Going over some old emails the other day, it dawned on me just how quickly time flies. Five years have gone by since Karim Lounes and I began working on a feature film called The Last Immortal. In some ways, this journey feels like it all started yesterday, but then there are other moments where you feel as if you’ve been running a marathon since time immemorial.
I had never set out to write or even collaborate on a screenplay. The creation of The Last Immortal was Karim’s baby, his idea. I was only helping out as a favor. I had just finished a grueling schedule for a novel I had published titled A Dance in Paradise, hoping that somewhere down the road, this masterpiece would make a few million, at which point I could then merrily retire into the sunset, like J.D. Salinger did in New Hampshire.
I’ve never been one much for the spotlight. I don’t care for the attention, the scrutiny, the millions of questions people want to know about your personal life, particularly when those questions rarely bear any relation or resemblance to the work you have created. Marketing has always been a thorn in my side, a necessary evil, coupled with the fact that I am also an introvert, and having to step outside my comfort zone can be daunting and intimidating at times. But I love creating art, while in the same breath, I’m waiting for that proverbial angel to come forth and be my mouthpiece so that I can continue to do what I love the most, which is writing, not selling.
Then again, reality never works that way, and probably never will.
And yet when I came across Stage 32 in the beginning of 2012, I felt as if a barrier had been lifted from my inner thoughts, that protective wall that had always stood vanguard between me and the outside world. Suddenly I was stepping inside a virtual room of like-minded creative individuals who shared my fears and self-doubt, but who also shared my vision and passion for storytelling. Needless to say, this road to Damascus moment was a validation of sorts, the vindication I had been seeking all along. And the beauty of it all, it was global.
Stage 32 had only been around for about six months when I joined. Meanwhile, Karim and I were toiling over endless rewrites of The Last Immortal. How that process all began is how it usually does between writers, with one asking the other, “Could you read this and tell me what you think?” It’s the same question I had asked a few of my “friends” when I finished writing the first draft of A Dance in Paradise, though I suspect most of them read about the first five pages and then threw it in the trash when I wasn’t looking. That’s the real world, folks.
With Karim it was a little different. Yes, his original draft sucked (as all first drafts do) but somewhere in between the lines I could see a story in there. Thus, what began as a quick read (which I had actually stopped reading after the first ten pages) eventually turned into an edit and an education my book editor Sherry Gottlieb (a bestselling author) had imparted to me as a first-time writer, and with whom I now shared with Karim on the mechanics of storytelling: the three-act structure, conflict and resolution, character arcs and obstacles accompanied by an email header that you will see a thousand times before it’s all said and done – “Back to the Drawing Board.” There was rebellion on Karim’s part, of course, that stubbornness and resistance you often see from writers who feel that you have changed their story. But that comes with the territory. Truth is, you will never end up the way you started when writing a story. Your 100th revision will barely resemble the original. But just as important to remember is that successful writing relationships develop only when you are able to face the truth, not from the things you want to hear.
With that in mind, we now fast forward to August 30, 2014. After getting past the egos and endless email debates and midnight oil I’d endured with Karim (my head was starting to get dizzy after that 100th revision), I decided to test the waters by submitting our final draft to Stage 32’s first screenplay contest called “New Blood.” And since August 30 also happened to be my birthday, I immediately felt a measure of good luck in the air.
When I saw the “New Blood” email header in my inbox a month later, that clairvoyant moment of hope and joyous anticipation flooded my veins, only to be followed by defeat and disappointment and a message announcing that our screenplay hadn’t even made it past the first round. After all the work we had done, two years worth of back-and-forth, all I kept thinking was, “Wow, what a slap in the face. I just shelled out $50 for nothing.” Not to mention the “I told you so” moment I got from Karim. “Way to go, buddy! You see, you should’ve never changed my story!”
Okay, so I love torture. I’m also a veteran of failure. At least I’ve been around long enough to know how not to take it personal. At least I can admit when I am wrong.
Right after I received the rejection notice from Stage 32 for that “New Blood” contest, I got an email from Fabian Bolin, an up-and-coming actor who was also on Stage 32. At first I thought his query was related to “more blood” screenplay contests, but it wasn’t. Instead, he had seen one of my posts and wanted to connect. He had also asked if I was working on any projects. I told him about The Last Immortal, and that if he liked Act One (which I had posted in the logline section of my profile), I would be happy to send him the rest through my personal email. The day after, Fabian asked to read the entire script, and then a couple of days after that he emailed to say that he wanted to be a part of this project. The following week, we signed a deal memo.
That’s when it dawned on me that instead of focusing my energies on entering screenplay contests and film festivals, I would begin seeking out actors on Stage 32. Combing through the profiles, I came across Mark Musto. Just by the headshot alone, Mark not only looked like a character I had developed in my mind while writing The Last Immortal (JAMES STEINMAN, 40s, thick mustache, coal-black hair that is slicked back) he even sounded like him after I checked out his demo reel on IMDB. It was amazing (though somehow unsettling in a way) to see James Steinman’s doppelganger long before I even knew who Mark Musto was. I guess you could call it destiny, fate, whatever. In any event, I sent a query to Mark through Stage 32. He also asked to read the script. A couple of days later, he too eagerly jumped on board.
After that it was like a domino effect. Next up was Michael Christoforo, with whom I’d also had a similar déjà vu moment after seeing his headshot and demo reel (RIVERS MCKINLEY, 30s, dark and handsome. Contrary to what his last name suggests, he looks more Sicilian than Scottish.) Again, I got the same results as I had received from Fabian and Mark, except this time I decided to take it one step further. “Hey Mike,” I asked, after striking up a relationship and several conversations later, “How about doing a shout-out video?” Mike thought it was a great idea, and not long after that, there it was, in my inbox:
Michael Christoforo for THE LAST IMMORTAL
At that point, we were on a roll. No more “I told you so” jokes or devil’s advocate commentaries from Karim. Soon afterward, Phil Duran and Katie Anne Mitchell came on board and were so enthusiastic about this project that they took it upon themselves to get Tim Nenninger from Timbojo Productions to film a scene from The Last Immortal script. Phil even enlisted the aid of an Iranian friend to help him master a Farsi accent. Wow! Talk about dedication! Eventually, that scene was included in a teaser trailer that Karim and I were working on. Also around that time, Yasmin Horner had come on board and had also offered to be in the trailer, along with Fabian, Mark and Mike. All I needed to do now was to write a script tailored around portions of Mike’s shout-out video and to spruce it a little with some stock footage and dramatic music. Here are the results from that collaboration:
“The Last Immortal (2016): An Inside Look”
After that, Phil asked Tim to shoot another scene describing his character’s back story in a video called The Last Immortal: The Making of Kazem Amiri:
“The Last Immortal: The Making of Kazem Amiri”
It’s amazing how things work. The momentum. The passion. That chill-down-the-spine moment after assembling a team of creative professionals who love art and who are eager to express their passions to the audience. Even more amazing is that I have yet to meet Fabian, Mike, Mark, Yasmin, Phil and Katie in person. But not to worry: When that time comes, when we are all on set, looking back and reflecting on what we have accomplished, we will also remember that Stage 32 is the one who brought us together to create this shared dream of ours. Not to mention, humbled by the fact that fifteen, twenty years ago, none of this would have even been possible without such a social media platform.
So far we have sixteen actors from Stage 32! Thanks to Richard Botto and the vision he has created with Stage 32, we have now begun to branch out beyond the unthinkable. We currently have a name actor on board (stay tuned for details) and are seeking one more in the hopes of attracting sponsors and investors. Our line producer, Missy Moyer (The Woodsman, Ocean’s Eleven) recently finished preparing the budget. Rolfe Auerbach from Brand-in Entertainment (Lone Survivor, Everest) is helping us to find advertisers. Shari Belafonte (who I also met on Stage 32) is now our director.
Though we are still in development (hopefully we will be shooting by summer 2017), we already have a composer on board: Andreas Widegren from Sweden. Composers don’t usually come around until the post-production phase, but Andreas was so excited about this project, he immediately jumped on board. To date, he has composed three soundtracks all based on his interpretation of The Last Immortal script, with many more musical ideas to come over the next several weeks. Wow! Talk about dedication and commitment!
Here's a taste:
“The Last Immortal – Theme”
In the meantime, I am now collaborating with Conchita Franco Serri, a Latin American scholar, for a screenplay titled The War Necklace. The story is about love, betrayal and a family divided during the Venezuelan wars of independence. Conchita and I started working on this project around the late part of 2014 after we had discovered each other on Stage 32. We are hoping to finish the script by early summer 2017.
The irony behind all of this (and the lessons that I’ve learned since then – i.e., to never give up), is that when I finished A Dance in Paradise in 2009, the original publisher sent a book trailer to me that came nowhere near to satisfying my expectations. I had expected to see real actors, not a montage of generic sketches and stock photos with running script and music in the background. Of course, at the time, I will admit I had no idea of how much it cost to make a two-minute book trailer with real actors. But in my naïvete, stubbornness, and with that Pink Floyd moment drumming in my head from Comfortably Numb (“the child is grown, the dream is gone”) I went about writing my own book trailer, enlisting the help of friends who might not have been “professional actors,” but whom I’d still felt had the heart to pull it off. I didn’t own a camera at the time (in fact I borrowed one), and I didn’t know the first thing about screenplay format or directing a film. But I had an idea and a concept, and more importantly, I had the passion to tell a story.
“A Dance in Paradise – by Lee Chavis”
That’s also when I first met Karim, who guided me through the process of shooting the trailer. Since he did videos for a living, I had asked him if he would do the post and editing. (He charged me, of course, but at a discount rate.) Oh, and did I mention? I’ve never met Karim in person either. Everything we’ve done so far has been by email (and only recently by phone), including those sleepless nights when we were writing a screenplay together, back in 2010.
Amazing how life works. Simply amazing.
Lee Chavis' writing career began with his first novel "A Dance in Paradise," originally published in 2009 and later reissued in 2010 by Amazon.
Lee's interest in entertaining audiences led him to filmmaking. Shortly after "A Dance in Paradise" was released, Lee wrote, directed and produced the novel's trailer now featured on YouTube and Vimeo. In 2013, he wrote, directed and acted in a short film "Daydreams of an Author" with fellow Stage 32 member Sam Garrett. The soundtrack "Raizes" was composed by João Agusto Frias, also a Stage 32 member.
Around the summer of 2012, Lee began collaborating on a feature film with Stage 32 member Karim Lounes called "The Last Immortal." The story is about a warlock who seeks revenge against a chemist for an ancient ritual gone awry. Lee and Karim finished the script in 2014, which is now in development and listed on IMDB.
Lee's latest screenwriting project is "The War Necklace," in collaboration with Stage 32 member Conchita Franco Serri. The story is about love, betrayal and a family divided during the Venezuelan wars of independence. The script is expected to be finished by early summer 2017.
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