“Tommy Balls was passed out cold on his corduroy couch when his mother knocked on his door.”
More than a decade has passed since a young Mr. Balls was roused from his bloodshot slumber that Wednesday morning. His mother, who was doing the rousing in an exasperated attempt to drag him to church was 49 years old. Now, she would be about 60 - if she were real. During the interim, author Chris Millis has written several screenplays, cartoon books, celebrity biographies, and a second novel. He got to meet his boyhood idol Dwight ‘Doc’ Gooden and party with cast members of “Jersey Shore” during the TV show’s height of popularity.
“To come back to it 10, 11 years later and film the movie - what I had to do was just total immersion,” says Chris Millis, creator of all characters in “Small Apartments,” a 123-page book he wrote and illustrated during a manic three-day spell more than a decade ago. The book, winner of a 3-day novel-writing contest, was published in 2001.
The movie adaptation was screened at The South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas in 2012 and promptly nabbed by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions for distribution. The Los Angeles premier, attended by the film’s featured star - Billy Crystal - was held earlier this month. The Saratoga Springs premier will be held at the Saratoga Springs Music Hall on Friday and at Gannett Auditorium at Skidmore College on Saturday. By late Wednesday, nearly all 600 tickets for the shows were gone. A few however remain for those interested in Saturday's screening.
Chris Millis (R) with Billy Crystal, who stars in his movie
“I've seen the movie many times, but this is what really excites me because I know how many people have supported me over the years and I make Saratoga my home,” said Millis, a 1990 Saratoga Springs High School graduate. He and wife Lisa are parents to twin boys who are eighth-generation Saratogians. “All the places I've travelled - and in the last six years I've traveled a lot - I wouldn't want to live anyplace other than this town and it means a lot to me to share it with my community.”
During the screening, you will likely find Millis seated in the last row, watching the audience. “You feel a little bare, a little exposed,” he says “it's a dark comedy and I hope they get the jokes. When you do feel that energy coming from the audience, I know they're with me.” The film has an R-rating and no one under 17 will be admitted. It features an eclectic cast of characters including James Caan, Rosie Perez, Amanda Plummer, and Dolph Lundgren. The biggest box-office draw is Billy Crystal.
“I was psyched he did the movie. I think we caught him at the right time. He had never been in an independent film before, so I was really honored that he chose my script to do that,” Millis says. “My favorite thing Billy Crystal said to me was, ‘hey you write good, kid. You're funny.’”
The nature of a screenplay is that it’s a collaborative venture which requires flexibility, Millis says. The novel was set in Buffalo, but the film’s setting was changed to Los Angeles, which helped to secure actors for the roles. “I had to think about things like, well, we can save a half-day of shooting if the scene starts inside the apartment instead of outside. You could save tons of money and tons of time. So, it really becomes a new version of the story, but what I'm so proud of is that the final product is so close to the novel. It has the heart and soul of the novel, and it came out really well.”
Millis worked until the wee hours of the morning in the weeks leading up to the filming in Los Angeles with three-time Grammy Award winning director Jonas Akerlund and Saratoga native Scott Sheldon. “I learned the little things, like never call somebody just a ‘store clerk.’ Give them a name, because you're never going to get someone to play 'clerk,' but you will get an actor to play ‘Artie.’”
Initially an illustrator, Millis has partnered with John McPherson since 1995 on the syndicated cartoon panel “Close To Home.” He began his career as an art director and sportswriter and was one of the seven original “blockheads” who in 1999 shared an artists’ working space on Broadway known as Saratoga Creative Block.
As a celebrity collaborator, his credited books include “The Making of a Stand-Up Guy,” with “Chappelle’s Show” star Charlie Murphy, and the 2010 national bestseller “Here’s the Situation,” with Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, star of MTV’s “Jersey Shore.”
“That was on odd project. Originally it started as a biography, then it changed publishers and they said, ‘well, that's not really what we want to do. We want more of a guide for guidos. And by the way, you've got like three weeks to deliver it,’” he says.
“I did a sample chapter on wingmen and grenades and they dug that. I spent a week doing the drawings and a week doing the writing and delivered the book. The fun part is I got to spend time with 'The Sitch.' We also hung out in L.A. where I got to see him do his thing at the clubs,” Millis recalls.
“I had this surreal experience where we went out and the cast of ‘Twilight’ happened to be there. This was when ‘Twilight’ was the number one movie and (instead) everyone at the club lined up to get their picture with The Situation, you know, lifting his shirt and doing The Thing. That's the power of reality television. Here's the cast with the number one movie in the world right now - they're right here - and they want their picture with this dude lifting his shirt,” he laughs.
Millis says he will enjoy the epic movie premier weekend in his hometown and the public release of the film on DVD.
His second novel, “God & California,” is due to be released in the spring. “It’s about a defrocked Catholic priest and a wounded Iraq war veteran,” says Millis about the dark comedy road trip. “They’re delivering a 1975 Pink Cadillac from New York to California and breaking the Ten Commandments along the way, trying to provoke God into a conversation.”
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