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Don’t Wait for the Hollywood Fairy

Director Chris Koch (CGS’84, COM’87) on what it takes to make it in show biz

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Chris Koch (CGS’84, COM’87) (left) with Jason Lee and Julia Stiles during the making of the movie A Guy Thing.

Director Chris Koch’s résumé reads like a film student’s wish list: the Massachusetts native has been behind the camera for episodes of the TV shows Scrubs and My Name Is Earl, as well as at the helm of feature films A Guy Thing and Snow Day. Koch (CGS’84, COM’87) got his first job as only a BU alum can — with a Redstone Film Festival–winning short film on his reel. Koch’s Rendezvous took home the festival’s top prize in 1988.

Koch, who now lives in Los Angeles, took the time to talk shop with another former Redstone winner, Alan Wong (COM’02), whose film The Girl I Used to See Who Stole My Love from Me won in 2003. This year’s festival takes place tonight at the Tsai Performance Center.

BU Today: Tell us how you got started.
Koch: I was the kid doing that thing with his dad’s Super 8 camera when I was little — I knew that I always wanted to do this. But I was a terrible high school student, and I wouldn’t have gotten into BU if not for the College of General Studies. Then when I got into the film program, I was a straight-A student. I was doing what I loved, and I had an aptitude for it.

I was with a whole bunch of good people at the College of Communication — most notably Kevin Burns, a professor who started something called Film Unit, which I’m sure you know about.

I don’t think it’s around anymore.
It’s not. It was a great idea because it was a student-staffed and -run production company in the basement of COM. We’d get real clients, usually nonprofit companies, and we would get to do commercials. They would pay for the film, and we had the equipment. It was a great way for students to get experience, and they would get a commercial.

It was when I doing Film Unit that Chevrolet came along and wanted us to do a Chevy commercial for the college cable networks all over the country. We shot a Godzilla-destroys-Tokyo commercial for Chevy, and that was one of the first things I directed. We got a few hundred Japanese extras, and we closed down a street in downtown Boston. We had big smoke machines and tourists running and screaming. I think they had $20,000 budgeted, which for us was a huge budget.

What other skills did you pick up at COM?
To be honest with you, I learned the most in Film Unit, because we were just doing stuff all the time — we were in the editing bays constantly. I learned as much about editing at BU as I did about filmmaking. For a student, one of the most instructive things is editing. You learn about what you need to shoot, you learn about coverage. And when I graduated, I went to New York and worked as a producer in advertising for J. Walter Thompson, but at the same time I was always making money on the side freelancing as an editor. That was invaluable.

What was interesting was when I went to J. Walter Thompson for my big interview, I had a reel with the Chevy commercial, a Museum of Science fundraising video, and Rendezvous, my Redstone film. James Patterson, the guy that writes mystery novels, was the head of J. Walter Thompson North America at the time, and he watched my reel. I figured the Chevy commercial would be the most interesting to him.

He looked at everything, and he said, “Okay, the Chevy commercial is all right. You know why I want to hire you? This Rendezvous film. There’s something really interesting in there.” He didn’t really elaborate much beyond that, but he basically said that he wanted people who had been filmmakers and weren’t just trying to be in advertising.

Tell us a little about your Redstone film.
Rendezvous is a story about a kid who seems to have a bad relationship with his parents, an only child who doesn’t get good grades in school. So when we meet him, he’s at a point with his family relationships where things are very fractured.

His hobby is playing with shortwave radios. He contacts aliens and arranges for the aliens to pick him up. He’s got to run away, not only from home, but from the planet. But at the last minute, he changes his mind and decides to start having a better relationship with his parents, specifically with his dad. All this is done almost wordlessly. It’s just a very kind of odd, subtle little movie.

It sounds like it was inspired by vintage Spielberg.
Oh God, yeah. That was my generation. Everyone was doing Spielberg back then. The only rule that my film teacher told us was, “No dream sequences. No chases.”

For a BU film student, winning the Redstone Festival is a pretty big deal. What was it like?
It gave me the confidence, I think, to go out and feel like I could keep doing this as a career. Ironically, in one form or another, I’ve been working for Sumner Redstone ever since, because I went on from there to do a lot of work for Nickelodeon, MTV, and VH1. Then, my first feature film was Snow Day, also for Nickelodeon Movies. So I guess I stayed in the family for a while.

It seems that everyone in film school wants to be a director at first. How do your ideas about the process back then compare to the reality now?
That’s the number-one question I hear from BU students: “I want to direct. How do I do it?”

It’s a really tough question because I think the way people come to directing is different for each person. When I was at BU, we took a film business class. The class painted a very dark picture of the success rate of actually making it and being in any capacity of business in writing, directing, or what have you. But it didn’t matter, because my attitude had to be, this is what I want to do, and I have to go for it.

It might take a while. In my case, I decided to be a producer first, in advertising, because I wanted to get to New York and get to know budgets and the business side a little better. I don’t think I was a very good producer, but I learned a lot about the business side of it.

I became head of production for a small agency after Thompson, but I always kept my dream of directing alive. And these guys I worked for in the small agency knew that, and so they started letting me direct stuff for some of our smaller clients. That was how I got my break.

That led to an introduction at Nickelodeon, which got me a shot at directing a show called The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and that got me into the world of TV directing. After that company closed, I had just enough experience to start my own production company in New York. The first three years were really tight. We barely made any profit, but we made enough to get by, and we’ve kept it going ever since. It really comes down to having the confidence to say, this is what I want to do.

But the other thing I tell kids — the most important thing — is to really value the relationships you make along the way, because the one thing I’ve learned is that you bump into the same bunch of people over and over and over again. And literally every single big break that I ever got — whether it’s TV, or features, or what have you — was through people I’ve built relationships with who knew who I was, knew that I wanted to direct, and were willing to give me a break.

On a much smaller scale, every job I’ve gotten since my first break has been through someone I know.
Exactly. So I always tell people to treat people well. Don’t get an ego about it. Keep that film school mentality, which is, we’re all in this together. You have to be good to your crew and everyone else because they’re helping you make your stuff, and it’s that kind of attitude that makes people want to work with you again.

I would say the least likely path, the hardest path, is the more fabled one — you make a kick-ass short film, everybody sees it, and the Hollywood fairy taps you with a wand, and you’re a director. It happens all the time, but that’s more of a crapshoot.

I really worked my way up to directing, and I probably took a big detour of a few years by doing the producer thing, but I’ve benefited from it.

So what does it take to be a director in Hollywood, and how have you adapted yourself to that mold?
I’ve always tried to be more of an actor’s director and listen to my actors and be really good to my crew. And it’s paid off in spades. It’s something I learned at BU: to respect the crew working for you. They are helping make your career, and they’re working really hard for you.

I can’t speak for everyone else, and there are all kinds, but I think that’s how you should be.

You’ve made it as a director — what does it feel like to be where you are now?
The nice part is I love what I do. But it’s really hard. Don’t get me wrong. When I’m directing an episode of My Name Is Earl or Scrubs, it’s probably the most stressful, because we have to do it in five days. So it’s like one shot every 20 minutes. You’re moving fast, and you really have to have your sh-t together. So it’s really stressful, but it’s a blast.

But I would do it for free. I feel like I’m getting paid to do what I love. And that’s the best part, for sure.

The Redstone Film Festival begins at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 11, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave., and is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and admittance is first-come, first-served.

Alan Wong can be reached at alanwong@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Don’t Wait for the Hollywood Fairy

  • Ted The Head Fan on 02.12.2009 at 12:36 am

    Nickelodeon

    One of the best assignments that Chris was involved in with Nickelodeon was the “Ted The Head” Series …heristacial.

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