By Dennis R. Upkins
The late Steve Jobs had a very famous quote, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
What he meant by this is to never rest on your laurels, and always push yourself to evolve and improve. Do or be willing to keep trying to accomplish the very feats that people say cannot be done. Independent director Robert S. Evans is a testament to what happens Jobs’s words of wisdom are put into action.
Evans and I first met nearly two decades ago at a comic book store while I was attending college in Chattanooga, TN. Both of us were aspiring creators who were in the early stages of pursuing a career in our respective mediums. That is when we weren’t discussing everything from X-Men to Record of Lodoss War. He and I lost touch after I relocated to Atlanta for art school but would reconnect via social media nearly twelve years later. Where as I had become a published author and journalist, Robert had also come into his own as an indie director and a most gifted one at that.
Always eager for a chance to learn the process of another artist, I recently caught up with Robert to get his thoughts on pursuing his calling, beating the odds, how social media has played into his brand and how he continues to accomplish what most people would tell him simply can’t be done.
Upkins: For the few who are unfamiliar, introduce yourself.
Evans: My name is Robert S. Evans. I am a writer, director, editor and producer of independent film. I’ve been working in various levels of the industry for the better part of 16 years. Besides film I also dabble in narrative prose, mostly short stories.
Upkins: Has being a filmmaker always been your calling?
Evans: Originally, I wanted to be just an author. I was always writing and drawing my stories. Around the time I hit middle school, a fellow classmate with a love of film really opened my eyes to the more power aspects of the medium. My own love of a lot of the more vibrant and thoughtful stories from the eighties really fueled a growing passion. At some point I looked at it and said to myself “I can do this.” It’s been my drive ever since.
Upkins: Who would you credit as your inspirations and influences?
Evans: One of my biggest inspirations was one I met later on but really got the ball rolling on a lot of my projects, Jeff Burr. Besides him, I’ve always looked up to directors Sam Mendes, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Joe Dante. From a storytelling standpoint I always found the deep philosophical stories of Frank Herbert fascinating. There are so many influences, but those are some of the strongest ones in my eyes.
Upkins: Which films are your personal faves and which films do you consider to gold standard as a filmmaker?
Evans: American Beauty, for as controversial of a film as it can be, is filmed in this very hauntingly beautiful fashion which really hammers home the uncomfortable nature of its subject manner. Citizen Kane is easily the foundation of where modern directing and camera work comes from as it helped break the way we think about film as a medium and away from the “filming a play” mentality. Others that I hold in high regard are Alien, Princess Mononoke, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Gremlins, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Rocky, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner to name a few.
Upkins: Do you have “formal training” in terms of school and learning to hone your craft?
Evans: I attended a New York based film school for a short time but I didn’t finish. That is a very odd story and all you need to know is that I wouldn’t recommend hands on style film schools. After that I tried to get into various other schools all while studying what other filmmakers do in their shots and angles. After I met Jeff Burr, he turned me on to Robert McKee’s Story, and got me info on many hands on and information workshops. Everything else I picked up I learned on other sets or personal experience.
Upkins: “But Robert, you don’t live in Hollywood or New York City. Being successful in the film industry is impossible. You’re kidding yourself. You’re wasting your time.” I’m sure you have heard all of these?
Evans: Those exact comments are part of my driving force. Knowing that my work can reach and impact people is a major reason I do what I do honestly. One of the biggest factors recently is the boom in Atlanta as a film hub due to Georgia’s major film incentives. It has opened a lot of doors for people and brought a ton of work into the state.
Upkins: What else keeps Robert fired up about pursuing his craft?
Evans: I stated it before, but the idea that my work can reach people really keeps me fired up. When I hit on a good idea, one that I know can do something special, I start formulating how to make it the best film possible. Seeing this vision come together and the flowing of a group of artists to see this vision come together, it is a beautiful thing and easily the reason I strive to get back on set.
Upkins: As an indie creator, what impact has the internet, specifically social media, played in your career? How have you utilized it in terms of creating content, promotions, or building your brand?
Evans: The connectivity of social media and the open lanes of the internet have made finding people a lot easier. As far as marketing, it is hit or miss. That has far more to do with the people that also share and interact with the work. The biggest thing that social media has brought is allowing me to find actors and crew with ease. It also has greatly increased the way to get festivals to see your stuff. Used to, you had to send off physical copies and you were out the submission fee and shipping. Now, it’s almost entirely digital.
Upkins: As an artist, what makes Robert Evans’ voice distinct? What universal themes will one find in your work?
Evans: I really don’t think I’m the best person to say what my distinct voice is. I feel that is up the audience above all. I know what I strive for, the things I push to have in my work and style, but ultimately, it’s up to the viewers to catch it or not. The aspects I strive for are real characters. Even in the fantastical stories, I like to push to have characters that aren’t just there. I feel like often I don’t capture that in the writing side, so I cast actors that I feel can take the framework I layout and really let them do their job and give it far more life and depth. Film is ultimately a collaborative art.
Upkins: Tell us about some of your short films?
Evans: To date I have made 4 short films with one in the final stages of post-production getting ready to head into the festival circuit.
My first film is called Aurora. It is the story of an artist who goes to the same park every week when a fan shows up to talk and ends up learning way more about the artist than he ever wanted to know.
Second film is Karma. The story of a kidnapping situation that goes horribly wrong as the house the characters opt to hide end hides a much more sinister secret.
Next was To Fight. It is a film that asks the question of how someone deals with an issue when all they know is fighting. Tommy is a former boxing champion who is facing an opponent that isn’t in the ring.
After that I made Cold. This is easily my most powerful film as far as subject matter. I wanted to make a realistic depiction of depression and suicidal thoughts. So you have a film about a girl alone in a bathroom with only her negative thoughts and only one way to silence them.
My current film that is nearly complete is Inner Demons. The story of a paranormal investigator who doesn’t really believe and finds himself getting in over his head during his most recent job.
Upkins: What has been the reaction to your films?
Evans: I am not entirely sure how to answer this. To Fight got one hell of a reaction in the several film festivals it aired in, including winning a best director award. Cold was very well received but didn’t get nearly the play I had hoped for, but most of the festivals I heard from told me the same thing, “We love this movie, we are so glad you made it, but we cannot show this because of its subject matter.” Cold won awards at festivals it never screened at. Let that sink in.
Upkins: Aside from the short films, you have a web series, Retro Rangers? Tell us about that and some of your other projects?
Evans: Unfortunately, Retro Rangers slowly lost steam when myself and the other host got different jobs, and the speculator boom in the retro video game market really hurt things. When places like Goodwill are taking video games in as donation and then selling them for E-Bay collectable prices, which are already over inflated, it starts spilling over into flea markets and yard sells. Suddenly, everyone thinks they are sitting on gold. It is sad as that was a blast while we were doing it.
One of the first projects I wrote can be found in an edited form online, The Last Piece Standing. I was brought in and wrote much of the film that still remains.
Upkins: Your short film, To Fight. Powerful and poignant doesn’t even cover it. How did this short film come about? What inspired it?
[Editor’s Note] To Fight can be seen online at 30up.
Evans: I had been playing with the idea for a long time. It was born after seeing Cinderella Man. I came out of that movie and did a lot of reading on Max Baer because I, a person who loves boxing, didn’t remember him being such a rather cartoonish villain. I knew he had killed people in the ring. Well, that movie greatly over embellished him to give the story a villain that it honestly didn’t need. They were trying to make him an evil dragon for James Braddock to slay. The question in my mind was “How DOES the public view someone who kills someone in their profession when that profession is a sport.” However, I needed an antagonist that wasn’t a fighter. I sought to make the idea that the character is battling something outside the ring, while dealing with the issue that he is seen as too lethal. A man who is just trying to do what he knows to make a living in a world that won’t let him make that living.
Upkins: What was the journey in making this film?
Evans: The film has to redrafted several times from its original version. I stripped out a lot of the daily life aspects and focused more on the emotional drama of the situation. A lot changed between the first and final draft. The core of the story shifted away from the public perspective and focused on the loss he is dealing with in the only way he knows how.
We have a lot of interesting issues during the production. Several last-minute casting changes as people bowed out of the production, in some cases day of their call. We had to fire the director of photography on the first day of filming and promote one of the camera operators on set. Our original craft services overseer failed to properly give up what we needed which meant that myself and the art director had to step in and take over that job.
The film process wasn’t all negative. The new director of photography, Doug Walker, has been a major advocate of my work and was a huge bonus on set despite getting asked to step up into a role he wasn’t brought on for. We got extremely lucky and got to work with the amazing Karen S. Wine who is unfortunately no longer with us. She volunteered her services for free as she saw it as something far better than the work she always did which was zombies and gore she was constantly working on during her days on The Walking Dead. The gym we used was so excited we wanted to do a boxing movie that they were extremely accommodating and never asked us for anything. They actually handed us the keys and helped do last minute instruction for the actor on set.
Upkins: What has been the reception to To Fight?
Evans: To Fight was very favorably received. It was in several film festivals including Firehouse Film Festival where it won Best Director in an audience vote.
Upkins: This has been an ongoing joke between us, but could you elaborate on the burden of being named Robert S. Evans and working as a film director?
Evans: First off, the S initial is extremely important and vital. Second off, no, you don’t have proper clearance as to what it stands for.
Seriously though, the name Robert Evans is extremely common, and there seems to be a lot of people with my name throughout the industry. The most famous of which is a certain actor, writer, director, and producer from the 60s, 70s, and 80s who is almost as famous for his insane partying, sexual appetite and coke habits as he is known for his films, and the fact that in the 80s he pretty much was taking gigs for coke money. The main joke is that if I remove the S, I am the poor soul that greenlit 1980s Popeye.
This isn’t a slight on the man in the least. He is a Hollywood legend whose biography The Kid Stays in the Picture is an amazing look at a roller coaster ride of a life and career.
Upkins: I’ve known you long enough to know that you most likely have a number of projects in the works. Is there anything we should be looking out for in the near future? Any conventions, film festivals or other events, you’ll be appearing at?
Evans: In the works there is actually a lot. Inner Demons is nearing completion and I’m very excited about that one. I’m working with a lot of people in and around the Chattanooga TN area to help keep things moving. The director of photography on my last film has tapped me to help with his newest project and I really love the concept behind it and it stands to be something powerful. I’m working with another group who are doing a film based on the insane happenings that were the Catoosa County Film Festival which was a major disaster in every sense.
I just got done doing LibertyCon 32 and already have been slotted in for 33 next year. They tend to have me on panels about the visual side of storytelling. Once Inner Demons is done I plan on teaming up with the local art theater in Chattanooga, The Palace, to do a program where we run over my entire filmography and I share the behind the scenes stories behind a lot of the work. This is mostly an excuse to show off some of the rarer things I’ve worked on like The Last Piece Standing and a platform to talk about the fun stuff. The working title for the showcase is “An Evening With a Storyteller” but this is subject to change.
I have a few scripts in the reworking phase. One I’m pleased with is a horror film where I took a 5 page short story from the early 1900s and turned it into a serious work of suspense. I also have a feature length script that I’ve been wanting to actually make, which is currently in its second draft phase. It’s based on some of the larger universe stuff I created and shared bits of with you in the old days and I think would work great for an introduction. I also have a 15 page science fiction film which is designed more as a character study, where its about how two people interact when they are locked in an escape pod and they really can’t move.
All three of these projects I want to get moving, but all things film require a good bit of money to get started and getting funding is by far the hardest part.
Upkins: Where can people keep up with you online?
Evans: You can find most of my films, including my early works which I will openly admit aren’t very good on Vimeo. I am also semi active on Instagram, though that activity spikes when I’m working on a project.
Upkins: What sage advice would you share with a younger version of yourself or other aspiring creators?
Evans: Always pay your actors and feed your crew. If there is nothing else I can stress, its that. I know a lot of independents are on extremely low budgets, but if you set aside money for actors and plenty of food, you will be surprised at the quality people you can get. A strong actor and a good script will attract people but having food for everyone will keep them there. I will say to pay everyone when possible.
The thing I usually say in workshops and lectures is don’t try to be Stanley Kubrick or Quintin Tarantino. Kubrick is a visual genius but a details madman and was allowed that freedom because he earned the ability to do so. Tarantino has an insane knack for forming what feels like pointless dialogue that often serves more of a purpose than the audience initially picks up on. The key thing is that you are not them, and if you try to be them people will pick up on the fact that that is what you are trying to do.
Criticism is part of the game. You aren’t going to get praises all day long. People are going to nitpick you to death. People are going to be harsh. Don’t look at it as a personal attack. If the same thing is said my multiple people, regardless of how vile it may sound, there must be a reason several have picked up on it. I see it all the time in networking groups people getting so mad that no one understands their vision or that they feel personally attacked. When you make something for the public to consume, there are going to people who don’t like it, and there will be those who will use the most wretched words to tell you they don’t like it. Take it in stride, brush it off, and learn.
And that leads me to, above all else, learn. With everything you do, learn! You should never feel like you are at the top of your game, you should never buy into the idea that everything you have is going to be a sure thing or million dollar idea. I come out of the last day of filming on ever project knowing what I would change if I could do it again. You should know the faults in your own work and be able to see where you can improve. I learned this very early on. It is extremely helpful when you know where you need to focus as soon as you are done.