You know him from Veronica Mars, playing the goofy college love interest of the show's brainiac detective, boasting an arsenal of quippy one-liners and hair that could stand-in for a fifth Beatles member. But now, the 30-year-old actor is all grown-up. Chris Lowell is stepping behind the camera for Beside Still Waters, a self-written and directed picture about the unavoidable, gut-wrenching acceptance of loss.
The film (co-written by Mohit Narang) follows Daniel, a young man struggling for closure after the death of his parents. In the hopes of regaining familiarity, he invites his closest friends to the house he grew up in for one final weekend of debauchery, hook-ups, and essentially reliving their teenage years, before the property is sold. It's a reunion movie, to be sure, but compare it to the likes of American Reunion or Romy and Michele's and you'll be doing the filmmakers (and yourself) a huge discredit. I sat down with Lowell to talk about the film's inception, his directorial debut, and a dangerous college drinking game called "whiskey slaps."
"I grew up in this house in North Georgia. I was there with Mo [Narang], and we were thinking about loss," he said. "We started writing this story purely as fiction, then coincidentally and ironically within a year, my parents sold the house and moved away, and several of our friends' parents started getting sick. It very quickly switched from being total fiction to being a story that became much more important for us to tell authentically and as truthfully as possible."
But laying down the bones of the narrative was less than half the battle. A long time actor, Lowell had always wanted to step behind the camera of his own film. "I really wanted to talk to actors the way I wish a director would talk to me," he said. "The beauty of acting is you show up, you do the job, and a year later you see the movie. I had no idea how much of a marathon it is getting your film to the finishline, and a lot of times I really lost faith in it. As a filmmaker, at a certain point you will hate the film you made, even though you will end up loving it again down the road."
When it came to casting the film, Lowell attempted something he says producers are "terrified of". That is, favoring lesser-known actors over top-billed veterans for the sake of the story. "I wanted an audience member to really feel like these people could be old friends," he said, explaining that many reunion films stacked with A-listers aren't believable. "I want to be the movie that ten years from now, people will see it and say, 'How did you get all of these actors in this film?' Let's play chess not checkers."
From the get-go, the film utilizes one of the most recognizable prose-writers of all time to convey its messages. A fan of A Moveable Feast, the stories of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound — those of the "lost generation" — resonated with Lowell. "They are all household names now, but at the time they were just a lost, drunk, post-war, disillusioned, scared people," he said.
"There's this story where Hemingway talks about Gertrude Stein labeling them all as members of a lost generation, but he says 'Screw her for calling us lost!' and there's this real sense of defiance in that moment. But Hemingway killed himself, so what does that say?" Lowell asks. "I loved the juxtaposition of philosophies. It reflected what's going on with Daniel: Trying so hard to live in this, 'We're young and unbeatable and invincible' illusion so he doesn't have to accept reality. There's a sense of having to accept the brutal nature of things as they are."
And what pairs best with brooding Hemingway prose? Whiskey of course. "The whiskey slap was a terrible idea in college. I was with Mo at Georgetown. We were passing around some disgusting plastic bottle of whiskey, and the bottle came to me and we ran out of chaser. I said 'I can't take this, I need to chase this with something,' and my friend Lindsay said: 'Just take the shot, I'll slap you across the face.' And at the time, it just seemed genius," Lowell explained.
The friends of Beside Still Waters play the same game, a once brilliant idea that Lowell himself now resents. "Now I never want to do one ever again in my life. I did 50 of them as kickstarted prizes. My liver is destroyed. I have James Bond's liver," he joked.
But a college drinking game isn't the only real-life contribution Lowell made to the film's story. One of the most unique aspects of the narrative utilizes black and white photographs (all taken by Lowell) as Daniel's memories. Lowell attributes this addition to the film's "quiet" theme of art imitating life imitating art. "The photographs are nostalgic: They're black and white and romantic. It's a sense of what is — but not actually that thing."While the financial success of Lowell's directorial debut is yet to be seen, the actor-turned-director and his writing partner have one real hope for the film: "When the film is over, I just want people to pick up the phone and call someone they've lost touch with and say: 'How are you? Let's go get a drink, I miss you.'"
Images: Storyboard Entertainment