of course virtually no budget.
Ismaël and I edited the short, but I felt the ending fell flat. After our win with Fokking Short, I didn’t want to risk letting an audience down. At that point I realized that we had a lot of development work to do quickly. I jumped into action with roundtable discussions and took notes from everyone I could that had anything relevant to say about the project.
I asked Casara if she was down for turning our short into a feature. With enthusiasm, Casara and even her mom Cynthia Clark, jumped in. As a festival piece, we wanted to make something for ourselves this time. Just like Mary, Charlie, D.W. and Douglas, we wanted just this once to say what we had to say.
Casara deeply influenced the direction of who ‘Emily Arthur’ is as a character. She wanted to encompass the current power dynamic struggles that many women face today. Casara breathed life into the character of ‘Emily,’ with just the right blend of comedic mannerism, and subtly restrained filmic styling – without going over the top. We are very fortunate to work with her!
We were also thrilled when Golden Globe winner Susan Blakely came on board to play the role of ‘Bev Hardin,’ Sam Feldman’s agent. From Happy Days fame, Susan Boyd Joyce wanted to play the older, wiser ‘Mary Pickford.’ And as ‘The Prophet,’ Stephen John Kalinich, the poet who made his name as a lyricist with the Beach Boys, threw his support behind the project. Affectionately known on set as ‘Stevie,’ his character serves as a ‘Jiminy Cricket,’ or conscience to the film’s protagonist ‘Sam Feldman.’ At the round table, Stevie pitched some of his gorgeous humanitarian poetry into the cauldron of ideas. Long-time friend and science fiction author, Ray Jay Perreault even added fabulous ideas to what was becoming minestrone soup!
After taking all the notes, ideas, machinations, and iterations, it was up to me, with my screenwriter hat on, to make it all work. I wrote the feature script in thirty days, tying up loose ends, separating wheat from chaff, and polishing the script into a document that: a) fit into the Aristotelian basic three act structure; b) was shootable on a low-budget; c) would be engaging for audiences; and d) was something that we could actually finish, even if it took a long time.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?
Filmmaking in and of itself is a challenge. All of filmmaking is about solving problems. If it were easy, everyone would do it. I think the biggest thing that holds most indie filmmakers back a little is the scripting process. Everyone is so excited to get out there and roll camera, that little details can be left out of the script. As a director, it is my job to serve the written word on the page. As an actor, my job is to serve the written word. The script is the supreme ruler of the production environment. The challenges that present themselves in the writing process become the very assets that propel you forward, after you find your most truthful answers to those trials.
How difficult is it to fund indie films?
That depends on either: a) how wealthy you are; or b) how compelling is your script. The more fascinating and original your written content, the easier it becomes to attract the right talent and the right investors. You don’t want to take money from just anywhere — it’s important to be selective. In Emily or Oscar, we also looked internally within our team to see what skills people had and were willing to contribute, thereby lowering cash expenditures. This is often the best way to work on a super-indie film. “If you want something done, do it yourself.”
When searching for funds, you must ask yourself the following questions:
Who else wants to see this film to completion?
What is their motivation, what do they want out of it?
Where do you have common goals?
You also have to be prepared to take no for an answer and move on. Never be pushy when trying to raise money. If your content is excellent, the funding from the best sources will appear.
Be realistic too. Chances are, no one is going to give you three million dollars for your indie film. Be resourceful, not with what you wish you had, but what you actually have.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
What kid of the 1980s and 1990s wouldn’t love Steven Spielberg?
Steven’s films pull the heartstrings of our inner child. I had the fortunate opportunity of working with him as a kid on Hook. One thing Steven told me was “film is cheap, shoot a lot of it. Sort it out in editing.”
John Huston was another great who influenced me at a tender age. I never had the chance to meet him, but in 1982, his version of Annie, the little orphan tugged my heartstrings indelibly. I was so scared when Rooster (played by Tim Curry) chased Annie up the open drawbridge in Newark. A few years later, I actually had the beautiful fortune of working with Tim Curry on the Emmy Award-winning Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates. It was due to that drawbridge scene, directed by Huston, that drawbridges have been indelibly ingrained upon my imagination. While it is not central to the plot in Emily or Oscar, you will find a nod to the Annie-style drawbridge in the background of one of the San Francisco scenes of Emily or Oscar.
Another director inspiration of mine is Kenny Ortega. I love his sense of movement. Mentored by Gene Kelly, I immediately could recognize the style of choreography that was made to work just for the camera. After Radio City Rockette Madylin Clark discovered me as a kid, she had me take a few dance lessons with Donald O’Connor. Donald, Madylin and Kenny said relatively the same thing. “If you don’t know how to design your own movement for the camera, then you will never fully realize your worth.” Later on, I was fortunate to work with Kenny on the Disney Halloween classic, Hocus Pocus, starring Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker.
How did your film go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?
We started filming after the first two acts of the script were complete. The performances and choices made by the cast deeply influenced the direction of Act III. So, the third act had to stay a little fluid, until I could really see where we were headed.
As for the cast, we had a few general auditions for some of the featured parts. But for the major roles, it was crystal clear in my mind who I was writing the part for. I wasn’t sure that we could get Golden Globe winner Susan Blakely, but I wrote the part for her anyway, and then asked. To my surprise, she said yes! There is a certain panache that Susan brings to the screen. Her styling is modern but always reminds me of Hollywood’s golden-era.
We were also thrilled when Kristin Towers Rowles, the golden-era granddaughter of MGM actress Kathryn Grayson, joined the cast as Mama Make-Up.
The project was particularly fun because I was writing with specific actors in mind. You don’t always get to do that!
One of my creative partners is cinematographer Bob MacColl. A decade ago, we were nerding out about cameras at a party. One of my camera operators had moved on to another job, and I had a slot to fill the next day. On a whim, I trusted Bob. Beyond just a camera operator, I ultimately discovered a partner-in-crime, a collaborator, friend and brother-from-another-mother. Tirelessly and without complaint, Bob worked together with me as we conceptually developed and practically crafted the visual language of Emily or Oscar. He would do whatever was required to safely get the shot. Between the two of us, we were always prioritizing set safety.
For a lot of our crew, we scrapped it together. Family, friends, interns, film students, and other interested parties filled in, often pulling double or triple duty. As we rehearsed and filmed, I was compelled to teach the thought process and discipline required in every step and every decision. Many times, Bob and I were the ones carrying and setting up the lights!
What is your plan for further distribution of the film in order to reach a wider audience?
Film distribution is always the tricky part for artists. It is also a completely different specialty from the creative part of film making. Until you have a track record of consistently putting out content, it might be difficult for your project to be acquired by standard distribution channels. And you need to make your project happen anyway.
As filmmakers, we decided to make Emily or Oscar with the festival circuit in mind. On this piece, we wanted to express our art, freely and true-to-form. If we have business models that fit together, Emily or Oscar would be pleased to partner with distribution producers who are motivated to work with us — allowing them to apply their professional specialty of the industry: acquisition and distribution.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent feature films?
Embrace realistic goals. There are a lot of incredible projects out there that never get made — and a lot of mediocre ones that get made. The point is to figure out how your content fits into the system, as opposed to just thinking that it is so good that “someone should help you.” While you have poured your entire heart into your project, a distribution partner is likely going to be in it more for the business and commercial aspects. Art and commerce don’t always work together without compromise. Being open to distribution conversations, and not expecting that a distributor will “help you get it out there,” might be a good place to start conducting business. Distribution is where the fun art ends and the not so fun paperwork has to get taken care of. Also, not every film gets distributed. Some do very well on the festival circuit and work as wonderful calling cards for your next project!
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
Let’s just say with The Spectral, and Momentis Mantis (the two titles announced within Emily or Oscar), I’m pretty sure there might be a sequel or two in the domestic pipeline.
Internationally, my collaborative creative partner, Swedish director Fansu Njie, and I are developing a streaming series, film and novel entitled Senja Chronicles. This folklore franchise is a thriller, based in historical fiction. We can’t tell you too much right now, but let’s just say that on the opposite side of the rom-com, Emily or Oscar, this Scandinavian, special-ops saga, set in a pristine and remote location, is a cliffhanger that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat — begging to know what happens next!
In other news, I’m also currently working in the world of rock-n-roll documentaries! Teaming up with American author, journalist and music historian Harvey Kubernik — in front of my camera, we have been chatting with a few mega-legends of pop and rock-n-roll. Some of the amazing musicians we have interviewed include Jackson Browne, Nancy Sinatra, Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield), Don Randi (Wrecking Crew), and Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats), as well as boxing author Gene Aguilera, and indie-band leader Greg Franco (Man’s Body).
Why do you make films?
Honestly, if I could think of something more engaging to my psyche, I’d do that. Film is a language of love for me — and I love speaking it. Living it. It is a lifestyle — and not necessarily an easy one. People often think of working on films as being glamorous. And I’ve gotta tell you, waking up at 3:45 a.m. to be in a crazy location by 5 a.m., in costume, make-up and character for a sunrise shoot is hardly glamorous. The days that I was filming on Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End, those early mornings were brutal. Every morning the make-up people would glue prosthetic wounds on my face, and each scraggly beard hair was cemented exactly how they wanted it. It was a painstaking process.
I think a lot of people get into acting, directing, filmmaking, because there is a certain glamour associated with it. But that glamour really belongs only to the finished product — for the creative process itself is really messy. I just happen to really enjoy that mess! I love honing an idea, putting it through the collective imagination of my team, and then refining every detail that we can possibly enhance with the resources available to us. I am not interested in cutting corners or taking the easy path. My desire is to recreate moments that real people actually feel — but might not talk about. I want to give people permission to talk about their feelings honestly, openly. Indie cinema is a great format to do that in. Through the lens, I see things a little differently. The way people move in a frame, the way the light refracts off a pupil, is fascinating to me. The camera is the closest tool that we have to the human eye. But with the camera, we are able to achieve a reality that is ever-so-pleasantly exaggerated. The process of creating cinema allows me to work in the Monomyth dream space that occurs between sleep and awake — exploring the boundaries between conscious and subconscious.
When you are working on studio film, you are required to perform for the studio. I mean perform in the broadest sense of the word. You have to deliver what the studio is asking for. If you don’t, they’ll get someone else. But indie-cinema has just a little bit more freedom to explore. Both models are great. It’s just important to know what venue you are in, and tailor your performance and delivery to the client.