By Thomas J. McLean
Editor Chris Conlee was not expecting the call from producer Brian Patrick O’Toole offering him the chance to direct his first feature, a horror film about an alien life form that possesses and reanimates the dead called Evilution.
“I wasn’t looking for it, I wasn’t expected it, he just said, ‘I’ve got another film going, are you interested in directing it?’ and I almost drove off the road!” says Conlee
Now in post, the editor says the experience of directing the $500,000 feature’s 18-day shoot at the Linda Vista Hospital in Boyle Heights was an exhilarating and surprisingly smooth experience.
“I don’t think I had ever talked specifically to Brian about a desire to direct,” Conlee says. “But I think when people sit in the editing room with me, they understand I have a deep appreciation for story.”
A native of Oregon, Conlee went to Columbia College in Hollywood in the early 1990s with the intention of being the next big filmmaker, and found he had an affinity for editing. After a stint in the Army, he bought his own editing equipment and began soliciting work, doing demo reels for actors until a friend hooked him up with a low-budget feature. Each feature’s pay was minimal, so he was constantly looking for the next film and racked up around 30 feature editing credits in six or seven years.
Horror was always a genre Conlee liked to work in, and he had done a number of features with O’Toole, such as Dog Soldiers, Boo and Cemetery Gates in addition to assistant editing work on TV shows such as Vanished, The Unit and the pilot for The Sarah Connor Chronicles prior to taking on Evilution.
The script by O’Toole was ambitious, Conlee says, and he found his editing experience helpful in making sure that it could be completed on the short schedule.
“Inevitably, you get to the set and all these grand ideas you have don’t hold up under an 18-day schedule,” he says. “So you start having to make compromises and, coming from an editorial background, I think I was able to get just the pieces I needed and actually still get more coverage than we would have had I not known in my head how I wanted it to play.”
Conlee relied in particular on his cinematographer, Matthew Rudenberg, and first assistant director, Paul Silver. Conlee says he and Rudenberg spent a lot of prep time working out the shot list, while Silver “coached” Conlee in other areas.
“I worried people would know it was my first film and they wouldn’t take me seriously or something,” Conlee says. “And Paul said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ve done your prep work, you’re the kind of person that people are going to respect as long as you get on the set and just do the best job that you can.’ ”
He also relied on his old friend, sound mixer Dennis Grzazik, who was invaluable in ensuring that the on set recordings were as clean as possible, even if it meant waiting for a jet to pass over, Conlee says.
While the shoot went overall extremely well, there were a few problems. One involved a change to a scene that caused continuity problems for wardrobe. Conlee says he learned a valuable lesson about how each department has its own point of view and that his decisions can reflect poorly on them. He also says he learned why such decisions have to be made and that the big picture sometimes makes them necessary.
“You want to pay attention to continuity, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of the editorial process,” he says.
The film is currently in post-production, with a finish date set for September. The film will get a DVD release and possibly a slot on Sci Fi Channel, in addition to making the rounds at genre festivals.
Conlee finds himself working with another editor, Brian J. Cavanaugh, on Evilution, even as he moves on to edit his next project.
Collaboration with the editor has been made easier by technology. The film was shot on Panasonic P2 cards with the HVX 200 HD camera. Conlee says he and the editor each have a drive with the full HD media on it, allowing them to email each other the Avid cut scene bin back and forth for reviewing of work.
Also, the P2 permits editing of full-resolution media, letting the film devote its online editing costs to color correction.
Conlee says directing has definitely gotten under his skin. “You can bet that when I get this movie done, I’m going to see if I can open up a new career path,” he says. “I’ll never give up editing, because I love it so much, but there’s something to be said about being above the line.”
Written by Tom McLean