It was only a matter of time before Chris Lowell directed a film of his own. Although best known as an actor with memorable turns in “The Help,” “Veronica Mars” and “Brightest Star,” the lanky Georgia-born star has been steadily building up artistic skills around the camera, originally attending USC for film production until an unexpected opportunity to co-star in the short-lived but beloved ABC high school dramedy “Life As We Know It” derailed those plans, further upended by the show’s executive producer Gabe Sachs handing him a Lykke M3 stills camera.
“I became really obsessed with it,” says Lowell, who has since not only become an accomplished shutterbug, but broadened his skillset further by attending the New School for creative writing after the show became one of three television series he starred on that was cancelled before its time. (The latest, “Enlisted,” was likely doomed from the start as the rare show to offer a nuanced portrayal of military life, daring to do so as a comedy.)
However, in film, both as a medium and a physical form, Lowell has found his rightful home, able to employ all his talents to create “Beside Still Waters,” which slips on with the warmth and comfort of an old sweater fraying at the edges with tension as a group of late twentysomethings return to where they spent their high school years to console their friend Daniel (Ryan Eggold) after the death of his parents in a car accident. Although initially the old gang brings the good times, it isn’t long before they also bring more grief as Daniel’s ex Olivia (Britt Lower) arrives with a new beau (Reid Scott), a reality TV star (Brett Dalton) grapples with the image that’s been created for him when confronted with the people who know him best, and the group’s sole married couple (Will Brill and Erin Darke) worry that their relationship is getting stale.
While the film isn’t exactly autobiographical for Lowell, it is set at a lake house not unlike the one that he grew up in and that his parents sold shortly before filming, adding a genuine tinge of nostalgia to Daniel’s grieving process, awash in the director’s memories of his friends drinking their first beers out by the dock and going skinny dipping late at night. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund “Beside Still Waters”‘ release, it’s safe to say Lowell has even more friends than he did back then, yet has made something intimate and personal and shortly after the film debuted on the coasts theatrically and on VOD, he spoke about how his varied creative pursuits melded for his feature debut, giving over a story deeply resonant for himself to his cast to make their own and causing a power outage for the entire town where he shot for an evening.
Your black and white photography actually becomes an integral part of the film as you see montages from time to time that appear as if they were a flood of memories for the characters. Did the pictures that appear in the film come first or were they inspired by what you shot?
A lot of those images were the inspiration for the film. I showed them to the [cinematographer], I had them up in my production office and I was constantly looking at them trying to recreate the tone. I also was always talking with Nick Houy, the editor, about finding a way to utilize the photography, but never really knowing exactly how we were going to do it. At a certain point, I had abandoned the idea because the story was so personal to me, I already felt like I was putting myself on display so much that to then add my photography into the project made it seem that much more vulnerable. But Nick brought it back up and we tried it in a test screening. It went over so well with people and it helped elevate these themes that we were already trying to put in the film of art imitating life and also this sense of nostalgia – these black and white images that feel super romantic, but aren’t necessarily real. Now when I watch it, I can’t ever believe it wasn’t always going to look that way.
You shot on 16mm as well, which as much as the editing contributes to a handmade feel the film has. How did you decide on the texture of this movie?
It was huge. First of all, I’m most comfortable and confident shooting on film because as a photographer, that’s what I use. When you’re shooting digital, there’s this kind of thought process of “well, I’ll just shoot everything and go back later and figure out the right image and tweak it in Photoshop.” When you’re shooting on film, it’s like when I know I only have 12 exposures, first I’m going to ask is this really a photograph I want to take? And if it is, I’m going to take an extra second to really compose the image. It’s a similar philosophy when you’re doing motion capture and the only thing more expensive than film is time. [With digital], you just get buried underneath all these random long takes and people don’t take rehearsals as seriously because it’s like, “whatever, I’ll get it right the next one” whereas when you’re shooting on film, everyone really focuses. They know that you’re only going to get a couple takes and it brings an element of professionalism, which I really love, so there was that.
Then on a thematic level, film is a very tangible thing. You literally touch it. It has to go through so many hands and there are so many places where it could go wrong. It is this unpredictable, scary medium and it has flaws – you can get hairs in the gate, light leaks and [there’s] static. Yet in spite of all of that, there is this unidentifiable, untouchable brilliance to film that digital just can’t match and that was very reflective of the story we were trying to tell of these characters who were all inherently flawed and broken, yet in spite of all of their shortcomings, there is this light that comes out of them, this sort of purity. On a purely aesthetic level as well, we’re shooting in one location, which can feel very stagnant. Even though the camera is almost always handheld, giving a sense of just always a little bit of movement, the grain itself, especially with 16, there’s movement even in the stillness. It just helps moves things forward. At the end of the day, we could’ve shot 16 or 35 for basically the same price, but I wanted to go 16 specifically because I wanted even the most layman moviegoer who claims to not know the difference between digital and film to see it and just know okay, this is film. The grain, the bounce…And we kept in the hair. That texture was a necessity for this story.
Since this was a personal story, was it easy letting go of it to your cast to see what they would do with it?
I think the most important thing was not keeping anything for myself, actually. With a story this personal, there’s a real trap of being too precious about it and trying to recreate something, a memory of mine or a joke that was told a certain way and the most important thing to do in that situation is to give it all away and trust that you have communicated what you want well enough to your cinematographer, to your costume designer, and to your actors to let them tell the story that they are going to tell and not shy away from a character trait I didn’t see coming from Ryan Eggold or Brett Dalton or Beck Bennett or Reid Scott. I think that’s really part of the reason the film comes to life as authentically as it does because these people aren’t telling my story, they’re telling their story. The chemistry that you see is their chemistry and you can’t create chemistry between actors, I don’t think. It just has to be there. We got very lucky that it was there with eight different people.
Was it difficult to service this many characters with fully fleshed-out stories?
Yeah, there are a lot of moving parts. I actually think what’s even more difficult isn’t necessarily finding the stories as how do you end those stories. It was important for us to not have every storyline tied up with a nice bow at the end because that’s just not how it would happen, so it was a real balancing act trying to figure out which ones needed to be tied up more than others. Ultimately, the only storyline that really matters is does Daniel accept the circumstances of his reality and does he really come to terms with what’s happened and do we really get a sense that these people he’s lost touch with will still be a part of his life moving forward? If you accomplish that, then everything else falls into place as it’s meant to. But that’s the only thing I really felt like we needed to tie up and the rest could be suggested, but you’re not going to see it.
I’ve read you have an unusual writing process with your co-writer Mohit Narang.
Yeah, Mo and I work in a really weird way, but we love it. We create a very detailed outline together. We sit down and nitpick every little thing that happens, then we take that outline and we go away and Mo writes an entire full-length film by himself and I do the same thing. Then we get together and we read each other’s drafts. We get super excited because it’s the same story, but it’s just a burst of all new words. We then take the best of each person’s story and that’s how we create our first collaborative draft. The beauty of it is there will be moments in a script I’ll be really struggling with that Month just soars through or he’ll really understand the voice of a character that I’ve really not been able to identify. If we were writing together, I might also have an idea that’s not fully developed and Mo, in the moment, might say, “nah, let’s just not do it,” so you never really get to let that idea come to fruition whereas if you’re alone, you can really explore it and see where it takes you. Even if it ultimately isn’t the right choice, you get to develop it all the way through to know it’s not really the right choice. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a wonderful way of working in general, but it’s the way that for us makes the most sense.
Was there something that was unlocked either by that process or even in production that surprised you and changed the meaning of the movie you were making?
Definitely. There were all sorts of surprises. There were times when Mo and I literally wrote the exact same lines that we never even discussed, but they showed up on the page verbatim. There were perspectives that he had on characters that I didn’t that ultimately shifted things pretty dramatically and vice versa. Also because we were inspired by people we know, it was really nice working with him because at the beginning you’re so precious, like “I don’t want to hurt this person’s feelings if they ever see this.” Wrong. You have to allow these characters to be flawed. You have to give them the freedom to make mistakes. You can’t sugarcoat anything, which was important to us, so we pushed each other.
Did this help you get over your parents’ sale of the lake house where you spent your formative years?
It’s funny, we finished the script there, we had the first table read there. I did a whole series of portraits there, many of which end up in the film. I always joke, there’s nothing more I could do to get closure from this house than what I’ve done. I literally made a film about it. The only thing I could do is go back and set the place on fire. [laughs] There’s nothing else. I’ve mined it for all it’s worth. Which actually feels really good. It feels like I left it all on the field.
Was there a particularly challenging day on set?
There were several. The one where everybody showed what they were capable of was [when] we were doing splits, which means half-day, then we break, then we shoot at night. We had some crisis with the camera the night before, so we weren’t able to get a lot of the work done that we needed to get done. It was the day where Ryan [Eggold, playing Daniel] needed to have his big breakdown, then we were going to have to pick up all the stuff we didn’t shoot the night before, then we were going to have to shoot all the stuff down by the dock, so we had all these crazy lights and we were shooting at night, outside and the actors are going to have to get naked. There were so many things that could go wrong.
The actors showed up and we shot Ryan’s scene and it goes great. We all feel really good. We break for lunch and then we come back to shoot the night stuff, picking up what we didn’t get the night before and the power goes out. Not the end of the world. We blew a fuse, I’m sure. We were all waiting for it to be fixed. Then we hear someone yell, “Looks like it’s the whole neighborhood.” We basically used up all the power in this small region of Northern Michigan. And it’s two a.m. on a Sunday. So what do you do?
You’d think that would just be total hysteria, but everyone got really calm and just showed the best version of themselves. One of our producers, Steve, called 911 because he doesn’t know what to do, so they ask him, “What’s the case of your emergency?” And he’s like “We’re making a movie and we lost power…” and it’s ridiculous. Any other 911 operator would’ve been like, “Get off the phone, you idiot!” But this woman [said], “Okay, I’ll call you right back.” Twenty minutes later, she somehow got in touch with the electrician in this small town who is driving out to fix the power and then she’s like, “What’s the movie about?” Meanwhile, we had a putt putt generator and we were able to light these small interiors, so we shot what we could with that.
We had to readjust blocking for everything and suddenly the whole scene was just going to be one take. But of course, the actors were amazing. They adjusted to it brilliantly. And the power came back on around 4:30 a.m. as the sun was about to come up, so we just raced down to the dock. [I told everyone], “You get one chance. We’re not going to do multiple takes where we can dry you off. You’re going to be wet, naked, this is it. This is your moment. Do it right.” And we did it. The last thing we shot was this crazy wide shot as the sun’s coming up and I just remember we probably shot more that night than any other day under the most difficult of circumstances. I remember at 7 a.m., Mo and I walked out on the dock as the sun was coming up, opened this bottle of bourbon we’d been saving and just toasted the gods of art for shining some light on us because we needed it. It was a very celebratory moment.
“Beside Still Waters” is now available on demand on iTunes, Amazon on Demand, Vudu, and Google Play. It will also play a series of one night only engagements in Houston on December 8th at the Landmark River Oaks Theatre, Chicago on December 9th at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on December 10th at the Maple Theatre.