Greenville-based filmmaker finally finds himself in the right place at the right time.
By Knox White for undefined.
Filmmaker Chris White is on a quest to undermine the exhaustive conventions of film production. Today, that endeavor has him perched behind his laptop, hands tangled in his hair, trying to buy an external hard drive.
“I know story structure, shot composition, film production…” he pauses, distracted for a moment. “But what I know about movie gear, computers, software…you could fit all of it on a 500MB thumb drive.”
White is a regional college graduate and a father of three—a former high school drama teacher and a self-professed “cinephile.” In short, just any-other-guy, a man setting out in the middle of life's journey to create his own feature-length films, and doing so by promoting his work almost entirely through social media.
“I joined Facebook to find an audience for my films,” he explains. “It’s been fun to reconnect with old friends, of course…but my primary reason for being there is audience development.”
White left public school teaching in 2009 to pursue film full-time. It took him a full year to find his footing, but his first effort, the short film GOOD LIFE (2010), revealed an artist with a unique vision—“artistically ambitious and not cynical” he likes to say.
It’s a quixotic ambition—an individual assuming the function of writer, director, and producer. White sees his work as “handmade.” His small-scale productions revel in their tightly constructed stories, subtle performances, and artful mise-en-scène.
"It's not that I am opposed to a bigger movie process. It's that I am trying to fully embrace my current circumstances, to not live beyond my means. And right now, my means are honest stories and small, beautiful acting."
White’s path to full-time independent filmmaker began in the summer of 2002 when he partnered with regional director Jeff Sumerel and South Carolina ETV to produce the documentary, BRAGGING RITES that explores the sensational rivalry between Clemson and USC fans throughout South Carolina. White wrote the marketing plan for the film and sold the idea to a statewide grocery store chain, a bank, and a handful of private investors.
“BRAGGING RITES happened when the Internet was a place you’d visit, not live.” Indeed, sales of the DVD were sluggish at best…primarily because distribution, via mail order and traditional retail, was slow, disconnected, and contingent upon traditional advertising and event PR.
When White shot GOOD LIFE at Ristorante Bergamo in November of 2010 and posted it online in December of that same year, he had no idea that his little film would be seen by thousands of people within the first month of its release.
Viewers were charmed by GOOD LIFE's warm cinematic rendering of a daughter's love for her father in spite of himself. The glowing, doe-eyed expression of White’s youngest daughter, Harriet, playing a role she was born into, exemplified the amiable tone that he would set as a filmmaker. And so, his “little film project” became the platform from which he announced his ambitions to create a feature-length film.
White’s first feature film effort, TAKEN IN, tells the story of a busy father trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. He and his wife Emily produced TAKEN IN entirely with contributions from friends via Kickstarter…most motivated by the popularity of GOOD LIFE.
TAKEN IN was shot in black and white on location at “America’s Favorite Highway Oasis’”—South of the Border, near Dillon. The film's gray-scale and recurrent use of soft focus renders the story in a muted and uneasy ambience: poignant visual schemes reflecting the unspoken tensions that hinder a tentative reconciliation between the characters.
"A cautious rejection of cynicism is a key to my work." Though White insists, ”That must not be confused with an embrace of sentimentalism, which I also reject. My films deal in failed people and relationships surprised by hope."
Cinema is a collaborative art. Behind the camera, on any set, there is a hushed host of knowledgeable professionals readily standing by in rank and file to anticipate and amend any obstacle that inhibits the groovy ebb and flow course of production. The distinctively intimate tone of a Chris White set allows for a playful approach to scene work. A background in live theatre and improvisational comedy informs White’s directorial approach. Each moment forms out of itself, and dialogue is supple rather than fixed in a script.
"I ask my camera and sound operators to work with my actors, to get a feel for their work, to begin to anticipate how they will handle a scene.” He says, “Though I do work from a written script, I allow my actors to freedom to experiment and explore. So I need my set to wrap around that approach, to protect it."
White's second film, GET BETTER, written and directed with his wife Emily and based in large part on her relationship with her dad, explores a week in the life of a young woman coping with the illness and imminent death of her father.
The work is far more ambitious than TAKEN IN. When TAKEN IN was quiet, almost meditative, GET BETTER is talky, irreverent. Visually, TAKEN IN was art-house black and white. GET BETTER, populated by Western North Carolina’s fall leaves, is as colorful as a summer popcorn movie. TAKEN IN runs a brisk, 69 minutes, GET BETTER runs 101. Still, people are again responding with enthusiasm to the film.
And GET BETTER’s audience is growing. The film is set to screen at the Charleston Film Festival, Columbia’s Indie Grits Festival and several other regional film festivals in the spring of 2013. Last summer, Chris and Emily personally toured the film to various venues throughout South Carolina and North Carolina. And recently, the couple released it (and TAKEN IN) online. So film fans can stream both their work via the Internet.
Which begs the question: what’s next for the Upstate’s upstart filmmaker?
"Currently, I am writing a new feature film…a road movie comedy called SWEET AND AWFUL. This one will look more like a traditional screenplay," he admits. "My goal was never to make unscripted, improvised movies…it was to make a living making movies. Whereas I’ve been able to get started making more improvised films, it’s time to transition into more traditionally screen-written films because they help me do more complex things narratively that I am unable to do with an improvised movie.”
“Plus,” White adds with a twinkle in his eye, “a traditional screenplay is essential as we try to attracted more known stars, crew, and financing.”
In fewer than three years Chris White has climbed the steep from dreamer to entrepreneur. He left his day job. He founded a startup production company in a small town, just out of the foothills. He rallied a following of enthusiastic supporters who bought into the promise that a film could be built like any handcrafted project. With spare funds and a small crew of friends, Chris set out to undermine the assumption that the art of filmmaking is an exclusive property of the studio valleys out west.
"I was a Furman Drama major who self-produced storefront theatre for years while working in various marketing/advertising jobs. I dabbled in ‘serious’ work but never got real serious because I never really took myself seriously. I'd assumed that due to my life choices, my big chance had passed me by.”
White smiles, “But eventually it dawned upon me that I'd been learning, growing, preparing all those years…to be a filmmaker. And then, when the technology finally caught up with me, I was ready for it. I found myself, finally, in the right place at the right time.”
He looks down at his laptop. Clicks twice. Then a third time. He furrows his brow, looks up. “How big is a terabyte? That’s like…big, isn’t it?”
It’s like a scene from a movie. A comedy. With a happy ending.