He is the man behind Willa Dollar Baby Film.
SKSM: Could you start with telling me a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Christopher Birk: My name is Christopher Birk and I moved to New York in 2007 from Denmark where I was born. I am a trained actor but in early 2011 I turned producer/director/writer too with “Willa” and the creation of my own production company Alpha Tree Productions. We are fairly new but hope to produce many interesting things over the coming years. Besides Willa we have done a few short films, some fashion events and over the past year I have been working on my first feature documentary.
SKSM: When did you make Willa? Can you tell me a little about the production? How much did it cost? How long did it take to film it?
Christopher Birk: Willa was born in early 2011 along with the production company. I had recently finished working on a feature as an actor – a film called “Solomon Grundy” and the director, Mattson Tomlin is a big Stephen King fan like myself. A few years earlier he had done his own Dollar Baby short: Popsy. He told me about the Dollar Baby deal and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard about it before. Within just a few weeks I had read just about every single short story and initially wanted to do a very dark and gruesome twist on The Boogeyman. I even went as far as making a teaser trailer for it and everything. I think the reason I abandoned that idea was 2 things: Firstly, I found out that this story had been done a few times already and, in some way, I was annoyed with the idea of doing something many others had already done, even though it’s a great story and it can be done in many different and interesting ways.
Secondly, I came across Willa. There was something so hauntingly beautiful and sensitive about the subject and it gave me a whole flood of images and ideas pretty immediately after reading it a few times.
I didn’t really think about it being a feature film or a short film in the beginning. I think i sort of imagined it was going to be a short film but as soon as I began writing the screenplay it grew and grew and I knew that I couldn’t possibly tell the story in 15-20 minutes. It had to be more. There’s a certain mood to the story that I wanted to capture and I could only do that with more time.
Then everything went fast. Within a month I had written the screenplay and found my cast. I love a great story and I love more than anything when others respond to it as well. Everyone involved were so captivated by the story and some even found me themselves and fell in love with it as I did. I like that! That should always be number one when you do a project: the passion and love for what it’s about and that you want to be part of telling a certain story. This made our team very strong and I think everyone knew we were doing something great.
I have to give about 60 percent of the credit to the actors though. They were a bunch of amazing people. Professional, dedicated and perfect for their roles. For me casting can be tricky, because I often just simply know when it’s “the one” for the role. And this can take a very long time to find because it is very hard to explain what I’m looking for. But with this film I was lucky. It seemed to attract “the ones”. We even had a girl audition who was so amazing that we had to write a character for her in the film and completely change the storyline just to make sure we could have her in it. I think it’s amazing when something like that happens.
I ran a Kickstarter campaign for the film. We actually didn’t collect too much through that but enough to start filming. The rest was pure luck and a nice chunk of my own money, helped along by my amazing director of photography Nathaniel Kramer who believed in the project as much as I did and had a large array of equipment available to us. He pretty much accounts for most of the remaining credit after the actors. This definitely made our production value rise way beyond what we actually had at our disposal. So I’d say, in pure dollars, this whole thing was done for a little under $15,000. For a feature film!
We shot it in about 2 weeks total. Again, all this would never have gone so smoothly if I hadn’t had amazing actors and an incredible crew – and we were lucky that we had perfect weather too. Most of our scenes took place outdoors so it could have been a disaster if the weather had decided to be against us. After all, when you plan something like this – around locations, people’s schedules etc – even missing one day because of weather can make it a huge issue trying to get that day back somewhere. We shot it in the Hamptons. Beautiful place. The abandoned house we used as the train station happened to be right next to train tracks which was amazing. Unfortunately it was also right next to a very busy road which made sound and picture editing an interesting challenge. But I do think the result came out so much better than I could ever have imagined.
SKSM: How come you picked Willa to develop into a movie? What is it in the story that you like so much?
Christopher Birk: When I start a project like this I always have my first, second, third and even fourth options for how to film it. In my mind, in the beginning, this would have been shot very much like the Blair Witch Project. I didn’t expect to have the equipment, luck and help around the project as we ended up with so that was just an unexpected, and amazing, bonus. As I mentioned before the story should come first. I feel very strongly, that if you have a strong story you can make it happen. You don’t necessarily need a long list of things and a huge budget. If the story is there it can be told in many ways. I don’t believe in restricting yourself in that way.
In the beginning when I sought advice from different people, I did get a lot of positive response. But I did also get a lot of people telling me that I was insane. That you couldn’t possibly do something like this without making sure of so and so. And then they threw a list so long in my face that I would never have done anything if I had listened to that. Of course you need to take care of certain things. But the most important thing is to just do it! I never expected this to be “perfect” whatever that even means. And I think that’s how you make things happen! Don’t get hung up on technical things and perfection – but know that you have a great story you want to tell and just figure out how to tell it with what you have at your disposal.
SKSM: Are you Stephen King fan? If so, which are your favorite works and adaptations?
Christopher Birk: I’m a very big Stephen King fan and always have been, ever since Carrie, It and Cujo scared the crap out of me as a kid. I think I mentioned it above as well but Willa just spoke to me in some way. It kind of chose me, I think. I like to say that! Because it’s true. That’s kind of what happened. After reading it I had so many ideas and felt that this story wanted me to do something about it.
There are few Stephen King adaptations I didn’t like. They’re not all great but they all have that certain spirit that I find in so much of his work. A spirit I also tried to create with my film. But I have to say that my very favorite King adaptation has to be Dolores Claiborne. That film is well done in so many ways and it’s just such an incredible story. Though gruesome it has so much beauty in it. And for anyone watching Willa I’m sure you’ll see how that is something that fascinates me too. The combination of gruesome and beautiful and sometimes almost combining it. His quote about how being alone and how it’s the most terrifying thing, literally – the word: Alone – and the reoccurring theme in many of his stories; that people are the real monsters, are also of great inspiration and fascination to me.
SKSM: Was there any funny or special moment when you made the movie that you would like to tell me about?
Christopher Birk: Any special moments? Well to sound like a big cliché, every moment was special! But I do recall the fun we had sneaking up onto the train tracks to shoot some of our scenes, when we totally were not allowed there and had no permission to shoot there. How we needed to keep an eye out for trains and everyone was on high alert. I also wrote several scenes that we actually shot, that didn’t make it to the final film – but they were hilarious to do and were actually funny. One scene suggested that Phil and Pat had some sort of plan all along and that they were actually lovers in this weird limbo everyone was in. It was fun to do but put the story on a track that would have made it even more complicated than it already is. For anyone who knows the story and gets to watch the film they may notice that the character of Pat was someone I created for the film. She is sort of a combination of many of the smaller roles in the script. I did that initially to limit the number of actors we needed but it actually ended up working beautifully. So those are some of my favorite moments. Those and the fact that a van full of actors got pulled over for speeding one night when we left the location. That was fun too…
SKSM: Do you plan to screen the movie at a particular festival?
Christopher Birk: Ah the festivals! So this is where I could have done more research. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t hoped we would enter some festivals and get some attention though I think my love for the story did overshadow that a little. For anyone out there who has ever done what I did they’ll know that doing a feature film as pretty much your first project, makes it very hard to get it into festivals. Especially when it doesn’t really have a certain niche or deals with a minority or certain group.
So it was hard to get Willa into festivals. I probably should have started with some short films to get a little attention around myself and my production company. When no one knows who you are the offers don’t exactly come running – and applying to festivals also costs money. So all that didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped which is a shame. I mean, not really! We all do have the film to show off and the experience etc and I probably wouldn’t have been where I am now if I hadn’t done it. And it’s great to have on the resume and to be able to talk about. But I do wish, especially for the actors, that the film had found a little place somewhere. Their performances are amazing and I would love nothing more than to know that someone in that cast got something or somewhere great because of someone watching their performance in Willa.
It’s not too late of course. I will still submit the film. It technically only a few years since it was completed so I haven’t given up!
SKSM: How does it feel that all the King fans out there can’t see your movie? Do you think that will change in the future? Maybe a internet/dvd release would be possible?
Christopher Birk: I really hope people who wants to see it will get the chance. And if you do – go to my website www.christopherbirk.com and contact me (hint hint) and maybe you can get to watch it.
The problem with this film is that due to my contract I am not allowed to show it publicly anywhere without King’s permission. And to my knowledge he hasn’t seen it and has not responded to any of my attempts to show him the film. I still believe in the film so much that I think he would get back to me if he saw it. But I also understand that I’m “just” me and I have no way of convincing him to watch my film over all the other ones that are made.
I would love an internet release, like Vimeo on demand or something. Maybe some day….
SKSM: What “good or bad” reference have you received on your film?
Christopher Birk: I have received generally good feedback on the film. And then also a lot of “no” feedback. Whether it’s because people I show it to don’t actually watch it, are too scared to make negative comments or whatnot I don’t know. I can see on ImDb that quite a few people have given it 1 star. Now I don’t know how to interpret that. I’m sure some people just do that without watching it but I actually would like to know why, if they’ve seen it, they didn’t like it etc.
I completely understand and know that this film is not perfect at all! So I’m not terribly sensitive to those comments. More intrigued as to what someone would say if they hated it or thought it was awful etc. Again – if anyone has seen it you are more than welcome to contact me and send me your reviews.
SKSM: Do you have any plans for making more movies based on Stephen King’s stories? If you could pick – at least – one story to shoot, which one would it be and why?
Christopher Birk: I dream of making Rose Madder and/or Gerald’s Game into films. However I also know that both have been optioned and are (supposedly) in the works. I’m dabbling with quite simply writing the screenplay for one of them and the bothering Mr. King continually until I finally hear from him. So we will see…. Those are amazing stories, very hard to make into films, which probably is also why it hasn’t yet happened. But I still think it’s possible and there’s nothing I’d like more than to be involved in that.
SKSM: What are you working at nowadays?
Christopher Birk: At the moment, and since June last year, I have been working on a documentary about drag queens. Very different subject there but it has been an amazing experience for me and I can’t wait to see the result of everything. If anyone wants to check it out you can read about it at www.draggedthefilm.com.
Doing the documentary has also given me time to work on quite a few scripts. In a few months I expect to finish another 2 scripts. These stories will most likely, at least in the first year or so, get sent to script festivals to see what response I’ll get.
My next actual project after the documentary, or probably during, will most likely be 2 short films – one horror and one drama.
SKSM: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything you want to say to your fans?
Christopher Birk: Anything I’d like to say to my fans? Well I can’t even wrap my head around having a fan so I would be forever grateful and super happy if someone is a fan. And I’d tell them to let me know anytime they’re in New York City because then I’d want to have a coffee with them at one of my favorite places – well they’d be having coffee and I’d have a hot chocolate most likely – and talk about stuff. I’d also just simply like to thank anyone who took the time to read this and/or watch the film. And I hope you’ll hear of me again in regards to something Stephen King related. That’s my hope for the future! That I will get to do more of his material. Even if it’s another Dollar Baby. I’m pretty sure that will happen for sure. But how great would it be to be involved in Gerald’s Game or Rose Madder!? I get chills just dreaming about it. And that’s what I want to do and what everyone else out there is doing I hope.. Dreaming about the fun things they hope to do! Thank you.