Carroll High School graduate Collin Schiffli, 35, is a filmmaker on the rise. If you are not familiar with him, you soon will be. His third full-length feature film, “Die in a Gunfight,” is being released nationwide today by Lionsgate.
The movie stars Alexandra Daddario and Diego Boneta as the children of rival families in New York who fall for each other. It is playing at local AMC theaters.
The following conversation between Schiffli and Hal Atkinson, aka “Midwest Dude,” has been edited.
Q. Let's do a little background. You grew up in Fort Wayne and graduated from Carroll High School in 2005. At what age did you discover you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was there a particular event that triggered your realization?
A. I've known I wanted to make movies since I was about 10 years old. My brother, Brandon, and I were obsessed with movies from an early age. We would draw pictures all of the time. We watched a lot of TV that encouraged creativity, like “Pee-Wee's Playhouse” and “Sesame Street.”
Eventually we realized that we also could write stories to go with our drawings, which then led to us borrowing Dad's camcorder to film skits. I often would film my Legos and toys. I didn't know what a director was, but I knew I wanted to combine all the arts to tell stories.
Q. What are a couple of your favorite movies and why?
A. (laughing) If I must give an answer to the hardest question on the planet, my favorite movies are “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Back To the Future,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “The Thing.”
Most of these movies are the original creative influences for me. They share a sense of wonder, spectacle and escapism. I think that's why they speak to me. It wasn't until I got older that I chased after “darker” material like “Fight Club,” “Boogie Nights,” “Taxi Driver,” etc. But I always go back to those original films that inspired me.
Q. You have had a steady progression toward larger budget films over the last several years. “Animals” (2014) and “All Creatures Here Below” (2018) have led to “Die In a Gunfight.” How does it feel to see the budgets increase and number of screens grow?
A. With each film comes new challenges. The saying “more money, more problems” often comes to mind with each new project because the responsibility grows and more cooks are in the kitchen. As the director, you need to stick to a singular vision and give your cast and crew the opportunity to do their best work. With a bigger budget, you have more bells and whistles and gadgets to play with, but I always have to remind myself to stay focused on the heart of the story. Regardless, it feels good to have the best people and tools around you to help see your vision through to fruition. I can finally delegate rather than wear every hat at all times.
Q. Some say “Die In a Gunfight” is an avant garde twist on Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet.” What say you?
A. It's funny because the screenwriters didn't even have “Romeo and Juliet” in mind when developing the script. Shakespeare will always be a part of the zeitgeist though, and we tend to look for the familiar in every story.
I would say “Gunfight” is less about young lovers and more about lovers who missed their opportunity and feel too jaded by the world and by their oppressive families to feel love at all. It's about reigniting the spark rather than experiencing love for the first time. However, the setting in which our heroes exist is definitely a surreal, larger-than-life world stage – something that you might see in Shakespeare.
Q. How would you compare filming a movie in Chicago (“Animals”) with Toronto (“Gunfight”)? I have heard some interesting tales about the filming!
A. There are definitely insane stories that come out of every film. I have stories that would shock just about anyone. Chicago and Toronto are incredible places to make movies, both in terms of the filmmaking communities and for the literal backdrop that each city provides. Honestly, shooting in Toronto felt like I was shooting in an alternate reality version of Chicago. I want to work in both cities again, preferably in the summer rather than winter!
Q. Your Columbia College (Chicago) education, graduating in 2009, had you crossing paths with a plethora of talented individuals. David Dastmalcchian was one of them. He appeared in “Animals” and “All Creatures Here Below.” Do you anticipate working with him in future projects? Maybe to wrap up the Cutless Trilogy?
A. Meeting Dave while I was in college literally changed the course of my life (and his) in so many ways. I am very close with him and his family. I cannot wait until we can shoot another movie together, especially to wrap up our Cutless Trilogy! He actually was supposed to appear in “Gunfight,” but our schedules didn't align. He was shooting the new “Suicide Squad” movie, so he had a good reason. (chuckling)
I imagine we will be working together until we are old and gray! We have the same taste in movies, art and pop culture and our viewpoint of the world is similar.
Q. “Animals” was your feature film debut and won the Special Jury Award at SXSW in 2014. “All Creatures Here Below” was also well received. The pre-release buzz for “Gunfight” seems to surpass both of those. Three different types of movies, but the sense of “love and hope” seems to be a common thread. Is that a theme you will tend to keep for future projects?
A. Yes, three very different films. Ultimately, I do feel like I will always be exploring the themes of love, hope and even redemption. That's all that matters in life at the end of the day. “Gunfight” allowed me to explore those same concepts in a new light.
I tend to struggle with hopelessness and anxiety, so I need to explore these themes on as many levels as I can, both for my own sanity and hopefully for the sanity of others as well. It was a breath of fresh air to make this newest film in a way that showcases love in a playful, colorful and heartfelt way. I had to teach myself that it is OK to get lost in the escapism aspect of movies and not just the introspective, brooding aspects.
Q. “If you find friendships that work, these people are going to stick with you,” is a quote attributed to you. As your movie career progresses, do you find that this axiom still holds true?
A. I absolutely believe in that philosophy and approach. The better you get along with someone, the better you can both support each other and challenge each other to do your best work. You have each other's best interest in mind, you begin to communicate extremely efficiently and you aren't afraid to step on each other's toes when you need to. That's how I look at it. That doesn't mean I want to close my doors to meeting new people who can bring fresh ideas to the table, though.
Q. What are you considering as your next project?
A. Fortunately the buzz of “Gunfight” has already brought about new directing opportunities. I've had a chance to comb through many scripts. I'm looking to go back to something darker again, but with the commercial value that comes with a movie like “Gunfight.” It's exciting now to be stepping into the studio world. Hopefully, I will have some good news to share soon.
Q. Is your brother, Brandon, still doing screenwriting for you? How long have you two lived in Los Angeles now? Do you have a couple of anecdotes about life in L.A.?
A. My brother is still a screenwriter and script supervisor. He is my sounding board when I work on any project because he seems to think about the aspects of a story that I might overlook. His ideas are very commercial and accessible to larger audiences. I often focus on the tiny details and he can see the big picture.
He's been in L.A. 13 years and I am coming up on 12 years. It feels like we have lived many lifetimes in that period! I will never forget the many crazy nights of the last decade. Swimming in Luke Skywalker's pool, watching the Batmobile zip through the streets of downtown while working on “The Dark Knight Rises,” spending summer nights in the middle of the desert with friends ... and those are my very tame stories!