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Chris Robert Riegel: Laugh, Feel, and Connect

Chris Robert Riegel: Laugh, Feel, and Connect

Discovering the world is discovering new angles of who we are and therefore, experiencing a fuller life. Traveling and connecting with diverse people, cultures, and traditions and exploring different ways of thinking may expand our horizons in a way that we recognize that there is more to us than what we perceive as our known environment. Holding on to the familiar version of ourselves will bring resistance to anything new, ultimately holding us in the process of creating the same or similar. Allowing ourselves to experience the unfamiliar will lead us to embody a new side of who we are from a new perspective.

Artist Chris Robert Riegel, who is the writer and director of the anticipated new feature film Expectation, says, “There have been so many people in my life that, in many different capacities, have indelibly affected who I am and the things I care about in my journey. I believe it’s our job to return the energies we take in for ourselves. I am multicultural. I’ve grown up in different places. So, there isn’t one specific thing I’ve ever been able to hold myself onto, and I’ve seen it as positive. With that comes the idea of making a difference wherever I go. Hopefully, it’s positive. I love what I do, but why would I continue to make films if it doesn’t reach people, make them laugh, feel, and connect?”

There is no comparison to anyone else’s journey because we all create and make choices from the unique vantage point of where we are every moment. There is a belief that we must choose one way of expressing ourselves for the rest of our lives. But the resonance goes beyond that statement, as we can choose to experience so many lifetimes within one life iteration. We are the life force expressing itself through physicality, and there is naturally nothing more exciting than to focus, feel, and express ourselves in infinite ways, because we can.

Chris shares his unique journey of being an executive and seeing, from a broader perspective, the union of all the cooperative components of the filmmaking craft. He says, “I’ve had a very unique and circuitous career. I started as an executive. I did not know this was exactly what I wanted to do as a child. There are so many lovely stories about how people knew they wanted to work in filmmaking or arts when they were teenagers. It’s not my case. My teenage old version of me would be shocked to see what I’m doing at this stage of my life. I’m still a partner at Rainmaker Films and enjoy that. But I’ve changed a lot over the course of my career. As I look back, and as I consider where I was at the beginning and where I am now, on the executive side, one of the things that is the most rewarding about the entire experience is the fact that I gained a unique perspective at 35,000 feet above where the projects are taking place. It gives you a wide perspective of understanding everything, from the marketing to the expenses, to development, how to put the packaging of the talents I am going to work with, the department heads, and the entire crew. You can see that when you take on such a vast enterprise, with so many different strings pulling, it can be very easy to overlook the details. And that’s one of the things as an executive or for filmmakers dealing with executives: it’s essential to remember that they are there to help. As an executive, you get a hand in everything, helping create a healthy and decisive culture that allows people to shine,” Chris pauses and then continues, “From the moment the script’s first words are written to when you’re at that film’s premiere, you’re sharing a unique journey with all the artists who have been an important part of it. One of the most challenging things about being an executive is that you’re responsible for many different departments and budgets and have people you must answer in the studio. That often creates a dichotomy between what you’d like to do and what is best for the team. And one of the things that I remember during my career was trying to create a balance. It can be tough to make some of those hard decisions. But I relish those opportunities. More often than not, we have erred on the positive side. I can’t say enough about the executives I’m currently fortunate to work with. As an executive earlier in my career, when I’ve gotten to work with the creatives who helped mold my career into the creative I’ve become, they’re all integral to my development.”

There is a mutuality in everything. When we receive an inspired idea, wild horses can’t stop us from taking action in the direction of realizing that idea into reality. From the vibrational perspective, all our inspired ideas come from an energetical collective asking for that idea to become, which is co-creation at its best. If we desire to create a project to enjoy its process of becoming ourselves, then an audience has asked for that experience of joy, too.

Photography // Chris Knight

“There is a lot of shifting in the filmmaking industry, which is fun. It’s an interesting time in the business. Even at Rainmaker Films, we create a unique business model. That model can be as simple as companies and studios prefer to make certain kinds of films because that’s their target audience to reach, and they feel very interconnected with their target audience. They want to continue to make projects that resonate with them. Then you have the ones that like to push the envelope. They try to make films by percentage and want to take chances with certain others. Some like to work with specific filmmakers and creatives because they built a shorthand. In the end, everyone has a different model. But sometimes, and it comes back to the difficulty of being on the executive side and the present challenges, we can become stuck or focused on the models we imbue where we create. A lot of times that means following trends. And, of course, when that period concludes, it creates a new period where different trends are released, and something becomes entirely innovative. We can see that in the rise of independent film, as an example, from the ’90s into the 2000s to the point where many studios wanted to make independent-style films. Then you could see the rise of the wave movement with what Harry Potter was doing in the 2000s or Twilight, which led to the Hunger Games being very popular for some time. These projects were created because of the movement where the public has such great power to dictate what they want to see and experience,” says Chris.

When we celebrate the success of others, we are experiencing the feeling of celebration ourselves. It’s a win-win. Then we reap the benefit from it, as anything we ever want to experience in our life is for the feeling of it. Success without the feeling of joy does not exist. Success is not conditioned by something outside of us, but it’s our state of being from within. First, we feel our way through being in a state of success, and then it appears as an event we want to experience.

Chris says with appreciation, “Barbie is an excellent example of that. Many people came out to the theater. I have been a fan of watching how this narrative has spoken and connected to a really exciting audience, arguably saving the theatrical experience. As a person with Rainmaker Films, where we do primarily theatrical films, we had a movie in the theaters earlier this year, To Catch the Killer, starring Shailene Woodley. And it’s fascinating to have been a part of a summer at the box office where Barbie has single-handedly potentially proven the possibilities of this model in the future. I can only say, ‘Thank you!’ As we chart some of the growth from the 90s, it’s a really exciting time because we’re on the cusp of what’s next with the streamers and everything happening. Barbie is a really good indication that the audiences can show up and watch the program they want to watch, pay for those tickets, go to the streamers when they wish, write comments on the internet, and every person’s voice does matter. It shows you what’s happening in the filmmaking community.”

Change is the only constant in the Universe. With every new question-challenge, there is a new answer-solution created—evolution. Expansion happens when we ask new questions for the new answers to be born. Growth comes from getting out of our comfort zone to explore with curiosity and wonder what’s beyond our current boundaries, so we can stretch ourselves into becoming more. At that moment, the uncomfortable becomes the new comfortable, and then we stretch it again to experience a fuller life for all our physical iteration.

“For me, I’m incredibly bullish on where things are going. I know it’s been hard. As a member of the WGA (The Writers Guild of America), even being on strike this entire summer, it’s been a great challenge. However, sometimes we have to face challenges before we can reap the rewards of it. Every little step of growth sometimes is a bit uncomfortable. But when we get to the other side, we really enjoy what happens afterward. The filmmaking industry is going through that by answering the hard questions about artificial intelligence and much more, like what the actors should be. Is enough being done for them professionally and personally to put them in the position to succeed? These questions are not always fun, and I get it. But because we’re able to have these conversations and hoping to have a dialogue about them, things will be much better,” candidly shares Chris.

Our biological identity can be stretched beyond the traditional perceptions of what family means. We are all here to experience different ways of directing our unconditional love toward everything and anyone we observe. Therefore, relationships considered born-in-family can be found in anyone who emanates the energy exchange of being a family toward whomever they choose.

About the impact Chris had growing up, he says, “As an international person, it’s an enriching aspect of my life but can also be challenging. Growing up, I was moving around and did not have access to everything I would have traditionally had access to. But there are so many gifts in having been able to grow up the way I have, whether it’s having friends across the globe, experiencing many countries and cultures, and drawing upon those experiences for myself. Many of us are fortunate to be born with biological relatives, but not all have that luxury. I would be an example of one of the folks who do not. But no matter what experience we have with how we grew up, we can all relate to the idea of found family. It doesn’t belittle the family we were born into. Yet, it determines the palpable community we find ourselves in as we grow into adolescence and develop into the people we will be. I’ve had the privilege of many beautiful, unique individuals influencing my growth then and now. To me, found family is as important as the biological one. You can see that reflected in the indie film Expectations, which I wrote and directed. It’s about a group of orphans and their benefactor who must accept that life is more than money. It’s about finding yourself in the unit and the community you choose. The characters do that comically and hopefully beautifully by the end. In my creative process, making films like The Big Wedding, where Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton’s characters have adopted a son who is getting married, or like in Expectations, you’ll see what it’s like to be a global citizen and have people that you consider found family, who are from different cultures and sound like they have other value systems, still come together, like brothers and sisters to solve problems while figuring out their sense of identity.”

Chris expresses his inspiration for the becoming of the film Expectations: “The film Expectations is inspired by Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations from the Victorian era. Although Dickens’s novel is set a century and a half ago, as far as my inspiration, it connects to some degree the reality we live in now. I remember I was in Australia the first time I read Great Expectations. At first, I was not too fond of it. It was long; it felt dry at the time. But as I got further into reading it, I started to identify with so many of the characters, and that’s one of those things where I found myself enraptured with a bit of what the characters are going through. In particular, I connected with Estella. Of course, for all intents and purposes, Estella could be considered the world’s first manic pixie dream girl, right? She’s there to bring all these emotions out of Pip. And Miss Havisham, who is mad, is using her as this tool to wreak havoc against humankind. My point is that emotions and feelings can make us do crazy things. The further I got into the book, I found myself questioning so much about Estella. Here’s a young woman who’s an orphan (like me), but she’s smart, talented, and intelligent. But if she doesn’t do what Miss Havisham wants, she could be kicked out of the house. We know how that worked in the Victorian era; there were rats and disease, and it was not very safe. In the meantime, what is her relationship with Pip like? From her perspective, we spend so much time with Pip, understanding he’s in love with Estella, but how much of it is real? How much was put on by what Miss Havisham coached him to do? Who is Estella based on what the others want her to be? And with these questions, this sense of identity becomes apparent, where this manic pixie dream girl thing comes into play. At what point does Estella draw the line between herself and what others expect of her? I began to relate very much to the idea of that. That ongoing question stuck with me long after I read the book.”

We are not born being villainous; it’s in our nature to love. Sometimes, we forget and have the illusion that others are doing something to us, and fear arises. When we are in fear, we look at the opposite of who we are; that’s why fear always feels bad. Our emotions are our compass, guiding and showing us in which direction we are focused. By being aware of it, we can shift our attention toward love, and in that state, we only can love. The most villainous people are the ones that are asking for love the most.

“Sometimes, you can read a book without knowing it’s leaving a mark on you. And here I am, over two decades later, it clearly left a significant impact on me. One of the fun things about the film Expectations is that you don’t need to read Great Expectations to watch it. It inspired me to revisit it in a comedic setting. It isn’t an adaptation of the novel; it’s a companion piece. We take the characters from where they are at the end of the book, and we put them in modern times. But the characters sometimes look and feel like they’re Victorian. And that’s part of the fun of the time jump. I was inspired to write about Estella in a way she might be feeling and doing, giving her some gravitas to explain her motivations and why she’s done some of the things she’s done, which can be considered villainous,” says Chris.

Photography // Chris Knight

We often get too serious about the things around us, and then we lose perspective of life being more fun. Being lighthearted about ourselves and others, knowing there is value in every experience, and allowing others to be, despite our differences, feels so good. Laughing at ourselves, even when we make a mistake, reminds us that nothing is going wrong; it brings us to the center of our hearts, and from there, we can easily focus on our preferences.

Chris expresses, “What’s more important for the audience is to see a group of people who have come together like a found family to find themselves, which is the reason for the movie. It wasn’t some catharsis for me to work anything about myself. It was an opportunity to show a current society that pats us on the back as we have all the technology and all these great medical advancements since the Victorian era. But one of the things that is more relevant today than ever between when Great Expectations was written and when I wrote the script for the film is the idea of identity. Inheritance was such an important part of the Victorian era. But look at today; one of the top television shows is Succession. People are obviously still very interested in inheritance. It is understanding these aspects of society then and seeing them in a comedy so we can laugh because not everything has to be dark. Finding the laughter in it allows us to connect and reflect even more. It sticks with us, and that’s the point of Expectations. I wanted to give the audience food to think about and question the perceived natural laws of identity from a new perspective.”

We often face challenges that we try to control outwardly. We want others to change for us to feel better or good. We say, “If this person would be different, I would feel different.” But by trying to control others, we give our own power away. We can only take the reflection we experience from others as information about what’s happening within ourselves. Whether it feels good or not, every external feedback is always about our inner state of being. It’s an opportunity, a gift, to look within and shift inwardly towards the version we want to experience ourselves and from others. And that’s in our total control—the change within—to experience the change without.

“The process of writing this was so fun. I have had amazing producers on this, from Jared Lacino and Andrew Panay to my production partners in Rainmaker Films, Clay Pecorin and Dave Hansen. These guys were so involved and loved it from the beginning, giving amazing notes. The film would only be there with each and every one of them. But what I will say in the course of writing, and one of the things that has left a mark on me, is the idea of how people see themselves and how they project something about what they want others to see of them. In a nutshell, I’ll tell you exactly how this relates to me because, first and foremost, all of our characters in the narrative will appear like sibling types, but really, they’re all beneficiaries. Miss Havisham in the film has survived the fire from Great Expectations. So, we open the movie with one of the last moments of classic literature. Then, we go on our own journey to tie it together. One of the things she’s done in the film is that Miss Havisham calls every one of the people she’s had, giving money during their youth to pay for schooling. We’ll know some legendary characters from the literature: Pip, Herbert Pocket, and Estella. And then we have whole brand-new characters that are all contemporary that we’ve never seen before, which would be some of these other beneficiaries she’d accumulated over the years. All of them are from different parts of the world. One is from Eastern Europe, one from France, and one from Staten Island, NY. By putting these people together, most have met and known each other from afar, but now they are all there to compete for this fortune. In essence, the film’s message is about how this diverse group of people want to lead by the best version of themselves, but are they really showing up like that? I had to come to grips with the idea that this is a normal part of our life. We do it on social media and put the things we want people to see. But of course, it’s a whole other side of us. On my side of things, getting to get further into that for the first time, to create characters that really are trying to do that. They come to grips with who they really are throughout the course of the film, with tribulations and discussions with each other. Including characters from the source material who finally get to say things to each other, I’ve also understood quite a bit about myself. I also learned so much being in the director’s role. Working with so many talented people on this film was a pleasure, both behind the camera and on the camera. One of the things that I really, really relish as I walked away is knowing ultimately when you build a good team, when you put together good individuals, they’ll stick with you through thick and thin,” says Chris about his experience of creating behind and on the camera.

We often perceive that the process of experiencing life is goal oriented. Goals are necessary to clarify our preferences. But we spend most of the time on the journey between those goals, transitioning from one to another. Enjoying the unfolding of our desires brings the most satisfying life experience. Once a wish is manifested, it’s a minuscule moment compared to the journey we took to realize it as we continually become. Being confident does not mean knowing what will happen, but accepting the existence of all potentials, not insisting on only one outcome, but allowing ourselves to be surprised and delighted by the “how” and “when” our goals will come to life in our physical realm.

“I’m often asked what I do when I have setbacks or difficulties. There’s no clear answer because I am an orphan. Going through that was challenging in my youth. There has always been this wisdom: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ and that the things you go through harden you to deal with other challenges in the future. And I’m sure some of that is true. But it’s not how I’ve ever chosen to look at it. That’s why what I like the most about myself is the journey that I’ve been on. I have found that there are so many things in my life that I’ve learned. I garner the plethora of experiences I have in different places with different people. The impact that they have left on me has given me what I hope to be: a wide array of views of the world and myself. There has always been growth involved. It can be challenging, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything because I like the person I’m becoming. And that’s probably the best thing. I say that very succinctly because I’m not quite there yet. I’m still becoming the person I am. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland does such a great job of explaining, ‘Oh, you’re not quite Alice, you’re becoming Alice.’ I feel like my journey is very much a prolonged portion of that. I’m constantly finding new and exciting things about myself. Even though there will be challenging things, at the end of the day, I can look myself in the mirror and be cool with myself, shake my own hand, and give myself a salute. And the thing that I reward the most about other people is when I see a person with an absolute conviction, something they really believe in. That’s building a meaningful connection and relationship with the other person. I learned from sharing; even if I don’t understand it, it allows me to ask questions. By asking those questions, I also understand a little more about myself, which enriches me,” Chris concludes.

Like Chris, are you open to allowing yourself to be, do, and have the experience of expressing yourself in many different ways?

Photography // Chris Knight

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