Eddie O’Keefe (far right) and Chris Hutton (far left) with “Shangri-La Suite” stars Luke Grimes and Emily Browning. Photo from Emily’s Instagram.

Going Hollywood: A Conversation with Eddie O’Keefe & Chris Hutton

The writers & director of “Shangri-La Suite” and “When The Street Lights Go On” discuss filmmaking, getting Father John Misty to sing on their soundtrack & more

by Katie Ingegneri, OKRP Social Content Editor

We were excited to welcome Eddie O’Keefe and his writing partner Chris Hutton to the OKRP offices recently. They were in town from Los Angeles for the Chicago International Television Festival’s screening of their TV pilot, “When The Street Lights Go On.” Coincidentally, we were also hosting our first “Camp OKRP,” a week-long training camp for college students interested in advertising and pursuing creative careers. Eddie and Chris spoke to our “campers” about their process of getting into Hollywood and how they collaborate with each other and production partners like Bow & Arrow to create their work.

As we also celebrate the release of “Shangri-La Suite,” which OKRP has an executive producer credit on, and which is now available on Netflix, it seemed like a great time to sit down with Eddie and Chris when they were in Chicago to have a conversation about how they got into filmmaking and screenwriting, landing their projects in Hollywood, how they write together, and how music was essential to the creation of “Shangri-La Suite,” which includes exciting soundtrack cameos by the likes of Father John Misty and Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado. This interview gives great insights into what it means to be a young creator trying to make their way in Hollywood today. It’s quite the robust conversation to dive into — but well worth the trip.

OKRP: How did you guys meet?

Eddie O’Keefe: We met at the American Film Institute in LA, which is most famous for making all the lists, like “AFI’s Top 100 Movies.” They also have a really great film school, like David Lynch went, and Terrence Malick — it has a good grad program. Chris was in the writing program and I was in the directing program. For the first year there, as a director, you can’t write your own film, and I’d never directed something I didn’t write. Chris and I were put in the same pitch circle, and his ideas were the best ideas — we’d work together on something he’d come up with, and that was it.

Chris Hutton: We “fell in love,” from that moment on. We’ve been together for six, seven years now. It’s crazy.

Chris Hutton and Eddie O’Keefe

Eddie: I did Columbia [College] for undergrad…Chris didn’t go to undergrad.

Chris: I didn’t go to undergrad, AFI was one of those few programs where you didn’t have to have any prior education, and you could get a certificate.

Eddie: And then we dropped out, we peaced out of there. Not because it wasn’t a great school, I learned a lot. “Street Lights” was written as a feature, and got a bunch of attention for us, unexpectedly, and people wanted to option it and stuff, these big career moments. We didn’t want to put that on hold and do another year of school.

So did you write that one first, or “Shangri-La Suite”?

Chris: We wrote “Shangri-La Suite” as a short first, that was gonna be our thesis project for our following year. We made it as a short, wrote that, and then we wrote “Street Lights.”

Eddie: “Street Lights” was the first feature we wrote together. And that was kind of because a weird opportunity presented itself, where I’d made a short film that an agent at WME, which is a big agency out in LA, saw and liked. So we had a meeting and he was like “what are some ideas that you have,” and I had pitched him “Street Lights” and “Shangri-La,” and one other project, I forget what that was, and he liked “Street Lights” the best. And he said “if you and your writing partner graduate in a year, finish that, send it to me, the door’s always open.”

Chris: It was funny too cause I remember when that happened, Eddie and I were at Grauman’s, and we were seeing “Insidious.” You got that call from WME saying “hey listen, we’re interested here,” and I hadn’t had any contact with them, so I didn’t know what Eddie was talking about. I had no kind of frame of reference for agencies, so I was like “alright man, if you think we should write something, sure, let’s do it.”

Eddie: It was a very lucky situation, cause a lot of people go through years of figuring out “how do I get an agent” and we sort of cheated. It was a happy accident that this short I had made, this guy saw — most likely would never have seen it, but it was on this website and he saw it and sent me an email. We’re very fortunate.

Chris: Insanely fortunate. Cause I had nothing to do with that short, so it was very good luck.

So then you decided to make “Shangri-La” into a full-length?

Eddie: “Street Lights” got all this attention for us, and that was never something I was gonna direct, it was always a foot-in-the-door kinda thing. We got so much attention for it that we sensed that if we did something quickly, I could weasel my way into the system, so we wrote “Shangri-La” very quickly after “Street Lights.” Both projects took years and years to be turned into something, “Shangri-La” ended up happening first. It’s weird that the two things that have been made, we wrote so long ago.

Chris: Yeah, probably six years ago.

Eddie: And nothing since has been made. We haven’t worked on much since, to be honest. We wrote a film that nothing came of, and we wrote a TV pilot for Sundance Channel that didn’t move forward, and then we wrote three episodes of “Street Lights,” produced the pilot. And now we’re in the midst of writing two other television projects with Anonymous Content, who produced “Street Lights.”

How long did it take you to write “Shangri-La Suite,” and what inspired the story and everything?

Chris: I’m not sure how long it took to write, it was very quick. We wanted to write a 70s movie, some of our favorite movies are lovers on the run, 70s movies. We both had an affection for “Badlands,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and all those, so we wanted to do our version of it.

Eddie: The initial concept as a short was going to be two lovers on the run, headed to LA to kill Elvis, but Elvis was not going to be in it. And then when it came time to make it into a feature, we were having a lot of a trouble, we were like “how do we make this into a movie,” and somewhere along the way this idea entered the picture, that we make Elvis a B-story. And then it really came to life cause we knew what it was.

Luke Grimes as Jack Blueblood and Emily Browning as Karen Bird in “Shangri-La Suite.”

But we did write the first draft relatively quickly, maybe like six weeks, eight weeks, and then we found these producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who did “Election,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “About Schmidt,” and they were kind of these 90s independent trailblazer film producers. They helped us re-craft it further for like a year, they gave a lot of notes and a lot of feedback. We did draft after draft with them. And eventually, they didn’t feel like it was ready to go to actors yet, but it had leaked within the agencies, and young actors started reading it, which kinda forced the production ahead, sort of prematurely. And then once that happened — actors in Hollywood 18–30 are all looking for cool roles, so we were lucky that everybody in that age group responded to it, and that gave the project this momentum within the industry.

Then these younger, hungrier producers, Matt [Perniciaro] and his partner [Michael] Sherman [of Bow & Arrow], they came on board, and they were like, “we know how to make this movie for less money than Albert and Ron.” We were never gonna make it for 5 million dollars, which is what Albert and Ron wanted to do. And Matt and Sherman were like, “we can make it for a million,” which we couldn’t do either, but they had a plan and an approach, so Albert and Ron took backseat, executive producer roles, visited the set and gave feedback on the edits and stuff. We didn’t really do any development with them, we didn’t edit the script based on their notes — they really came on and knew how to make it, and market it and whatever, they kind of knew where it belonged. They were great, the movie wouldn’t have been made without them. I owe a lot to them.

Cause you had done that one, “Ghosts”?

Eddie: That was the short that the agent saw.

Oh, okay. Yeah I never saw that, actually.

Eddie: It’s alright, you don’t have to see it.

I know [The Orwells] used to post about it sometimes.

Eddie: That was the only thing I had done, with stuff at AFI, I did shorts at AFI. But nobody ever stepped in and said “maybe you’re not ready to direct.” Like I think they trusted me from the “Ghosts” and some of my samples — they knew I could do a scene of dialogue and whatever. They did a lot to push really experienced people around me. I had a great production designer who had much more experience than me, costume designer and whatnot. I was probably given the keys to the car a little too early, but I’m grateful that I was, cause you always learn more by doing than by reading or observing or whatever, so I feel like that was a trial by fire. The whole process was like, I’m callused, every bit of me, I’ve got armor on now.

Yeah it’s a great movie, I just watched it again. Even when we saw it at Soho, there were little pieces I remember that were still being edited or something, so it was cool to see the final, final project. It reminds me of Wes Anderson.

Eddie: Wes Anderson’s one of those guys where like 5 years ago, 10 years ago, if you were influenced by Wes Anderson and that was put on your film, it was like this negative, and now I feel like it’s turning that corner. We were 10 years old when “Rushmore” came out, so we grew up with the movies in a way, where it’s okay to be like his influence is there. Definitely in the narration, and in terms of some of the graphic imagery, is very much indebted to him. He’s one of those guys, one of like three guys who I feel like if you’re our age and you’re trying to make films, he’s a guy you think about.

Yeah, totally. And he has such a big emphasis on music in his stuff.

Eddie: He used to, although it doesn’t seem like the last few any pop songs.

Chris: He had a couple, not as much. I haven’t been as tuned in, so they don’t have the same effect, and as a result I’m not paying attention.

Yeah, I’m still stuck in the “Royal Tenenbaums”/ “Life Aquatic” so that’s kinda what I’m thinking of. Like all the retro songs, the rock songs, that’s totally what “Shangri-La” makes me think of. Music is such a big part of the movie — is that something when you were writing it, you were thinking about some of these songs? Elvis, obviously…

Eddie: Yeah, I feel like our mandate in writing it was that we wanted it to feel like a pop song, we wanted the movie itself to feel like a pop song, an old rock n roll song, to have that same cadence and momentum, and rough around the edges. So we played music throughout that, while writing it and while pitching it, music was a huge part of it. I don’t know if any of our initial tracks ended up being in the film, maybe “Hurt.” A lot of our dream tracks we couldn’t afford, like there was a Link Wray cover of “Girl from the North Country” by Bob Dylan that was incredible, and felt in the spirit of what we were making, but the publishing cost so much cause it was a Bob Dylan song. And there were a few others like that, although I guess “I Found a Reason,” the Velvet Underground track was one that was on our playlist at the time, and we got [Jonathan] Rado [of Foxygen] to cover that, that was cool. I think he killed that cover.

It was funny watching the movie again after we had just put out the playlist, cause I was able to pick out all the songs — I didn’t realize “I Found a Reason” was Rado in the movie. So were you friends with him in LA, or how did that happen?

Eddie: No, I just know him loosely through Justin Gage, our music supervisor, who runs Aquarium Drunkard and Autumn Tone. He’s buddies with them, and we just made a list of vocalists and artists that we thought would make sense for these covers. So he’s how Father John Misty and Rado became involved. Rado also recorded the cover of “Hello It’s Me.” That one is all him, where “I Found a Reason” is a collaboration between him and the composers of the film, the Mondo Boys, they did that together — but “Hello It’s Me” is just like him in his garage on every instrument.

Wow. And then Father John did the other Velvet Underground cover.

Yeah, “Who Loves The Sun,” which was awesome, I couldn’t believe he said yes. I think he saw like a teaser of footage and thought it looked cool. He and Justin go back a long time, back to the J. Tillman days. I think Autumn Tone put out an EP of J. Tillman, so they have a long history.

Just thinking about music videos, you had directed a bunch before “Shangri-La Suite,” so did that have any impact on how you did any of that stuff? Just being so music-centric in the film…

Eddie: I guess I got to shoot on film for some music videos, 16 millimeter, which was helpful, and we shot “Shangri-La” on 16 mm, which was kind of scary to shoot on film when you’re used to digital. So I think some experience with the music videos, doing that was helpful. And there were some aesthetic things that we try in the videos that worked on the film. Like there’s a motif in “Shangri-La” where there’s kind of a harsh spotlight on the characters, and that was something we had done — I did it in The Orwells’ “Blood Bubbles” video, like a hovering spotlight moving along with the camera. I guess some things like that found their way from music videos into the language of the movie. And the same cinematographer I had done most of my videos with, he’s the cinematographer on the film, Lane Teichler. Music videos really helped me feel more confident in my capabilities. I learned a lot doing them, and I still like doing them when I have the opportunity, which is not so often these days.

You did the “Black Francis” one.

Eddie: Yeah that was fun. When the budget is enough, and The Orwells who I love, and I’m willing to be scrappy, it’s fun, but a lot of times there’s no money, and I’m not like so young and in a place where I’m ready to dedicate a month to a video for no budget, it’s a little difficult to carve out that time now. But I love doing them.

So do you think you’re gonna do more of those, or focus on “Street Lights,” or is that all set?

Chris: “Street Lights” is kind of — we’re moving on from that, so to speak. That’s kind of in the rearview now. And like Eddie said, we’ve kinda written some other things, so I think we’re gonna spend the rest of the year developing those, seeing where those things go, seeing if anything hits while trying to grab as many ideas as we possibly can.

What’s your process like as partners and writers?

Chris: I wish we could say it’s like, super disciplined…it’s colorful, we’re kind of all over the place. We don’t really have an office, so we write from Eddie’s house — being comfortable in someone’s house kind of makes for a wackier scene.

Eddie: Our process is good, we got a good flow. Now we’re finding our stride. It’s different when — doing production is different.

Chris: Like Eddie said, we haven’t really been writing, hardcore, old-school writing, for almost two, three years now, cause we’ve been developing, we did some more episodes for “Street Lights,” we did re-writes on “Shangri-La”…So the last 5 months after “Street Lights,” wrapped, we really got away from that and kind of jumped back into writing. So we’re starting to hit our stride again. It’s a muscle, so once you get away from it, it’s weird to step back in.

Yeah, it’s tough. But I’m a solo writer…

Chris: I was never interested in co-writing, ever. But now I can’t imagine writing by myself. It’s just frightening, and there are so many advantages to having another person. The prospect of writing by myself feels so solitary, like how do I complete something without somebody else? So it’s this weird kinda give-and-take.

Eddie: Screenwriting is one of the few things that you can co-write. It’s like 90% structure. They’re very crude documents, they’re not very literary. So it’s a lot of putting notecards up on a wall, and talking about the architecture of the story. It’s much easier to collaborate on. You could never write a novel together, or a poem together, or even a blog post, it’d be hard to co-author. But for screenwriting, I can’t imagine writing alone either. It’s a lonely process, writing. You don’t know whether what you’re writing is good or bad, so having that second person who’s there, that’s huge, that’s helpful.

Chris: Having that confidence of somebody else saying “that’s great,” then you’re like “oh, it really is.”

So do you guys spend most of your week working together, or you do other stuff?

Chris: Yeah, we do, the last couple months we definitely have.

Eddie: It depends whether we’re in the middle of something. If we’re in the middle of writing, we write every day, vigorously with regular hours. But if we’re in a place where we’re gathering, or we’re waiting on things to happen, waiting on actors to read…

Chris: It’ll be weeks or months or whatever it takes, to expose yourself to other things…You gotta filter well.

Is there anything else you wanna say about “Shangri-La Suite,” or how it all came together?

Chris: Ron Livingston is great in it, I think Ron’s performance is tremendous as Elvis. I hope people get to see that, cause Ron’s performance is particularly special I think. This subdued, quiet Elvis hasn’t really been done in film, it’s really unique.

Ron Livingston as Elvis Presley in “Shangri-La Suite.”

Listen to The “Shangri-La Suite” Playlist, curated by Eddie O’Keefe and film stars Emily Browning, Luke Grimes and Avan Jogia. “Shangri-La Suite” is now available on iTunes and Netflix.

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