“I have a movie here,” he explained.
“What movie?” She asked.
“Small Apartments,” Millis said.
“You wrote Small Apartments? Bulls—t,” she replied incredulously. “That movie is a really big deal at this festival!”
Millis eventually had to pull out his own hard copy of the film to prove to her that he was, indeed, both the novelist and screenwriter of the book-turned-independent film.
The film focuses on a character named Franklin Franklin, a lonely man who plays the alphorn and dreams of Switzerland—then finds himself in a lot of trouble after accidentally killing his landlord. The film follows Franklin as he tries to weed his way out of the mess while consorting with the strange residents of his small apartment complex.
Millis is a seventh-generation native of Saratoga Springs, who just happened to write his first-ever novel in only three days as a participant in the 23rd Annual International 3-Day Novel Contest—and ended up winning the competition.
“I was freaked out to learn that I had won,” Millis admitted. “It was the first thing I had ever really written so I was pretty amazed, and I was totally confused as to what to do after that—like, ‘Does this mean I’m a writer? What do writers do and how do they make money—wait, they don’t make money!’”
After adapting his novel into a screenplay, Millis decided to take his talents to graduate school at Goddard College in Vermont, earning a degree in creative writing.
“When I write a screenplay, I will card it out on a board with all the scenes on cards, then do a handwritten outline on a legal pad, about 15 pages long with the interior, exterior, street, and day details and then write a few things that happen in the scene—so essentially I’ll have the whole movie done by the time I start to write it,” Millis explained. “By the time I sit down to start to write the screenplay itself with dialogue, it’s all in my head, it’s all done and I could [complete] it in three days or a week and be happy with it—that’s just the way I work.”
Millis does most of his writing in Saratoga Springs and Lake Placid—in fact, he finished what he called a “pretty good” screenplay—a comedy about an online poker heist—right in downtown Saratoga Springs at Uncommon Grounds coffee shop.
“As a writer, this is where I feel comfortable,” Millis said. “I like to write here and in the Adirondacks, and [if I moved] I’d be giving that up, which could negatively affect my writing. And of all the places I’ve traveled in the country and overseas, there’s no place I’d rather be than in Saratoga.”
Small Apartments was published in 2001 and later optioned by the film company Deviant Pictures, with director Jonas Akerlund.
Among the star-studded cast of the indie film is lead actor Matt Lucas, the British actor of “Little Britain” and “Bridesmaids” fame, Billy Crystal, Johnny Knoxville, James Caan, Juno Temple, James Marsden, and several more A-listers.
The movie was shot in March and April of 2011 in Los Angeles, though the book is set in Buffalo, N.Y. Millis said that though most directors don’t allow screenwriters to stay on set, Akerlund let him—a rare feat for a brand new Hollywood screenwriter.
“The actors gravitate toward the writer because the writer created the characters and they’re looking for insight into their characters,” Millis explained. “No director wants any opportunity for his authority to be usurped, but Jonas isn’t that way at all.”
Millis admitted he did once make the mistake of giving Billy Crystal an acting note without Jonas’ permission.
“I was trying to correct Billy on a line delivery because I knew that if he said it this way, it would screw something up in the future—it had to be said a certain way or else it would be ruined,” Millis remembered. “But I should have just told Jonas so he could tell Billy – there’s definitely that concern directors have with having the writers around.”
Millis said that being able to help the actors with their characters helped him have a sense of ownership with the movie.
“I would have curled up in a ball in a bathroom somewhere if I couldn’t have been on set,” Millis said. “Frankly, I think that as a team, we made it a better movie. If I wasn’t there doing that, I wouldn’t feel such an ownership over what we created together.”
Asked if he feels vulnerable when he sees his work up on the screen, Millis said he’s “definitely exposed.”
“It’s weird—you can look at stuff you’ve written a few years ago, and it doesn’t even feel like you wrote it,” he said. “I think it’s just an expression of a moment—no matter how deep and hard you work on something, when you look at it years later it’s just this thing that exists and hangs in space and you can’t do anything to affect it anymore—it’s there, and you did do it, but it just feels like that’s a past version of yourself and now you’re onto something else.”
Now that the majority of his Small Apartments screenings are over, Millis is focusing on what’s next: planning the rest of his movie premieres, making more independent film projects, coming out with a new cover for the Small Apartments novel, doing re-write gigs, and getting into producing.
“I have like 57 balls in the air,” Millis said, half-joking. “It’s a constant scramble.”
But for this weekend, Millis is going to concentrate on letting go of his current work plans so he can attend the local premieres of Small Apartments.
“With this weekend, I’m just going to try to slow down and enjoy it, because this is really cool—to have all these people from town come out, and friends and people I’ve grown up with—there will be a lot of love in the room,” Millis said. “I’m more excited about this than any other premiere or screening we’ve done. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Though the March 1 screening of Small Apartments sold out in just five days, a second screening was added for Saturday, March 2 at 7 p.m. The premiere will take place in the Ganett Auditorium in Palamountain Hall on the Skidmore College campus.
For more information about Chris Millis or to buy tickets to the screening, visit www.chrismillis.com. Tickets are $7 in advance and $10 at the door, if available.