Go Into The Story Interview: Chris Parrish
The story behind the family movie Thrill Ride with its writer-director.
One of my faculty colleagues at the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts is Chris Parrish. Chris wrote, produced, and directed the family adventure movie Thrill Ride which made the festival circuit in 2017 and is now available via Fandango, Vudu, Target, and Amazon.
The movie is a fun film and the story behind the story is a compelling one as well, so I was happy to do a Q&A with Chris.
Could you tell us about your professional background as a writer and teacher?
My first paid screenwriting gig was back in the 90s when I was hired to write the unproduced sequel to the cult teen comedy TEEN WITCH. A few years later, my first produced television work was writing for the DUMB & DUMBER animated series on ABC. Neither gig got me much attention. Then in 1999, I sold my first feature spec comedy entitled CIDNEY CRAWFORD WANTS TO BONE ME to New Line Cinema and that got the ball rolling for me. People were intrigued by the title and it got read by a lot of places around town.
After selling the spec, I jumped between gigs in features and TV for about ten years, including CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, THE KING OF QUEENS and AMERICAN DRAGON: JAKE LONG. I wrote the movie GOLDILOCKS & THE 3 BEARS for The Jim Henson Company and sold six pilots to the networks and studios, including OLD SCHOOL which starred John Krasinski, Natasha Lyonne and Jorge Garcia.
In 2010, I was hired as an adjunct instructor for the UCLA Writers Extension Program to teach spec TV pilot writing. I also taught screenwriting at Santa Fe University and Tribeca Flashpoint College before joining DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago, which is truly the greatest film school in the Midwest.
Since moving back to Chicago in 2010, I’ve done an uncredited rewrite of the indie comedy THE PICKLE RECIPE and most recently made the family adventure THRILL RIDE.
Thrill Ride, a movie you wrote and directed, is now out on DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming, and VOD. The story behind the story is a moving one. Could you share the story of you and your son Mason’s involvement with the genesis of the movie?
The idea for the movie came from Mason, who we lost to a rare type of brain tumor called D.I.P.G. (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) when he was ten years old. Mason was the most naturally gifted writer I’ve ever known. Neither one of us were big into sports so we never really tossed the ball around. Our catch was pitching jokes and stories to each other. At ten, Mason had this amazing gift for creating stories with escalating conflict and plot twists. He truly could have been the next generation’s JJ Abrams.
About a year before Mason fell ill, I was driving him to school and he pitched me this really fun idea for a family adventure movie. We had just watched NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM and Mason said, “You know, Dad, I really liked that movie but why did they make Ben Stiller the hero? It should have been his son.” I thought about this for a second and I realized he was right. That absolutely would have been a great movie for kids. And then Mason added, “And why did they set it in a museum? Museums are boring. They should have set it in an amusement park.” Again, that was brilliant. So I pulled over and wrote down his movie idea.
Mason left behind dozens of notebooks filled with his own stories and cartoons, including THRILL RIDE. After he passed, his mother and I wanted to come up with a way to honor his memory and raise money for D.I.P.G. research (which gets virtually nothing in funding because it’s such a rare disease.) I approached Vincent Foglia, an incredibly successful and generous local philanthropist, with the idea of making THRILL RIDE and having 50% of the profits go to D.I.P.G. research while the other 50% goes toward making the next movie so we can keep generating funding for the charity through filmmaking.
Vince agreed and financed the entire movie himself. He’s an absolutely amazing person and I will never be able to thank him enough for his astonishing generosity and faith in us.
Here is the plot summary of Thrill Ride: “For generations, there have been all kinds of wild rumors surrounding gangster Al Capone’s hidden fortune and the mysterious amusement park he built. When three kids sneak into the rundown park on the hunt for Capone’s loot, the attractions come to life and take the kids on a wild and dangerous ride beyond all imagination. Now to survive the night, they must team up with a friendly sea witch, find a secret underground ride and take on an evil mermaid, bloodthirsty pirates, a fire-breathing dragon and an armada of monsters. And all on a school night!”
It has the feel of movies like Goonies. What movies were inspirations for you in making Thrill Ride?
The Spielberg action-adventure movies of the 80’s are a huge influence in this movie. The underground ride sequences pay homage to the minecar chase in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and the Tilt-o-Whirl car was inspired by EXPLORERS. But THE GOONIES is by far the biggest influence on THRILL RIDE. Mason loved THE GOONIES and wanted to make live action adventures with the kids as the heroes. That was his mandate. He once asked me “When I grow up, can we make movies together?” For me, THRILL RIDE is also a way of keeping my promise to my son.
Was this your first time directing a feature film and if so, what are some things you learned about the filmmaking craft from your experiences?
Yep, it was my first time directing a feature. The three most important things I learned (and learned quick) is…
1.) It’s a constant race against time to make your day. Especially if you’re working on a limited budget.
2.) Storyboard everything. Your illustrations don’t have to be perfect. But it will always let’s you know exactly what you’ll have in frame and what you won’t. And that can save you a lot of money and time.
3.) Your cast is key. Spend as much time and money possible to cast the right people.
One of the remarkable things about the film is how big budget it looks for such a low budget. How did you manage to pull off all those sets and special effects?
We really lucked out with that. I posted an ad for a production designer on craigslist and met Chloe Arbiture, who was most recently Emmy nominated for her brilliant production design work on DRUNK HISTORY. Based off a very rough map drawing I gave Chloe of Happyland (the indoor amusement park the movie takes place within), she created an entire world. Chloe was an absolute Godsend! And since we shot in Chicago during the winter, most of the local carnivals put their rides into storage. So we were able to rent several rides out for a low fee to dress the set.
Through Paul Lang (who plays Al Capone), I was introduced to a young visual effects genius out of Michigan named Tommy Kraft. Tommy single-handedly did all of the underground green screen effects and a lot of other work. If not for him, we never would have completed the film.
Also, I used to work at Tribeca Flashpoint College, which has a great special effects department. The school arranged (for a relatively modest fee) to have the students and instructors do many of the special effects as part of the school curriculum over the course of a year.
The cast is also impressive. Could you talk about the casting process and how you managed to corral such an impressive group of actors?
DePaul’s JoAnne Zielinski and Nick Schmidt were a huge help in the casting process. Lucas Jade Zuman stars as Henry. And since shooting THRILL RIDE, he’s gone on to great success with TWENTIETH CENTURY WOMEN and the Netflix series ANNE WITH AN E. I met Tim Kazurinsky at a Writers Guild lunch and he immediately agreed to do the movie when he heard what our cause was. Tim is a hero of mine and it was such an honor to work with him. And Kristen Johnston was thanks to Mason. His best friend’s mom was director Julie Davis, who worked with Kristen and got the script to her. Kristen loved the part of Esmerelda and agreed to do the movie after a phone call.
How long was the production process? Post-production?
From principal photography to the theatrical release, it was a three-year process. The old cliché is absolutely true. You can only have two out of three when it comes to making a movie — fast, cheap or good. Fast was never an option for us. We shot for twenty-seven days with visual effects and sound post taking about a year.
What was it like shooting and doing post in and around Chicago?
Chicago is a fantastic town to make movies. If we tried to do this in LA, it would have easily cost us ten times as much. We shot in Woodstock and Rockford, too. People in Illinois have a wonderful way of supporting independent film. We also had a phenomenally talented local crew, including our producer Angie Gaffney and DP Peter Biagi.
The movie has been featured at some film festivals. What are some of those and what has been the response?
Cleveland International Film Festival (Nominee: Best American Independent Feature Film)
Burbank International Film Festival (Winner: Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Feature Film)
Hollywood Film Festival (Nominee: Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature Film)
Gen Con Film Festival (Winner: Festival Prize Best Feature Film)
To date, we’ve played in or been accepted into ten festivals across the US and overseas. The response has been really positive. I initially thought only kids in grade school would be into the movie. But adults and seniors are enjoying it, too. In some festivals, THRILL RIDE has played on two separate dates and I was blown away when people would come up to me to tell me they came back to watch it a second time.
Is it your hope that Thrill Ride can do well enough financially to support the funding of future Mason’s Movies projects?
We sure hope so. Funding pediatric cancer research and support through making kids’ adventure movies is our goal.
Finally, any words of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Directing a feature film is one of the most mentally and physically exhausting experiences you will ever have. Always wear comfortable shoes. Get as much sleep as possible. And be sure to stock up on the Red Bull. You’re gonna need it.