In this interview, Corpus Christi award-winning director and producer Chris Ambriz talks about his start in film, he and his best friend's company Night Creature Productions, and the advice he shares for creatives -especially those who are storytellers.
How would you describe what it is you do?
In a nutshell I'm a storyteller, a filmmaker. I tell stories through images. I've always loved telling stories when I was a kid. I got into creative writing when I was in the 7th grade at Tom Browne and got the bug for it. I love making my friends up, practicing weird special effects. I had access to a video camera back in the day. In the early 90s I made a couple of short weird movies with my friends. You know, monsters running around eating bad cafeteria food turning into monsters -that kind of stuff. It all evolved. When I got into high school we did a couple more, then instead of writing a paper we did a video for English class. Once we got into college at Del Mar we were in the Radio/Television department and we decided to make a film. We did it the old school way on Hi8 transferring it to video, then tape editing that way, all with no computers. Just practical analog editing that took a good part of a year to do. Learning, messing up, casting yourself, casting your friends, and learning the hard way is not the best way to do things sometimes but that's how you learn -trial and error on-the-job. I was a big Fangoria nut when I was growing up so I read a lot of Fangos and just tried to do makeup effects. Just learning from the stuff that they had out there at the time which was kind of hard, especially down here in Corpus.
Seriously, you have done a lot with a little.
Surprisingly enough, the last film we did we had less of a budget than we had on a short film. It was a lot of stretching and pulling resources to make it happen.
Did you ever go to film school?
No. It was all Television Production classes with Mac Aipperspach. I got into the journalism program with Manuel Flores and tried to get better at writing and the craft that way. That's when I got in the news business. I was working in the news for 14 years.
Who has helped you?
Well my best friend Louis Alvarado and I started Night Creature Productions. We've been friends since we were kids in the first grade. We've always had that kind of relationship where we could put something together. I backed him up, he backed me up, and that's how we made our first couple of films.
What has inspired you?
I'd say a lot of the influences I still think influence me today is George Romero, early Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez when he was starting El Mariachi. That was when I was in high school when the idea that all that stuff was starting. You know, that you don't have to be in Hollywood. You can gather some friends and family, get out there, and put something together.
Was there ever a moment you want to give up?
There was a point right after our first feature film Dark Blood. It was a trying experience because we were trying to learn. Digital editing was coming into play, we were trying to learn all the technology, and it seemed very very difficult. At one point I needed to step back, focus on learning more about the craft and technology, and getting my bearings with it. I took a 5 year break, got back into it, and it's been non-stop since roughly 2007. I felt like it was time and that I had learned enough being in the field, working with other professional videographers and storytellers.
What's been the biggest challenge you've faced?
There's always a lot of challenges as far as filmmaking. I think the biggest challenge is just money. You know, having access. You can do the Indiegogos and we've done that but when you start breaking down the cost of things it still gets expensive. Especially when you get out of production and go into post. You still need all this money for editing software, plugins, whatever. It's those things you have to learn by doing it a bunch of times. You're like, "We would love to make a movie for this amount of money," but then you only have five grand and you're like, "How far can we stretch this? How can we make this happen?"
Oh yeah, plenty of times. That's usually our ballpark number. When we start putting stuff together we always come up around five thousand dollars and that's just piecemeal, you know? A couple hundred here, then it builds up over time. If you don't have money you take your time. That's always the best approach to any kind of artistic endeavor. If you don't have the money, take time to figure out what the problems are and get around it. That's why you need a team. I tell anybody who wants to get into filmmaking that. You can have all the technique and abilities, but you need a good producer that's going to counterbalance a lot of things on set. That team -that core- helps you get things done.
Would you say you can't do it alone?
I've tried it alone. It's a lot harder and you find yourself having to be even more creative. It's better to surround yourself with people that have your back and all share a vision, a goal. Not, "I want to do this," and, "I want to do that." It's, "We all agree that this is what we wanted to do."
What has been your favorite part?
Every part is my favorite part. I like to collaborate with other writers. I'm not the best writer in the world but I like to come up with ideas and bounce them off of people. That's always fun because that makes it exciting, that means you can do it. As long as you have that fire and that drive to do something that's always the best way to approach it. You're energetic, you're enthusiastic, you have all these people in the midst of making something happen and that's always a blast. You get to meet new people, create things, tell a story. A lot of people are big fans of post-production and rightfully so because that's where you really get to see it come together. You see all the mistakes. You see all the good things that happen, the bad things that happen -relive a few things, get a little traumatized- but it comes together and is all worth it in the end. Then you show it somewhere, go to a festival or put it out on whatever platform you're planning on.
What have been the shortest and longest projects you've done?
Shortest projects we've done were a couple of film challenges that South Texas Underground Film Fest Rob Perez and Mariella Perez put out where you have to make a movie in two days before your contest. That's from writing, shooting, editing, and screening right at the end of the weekend. Those are grueling because that's a real test to find out if you've got everybody on the same page. We've made them for a hundred bucks, or fifty bucks, absolutely no money involved.
The longest is probably the features that I've done. Dark Blood and Muerte, ironically 20 years apart both took about two years from start to finish. It's not just shooting, not just writing, it's how you plan the marketing afterwards. Are we gonna go to festivals or this place or that place? It takes a lot of allocating resources. Once you're done, you're not really done. It takes even more work that you never quite plan on doing. It's like, "Wow we weren't expecting that" or, "Wow we had to pay for this." It gets a little daunting, I won't lie. Those are the things people don't really talk about. You have to find out the hard way especially with contracts and stuff.
Start with a story you want to tell and get to know your audience. Write what you know, just be mindful of how much you're really going to put into it. It can only get better and as long as you told the story you wanted to tell -win, lose, or draw- in the end getting it done is the biggest part. Props to anybody who's ever done it because I know it's not easy.
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Everybody has an opinion or ego but if you get to pull it off and pull it off well, hats off to you. There's so many variables to anything that comes with any kind of project -art, writing, or film. They all have their obstacles.
How would you define success?
I would say success is not so much a monetary part of it but being happy with what you're doing and accomplishing what you want to do. That feeling of fulfillment is success to me.
What are your dreams?
My dreams are to keep telling stories for as long as I'm able-bodied, getting all those crazy ideas out there. Hopefully people will dig and support them. A big thing is supporting your local artists in their endeavors. A lot of people struggle to make things happen and it's always good to know that throughout all that work that somebody's behind you. Whether it's a small project or large project, it's always good to have that support. Support local artists because it's not easy to do this stuff. It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to make these things happen and that deserves respect.
You can support Chris Ambriz and Night Creature Productions by checking out their website here.