Q&A: Chris Millis, B.A. ’94

Editor's Note: To follow is a transcript of our full interview with Chris Millis, '94. An abridged version of this interview appears in the print version of the Fall 2013 issue. 

Chris Millis, B.A. ’94, is a prize-winning novelist, screenwriter, producer, cartoonist, and best-selling celebrity collaborator.

His first novel, Small Apartments (Anvil Press, 2001), won the 23rd Annual International 3-Day Novel Contest, and was turned into a feature film that made its world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, in 2012. It is now available from Sony Pictures on DVD. Directed by famed music video director Jonas Åkerlund, the quirky movie boasts a star-studded cast, including Billy Crystal, Matt Lucas, Johnny Knoxville, James Caan, Dolph Lundgren, Juno Temple, Peter Stormare, James Marsden, DJ Qualls, Amanda Plummer, Saffron Burrows, David Koechner, David Warshofsky, Rebel Wilson, Rosie Perez, and many more.

His second novel, God & California, is being published this summer by Vermont Press. The story was optioned in screenplay format by Lionsgate Films in 2008, but was recently optioned back to Millis, who plans to produce it as an independent film. God & California is the tale of a wounded army veteran and a defrocked Catholic priest, who embark on a road trip across America in a pink, Cadillac Eldorado convertible—breaking all Ten Commandments along the way in a quest to speak with God.

Millis’s illustrated books include An American Bestiary, by former senator, presidential candidate, and poet-statesman, Eugene McCarthy, and the children's book, A Clam Named Sam, by New England author and conservationist Lee DeVitt. He also co-authored Here’s the Situation with Jersey Shore star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino.

Since 1995, Millis has co-created John McPherson's syndicated cartoon feature “Close To Home,” which is distributed to over 700 publications worldwide by Universal Press Syndicate.

Recently, Millis spoke with us from his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he lives with his wife and two young sons.

Tell us a little about the origin of Small Apartments.
For years, I had been intrigued by an ad in the back of the Writer’s Market for a three-day novel-writing contest, but the contest is always held over Labor Day weekend and that’s a big weekend where I live (Saratoga, New York), so I never took the time to enter. In 2000, my wife happened to be going out of town that weekend, so I gave it a try.

The only real writing I had done before this was for the Record at Buffalo State and some work for the Rochester Free Press and the Saratogian. I had never written fiction before and I didn’t have any expectations other than wanting to get 100 pages down on paper toward a full-length novel.

The contest is on the honor system. You get to start at midnight on Friday and you can have an outline of your story.  I had an outline ready for a story called “Green Heron Foursome” about some guys who take a mulligan on life, but 15 minutes before I started, I just decided to go in a completely different direction and write about a guy living in the neighborhood around Buffalo State. I figured that I would put him in trouble—he begins the book in his apartment trying to figure out how to get rid of his dead landlord—then see if I could write him out of the corner.

I started typing the text on a computer, but realized that it’s too easy to go backwards on a computer—you’re constantly looking at previous paragraphs and deleting stuff. It’s hard to move forward. So, I grabbed a legal pad and a fountain pen and pretty much didn’t stop until I was done.

There were 600 entries in the contest from around the world and I ended up winning the contest. It was pretty exciting.

And so the book was published and optioned for film?
Yes—and in Hollywood, most of the time they want the novelist to go away and have someone else write the screenplay. Luckily, though, I was able to adapt it for film. I actually feel like I’m a better screenwriter than novel writer. I think I have a screenwriter’s sensibility. Since Small Apartments is a novella, it really lent itself to a movie. I could go scene by scene without having to leave much out and, in fact, I was able to add some things to the movie that improve on the book.

The novel is set in Buffalo?
Buffalo figures prominently in the book. The city is kind of its own character. I had never written about personal stuff before, but a lot of the scenes happen in places I’m familiar with around Buffalo.

I wish I could have set the film in Buffalo and filmed it there, but part of getting some of the big-name actors was to film it in L.A. and set it in L.A.

Here’s a little Buffalo State secret: For the movie, I gave names to some of the characters who, in the book, have generic names like “detective” or “clerk.” So, I named them after my TKE (Tau Kappa Epsilon) frat brothers from Buff State. There’s a Detective O’Grady named after Tim O’Grady, ’92, and a Detective Holman, who was named in tribute to the late Rich Holman, ’92.

You have a real knack for dialogue.
A lot of that comes from the way I grew up listening to family talk around my grandma’s table. I guess I’ve just always had that ear for how people speak and how they express themselves.

I’ve also worked on cartoons for a while and you have about one line—or three seconds—with the reader to say something funny and do it in a character’s voice. I think that has helped.

Your work has been called weird. Would you call yourself weird?
I’m probably not as weird personally as my work comes across. I’ve done a very good job of infiltrating the system. I’ve done a lot of talks at colleges across the country and the students who have read or seen my work probably expect someone who looks weird. Those who know me would say I’m more of a wit than a comedian.

How did it get picked up for film?
Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes the cartoon “Close to Home,” has a division called Amuse Productions that options content to Hollywood. They pitched Small Apartments on my behalf and it was picked up by Deviant Films.

What was it like to work with Billy Crystal?
I had no idea that he would be involved—he hadn’t done a feature film in nine years. Apparently he read the script and decided that he wanted to do it. When I met him on the set, he said, “You write good, kid. You’re funny.” And then we started talking baseball—and although I’m a Mets fan and he’s a Yankees fan, we hit it off.

How about working with Jonas Akerlund?
He’s very collaborative and he’s a delegator. We spent many wee hours rewriting and finetuning the screenplay. I’m super proud of what we came out with.

Did you expect such a star-studded cast?
At the studio, there was a giant board with headshots and every night a new photo showed up on the board, one-by-one as the actors were cast. I just kept being amazed. Billy Crystal… Billy Crystal! Then James Caan… Johnny Knoxville… Rebel Wilson… DJ Qualls… and on and on. I kept saying to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Once the ball got rolling, we really put together an incredible group of actors.

How do you explain humor?
Humor comes from being really curious about the world and finding odd connections in everyday, familiar things. It’s about making an audience think about things in ways they never thought of before. If you see something out of place or out context, it can be very funny.

How did you become involved with “Close to Home?”
In 1995, I was at the Parting Glass, a bar in Saratoga, for my dad’s retirement party. I had drawn him a few cartoons as a gift. It just so happened that John McPherson, the creator of the cartoon, was in the bar shooting darts that day. We started talking and he looked at my cartoons and asked if I wanted to help him for the summer. I said yes. These were the old days of sitting over a light box and gray-toning the drawings. We spent 5 hours sitting next to each other every day, tossing around ideas, drawing cartoons, and putting a finished product in Fed Ex each night. I’ve been helping him out ever since.

Your new novel, God and California, is being published this summer by Vermont Press. What is it about?
I started the book as my master’s thesis—it’s been eight years in the making, so I’m very excited that it is finally in print. It’s a road trip book about an Army vet and a priest who set out across the country to deliver a pink Cadillac, and they break the Ten Commandments along the way. I optioned the movie rights to Lionsgate Films in 2008 but recently bought the option back so that I can produce it independently and direct it myself. I’m rewriting the screenplay now—so stay tuned!

How do you manage life between Saratoga and L.A.?
My wife takes on the responsibilities at home. We love living in Saratoga—my boys love living near their grandparents and they love their school. They are 8th generation Saratogians!

When I do go to L.A. for work, it’s usually for 2, 3, or 4 week stretches, and I stay with Scott Sheldon, a guy a grew up with in Saratoga who is an accomplished actor.

What were your career aspirations while at Buffalo State?
Although I was never really into comic books, I wanted to be a cartoonist—but I guess hadn’t really thought that all the way through. I’m not sure where I thought I’d find a job drawing cartoons. I guess I figured I could be an illustrator of some sort.

Tell us about the activities that your were involved in during college.
I joined TKE fraternity and was always active with that group. I was also the catcher on Buffalo State’s club baseball team. I was a switch hitter, leadoff man, and base stealer—not the usual combination for a catcher. We were a serious team and had some good ballplayers.

Of course, I remember lots of house parties—and I was there for the Bills’ Super Bowl years. That was fun. I did editorial cartoons and wrote some humor columns for the Record. It was very gratifying to see my words and drawings in print—that’s probably where I got the bug. It was great to get feedback and hear people commenting on my work. College newspapers are a golden opportunity to put yourself out there without too much risk.

Did you have any influential teachers?
I remember Phil Santa Maria, dean of students, and David Landrey, a terrific English teacher, being influential. And I remember Ralph Raico once taking me aside and saying, “Chris, what are you doing? You’ve got talent, if you focus!” That stuck with me. The faculty wanted to see you succeed.

What’s next?
The creative brain is always looking for the next project. Part of being an artist is to be in constant dissatisfaction. I’ve got a few new stories in the works!