Chris Eigeman is an iconic presence in the independent comedies in the early 90’s, specifically the movies he made with Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) and Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming). Now he is working as a director, making his debut in 2007 with Turn the River and currently at work on his next film Midnight Sun. Chris and I spoke over the phone.
Note: Turn the River is currently streaming on Netflix, a good pool movie with a cast that includes Famke Janssen and Rip Torn.
What prompted you to start directing? Has it always been a desire of yours or did it develop through your years of acting?
I think it probably developed through my years of acting. Directing came after writing and writing was something I was doing all the time.
The last sort of indie film I had done before I started directing was a movie (The Treatment) with Famke Janssen. I loved working with Famke a lot. I had another film that I was writing but I knew it was really big and was going to be expensive, a very hard first film to direct. So I decided to write a smaller film, specifically for Famke.
And I thought, I’d done enough films that I knew what I liked in directors. I hoped to emulate that.
So you took some of the practices you had seen work in the past and brought them to your own work collectively?
Some of it is really small stuff: the way I like a set to be, the way I like sets to run, the way I work best as an actor on what kind of set.
I am a believer in if you cast your movie well and some line just really isn’t working after three or four takes, it is not the fault of the actor, it is the fault of the line.
So you mentioned sets, do you like your sets big or small?
I like a set that is quiet, that is very relaxed. I have no problem with visitors on set. I have no problem with people having a good time. If someone wants to put music on in between set-ups, that’s great too. I don’t want yelling.
What do you think about someone like Warren Beatty on Reds pushing Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton to 80 plus takes per scene?
Yeah, I don’t know how you do that. I know that I as an actor get progressively worse and worse. My record is something like thirty-five takes and I know that they ended up using one of the first five or six takes. Not to say that I was right and that was the best; it was probably the best out of a bunch of bad takes.
Also, I don’t like rehearsing. For plays I love it but for movies I hate rehearsing.
Now why is that?
I have never found anything to be gained from it. I really like doing a table read. In a perfect world, the first thing is that you have every actor at the table doing a full read of the script. This is the only time that everybody in the story will be telling the story together. After this table read, everyone will go their own way and you’ll rarely see most of those people again unless they come to the wrap party. So if you as an actor are talking about things that all these other people have done, it’s good for you to have actually met and seen these people, heard their side of the story.
Now with someone like Howard Hawks, the script would be in a constant state of evolution. They would be rewriting it the day of shooting. Does your script evolve in that way or does it stay locked down?
It stays pretty locked down. But I’ve only done one. On this next film, we’ll see what happens. Again, it comes from me being an actor: the time in films where the script has been very very loose, I have always felt that the product has been less successful.
As an independent director, how do you work around or with your limitations?
The budget [of Turn the River] was about $400,000. And I think every budget is its own aesthetic. At that budget level, we just knew that everything wasn’t going to be perfect and once you embrace that, then it is sort of liberating.
Watching the film I think that with a much bigger budget it might not have the same naturalistic feel, the same honesty.
I totally embrace that argument. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong but I embrace it. That feels right to me. It feels like if you threw more money at this, I don’t know how it would change it and I’m not quite sure it would change it for the better.
How did you work with your cinematographer (Herman Michael Otano)?
We spoke about a lot of films. We spoke about the color palette and the way we wanted this to look. And how comfortable he was going handheld and how far we could push that, both physically and aesthetically.
There aren’t that many movies that involve pool. The two most famous are The Hustler and The Color of Money. Both of those are shot very, very differently and neither could we emulate. The Hustler is pretty much shot on sticks; there is not a lot of movement. And The Color of Money moves all over the place.
Well, it’s Scorsese.
Right. Well if you think back to that film, there are sequences that the sequence alone would basically be our budget, so you can’t do that. And I felt that The Hustler was so much of its time that it would be inappropriate to make a current story shot that way.
Do books inform your filmmaking process?
There is a book called Playing off the Rail. It’s about a guy that is a stakehorse for a pool player. I liked it a lot, found it very interesting.
This next film, Midnight Sun, was inspired by… I went on vacation for a month and I didn’t want to pack a lot of books so I just took one: Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which is a 2500 page book. I just became very very involved with the book and started to think how a movie could come out of that. Now thankfully Richard Rhodes is the technical advisor on the film.
How do you use the internet to your advantage?
Boy, that’s a great question. I don’t and I need to.
When we did Turn the River, we made the mistake I believe in that we tried to stay off the radar until the movie was made. In the end, I think that was a mistake on my part. I should not have done that because this really was when the internet and film were kissing cousins. Most of the film community was online, talking about other projects, watching other projects, and because we weren’t there, it made for the introduction of the film harder.
This all saying that I’m terrible at it but I need to get good at it or work with people who are good at it.
Finally, how do you work with your actors?
I assume that they know exactly what they’re doing. And I really believe that there is no such thing as hustling a performance out of somebody. I’ve heard many directors say, “Yeah, I got a great performance out of that guy”. I really rebel against that.
By and large, I try to let every actor do what they want to do as long as we all know we are telling the same story. One of my jobs as a director is to make sure that everybody (all the actors, the keys) that we’re all telling the same story.
And then if things seem to be not going the pace or slightly wrong, then I just get in and because I’m an actor the conversation could sound something like, “You know when you hit that corner, maybe just trim the corner a little bit tighter,” and I think anybody standing there that isn’t an actor would be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” But actors tend to speak the same way, to think the same way.
And then if that doesn’t work, and we’re seriously up a creek, I am all about just going with pace. Pace will get you out of jail, sometimes.