I would have to say that it would be something that inspires an interest in spiritual discovery through writing, music, and metaphor. I think the thing that is tricky with spirituality is that there is a certain amount of disdain in the world towards progressive words like spirituality, and there is also some distrust regarding those attempting to share it. Most self help gurus or evangelicals say they are offering spiritual awakening, but they are really selling short cuts. And there’s a big difference. There’s a huge market for short cuts, but it is ultimately harmful and hurtful to promote. I think we all have lessons to learn, and while dreams are important, there are no short cuts to them, unless your lesson involves learning that short cuts won’t buy you happiness. I think, sharing wisdom through stories, movies, songs — NOT just stories, movies and songs, but GOOD stories, movies and songs that give clues enough to INVITE people to understand some universal truths for themselves, is the best way to communicate spiritual advancement and promote a movement that could change the world.
I had the pleasure to interview Award-winning Director Christopher Livingston. Christopher is the Co-Director of Be Like Trees. In addition to directing, Christopher is also a Screen Writer and Music Writer.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My father, Alan Livingston, was president of Capitol Records in the 1960’s. He signed The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra amongst many others. My mother was academy award nominated actress, Nancy Olson — who starred in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Blvd. A career in show business didn’t seem all that far fetched growing up.
But what changed my life occurred in the early eighties. My father wrote a young adult novel, Ronnie Finkelhof Superstar, which got published by Random House, and then optioned to be made into a feature film by Warner Brothers and the producers, Zanuck and Brown (Jaws, The Sting).
The story was about a nerd in high school who just so happens to be a guitar virtuoso/singer songwriter.
At the time my father wrote the book, I had just written my first song. It occurred to me that if the book were to ever get made into a film, I might have a chance to get a song in the project.
I started taking titles from the book and writing songs for each one.
But fate stepped in and changed the course of my life junior year of college. I got Lyme disease and wound up in bed for the entire summer. With nothing to do, I did a re-write of my father’s screenplay, based on his book. Zanuck and Brown read my re-write and liked what I did. They decided to run with it, and I applied to, and was accepted into NYU Graduate Film School. I have pursued both music and film, ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
So I’m driving in my car, and I’m late for an appointment. There’s a Hollywood tour van stopped in the middle of an intersection, the kind with a cut off roof that invariably cuts you off at the worst possible moment.
“Beep Beep!” I honk my horn.
Then I notice that all the tourists are not just blithely baking in the sun, they are pointing their cameras at something across the street. So I turn my head in the direction of their lenses, and lo and behold, a vision. Fabio, in all his glory, gold locks waiving in the wind, is waxing vogue in a convertible Bentley, blowing kisses and waiving to his adoring fans.
I’m like, “Christ,” this is all I need!” But then …
The rainbow connection! As it would happen to any budding movie mogul in Los Angeles, I see the light. “I’m about to shoot my next film and I need a gun wielding fashion model as one of my characters! Holy sh*t! Fabio would be PERFECT!”
So I quickly do an about face on my attitude, and a u turn in my car, and I chase Fabio down at the next light. Waiving my arms frantically, I call out, “Fabio! Fabio!”
After several long moments, Fabio hears something above the din of his radio, turns to me and stares.
I hold out my script. “Fabio! Fabio! I’m directing a movie and there’s a part in here that I think you would be great in! You’d be playing a gun wielding fashion model. Actually, it’s not an action movie, it’s a comedy, a comedy with meaning, and it’s really well written and it turns out your character is gay, not you Fabio in real life, but the person you would be playing!”
Silence. Fabio hasn’t blinked. It’s dawning on me that I lost him somewhere, but I’m still determined.
“Would you read my script?!” I ask.
Still nothing. I’m on pins and needles, and they’re digging into my skin at this point. And then, politely, he says, “I’m sorry, but I can’t take anything from you. You have to call my manager.”
I think it was the first moment I realized the absurdity of what I was doing. I nodded graciously and drove off with my tail between my legs.
But the struggling film maker in me was tenacious and Fabio had giving me an opening.
I called his manager repeatedly and left messages. I never heard back.
I wound up casting another model in the role, a big name in the fashion industry, Hoyt Richards. Hoyt did a great job in the movie, and as I learned later, Hoyt just so happened to be great friends with Fabio.
The movie was called Hit and Runway, and it premiered at The Los Angeles Film Festival. And guess what? Hoyt invited … Fabio.
It was the first public event Fabio attended since he had the encounter with the goose while riding a roller coaster at the opening of an amusement park. It was the second time I was meeting Fabio … but interestingly, it was not the last time I would meet him.
Many years later, Hoyt contacted me about a project he was working on, a feature film called Dumbbells. He asked me to direct.
As we were casting, Hoyt decided to ask Fabio if he would play himself as a celebrity appearance in the film. I thought it would be pretty ironic if Fabio actually ended up in a movie I was directing considering our encounter so many years earlier.
Much to my delight, Fabio agreed to do it.
We shot the movie, and never once did I bring up the story of our first encounter. And he clearly didn’t recognize me.
Now here’s the really crazy part. All my life, I’ve dreamed of having a movie up on a billboard in Hollywood, a movie that I had made for all the world to see.
A picture is worth a thousand words …
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was at NYU Graduate Film School I had taken a hiatus from songwriting. I was dating a girl from the Midwest, and she somehow got a hold of songs I had written back in college. She listened to them and promptly declared that I was making a mistake pursuing film. I should be pursuing music. She talked me into getting a piano for the apartment. She even helped me pick it out.
And then she dumped me …
… and all these songs of heartbreak poured out of me.
I guess there’s no real mistake in this, other than listening to a girl try to give me life advice, when ultimately she could care less about me, but the irony is that that piano churned out some of the best songs I ever wrote, and ultimately lead me back to music which was a very good thing.
I think the lesson is: There is good in everything, including listening to a girl who dumps you. God has a plan. Pain, unfortunately, often creates great work.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just finished co-directing a feature film, Be Like Trees, shot entirely on an iPhone for a budget of $7,500. I worked with Brian Drolet, co-director, and also Jordan Eubanks, who starred in the movie and helped us shoot scenes when Brian and I were on camera together.
The movie was quite inspiring to make, a living breathing example of what’s possible today. And, it unveiled something kind of momentous. The proverbial “studio gates” which have long since kept people out of Hollywood, are holding a secret nobody in Hollywood wants you to know … the gates are unlocked.
The psychological barrier still holds sway over many a filmmaker, but if you go try to push on one of those gates today, you will find that you hear a CREAK … The gates are open. All that holds people back are themselves.
Shooting a feature film on the iPhone was “eye” opening (no pun intended), because shooting a feature on an everyday piece of equipment, with no crew, no lights, and wireless mics, has major advantages.
I know Steven Soderbergh recently shot a Hollywood movie, Unsane, on an iPhone. Obviously, that’s cool, and it sends a positive message to filmmakers about what’s possible with today’s technology, but to me, shooting a Hollywood movie on an iPhone misses the point of what makes shooting a feature film on a smartphone so revolutionary.
It’s NOT the use of everyday technology that makes the experience unique, it’s what everyday technology allows in the way of freedom that makes it unique.
Soderbergh shot Unsane primarily in one location, using a full crew and traditional production equipment. The phone was simply the preferred choice of camera to capture the drama.
What’s cool about shooting a movie on an iPhone in the real world, is that it eliminates the need for anything that remotely resembles a film set.
You DON’T NEED a crew … you DON’T NEED lights, booms, bounce boards, tripods, and or cables. With a couple of wireless mics and a gimbal stick, you look like tourists taking home videos to send home to mom.
Which means …
You are invisible. You can shoot ANYWHERE. You can utilize whatever the world has to offer in the way of production value, and the world will never know the difference.
For Be Like Trees, we shot in malls, restaurants, bars, amusement parks, airports, sports arenas, and even on an airplane, all the while, drawing almost no attention to ourselves.
At one point while filming at a prominent LA mall, a security guard approached us to shut us down. Brian, who was in front of the camera, broke character and proceeded to wave into the lens and talk to “mom” back home about the amazing trip we were having in Southern California.
As soon as the security guard heard him, he moved on.
As a result, Be Like Trees, looks huge. It looks like we shut down the city, as opposed to doing something confined and small. The production value is off the charts given the equipment available today, and the movie feels BIG.
On a more personal note, Be Like Trees is an example of what it preaches.
Art finds a way …
The movie attempts to capture the spirit of an artist, in this instance my co-director, Brian Drolet’s deceased mother, Diane Drolet, who was the inspiration for the film. She gave Brian his love for art. She died of a rare disease called Scleroderma, but it wasn’t her death that was important, it was how she lived. Diane Drolet fought off Scleroderma for 15 years, all the while maintaining a smile and a passion for life that belied the insidious disease marching it’s way towards her demise. Her fight is used in the film, as a metaphor for artists to never give up. It’s so easy in this world for personal vision to get stepped on, overlooked, dismissed or even destroyed. This film champions the independent vision that burns at the center of all great things artistic … and hammers home the message, never give up.
Each one of us, Brian, Jordan and me, play ourselves in the movie, doing what we love. Brian plays a comedian and a painter, Jordan plays a painter, and I play a singer/songwriter.
I actually act in this film, which is a first for me. The arc of my character on screen is to perform one of my songs, which ironically, I do not just in the film, but I am now doing in real life as well. I am putting out an album, “Chris Livingston, “30 Years Unplugged.” It is the best of all the personal recordings I have done in music over my lifetime. The first single, “Hey Stranger,” will be available on iTunes in mid December. I’m hoping people will check it out! “Hey Stranger” is a great indicator of the album to come.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
On my second feature film, Hit and Runway, I had the great pleasure of working with a future academy award winning actor. This particular actor played a crass Hollywood Agent in my film. His malevolent shadow looms large over the plot, but his character doesn’t actually make an entrance until the climax of the movie.
I had wanted a celebrity to make a cameo for this role. I had asked Mel Brooks who was a family friend, and Mel LOVED the script, but ultimately said no. I asked Garry Marshall, another family friend, who said YES, but in the end, his schedule conflicted. Jackie Mason also wanted to do it, but he wanted too much money.
I had been having my casting director bring me character actors to audition for the role, but none of them was working.
On a whim, I reached out to another casting director for whom I have great respect, Gabby Leff, and I described the role to her. She threw out a name, someone I had never heard of. She told me she was a huge fan. She said he was on an HBO show about prisoners in a federal penitentiary and he played the head of the Arian nation.
I had never watched the show, I had never seen this performer, but I trusted Gabby, and … I took a leap. I reached out to my casting director and had her make an offer, sight unseen.
The first time I met the actor was the day he showed up on set to do his scene. My heart was pounding — I was praying he was going to be good.
The actor ran through the lines for me for the first time, 20 minutes before were going to shoot! As he was reading, I noticed my assistant cameraman, who had never so much as cracked a smile during the entire shoot, turn his head away and convulse with laughter.
We were in good hands. The actor’s name was J.K. Simmons.
There is one other interesting encounter I should mention. It’s related to music. I had a lovely young lady come into the studio in New York City to record a song I had written with another collaborator. She was 17 years old, eager to please, and a total sweetheart. Her name was Stefani, and she would later adopt a stage name we are all familiar with today.
So many years later, when J.K. won his academy award for Whiplash and Lady Gaga performed at those same Academy Awards, I have to say, it was pretty damn cool to be able to say, “I worked with both!”
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s hard to give a tip regarding burn out. I’m sort of of the mind that the only reason people don’t burn out — is because they CAN’T. An artist, a true artist, who “sees” something in their minds eye, has no other choice but to keep going to bring what they “see” into the world.
You either have the fire inside you or you don’t. If you’ve got it, nothing will stop you. You may get slowed, detoured, even decapitated, but you will never stop. I guess the best words of wisdom I could give somebody struggling to achieve success and wondering if they can keep going or if they will ever have the kind of success they envision would be … “you are not alone.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would have to say that it would be something that inspires an interest in spiritual discovery through writing, music, and metaphor. I think the thing that is tricky with spirituality is that there is a certain amount of disdain in the world towards progressive words like spirituality, and there is also some distrust regarding those attempting to share it. Most self help gurus or evangelicals say they are offering spiritual awakening, but they are really selling short cuts. And there’s a big difference. There’s a huge market for short cuts, but it is ultimately harmful and hurtful to promote.
I think we all have lessons to learn, and while dreams are important, there are no short cuts to them, unless your lesson involves learning that short cuts won’t buy you happiness. I think, sharing wisdom through stories, movies, songs — NOT just stories, movies and songs, but GOOD stories, movies and songs that give clues enough to INVITE people to understand some universal truths for themselves, is the best way to communicate spiritual advancement and promote a movement that could change the world.
I should also add that stoking the embers of division, lying, stealing, selling a deceptive vision to unsuspecting people, ignoring science to turn a profit, is extremely dangerous, and is no way to better the state of things.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I’m stubborn so it probably wouldn’t have helped me much to hear words of wisdom from anyone else early on, and also I think the experience you gain from the mistakes you make is the most relevant currency there is. I don’t look back on not hearing something with any regret. I wouldn’t have listened anyway.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Einstein’s quotes. I think one of my favorites is, “for an idea that does not at first seem insane, there is no hope.” That rings true to me. Out of the box thinking is the mother of all invention, and it has been my personal experience that anything worthwhile comes from thinking things other people or convention suggest is something one shouldn’t be thinking. The challenge of doing what others deem the “impossible,” inspires visionaries to dream the “impossible.” Never used that phrase before, but I like it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was attending NYU Graduate Film School, I had a funny idea for a short movie, essentially, a nerdy guy has a crush on a girl at the office he works in. His older brother bullies his younger nerdy brother into taking his 13 year old kid for a week while he goes off on vacation. The 13 year old kid is a smooth talking little wise ass with a pierced ear, and he knows more about sex than his nerdy uncle. He helps the nerdy uncle get the girl at the office, and the nerdy uncle helps the kid with his homework and makes him realize he is not as stupid as he thinks he is. A friendship is born. Uncle and nephew have to say goodbye having been effected in an unlikely way. The story had humor, bittersweet emotion, not to mention a beginning, middle and an end, which is rare for a student short …
… the only trouble was, I was having a hard time realizing the script to meet my own expectations of the humor inherent in the premise.
And so one night, frustrated, I literally got down on my hands and knees and prayed for help.
I had put out an ad in Backstage Magazine and had been fielding headshots, but the trickle of mail had dwindled down to nothing by this point. Interestingly, the day after I prayed, one additional headshot arrived in my mail box. It was of this really nerdy looking guy with a polka dot bow tie, spiked hair, a toothy grin and thick Coke bottle glasses. I had already filled all my audition slots, but this guy was just too much of a character for me not to reach out to. So I called him, and we hit it off right away.
His name was Jaffe Cohen. He asked about my script, and for some reason, I told him I wasn’t in love with it (not a great way to sell my project to a prospective actor). It just came out. I told him I thought it could be funnier. Jaffe promptly said, “well I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’m a hell of a comedy writer.”
It was February cold outside, and the heat in the audition room was either broken, or ineffectual the day Jaffe came in to read. Jaffe was wearing an overcoat and I never thought anything of it.
I had asked all the actors to bring in monologues, and so Jaffe put down his stuff, and went to the center of the room.
He still had his coat on.
I’m thinking, “OK, so this guy’s cold.”
Then Jaffe starts …
The monologue was not funny. It was all about how his parents messed him up as a kid. And the more Jaffe went on, the more my hopes dimmed. I had this deep seeded sense that Jaffe was something more than a wasted 15 minutes of audition time. I had prayed to God, and Jaffe’s headshot had appeared the next day, and then we had this synchronistic conversation on the phone. I was sure this was going to be something of value.
And then …
Jaffe starts to unbutton his coat.
“What the ‘f’ is he wearing?”
“Is that … a dress? Holy sh*t, he’s wearing a dress underneath his coat!”
And what’s that he’s holding? A purse? A granny bag! Is that a string of pearls around his neck?!
All of sudden the monologue started to make sense. And it become hysterical. It was bold. It was ridiculous. It was funny. And to see this nerdy guy dressed up like Grandma kvetching about his parents!!
Of course, we chatted after the audition.
As Jaffe left the audition room, one errant thought did cross my mind.
Is he gay?
Jaffe wound up booking the role in my short film … AND Jaffe and I wound up writing together for the next 18 years. He was a terrific teacher, writer, and collaborator for all things comedy.
Jaffe wound up being the first openly gay comedian to do stand-up on national television. And, he has become quite a successful writer in Hollywood, having been nominated for an Emmy for having created and written the show, Feud, about Joan Crawford and Betty Davis starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Might as well go pie in the sky — Steven Spielberg. I had a dream once about Steven Spielberg. My mother has met him several times in real life. He knows who she is because of her acting career, and always says, “hi Nancy,” and spends a little time talking to her when he sees her.
In my dream, my mother gave me Steven Spielberg’s office number and I called it. I was expecting to speak to Steven’s assistant, a woman, who my mother had given me the name of, let’s call her “Rachel.” But instead of a woman, a man picked up the phone. I was surprised and said, I was calling for Rachel, and explained who I was. The man on the other end of the phone said Rachel had stepped out. And suddenly it dawned on me — was I speaking to Steven Spielberg? I told the man a little more about my background and he kept listening and he even asked a couple questions. And the more he talked, the more I realized it WAS Steven Spielberg on the other end of the phone, and so I just kept talking. I literally poured my life story out to him, and told him EVERYTHING, how hard I had worked, my feelings about the industry, life, art, the relationship between the two. And, Steven just kept listening … And then … a could hear a phone ring in the background on the other end of the receiver, and Steven said, “I need to take this, and he asked if I would hold.” I said, “no problem.” And then he was off the line. And suddenly, I’m sitting there panicking. My wheels start turning, “oh sh*t, what if he doesn’t pick back up the phone? What if, even worse, he just did that to blow me off?” Suddenly, my heart is pounding, I’m literally freaking out, terrified that I had just been left in the dust by Steven Spielberg and he would never pick back up the phone. I waited for what seemed like an eternity and then … FINALLY, lo and behold, Steven Spielberg picked back up and apologized for the long wait. He said words in my dream that I’ll never forget. He said, “… alright, let’s get this party started …” And then I woke up.
I’ve spent my life creating my own “parties,” independent movies, a ton of screenplays, tons and tons of songs for myself or whatever project I could find to write for. All of this finally culminating in making a movie on an iPhone for $7,500. I would love the opportunity to share my party with him, and see if maybe he would be interested in partying together.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My Instagram and Twitter handle is: @ChrisLiv13.
Anybody who is interested can also check out my website:
And my first single, “Hey Stranger,” from my album, “30 Years Unplugged,” comes out on iTunes mid December!