When she was disillusioned with being a producer, Colleen took some time to stay home with her kids and help her husband in his endeavors. It would take a collaboration with her niece to reignite the spark—this time, writing and directing her own projects. She is currently releasing both an indie movie and a web series.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in Minneapolis, MN and I grew up, one of seven children, in Lexington, KY. My father is a general surgeon, while my mom was a very busy stay at home mother, who volunteered quite a bit. I loved theatre in high school and I think I was in every club I could be in. I was pre-med at Washington University in St. Louis, but nearly failing organic chemistry made it very clear that I was not meant to be a doctor. Multiple majors later, I settled on theatre—not as an actor but a director. I did not get cast much and there were not that many sanctioned directing assignments so I just mounted my own productions; No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre and the musical Dames at Sea were two of them.
After graduation, I moved to Chicago, where I discovered that every theatre job I was interested in paid a pittance and required 60+ hours a week as well as working weekends and holidays. I waited tables instead, but quickly soured on that and moved back home with my tail between my legs.
In Kentucky, I waited tables again and took film classes at the University of Kentucky—I wanted to see if I actually liked studying film, not just watching movies. After four classes, I was hooked and I applied to Northwestern University’s Radio, TV and Film department for a Master’s.
Not many people went to film school back then and very few women pursued directing. After completing my Master’s, I was accepted into the Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) program at Northwestern, which required completing an additional year of coursework and one hour of finished film and video. This was in the early 1980s. We still shot mostly on film but it was terribly expensive. We also shot video but the quality was atrocious. I made a documentary about handguns, a film called One Fish, Two Fish, and a couple of other pieces that I can’t even remember.
I graduated with my MFA in 1986. While at Northwestern, I met another MFA student, Joe Chappelle, while I crewed on his thesis film, Descent. We married in 1987.
Joe and I never were interested in being starving artists so we both got jobs in advertising as audio-visual coordinators. This meant long hours, working weekends and low pay—why did I go to graduate school, you might ask—but I liked this work and learned a lot about production. One of the main things I learned was how to finish a project on deadline. When you are an independent filmmaker or a student filmmaker, you do not always have a ticking clock and so you might meander your way to a finished film. Not so in advertising or TV; you have a deadline and if you don’t meet it, you could lose the account or be fired.
During off hours, Joe and I worked on side projects, honing our skills. Even though we considered ourselves filmmakers at school, I became the producer and Joe the director. In all honesty, he has a better eye and a better disposition for directing than I do, but it was also because, again, women didn’t much direct in those days.
In 1991, after four years in advertising, on both the agency side and the production side, I heard that a former classmate had gotten a deal to direct a feature film. This made me so angry—Joe and I were just as talented—and it fueled a change. We had worked with many writers and tried to develop many projects but they had all fallen apart for one reason or another. So I decided we needed to own our own material; the best option was for Joe to write a script and for me to produce it.
Joe wrote 11 drafts of Thieves Quartet and I created a business plan with a lot of help. In 1992, I went to the Independent Feature Film Market in New York City (IFFM, no longer in existence), where I watched dozens of movies. I actually saw the first US screening of Reservoir Dogs and heard Quentin Tarantino speak about getting the film made. Joe was at home with our young son, Jake, and I remember calling him (from a pay phone—no cell phones for us) and saying, “we are coming back next year with a finished film.” And we did.
Our first feature, Thieves Quartet (watch trailer here), came together through sheer determination, hard work and lots of support (financial and otherwise) from friends and family. After we screened it at the 1993 Independent Feature Film Market we got a “distribution deal,” which meant the film was supposed to open in 16 cities and get a DVD release. It did play in New York at the Quad Cinemas for two weeks and got reviewed in the New York Times, Variety and Hollywood Reporter, but our distributor dropped us because we didn’t make enough money. When I called them to insist that they complete the distribution, they said, “Sue us. We have a desk and two chairs.”
Now I was to learn one of the most valuable lessons of the film industry. Studios do not come back for producers; they want the writers and the directors. Joe was hired to direct Halloween 6 and we decided that I would stay home with our son (and then our daughter and youngest son). At the time, we didn’t know Joe would spend more than 20 years traveling Monday through Saturday and I would have to be a parent and a half. But it was especially important to us that I provide a strong, constant base at home, with Joe gone so much. His job was a lot of fun and very rewarding, but also brutally demanding as a result of the stress and the long hours.
So if studios do not come back for producers, what was I to do? I taught at Columbia College and Northwestern because I felt that I could work “part time” and challenge my brain in different ways than parenting did.
I produced a movie in 2006, Already Dead, which was released in 2007, but it was an experience that made me doubt my filmmaking abilities because I felt marginalized as a producer. The director brought me the treatment for Already Dead, which was originally called Vengeance, and I brought it to a writer, shepherded the script through the writing process, and then put the package (director, writer, producer) together.
The director, writer and myself wanted to shoot in Chicago but we did not have a tax incentive at the time and LA, generally, didn’t think of Chicago as a production friendly city. So we moved the production to LA. There, I was not involved in hiring cast or crew or selecting locations. This was in part because I had three teenagers at home and I could not move to LA for the entire production. In many ways, once we got the deal done, I was discouraged from being involved creatively. In all my other collaborations, I was at the center of critical decisions – locations, casting, hiring the crew, even where and how to spend our budget.
After that experience, I sort of settled into being a mom and running the business side of Joe’s work, which involved bookkeeping and contract negotiations, as well as being Joe’s sounding board and producing partner.
What is your next act?
I am a movie writer and director. I co-wrote and directed The Cold and the Quiet, an indie feature which will be released March, 2016. Even though the film premiered last year, it is almost as much work to distribute projects as produce them! It is an unsettling film and while it tells a story, the underlying message is about anxiety—do you have it, is it managed and if not how does it impact your life? And weirdly, it is also a love story. Watch the trailer here. This was my first directing gig since Northwestern University. While I cannot say that I love directing—I am still a novice—I do love collaborating with talented filmmakers.
We premiered The Cold and the Quiet at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa, Florida on March 21, 2014 and had our Chicago premiere at the Midwest Independent Film Festival (MIFF) on April 1, 2014. We had a nice festival run, ultimately winning Best Narrative Feature, Best Direction, and Best Editing at the Women’s Independent Film Festival in LA. Katie O. Jones, my niece, who played the character Emma, won best actress at MIFF in December 2014.
I have also been working on a web series, boyband, now with two finished seasons, 25 episodes in total. We released Season 1 on 2/1/16 and we will be releasing one episode a week of Season 2 on 2/14/16. Watch the trailer here. I directed the short last summer and I loved the characters so much that I wanted to continue exploring their stories. They’re five guys who share a love for music and dreams of superstardom. They’re old friends. Artistic. Deep. And until they come up with a better name, they’re boyband.
You might ask, “How is this a next act?” Well, when I first made films in 1993 and 2006, I was producing other people’s scripts. Realizing other people’s stories and visions. The Cold and the Quiet and boyband are either my own stories or stories I collaborated with other artists to bring to life.
How did you start writing your own scripts?
I had been talking for a while with my niece, Katie O Jones (née Oellerich); she had been in LA for five years, trying to make it as an actor, and was feeling restless. Breaking into the acting world, as many people find out, can be a soul sucking experience. After many conversations about our mutual passions, Katie moved to Chicago in 2012 to write with me. It was a great partnership—at 27, she had the urgency and passion and at 53, I had the experience. (Since Joe was so successful, I no longer felt the drive that struggling artists often feel.)
Katie and I wrote a treatment in a week and went to Pete Miller’s in Evanston with Joe and our kids (ages 15, 17, and 21 at the time). They had read the treatment and they liked it. With that encouragement, Katie and I wrote the script, maybe two drafts. It was 57 pages long and we were done by December 1, 2012. We went to the Midwest Independent Film Festival on December 2nd looking for a director of photography and we found Tom Fletcher, who agreed to give us a camera package for an incredible price.
That’s how we found ourselves, on January 2nd, 2013, starting to shoot The Cold and the Quiet. We shot for 11 days, including 7 days in our house. I always tell students to work backwards when you are working with a tight budget—what do you have in terms of locations, acting friends, etc.? Well, we have a beautiful house and two kids who act, our daughter Maura and our son Matthew, plus an aspiring director, our son Jake. And Katie is a strong actress. So we wrote the script to fit those parameters.
We paid everyone but our main location was free and this was a way to expand the scope of the project. My husband was the one we turned to when we had questions about cinema space, coverage, etc. but he would also run out and pick up pizzas. Friends took turns cooking the cast and crew delicious dinners and making props. We scavenged over 40 used Christmas trees and propped them up in our backyard creating a Christmas tree lot. We also were able to shoot a pivotal scene at Curt’s Café in Evanston. It was a true independent film.
How did boyband come about?
There is a show called YAMO at Evanston Township High School; it has been running for over 50 years. All of the young actors I recruited for boyband were in YAMO while they were at the high school. I watched them perform for years because our kids went to the same high school and were also part of YAMO. A group of them walked into our house one night and I thought, “they could be a boyband, wouldn’t it be funny to do a parody about a fake boyband.” So we did.
Katie is a huge part of boyband as well. She is an associate producer. She plays Marisa Manchester, Lance’s object of affection. In all there are 8 family members that worked on boyband. Jake Chappelle, our oldest was the key grip and directed two videos; Matthew Chappelle, plays Preston and directed one of the videos; Maura Chappelle, composed the score and five songs, plays Winona, and was a 2nd Assistant Director. Sam Griffen, my nephew, wrote Season 2. Tim Jones, Katie’s husband, plays Marcus Black and wrote and produced songs. My husband, Joe Chappelle, is our executive producer.Are you still teaching?
I am no longer teaching. While I was teaching at Columbia College and Northwestern, I would spend hours grading papers, correcting grammar, talking with kids about their projects and stories and critiquing films. It is tough work and I was only an adjunct lecturer. Don’t get me started on the plight of adjunct lecturers! The only way I could afford to do this job was because I had a partner who was gainfully employed. It almost cost us money for me to teach.
But that wasn’t the reason I stopped teaching. I stopped teaching because I realized I didn’t want to advise students on how to bring their films/shows to fruition. I wanted to bring my own projects to fruition. Still, I didn’t want to leave the mentoring aspect of teaching behind. One of the challenging parts of working at the level I do is that my budgets are restricted. But the upside of that is that I do have final say for the most part on all the hires. So I can look at a young filmmaker’s reel and, if I see potential, I can take a chance and book someone who might not have the longest resume. I usually get a deal financially and they get more experience and a nice chunk of film to propel them into their chosen field.
What challenges do you encounter?
I think the biggest challenge to filmmaking is raising money. The world of filmmaking has changed quite a bit since Joe and I made Thieves Quartet. We spent close to $60,000 just on our film stock and processing. That was more than the entire budget of The Cold and the Quiet. Because of changes in technology and the introduction of a low budget contract for the Screen Actors Guild (among other things), you can now produce a film with an SLR camera and cut it on your laptop.
Nevertheless, if you want to make a longer project, like boyband, you need to have capital for location fees, crew, props, etc. So you still need money. And there is a bias against filmmaking—my sense is because people think of filmmaking as a business, not an art form. Theatre is considered an art form and folks are more willing to “donate” to a theatre company—not that theatre companies don’t have it rough.
Of course, Hollywood films and big independent films with big stars are well funded and folks can make a lot of money. But there are filmmakers at lower levels who are struggling to make a living. There is only a miniscule possibility that a film you make will be financially successful. I am not complaining; to date myself and paraphrase Garrett Morris, “television has been very, very good to my family.” But creating your own work or collaborating outside of the studio system can be a very expensive hobby if you are self-financing.
Many other countries have state-supported film programs; if you are producing a project without having to be as concerned about the marketing and selling of your film you can be more true to your story. Because big films are so expensive, filmmakers have to often adjust their stories and casting to ensure the widest exposure. For example, one current trend in comedies is, in my opinion, an emphasis on potty humor. One of my favorite things about boyband is that it is almost 100% “good clean fun” but it is still funny and smart.
Are there times when you think about giving up? What keeps you going?
I am thinking of giving up right now! Actually, it is never easy. As an independent filmmaker you always feel like you are promoting, asking for money or favors, and searching for the next great project. I have always said that I would know that I had “made it” when I didn’t have to return the equipment. Well, even last summer, at times, I was picking up or dropping off equipment or props or wardrobe.
What keeps me going is how much fun it is to collaborate with other artists of all ages. I will be at a dinner party and someone will tell me a story about their grandmother or their childhood or an imaginary friend and I will think, that would be an amazing movie. I start seeing the images in my head. When you make a film, you start with a blank piece of paper, maybe a germ of an idea. When you finish, you have a story and characters that people will talk about as if they are tangible. It is a heady feeling.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I am resilient. I might get a tough email or a rejection, lose an actor or a location, or even find out that someone else is already doing my dream project but I keep plugging away. Sometimes that means moving multiple balls down multiple fields: writing the story, hiring the crew, raising the money, rewriting the story, lowering my expectations, casting a role, raising my expectations. It is a roller coaster and it happens at ALL levels of filmmaking.
What advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent in midlife?
Of course, it has to be something you are passionate about but it also has to be something that you will be willing to live with when you are tired, bloated, on vacation, in crisis, and feeling lazy. In other words, can you make a commitment to your passion? You will hit rough patches and get discouraged and, if you are not completely committed, you might give up.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path? What resources do you recommend?
If you do not have experience in the field you would like to pursue, then do your research. Go to conferences, take classes, talk to folks who are doing what you want to do, meet and greet. Go to film festivals and conferences.
In Chicago, the Independent Film Project is a great organization. Mike McNamara of the Midwest Independent Film Festival is wonderfully supportive. The Illinois Film Office and the Chicago Film Office are also great resources. It really depends on what area of film you want to be in; if you want to write, you should write, if you want to produce then you should volunteer to crew for people, if you want to act go to Improv Olympics or Second City.
In books, I love Annie Lamont’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting.
I have recommended and done Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I did a workshop based on the book at The Women’s Exchange in Winnetka. It is not just for artists. It makes you get rid of the critic that many of us have sitting on our shoulders and encourages you to practice your craft daily. You will think there is NO way you can do this but, in doing so, you will learn a lot about yourself and you will create something—a painting, a novel, a new corporation. It is a wonderful book to do as a workshop with other people. I did it with a group of women and I wrote a short story, “Feral,” that was the jumping off point for my niece and myself as writers because we both resonated with the story. Other women in our group painted their first paintings since college and began their memoirs.
What’s next for you?
I have two other scripts in development with my writing partner, Katie Jones. We probably have another half dozen that we want to get on the page. Writing is the hardest part of the process for me. Sam Griffen, who wrote boyband, and I have another web series and two features in the early stages.
I also have a big passion for the Chicago film community. I am so happy that Illinois has a healthy tax incentive for film and television makers—that is bringing big shows like Chicago Fire, Empire, and Sirens to Chicago—but I want to make sure we retain our talented, aspiring filmmakers. We have three of the best film schools in the country in Chicago – Northwestern, Columbia College, and DePaul. They are training wonderfully talented filmmakers and I don’t want them to leave. So my long-term evil plan is to start a studio, an incubator, if you will, that produces small to medium budget films and television shows utilizing primarily Chicago based writers, directors, actors, and crew people.
Finally, I would love to come full circle and work with Joe on another feature. We have both grown so much as filmmakers; it would be fun to collaborate with him on a new level – of course – in Chicago.
Contact Colleen Griffen Chappelle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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