Chris Friend is a multidisciplinary artist who is currently channeling his creativity through directing, visual effects, and drawing. He has done visual effects for Mr. Robot Season 4, Lady Gaga's Joanne World Tour, Nike, and many independent feature films. He has also directed music videos for Dropkick Murphys, Black Deer, and Jason Grier of Human Ear Music. An early childhood of moving around a lot helped foster a sense of curiosity about culture and the impact of art in people's lives. He can be found in Los Angeles, helping directors bring their dreams to life with his company, VisionFriend. It was our pleasure to interview Chris Friend regarding his work and his latest project, Geneva Jacuzzi's Casket.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on? I made my earliest films in junior college at Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa, California, after having graduated high school early at 16. I was devoted to taking a variety of classes in order to hone my abilities and to make the kind of art I wished, regardless of degree requirements. I took life-drawing, illustration, sculpture, classic darkroom-film photography, improv theater classes, and some incredible film courses. Our film department rivaled those of esteemed colleges like UCLA. We had a large equipment check-out room where we could borrow everything from light-kits and bounces to 16-mm film cameras and video recorders. We had VHS editing bays and stand-up film editing stations, as well as small film cutting machines for rental. We did projects by recruiting other students in our classes to act as our crews, in exchange for helping on their film projects. My first short film was about a kid whose parents were killed and replaced by a Populist, terrorist death-squad, sent by the benevolent Totalitarian dictator of a future Southern California, in order to discredit the Populist Uprising Movement. I was inspired at the time by the animated MTV series ‘Aeon Flux’ by Peter Chung, the George Orwell novel, “1984”, and Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World”. After OCC, I went on to a classical art school, ‘Laguna College of Art and Design’, to focus on oil painting and traditional animation. After two years there, I desired a wider experience, so I transferred to ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena. I continued focusing on oil painting and life drawing there while taking additional fine-art sculpture classes and a life-changing advertising class taught by Roland Young, designer of the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ album art. Mr. Young had a very interesting and confrontational teaching style. He pushed students to account for every single choice and decision they made. It was his class that made me really think about what I wanted for my future. I was working on my personal mythos, called $BURN$, at the time. It had started as a card game I was developing as a teenager. During my ArtCenter studies, I was still attempting to decide how I could expand my ideas for $BURN$ out into more substantial projects, like film. I realized that the skill I really needed to focus on was writing. That would be the key to telling the stories I wished to while incorporating the art disciplines that I had spent so many years developing. I ended up leaving Los Angeles and California entirely. I moved to Colorado with the intention of taking on working-class jobs in order to focus on my art full-time. At that point in my life, I didn’t want to develop my art within the confines of the entertainment industry. I also wanted to experience life in America around ‘normal’ people, in order to bridge the connection between my fine art-inspired ideas and real mainstream, Americana-like popular culture. I went to punk shows and made friends with other young artists. I formed a surrealist writing group that would meet every week to play writing games, inspired by the original French Surrealists. I named our club after the original Surrealist group, ‘The Bureau of Surrealist Inquiries’. After ten years of working as, first a dishwasher, and then as a cook in a handful of restaurants, spread between Colorado and Northern California, I decided to move back home to Los Angeles and start to make my living in the film industry. I first broke into the industry by taking on an unpaid internship at, then-fledgling startup, ‘Dirty Robber’ in Silverlake. We were working on post-production for a feature-length movie by MTV, called ‘DISconnected’ about the perils of social media. Nearly every shot incorporated floating and interacting media windows over the real-life footage of the actors. I quickly learned all the support tasks in visual effects, such as articulated rotoscoping, point tracking, and compositing. Soon, after we wrapped up work on ‘DISconnected’, Dirty Robber was bringing me onto extremely frequent, paid jobs, roughly equating to full-time work. 2021 Oscar-winning director, and founder of ‘Dirty Robber’, Martin Roe, after noticing my strong work ethic and self-organization, began to give me small directing gigs for low-budget music videos. One of the many of those early projects was first intended to be a lyric video for the Boston band, Dropkick Murphys, and their song ‘Rose Tattoo’. I had written a treatment told in a POV (Point Of View), of a working-class man’s day-in-the-life, to be shot in black and white. The band loved it. Soon, I was out bicycling around the streets of Los Angeles, with a Canon 5D cinema camera; taking documentary photographs and clips of working-class people in tattoo parlors, barbershops, Irish pubs, cemeteries, and on the street. The band was surprised and excited by the video and wanted to make it the official video for the song ‘Rose Tattoo’. The lead singer, Ken Casey, gave me a folder of personal photographs of his family and boxers from the boxing studio he owned. Soon, the official video for ‘Rose Tattoo’ was released. That was 2012, and now in 2021, it is the Dropkick Murphys’ most viewed video at over 130 million views. In 2013, I shot my first short film in my $BURN$ mythos, ‘Strike Three’. I had a handful of extremely talented actor friends who agreed to do me a favor, and one of my friends from Dirty Robber, Director of Photography, Cody William Smith, who agreed to shoot it for me. My friend, and highly acclaimed British actress, Charlie Robinson, played the lead role of “Cross”, a pizza delivery driver in 2033, Los Angeles. In the future of Los Angeles, China has caused the total collapse of America. The elite enjoy a game in which they are allowed to kill pizza delivery drivers who fail to deliver the nuclear-heated pizzas in under 30 minutes.
What genre of filmmaking are you looking to work on and why? I prefer the Experimental genre. Coming from a fine-art background, I see cinema as a chance to combine many different art forms into a format that can literally capture a viewer’s attention. I like to take elements from popular culture and use them towards my own ends. For ‘Geneva Jacuzzi’s Casket’, I thought about all the advantages that a ‘music video’ format could grant me. At 6 minutes, I felt it was short enough that people could almost ‘accidentally’ watch it. I intended to use the music video aspects to kind of ‘hypnotize’ the audience and ‘transport them to a different realm’. My theory was, that I could make something that an audience would desire to watch over and over again. I hoped that soon their subconscious would begin to assemble the fragments which I had strategically left for them. I intended to make a Gestalt effect to mirror the experiences of the main character. I wanted to spend the same amount of effort and time that I would have put into an independent feature; but condensed down, into a small, six-minute time-space. I wish to further experiment with cinema and a variety of formats in the future; from graphic novels to card games, video games, to even feature-length musicals and stage operas. What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker? Well, the most challenging part for me is having to be competent in all the relevant areas. Areas, that in even a medium-sized project, would be filled by a large handful of specialists. I would never plan any aspect of my projects that I couldn’t actually pull off myself. That way, if I am unable to find a friend willing to trade me for help on the project, or if any crew member becomes unavailable, I am still able to accomplish it myself or train someone in a new skill. However, I really do enjoy doing just that. I like challenges. I enjoy learning new things and transferring my knowledge and skills laterally. I also believe, that the more familiar I get with every skill-set important to my projects, the easier it will be to scale up once I start getting larger budgets. The other challenging area for me is loneliness. I am a pretty independent person. However, when months go by without interacting with another person, it can become psychologically difficult. Unfortunately, that itself can make the main work and project have more complications, and even become a burden.
How challenging is it to fund indie films? Well, for me, that is a new area that I haven’t ventured into yet. All the projects that I have taken on as passion projects have been nearly zero budget productions. I always plan the entire project around those limitations. I recruit friends to help me in exchange for ‘day trade’ certificates; where I owe them an equal day of labor for every day they work with me. This was inspired by my film student days at OCC. We would trade other students our labor, in order to get the same help in exchange. I have felt that was a good way to counter the ‘corporate template’ because hardly any of my friends have the actual capital to pour into a project. However, we as Hollywood professionals, are all paid by larger entities above us who do have those resources. I don’t believe we should play by the same handbook when our card-hand is so different. Therefore, our work and skills become our own capital. It is a bartering system. However, for my next film, I’m going to be making a feature-length musical, called ‘The Purgatory Cycle’. I will be learning to crowdfund. It will be a passion project, that will again be in my $BURN$ mythos. This time around, my focus will be on bringing in as many other people as I can. I would like to have a large ensemble cast. I would also love to have whole departments of artisans lead by other talented visionaries.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work? My three favorite directors are: 1) Stanley Kubrick 2) George Lucas 3) Peter Chung Stanley Kubrick is my ‘OG’, original favorite director. I spent endless hours, for years, as a young teenager rewatching ‘A Clockwork Orange’. I loved everything about it: the colors, the compositions, and the very strange future, that stirred so many questions. I loved ‘The Shining’, ‘2001’, and ‘Doctor Strangelove’. I would rewatch all of these and try to figure out what I adored so much about them. Eventually, as a teenager, I concluded that it was Stanley Kubrick’s complete and utter dedication to each film. Each movie was so different, tackling different genres, but each felt like a complete world. Every project from Stanley Kubrick actually got better for me in time, versus other movies; which I may have enjoyed the first time through, but quickly felt they became dull. George Lucas is so similar to me in terms of my artistic development. I was totally obsessed by the original ‘Star Wars' trilogy as a young kid. After my teenage phase, of trying to seek out the most avant-garde films I could get my hands on; I would come back to Star Wars, and see whole new levels, that permanently renewed my interest. I realized, that for me, Star Wars was the end goal. I wound up going on a deep dive into George Lucas’ life, researching everything I could about him. I rewatched THX-1138, trying to reconcile these two very different visions. On one hand: this edgy, artistic, intellectual take on a dystopian future, and on the other; the fun, Flash Gordon-inspired, popcorn, space opera that was Star Wars. I watched his USC, 1967 student thesis, ‘Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 EB’, trying to get into his brain. In my own pet theory, I pictured the world of THX-1138 as actually being the very inner core of the Death Star from the Star Wars universe. I imagined the cloning facilities, miles below the command deck; eventually producing various stormtroopers, officers, and technicians and disposing of the rejected clones. In studying George Lucas’s personal story, my interest simply expanded: reading about him going from being a teenage greaser obsessed with street racing, to having a violent, incapacitating car crash, dramatically changed my perception of the creator of Star Wars.= Young George Lucas, recovering from the accident, spent his time reading science fiction books and planning for the future; while at the same time, figuring out how to prove himself capable to his small town, business owner father. Being forced to explain to his father, why he wasn’t going to help preserve the family business. Having to make his dad understand that he was going to move to the city and become a beatnik artist. George left for Los Angeles to study anthropology at USC, a compromise for his father; and attempt to become a documentary filmmaker as a side route. Sneaking off to San Francisco, to watch strange, avant-grade, short films in underground smoke-filled beatnik clubs didn’t help George’s case with his father. Then making student projects, composed of nothing more than edited night shots of passing cars’ headlights reflected off the glossy contours of still other cars. Making short films that aggressively barraged the viewers with thousands of images, edited together so quickly as to bypass the conscious filter itself. George Lucas was obsessed with experimentally dismantling cinema. Finally, with his culminating thesis, ‘Electronic labyrinth’, young Lucas was in his last year at USC. He was recruited by the propaganda arm of the military, the United States Information Agency (USIA), to teach young Navy recruits how to shoot film artistically. He then took full advantage of the situation, using his young Naval students as cast and crew of his magnum opus student thesis, ‘Electronic Labyrinth: THX1138 EB’. George Lucas was able to use locations and equipment unavailable to other UCS students due to these fortunate turns of events. I think this is a fascinating story that also bleeds into the career beginnings of Lucas’ other young friends and fellow burgeoning filmmakers; Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola. Following this research, I read about how young Francis Ford Coppola planned to take on Hollywood itself. He wanted to forge a new ‘Hollywood’ in San Francisco, composed entirely of his other young, weirdo, outsider filmmaker friends. Using some of his extra budget from his feature film, ‘The Rain People’, Francis Ford Coppola wrote his friend George into the budget as the documentarian. George Lucas would end up riding in the back of the camera truck with a typewriter, as they drove across the country. Francis Ford Coppola’s real task for George was to transform Lucas’ student film into a feature. From ‘Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 EB ‘ to simply: ‘THX-1138’. George and Francis secured the funding from the studios and shot an avant-garde art film right under the executive’s noses. Even stealing the final cut reel, right out of the studio screening. This way it would become impossible to make any changes to the final film. While becoming a cult classic, THX-1138 was a box office disaster. The mainstream American audience was unprepared for the experience. George Lucas had bankrupted Francis Ford Coppola with his experiment. However, after the accident of THX-1138, Lucas developed his next feature, ’American Graffiti’, to make amends to Francis Ford Coppola, and to demonstrate his ability to successfully steer the ship of a feature film. ‘American Graffiti’ would be an experiment in making a movie that appealed to a wide audience without sacrificing its soul. George Lucas had to prove to his friend that he could make a box office hit, as well as a far-out, art piece. American Graffiti went onto become the most profitable film in history, due to its extremely low production cost and how widely it was embraced by drive-in attending teenagers across America. The film spawned a resurgence of the ‘cruising’ culture and the kids would cruise straight to the drive-in to see American Graffiti for the 15th time. Star Wars of course was birthed from the experience of making ‘American Graffiti’. Lucas, wanting to recreate the success of repackaging the nostalgia of his youth, next set his eyes on the radio plays and theatrical serials he loved as a boy. ‘Flash Gordon’ was the movie he wanted to make, however, he was unable to afford the rights to the script. He would have to write his own ‘Flash Gordon’. Because George Lucas and his friends were still on the outside of the Hollywood establishment, the L.A. special effects houses banned their employees from working with him. He was one of the barbarians at the gates. Due to this, George had to assemble his special effects team from ex-military concept designers, proto-rave pyrotechnic artists, freak avant-garde camera technicians, and hippie sculptors making far-out aliens. From this dirty dozen, George made history again, not just with Star Wars, but by forming Industrial Light and Magic, and revolutionizing Hollywood special effects for all time. George Lucas was one of the only filmmakers to actually own and finance his own franchise. Through careful dealings learned from his office-supply store-owning father, he made sure to retain the merchandising rights. He made enormous amounts of money off toys, bed sheet sets, t-shirts, and countless other items of merchandise, enabling him to fund a second Star Wars movie and a third immediately afterward. Unfortunately, his all-consuming passion ended up costing him his marriage. The last on my list is Peter Chung. I remember when the Peter Chung-created short, Aeon Flux, first aired on MTV. It was on their late-night, adult-oriented, variety animation show, ‘Liquid Television’. The original short film was broken up into six separate one-and-a-half-minute segments. Only one segment would play at random during an episode of Liquid Television. Sometimes, I would catch the last one. Sometimes, one in the middle. Once in a while, I would see the very beginning. I would start to assemble it in my head during my free time. While I was sitting in a classroom during history class or at PE, I would think: ‘What was Aeon Flux really about? What was the real inspiration of this story?’ It was so mysterious to me and deeply compelling. Eventually, ‘Aeon Flux’ become a full series, and I was treated to complete, 30-minute episodes, with actual dialogue. The world of Aeon Flux just got increasingly weirder and more interesting. I would sketch out the designs that caught my attention. I would try to figure out where this Peter Chung guy got his bizarre ideas. By the time I was in junior college, I discovered the Austrian Secessionist artist, Egon Schiele, and one mystery was unlocked. I could see that it was from Egon Schiele that Peter Chung likely got his inspiration for the spindly, angular figures. A few years ago, I came across a comment on an internet forum. A response by Peter Chung himself to a fan’s question of whether or not Aeon Flux was influenced by the relationship between North and South Korea. And with that, I finally found my answer to the main source of Aeon Flux’s inspiration. Peter Chung’s parents both defected from North Korea. His father became a high-ranking, South Korean military figure and eventually the South Korean ambassador to the United States of America. His father was close friends with the president of North Korea and the model of the “benevolent dictator”. What is your next film project and what are you currently working on? My next personal project is a long-term one. I’m going to be making a musical feature. It will be a continuation of my ‘$BURN$’ mythos, that ‘Geneva Jacuzzi’s Casket’ and my previous short film ‘Strike Three’, are all a part of. At the end of ‘Strike Three’, the main character, ‘Cross’, is beamed aboard a flying saucer operated by highly intelligent, sentient ferns. My feature musical “Purgatory Cycle” is going to take place afterward with Cross aboard the flying saucer. She has spent an uncountable amount of time in a sensory deprivation room undergoing psychological experiments. The former pizza delivery driver ends up having a religious experience where she speaks to Death and travels to have a conversation with God. My intention with this one is to focus on a large ensemble cast of mimes, musicians, and theatrical actors. I’m going to be doing a deep dive into Kabuki theater, the Greek and Roman touring theater shows, classical operas, constructivist plays, German Expressionist films, Bauhaus dance productions, and the like. I’m going to start this project by completing a 90-minute concept album that will later function as the backbone of the soundtrack. I’m looking forward to spending time experimenting with music and recording techniques to develop the mood, flow, and score of the feature-length musical beforehand. When that album is done, I will be writing the script while making a 300-page graphic novel. This will later function as the storyboards, concept designs, and inspiration for the production and costume design. By the time I start bringing in performers and organizing crowdfunding, I would like to present a complete and detailed vision of the entire project. What was the inspiration behind your latest film project? My inspirations were the concepts of cybernetics and how I feel they have been deployed in the post-WWII world. I was seeking to make a kind of fairy-tale about the consequences of toying with the human mind and our natural cultural development. Kate Shaw lives in a world entirely focused on the manipulation of emotions and perceptions and the exploitation of human life. She lives in a time where new sentient consciousnesses have developed that see individual humans as nothing more than cogs in a gigantic system. These entities view human beings as machines made to be programmed. Individual perceptions of reality, right and wrong, dreams, hopes, and fears nothing more than a universal programing language in this new age. The character, ‘XYXZ-03: The High Destroyer’ is the final product of this manipulation. The system at its core is about manufacturing psychosis and sociopathy in living beings.
How did you find the cast and the crew of the film? Geneva Jacuzzi is the only cast member in the whole film and she expertly pulls off playing six roles: Kate Shaw, XYXZ-02, XYXZ-03, all of the Hive Mothers, and even the animated Traveler. As far as the crew goes, my friend, Cody William Smith is my go-to Director of Photography. I have worked with him on nearly every personal film project I have done. I think Cody and I work so well together because he shares my guerrilla filmmaking aesthetics, and is willing to jump feet first into a project and land shooting. Cody also took care of all of our lighting; perfectly capturing the natural, 70’s realism I was going for. My friend, Hunter Lee Hughes, took on the producer tasks; helping to wrangle together our small crew, making sure all of our needs were met, and ensuring we were zooming along on schedule and on target. My friend Em Dougherty introduced me to another Hunter, Hunter Peterson who agreed to be our Production Designer. Because we were operating on a nearly zero budget, I had to compensate everybody with a barter system technique of using ‘day trade’ certificates. For each day I requested a crew member to work, I would trade them a certificate good for one day of my own labor. As an in-demand VFX artist working in the heart of Hollywood, that is a pretty good deal. Hunter Peterson, a director, writer, and producer himself, also thought it was a good deal, as he had several projects in the works that he would require my help on. Those projects included the concept designs for the main creature of the horror feature he produced, ‘Head Count’. The horror feature also needed storyboard work and other concept designs. I lent the same help to Hunter Peterson’s personal short film, ‘Lens Head’. I was also on set for an overnight shoot in the desert for ‘Head Count’. We were working with the final creature design, from the special effects crew who ended up creating the suit. It was my job to ensure that whoever took on the main VFX role had everything they needed and that all the footage was shot properly from a visual effects standpoint. Hunter Peterson was able to figure out the nuts and bolts of turning my ‘Geneva Jacuzzi’s Casket’ set designs into full-fledged reality, constructed in my emptied-out living room. Once we had the ‘blank canvas of the set, I spent the next four days alone sleeping on the floor and dressing the set by day. Ajax Rag Hulce was our costume designer. I had worked with her on my previous $BURN$ mythos short film ‘Strike Three’, where she did an amazing job transforming actors’ home wardrobe pieces into new futuristic styles. She also hand-constructed Cross’s translucent ‘shock jacket’, my favorite part of the main character’s wardrobe. For ‘Geneva Jacuzzi’s Casket’, Ajax and I went on a trip to a local army surplus store in Silverlake and carefully picked out all the items for the characters’ wardrobes. Ajax, then took these items home to age them, add accessories, and do small refits appropriate for Geneva. A handful of my friends also came over to my East Hollywood apartment for an “Electro Junk Party”, bringing with them all the vintage 70’s and 80’s electronics they could get their hands on. From record players, VHS machines, Walkmans, to discarded children’s playsets. I supplied the hot-glue guns and hammers. We smashed all the items and reassembled them into cassette-era technological collages. I modified each piece slightly to form specific props for the set. Then Hunter Peterson and I took all the props to the outside courtyard, along with many cans of matte white spray paint. We gave everything three coats and I think they all ended up fitting beautifully into the world we created.
What is the distribution plan of the film and did the film receive any screenings or was it featured in festivals? We have already won over fifteen first-place awards from around the world. From Hollywood to Japan, Germany, Russia, the UK, India, Brazil, and many other wonderful countries. We have won awards ranging from ‘Best Experimental Short Film’ to ‘Best Music Video’, ‘Best VFX’ to even “Best of the Month’. I received a very nice, complimentary, metal trophy from the Royal Wolf Film Awards in Los Angeles for their “Best of the Month” award. This is still our first three months and we have about ten more months to go. So, I am hoping for even more awards, reviews, and interviews. We have also screened at a large handful of these festivals; a few in person, many of the pandemic, online variety, including Toronto Short Film Festival, and San Francisco’s “Another Hole In The Head” film festival. As far as distribution, our is plan is; after we are wrapped up on the international circuit in 2022, to have a few live screening parties around Hollywood, to really enjoy being able to have public gatherings at the point and to let all the local fans see ‘Geneva Jacuzzi’s Casket’ on the big screen in a club environment. I have completed a 78-unique card tarot deck with a 100-page lore booklet that details so much of the background of $BURN$ and ‘Geneva Jacuzzi’s Casket’. It will be released at the same time at those parties. I wanted to create some tangible objects to help make the public premiere really special. I will also make some large, hand screen printed, blacklight posters, so fans can own a piece of the film in their own households.
Why do you make films and what kind of impact would your work have on the world? I make films because they are a container for many kinds of art forms. They can hold acting, writing, photography, music, sound design, sculpture, dance, drawing, and traditional artwork, all together in one temporal ‘pill’ that can be distributed over and over again for all eternity. The impact I would like my work to have; is to expand cinema into new directions, to help it grow as a similar outlet that books and paintings have long been - artistic spaces to explore the outer reaches of ideas and aesthetics - as vessels for strange and previously incomprehensible ideas - as ‘culture spores’ sent out to reproduce in the minds of the collective humanity.