Actor/Writer/Director/Photographer Chris Lowell has had a pretty terrific last six months. His film “BESIDE STILL WATERS” premiered at Mill Valley Film Festival, then took Audience and Jury Awards home in Austin. His new show on FOX Enlisted is one of the funniest and heart-tugging sitcoms ever to grace my DVR (and has the critics praising it as they ponder whether it gets picked up). And then there is “VERONICA MARS,” the never-forgotten cult hit TV series which is now a hit feature film and made its premiere at SXSW. Lowell was happy to sign on again to play Piz – “one of the least liked people on television.” “VERONICA MARS” famously got its second life after a massive Kickstarter campaign rallied fans around the world to the project. Now, Chris Lowell has taken to Kickstarter himself (with much smaller goals) to help bring “BESIDE STILL WATERS” to as large an audience as possible. I got a chance to catch up with him and his BSW co-writer Mohit Narang before they screened the film at the Atlanta Film Festival.
Bears: So you are showing “BESIDE STILL WATERS” in Atlanta, that has to be pretty special, considering the inspiration of the film.
Chris Lowell: I grew up in this house in north Georgia, this lake house, and it was the place where all our friends would sort of congregate, where we all grew up together. It was the place where we drank for the first time, went skinny-dipping for the first time –
Mohit Narang: It was kinda the centerpoint of our youth.
Chris Lowell: Even after we left Atlanta for college, for our careers, it was always the place we’d come back to. … And then, in 2011, my folks sold the house. It kind of brought a jarring realization to us … that this pivotal time in our life was coming to an end.
Mohit Narang: We kinda wanted to write a love story and relive it in a way. Losing the lake house prompted a lot of discussion about the things we were letting go of and why that scared us and that really became the genesis of at least the major themes of the script.
Chris Lowell: In the first draft of the script, we could have told you that — “the Mo character does this, and then the Chris says this” —
Mohit Narang: And there was no drama in the film. The characters were so closely tied to our friends, we were afraid to portray them as even remotely flawed. And gradually as we went through draft after draft, our characters came to life and become people of their own. And the ability to say “that’s the Mo character sort of drifted away.”
Chris Lowell: But there are “Mo-ments” – the funny thing is [it’s me as well] … one of the things that bonds us [the group of friends that went to the lake]is that we share a sense of humor, a language that we’ve created, a vocabulary.
Bears: It’s such a personal story, have you been surprised how much people identified with it as you’ve shown it around the country?
Chris Lowell: Shocked. Although I remember learning when I was studying writing that specificity breeds universality. So even if someone didn’t grow up in a lake house and their parents are still alive and their friends aren’t… complete alcoholics… it still triggers that feeling of going home, or seeing old friends or going to that place that is sacred to them, in their youth.
Bears: So Chris, I was lucky enough to be in the audience when you spoke at the International Film Festival Summit in December, what sort of wisdom did you take away from speaking with the united programmers of the world?
Chris Lowell: Well, when I got the invitation to be their closing keynote speaker, I was certain they did not know who I was. The other speakers there were people like John Sloss, John Sayles, these big big big folks, so I’m asking why the hell they wanted me to talk, and I think the reason was because the other filmmakers they had speaking were just that, established filmmakers, so their process of bringing a film to a film festival is very different from a first time filmmaker making a low budget indie film with no stars, which is what we were doing. …
When you get your first rejection letter from a festival, you certainly just decide people who run the festivals are Satan, because they didn’t like your movie, and they didn’t like anyone’s movie. All they want to do is get celebrities in there, and they don’t give a shit about the underdog, the true independent filmmakers. And what I realized after building relationships [with programmers]is that the programmers are the biggest film buffs of them all. They have to watch thousands of films, most of them terrible, in the hopes of finding one or two gems.
Mohit Narang: And the way they talk about supporting filmmakers like us is incredible. We were artists who were feeling defensive because our art wasn’t being embraced immediately. And it ended up being a blessing in disguise not only because Mill Valley and Austin were like so the right place for us to play but then we also had a chance to sit down and instead of having this defensive opinion on who programmers were, we got to meet them, and talk to them about film and realize that they are so on our side. That filmmakers and programmers want the same thing, which is for independent cinema to flourish
Chris Lowell: Well, I’d never done a comedy and I wanted to. It’s straight forward. … And then I really am attracted to voices like Kevin and Mike’s [Kevin Biegel and Mike Royce], the creators [of the show], the kind of voices that create worlds which you just don’t see on television. I mean tragically, and you can see this happening with Enlisted right now, because it’s a unique voice, the networks are afraid of it, they don’t know what to do with it, they don’t know how to market it, and so those shows typically don’t last long in the public eye. In hindsight though, years later, those are the shows they wanna resurrect and that’s what “VERONICA MARS” was. The film was dragged through the mud, nobody knew what to do with it. But it’s one of these shows that has garnered one of the most diehard followings of all time.
Bears: “ENLISTED” is so funny, but it’s also so tender and honest. The relationship between you, Geoff Stults and Parker Young, who play your brothers, is so natural, do you have brothers?
Chris Lowell: I do. The creator of the show Kevin I think it was imperative for him that each one of us have brothers of our own and each one of us have some sort of family member who served in the military. He really wanted for us to have at least a basic understanding of what both of those relationships meant. So all three of us all have brothers. When we got together the first night – we went and got drinks together – within seconds were basically just improvising episodes of the show, because Geoff [who plays the oldest brother]had organized it, he was getting us all together, he was the patient one, he was looking around making sure everyone was having a good time. Parker [who plays the youngest brother]was basically following Geoff around trying to emulate him and talk like him, ordering whatever he ordered, and I [middle brother]was being a cynical son of a bitch and making fun of people every chance I got. And frankly, I don’t even know if we are all like that otherwise…
Bears: On the show you are soooo snarky.
Chris Lowell: Most of the roles that people know me for, “PRIVATE PRACTICE,” “VERONICA MARS,” I sort of play these good two shoes guy-next-door types, so it’s really fun to break that mode and just be a dick sometimes.
Bears: How was it to climb aboard the “VERONICA MARS” bullet train again?
Chris Lowell: It was pretty simple. Rob Thomas said it looks like were actually going to make the Veronica Mars movie, were going to fund it via Kickstarter, I just got the green light from Warner Brothers. I want to write Piz [Lowell’s character (Stosh ‘Piz’ Piznarski)] into the script, are you okay with that? And of course I thought about the life-threatening risks of being one of the least liked people on television, but I would sort of chomp at the bit to work with Kristin [Bell] and Jason [Dohring] and [here Chris listed off about thirteen people]in any possible way I got so I just said absolutely. I was so flattered, frankly that they asked in the first place, and that I got such a good part in the movie – I really love the role that they gave me, it’s like a really good meaty role.
Bears: Yeah, its sort of necessary conflict on Veronica, a draw in the other direction from going back to her old life.
Mohit Narang: Plus you got to meet Ira Glass.
Chris Lowell: Plus I got to meet Ira Glass, which is my biggest claim to fame. I fucking worked with Clooney, who gives a shit. Jessica Chastain, who cares? Emma Stone, gross. Ira Glass?? That’s it. That’s it for me. I can die happy.
Bears: So Veronica Mars relaunched itself through Kickstarter, now you and Mo have taken to Kickstarter yourselves. Tells me about that.
Chris Lowell: I wouldn’t necessary say Veronica Mars was an influence. It was almost more of a deterrent. I mean the Veronica Mars thing worked, but because it was Veronica Mars. I remember Mo coming over to my apartment when we were talking about it. And him saying okay, I’ve researched about 800 different films and sort of seen how they’ve done in our price range – the money we are trying to raise – and the success rate is 6% and I was absolutely devastated.
Mohit Narang: And then we launched it, and the support started pouring in – Chris and I were glued to our computers hitting refresh every 30 seconds – we were shocked at how many names we didn’t recognize. It’s become kinda the little league version of Veronica Mars, because of course we’re no where near the scale, but its still like another testament that there’s this vocal group of people out there that just want to see good independent film and will support it.
Bears: Now have a lot of these people seen the film, or are they just going on what they’ve heard about it?
Mohit Narang: The later. I think we’ve gotten a lot of testimonials from people who have seen the film, who have testified pretty strongly to the quality, and certainly having the validation of Mill Valley and absolutely of winning the jury prize and audience award at Austin is a big stamp of credibility on our film. I think were honestly helped by the fact that were a project on Kickstarter that’s already made their film.
Chris Lowell: I think for a lot of people it’s like ‘I have this idea…’ and it’s sort of hard to communicate but the film is done. Not only is it done and it’s won awards. It’s been well received. We’re at the finish line. We have a finished film, we just can’t afford the deliverables to get it the world.
Deliverables of course means there is an offer on the table for getting this movie in theatres, and a quick jump to the “BESIDE STILL WATERS”Kickstarter page shows the progress – it’s looking pretty good. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help out if you can, the thank you gifts for pledges are very fun and personal, including a piece of the photo negative from the film (yes, the film was actually shot on film, 16 mm to be precise), copies of the script annotated by Chris and Mo with all sort of notes about filming and the writing process, and copies of Chris’s black and white photography used throughout the film. “We wanted everything to have a personal touch to it” said Lowell. Chris Lowell and Mohit Narang, in addition to putting together amazing rewards for their pledges are already working on their script, and had a reading of it in Austin between screenings of “BESIDE STILL WATERS” and the “VERONICA MARS” world premiere.”ENLISTED” is on temporary hiatus as “RAISING HOPE” stole its time slot for their series finale. “VERONICA MARS” is in theatres now and look for “BRIGHTEST STAR” later this year, director Maggie Kiley’s film starring Lowell, Rose McIver, Clark Gregg and Allison Janey, which world-premiered at Austin alongside “BESIDE STILL WATERS” while I was Director of Programming.