Thousand-Year-Old Story

Interview with Filmmaker and Chairman of SFUAD’s Moving Image Arts Program Chris Eyre

“A thousand years or longer, when it gets dark and someone lights a fire...”

Date April 12, 2012 at 1:18 PM

Author Charlotte Martinez

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Community

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Charlotte Martinez is a native New Mexican, currently attending the Santa Fe University of Art and Design as a Film and Creative Writing Major. This piece was written as part of her coursework for the Creative Writing Department’s Techniques of Non-Fiction workshop.

His arms rest parallel on his chair, like a sphinx. His deep mesmerizing tone beckons the bare office walls and glowing window to his feet.

“Everyone gathers around and someone says, let me tell you a story and everyone leans in.”

His eyes are closed. Peaceful. He needs to see their faces. It’s the storyteller’s homage, the gathering over orange flames.

“I would put that in the beginning,” he says, opening his eyes. “You always have to have a good hook in the beginning.”

The year is 2005. Chris Eyre and his film crew are traveling from the bottom of Machu Picchu to Cusco on a train. Wonderful things happen on trains. It’s midnight. He’s sitting among Peruvians when the engine stops abruptly. The conductor asks everyone to stay on the train, but Eyre and his crew do the American thing and get off anyway. Up ahead, a landslide has blocked the tracks. The passengers stare, perhaps mumbling in their native tongue, then one by one, as an orgy of People Who Aren’t Stopped By Landslides, they begin to clear the debris. Resting on the tracks Eyre thinks, "this is somewhere I would never be unless I did this kind of job." Twenty yards from where he sits, passengers surround a boulder. Eyre and another from his crew join them and together, the Spaniards, Peruvians, and Americans succeed in spinning the obstacle off the trail, leaving the echo of laughter and pats on the back to fade in the darkness, on the cleared tracks, in the middle of Peru. The 3 million dollar, 30-minute short film, A Thousand Roads, would go on to play in the National Museum of the American Indian. The audience would never know of the landslide or the events behind the camera.

“There are things that happen that you shoot that are amazing,” Eyre says. “Then there are also the things that happen based upon the environment that are part of your stories. It’s always one of those epiphanies when you do what you love, to stand there sometimes and marvel at the situations you get to encounter.”

A filmmaker and director ("Smoke Signals," "Skinwalkers," "A Thief of Time," "Edge of America" and several others), Eyre recently took his seat as chair of Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Moving Image Arts program, his first “real job,” he says. “Not that my movies weren’t real work, but this is the first 9-to-5 job I’ve ever held. People go through changes and shifts. This is exactly what I needed.” Despite the new hours, Eyre says he will continue to make films, working during the week and on weekends. He hopes the student body will go through college realizing that “the work is the reward” and no “matter how the industry changes or how successful you are from year to year, you’re doing it because you love what you do.”

His advice to student filmmakers? Make work. “It’s a muscle, no different than learning an instrument or learning to drive,” he says. These words are met with two important tags, which are “don’t be afraid to fail at the work and don’t ever believe that the work is too precious.” The trap of success is “you’re always reflecting on what you could have done differently.” His movie, Smoke Signals for example, paralyzed him from making another piece of work for about three years, “but it’s [your] ideas you’re memorializing on digital or plastic,” he says. “You’ll improve those ideas if you keep making those ideas.” In that way, “I’m no different than the any of the other students that come out of these doors. Every year I am building a new business, which is a movie. I am still an artist in my heart, in my center. And that’s what I can impart to
students.”

Eyre wasn’t trained in theater or in acting. With an associate’s degree in video, a bachelor’s in media, and a master’s degree in filmmaking, Eyre says he was trained as a “shooter.” “It was always about the images that inspired the story for me. I have an example.” He gets up and walks to his desk. “I was driving around, I think it was Saturday,” he says, while fiddling with his computer. He pulls up a photo of the New Mexico mountains, a landscape he’ll now see on a daily basis. The colors are eerie, a grey foreshadowing of a wind storm perhaps, with the tiniest slit of sunlight through the clouds. “It was really about the de-saturation of the image. It spoke to me.” He points to the high resolution of the foreground, smooth dirt and a leaning fence, compared the to the storm in the background. “It’s about this whole mystery,” he says, motioning to the clouds that hover above, like a bolt of Zeus, like a new story bursting at the seams. His directing starts like that, he says, with an image. The last element of his “canvas,” therefore, is the actor. “I get them on their feet...then I have to figure out how to heighten and improve what’s there.” Once the rehearsals are out of the way, Eyre says it’s a matter of believing that “somebody in your group has some magic dust and is going to be endowed with it and it’s going to take on a life of its own.” Eyre returns to his example of "Smoke Signals," the last scene in which Victor, the main character, spreads his father’s ashes over the bridge. “Stuff happens, filmically, that isn’t planned and that you can’t replicate. But you know film, as the same with music and dance and all the other forms takes on a spirit of its own and that’s when it levitates.”

When the story comes from a source, such as a short story or a novel, the most important thing is the payoff, “a reason I just sat there for an hour and half.” Eyre’s eyes shoot to the roof, in search of examples. “I can always understand how a movie starts, that’s easy. The hard part is knowing where it ends. I just saw a movie called "On the Ice," which is a great independent movie, and where it ends is not where you would have expected at all. There’s no resolution...it literally ends like another scene and all of a sudden the credits roll and you say, ‘Is that it!? Is that the end?’” In the case of Eyre’s film "Skins," “...a five galloon bucket of paint [is thrown] over George Washington’s head and it makes a red tear that goes down Mount Rushmore. When I read that I said, ‘I want to see that.’ The endings are the difficult places to conjure because it has different meanings at 10 o’ clock, 11 o’ clock, midnight...it gets into different nuances of what you want to say. I don’t mean good ending by socially good, morally good, ethically good... I mean that it’s nourishing to the entertainment of the story line.”

The master of his art exhales, letting his ideas cascade and spiral in front of him like a kaleidoscope.

“When you read a great ending, then a lot of times a light bulb goes on for me that says ‘ah, that’s a good story!’”

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