Sometimes, an ordinary, often random, occurrence can start you on the path toward a life of art and discovery. For Arizona-based filmmaker Chris Heck, his journey as a director and screenwriter all began with a new DVD player and a few years of really bad winters in his native Vermont. As a kid, Chris learned to escape the world through films, developing a rich, inner-life of characters and ideas. As he grew older, harsh New England winters inspired him to go west.
In Arizona, a college class in screenwriting inspired the next decade of his work as a filmmaker, a career that has taken him all over the world in pursuit of his dream of telling compelling stories. In 2018, Chris began a two-year collaborative project with Phoenix Art Museum, working with a crew and cast of Arizona-based filmmakers and actors to produce a three-part series of short films in celebration of the Museum’s 60-year history.
On October 1, the first film in the series, entitled The First Time and directed by Chris, premiered online in celebration of the Museum’s re-opening following a closure necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The series’ second film, Wish You Were There, written by Chris and directed by his fellow Arizona-based director Kieran Thompson, will premiere in December, and in February, the third and final film, entitled Represent and directed by Chris, will be shared with Museum audiences.
Through these films, Chris and his creative partners seek to illustrate the power of art to create connections and meaning, all through a single story of one museum and its community. Learn more about the art of filmmaking from Chris Heck in his own words, and see The First Time.
“I think filmmakers tend to fall into one of two camps: capturing reality or creating a fantasy. I want to create a fantasy.”
Chris Heck. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Chris Heck: I fell in love with escapism at a young age through books, video games, and movies. I probably spent equal time at the public library and the video-rental store. I always wrote little fantasy stories and even dabbled in video-game design, but when I was 13, my family got a DVD player and my focus became filmmaking. I experienced independent films for the first time as well as behind-the-scenes features and suddenly realized that normal people could make movies.
PhxArt: Is film your primary medium? In which genres do you primarily work?
Heck: Telling stories through film has been my preferred medium for the past two decades, but the current quarantine has really woken me up to exploring other media. I just love storytelling in all of its forms and want to be able to play in all of those different sandboxes. Some stories are best told as films, but others are maybe better suited as comic books or podcasts or video games. Rather than trying to cram my ideas into the confines of a film, I am having fun letting the stories dictate the medium.
Genre has always been huge for me. I grew up on a lot of action, fantasy, and horror films, and that is really where most of my influences are. I think filmmakers tend to fall into one of two camps: capturing reality or creating a fantasy. I want to create a fantasy.
The First Time (2020)
PhxArt: How did you first become interested in those genres?
Heck: It comes back to the escapism that excited me when I was a kid—I want to share that feeling with other people. Even the film we just did for the Museum, The First Time, is being told from the perspective of the Museum itself. It isn’t a person or even a thing narrating the film—it’s an idea writing a love letter.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Heck: Anyone from Mark Rothko to Lizzo. I tend to be a pretty emotionless person, so really anything that makes me feel something can end up in the stew. I love filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton who create fantastical worlds, but also folks like Richard Linklater or Derek Cianfrance who are capturing heartbreaking humanity. Musicians like Josh Ritter or Defeater who can tell incredible stories in a four-minute song are also inspiring. Then painters like Caravaggio have opened me up to how much information and emotion can be packed into a single frame.
Crossroads: Agency Arizona Talent Reel (2017). Film still. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: For most people, the art of filmmaking is as much a fantasy world as the films themselves. What is it like to be a filmmaker, and what would surprise people to know about the art and process of it?
Heck: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…. Filmmaking is both incredibly demanding and rewarding. The hours are long (typically 12-hour days), and while most jobs are thankless and far from glamorous, at the end of the day, we’re a crew of artists and technicians coming together to create some kind of spectacle. If you’re the type of person who likes change, it can be a really fun environment to work in, but there are also aspects of it that have been really unsafe for a long time. For people outside the industry, the image of filmmaking is usually movie stars and red carpets. For the vast majority of us working in the industry, it is our job, our livelihood. A lot of productions, especially in Arizona, are unregulated, so you often have producers or companies cutting corners when it comes to work hours, turnaround time, stunts, etc. With COVID-19, everything was halted and won’t be able to fully reopen until certain guidelines are in place. For many of us who were living from gig to gig, it has meant an extreme financial hardship, but I know none of us want to get back to set until it is safe to do so. My hope is that the new guidelines and expectations around safety will lead to a better set experience for everyone in areas beyond COVID.
PhxArt: What about the collaborative aspect of filmmaking? How has working with other creatives in your industry helped to evolve your work as a director?
Heck: For me, the most fun aspect of filmmaking is the collaborative nature of it. I can’t think of another art form that is more collaborative or involves more artists than this. My main goal with any project is to surround myself with people who know more about what they’re doing than I do; communicate the story, themes, and goals; and then let them do what they do.
PhxArt: In addition to directing your own films, you’ve worked as a screenwriter and in the crew of major motion pictures. How has working in a variety of roles helped you to grow as filmmaker?
Heck: I have had the pleasuring of working in most departments on a variety of films, television shows, music videos, and commercials of nearly every budget level. Being a production assistant or truck driver has taught me more about directing a crew than anything else, often by observing what not to do. So many directors are hot-headed or just horrible communicators. Then you work with a director like Rian Johnson (Knives Out; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Brothers Bloom) who couldn’t be any more chill and articulate. He’s also the only director I have worked with who has been nominated for an Oscar, so I think there’s a correlation there.
Recently, being able to write for other directors has been really liberating. Something about it not being completely my own makes me less precious with the project. Having that other director’s tastes and sensibilities in mind gets me out of my own way and, I think, frees the story up to be the best it can be.
Mr. Memento (2018). Film still. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: You grew up in Vermont. What drew you to the desert, and what has it been like making films in Arizona?
Heck: I was getting sick of New England winters and feeling like I needed a change. My cousin in Arizona offered a place to stay for a while, and I took her up on it and pretty much moved out here blind. The complete change of geography was really inspiring for me, and I took a chance on a night class in screenwriting at Scottsdale Community College. That class turned into three years of film school and a whole community of friends and collaborators.
The film scene in Arizona is a very tight-knit community with a ton of untapped talent. I hope these three films we just produced with the Museum will really showcase that. With the exception of two or three people, our entire cast and crew are from Arizona. It was really important for us to have Arizona artists telling these stories. Phoenix Art Museum is an integral part of the culture and heritage of this state, and it would have been a tremendous disservice to put this in anyone else’s hands. We have yet to see the best the Arizona film scene can do, but I am hopeful that it’s coming.
PhxArt: What was it like directing two films for Phoenix Art Museum, both The First Time and the forthcoming Represent?
Heck: Working with Phoenix Art Museum been has not only a joy but an honor. The vision and courage that the Museum had to take on these stories has been so inspiring, and our team really strived to create works of art that are worthy. I hope that more museums and organizations will follow their lead and take bold new steps in their marketing and messaging.
Behind the scenes of Represent. Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum.
PhxArt: Having completed this project with Phoenix Art Museum, what can our audiences expect to see from you in the year ahead?
Heck: I am really excited for these films with the Museum to finally be released. The next two films, Represent and Wish You Were There, had just started their film festival runs when COVID-19 hit, so we’re really excited to get those back out to the world.
On a totally different note, I just finished a little quarantine slasher flick with co-writer/director Gabrielle Stone called Stay Home about a serial killer picking off famous horror-movie actors who are quarantined at home. That will be released next week, just in time for Halloween.
PhxArt: As someone who fell in love with film at an early age and is now living your dream of making your own, what advice would you give someone out there looking to make movies?
Heck: Quit dreaming and get making. It has never been easier than right now to make a film, and the only thing stopping you is you. You have more resources to make a film in your pocket than Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang had combined. No excuses.
To learn more about Chris Heck and his upcoming projects, follow him on Instagram or visit his website chrisheck13.com. You can also enjoy a collection of some of his recent short-film, music-video, and commercial projects below.
Mr. Memento (2018)
Music Video: Melody Federer – “Bathtub Tears” (2017)
Crossroads: Agency Arizona Talent Reel (2017)
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Chris Heck shares what’s giving him life as a creative during quarantine.
Heck: I’m picking my way through a collection of 100 short stories by Ray Bradbury, who was an absolute master of the craft. I finally started Fargo (the series) and am loving the mix of genres and Midwest humor. There are not enough fictional podcasts, but I have been enjoying Homecoming, Alice Isn’t Dead, and Blackout. Don’t tell anybody, but Below Deck: Mediterranean has been pretty fire this season.