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[Interview] – Chris King – ‘Birthday’ – A Feature Film

 

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Posted October 30, 2016 by

 
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Award-winning filmmaker Chris King’s romantic drama has been winning the hearts of film festival audiences and jurors everywhere. As well as being selected for 130 film festivals and winning over 55 awards, Birthday recently won the Jury Award at the Oscar qualifying St. Louis International Film Festival.

‘When a young military wife gets news that her Marine husband has been severely wounded in combat, she discovers that their life ahead is going to be an overwhelming – yet amazing – journey’

Chris King is a multiple award-winning filmmaker.  Touching Down, his debut feature film, received numerous film festival awards and nominations.  His subsequent short films have played at over 200 film festivals, have been seen in over 140 cities in 90 countries, and have played internationally through the ShortsHD Channel.  Birthday, Rachel and The Killing of Mary Surratt are his most successful short films to date, winning countless awards and critical acclaim for their powerful subject matter that are based on true stories.  King was inspired to write and direct Birthday after becoming friends with a marine who was severely injured after throwing himself on a grenade. Heather King produced Birthday, alongside her husband Chris.

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Interview – Chris King:

To begin with, let’s talk about your film ‘Birthday’; can you tell us what it is about?  

It’s about a young military wife who gets news that her Marine husband has been severely wounded in combat and that their life ahead is going to be an overwhelming and yet amazing journey.

How did you get involved with the film?

In July of 2012, I came across a photo online of a young, unnamed, severely wounded Marine. I don’t remember how or why the picture showed up in my email, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t stop looking at it. As a veteran myself, I naturally have a soft spot for our wounded vets, so photos of them always affect me – but this photo in particular spoke to me in ways others hadn’t. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but his picture haunted me. Maybe it was a combination of how young he was, that his eye was missing and his face so badly damaged, and that his expression was just so, well, expressionless. I began to insert all sorts of meanings into this image until I couldn’t take my curiosity anymore as to who this Marine was. So the process of tracking him down began. After a few weeks of research via websites, phone calls and emails, I discovered this young man to be Corporal Kyle Carpenter, a severely wounded Marine who was still recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland. We first chatted on the phone and later via Skype. What an amazing human being. Such a positive – almost cheerful – attitude on him despite having had his jaw and teeth blown out, his eye lost, and his arm and leg shredded. He threw himself on a grenade after it landed on a balcony where he and a fellow Marine stood. Those initial conversations with Kyle sparked my script about the severely wounded veteran rehabilitative process that ultimately become “Birthday”. Two years later we finally made the film, but more significantly, Kyle received the Medal of Honor for his courageous act. 

Let’s talk about the cast, who is staring in ‘Birthday’?

We put out a casting call in Backstage West and got flooded with submissions. For the “Wife” we chose an actress (Mandy Moody) who lived in Hawaii at the time. Even though her audition came in the form of an iPhone recording, she completely blew us away. Thankfully, she was in the process of moving to L.A. so we didn’t have to manage ongoing travel between Hawaii and California. We didn’t find our “Husband/Marine” as quickly. We just couldn’t find the right fit until Mandy suggested her friend from an L.A. acting class (Chris Gouchoe). Once he auditioned, we saw his character come to life. An added bonus was that they already had great chemistry.

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Is the actor disabled in real life? 

Many viewers of “Birthday” have been stunned to learn that our actor does indeed have all of his limbs, especially viewers who see him come down to the stage for Q & A at film festivals. We initially put out a call for a disabled actor, but never got any responses – even from the union that represents disabled actors. Then we got quotes from FX agencies to turn our Marine into a multiple amputee, but went into sticker shock at their quotes of $80K – $225K. The entire film was made for a small fraction of that! We gave up on the idea of outsourcing the special effects and I decided to do the effects myself via green screen and After Effects. I did a green screen test on myself to “become” an amputee to see if I could convincingly pull this off. Fortunately it looked realistic, so we decided to move ahead with production. We had a double-amputee Marine and his wife (Jesse & Kelly Cottle) join us for filming for seven days. Jesse had lost his legs to an IED, so he was our body-double and they were both on-set consultants. Our actor practiced walking side-by-side with Jesse to study his gait and movements so as to make it all as realistic as possible. We knew we needed to do the effects on this as convincingly as possible, both to honor our wounded vets and because it would take viewers out of the story if it was poorly done. It’s greatly satisfying to us when viewers have no idea that we used special effects, and even more satisfying when some thought “Birthday” was a documentary.

What where the biggest challenges you faced during the production?

I don’t know that I’d call it the biggest challenge, but my biggest focus was making sure that we didn’t make a sappy story with violins in the background designed to evoke pity or politics. I wanted to show the hardships, of course, but also the solidarity and playfulness that is part of rebuilding together. It was also essential to make sure we got the details right – from the battlefield to the hospital to the daily tasks at home. And the green screen! We had to shoot every scene several times. We would film Jesse in the scene, then we’d switch his outfit over to Chris (Gouchoe), put green sleeves on his arm and legs, and shoot the same scene, matching their movements and positions as closely as possible.

What emotion would you like to trigger to the audience?

Hope. For wounded warriors and their spouses, of course.  That they CAN get through this and come out stronger. But really, this film is for ALL couples that have gone through really, really hard times – those times when the dark side of “for better or for worse” comes a-calling and yet have still chosen to find the best in themselves and each other. We view “Birthday” as a love story that is a testament to all those who keep choosing love and hope over defeat and despair.

‘Birthday’ has won over 55 awards at various Film Festivals, can you tell us how you feel to receive this kind of acclaim?

It is wonderfully rewarding to see our labour of love playing in so many festivals and other venues, but it’s even more rewarding to see the impact it has had on viewers in the audiences. Many have come up to us with teary eyes and thanked us for giving a voice to our severely wounded veterans and the families who care for them. It’s all we ever wanted for this project. 

What are your influences as a director?

Simply put . . . truth in film. Some directors are really great at bringing amazing realism to their films, like Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Winterbottom and Paul Greengrass. Many of their films are shot documentary-style, lending a wonderfully truthful feel to their narratives. Honest moments from amazing actors. That’s what I try to achieve with my projects. 

When & where can we expect to see ‘Birthday’?

We are fortunate enough to be eligible for Academy Award consideration this year so we hope to be able to share it widely come Oscar-time. Regardless of how that pans out, we plan to start selling the film in early 2017. For more information, please visit birthdayshortfilm.com to see the trailer, join our sale-notification list, or find our social media links on this site.

Did you dedicate this film to anyone? 

To wounded veterans and their families everywhere, no matter the country they call home.

What is the next step for you? Do you have any other films in production?

As for “Birthday”, we’ll continue to share the film with veteran-related groups for the foreseeable future. We’re also close to wrapping filming on “Pipe Dream: The Unlikely Success of Carol Burnett”, an homage to Carol and what she overcame to become the comedy icon she is today.

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Adam Snowden
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One Comment


  1.  
    Lisa Armstrong

    I read your story and other too was in the military. This story reminds me of someone.





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