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One-on-one with filmmaker Chris Tenzis - "The subject that interests me most is intimacy and love"

Christopher Tenzis is a filmmaker from Chicago, IL where he started as an intern at Kartemquin Films during the completion of Hoop Dreams (Fine Line Features). He studied at the British Film Institute, the London International Film School and The American Film Institute Conservatory. While in Chicago, he received the Build Illinois Filmmakers Grant after the completion of his feature, Some Guys, which premiered at The Chicago Underground Film Festival. He was an editor at Will Vinton Studios on the animated series The PJs (Warner Bros.) and Gary & Mike (UPN) and is currently with Sony Pictures on the HBO MAX animated series, The Boondocks. His own films have played on PBS, SXSW, The London International Film Festival, The Portland Queer Film Festival and his film A Man & His Pants (2001) won the Audience Award at The NW Film & Video Festival. His recent films as editor have been Cactus Blossom (2019), which premiered at AFI Fest and was the recipient of a student DGA Award and Elle (2019) which premiered at the 2020 Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival winning thd Prize for New Voices, New Perspectives by Women in Film.

Big Touch (2020)

iFilmFestival: Tell us a bit about your most important film so far.

Christopher Tenzis: “Anybody who knows me knows that the only subjects that interest me are touch, intimacy and love. Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like "struggle". To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now, and to go on caring even through times that may bring us pain.

I grew up with a family that touched. When there was a shared laugh, it was met with a hand on the arm or leg. When there was miscommunication during an argument, it was met with the same touch. Successes and failures were met equally with a hug. No matter if the other person's emotion was hurt or joy, the same touch applied because touch was a way to communicate empathy, a shortcut to say, "I feel you."

We all carry our suffering with us all the time. Sometimes our painful feelings are so loud that we cannot hear the joyful feelings which we also carry with us all the time. But that circuit can be broken, if temporarily, by another person's touch which reminds us that we are not alone.

Big Touch is an expression of that relief.

Inspired by the hyperrealist artist Ron Mueck, whose sculptures are often of people suspended in internal pain and frequently either gigantic, towering over the viewer, or so small they must be placed on a pedestal to be seen. I asked myself, what if one of Mueck's large and sad people touched a smaller one? Would they feel relief? Further still, what if their size differentiation was actually the physical manifestation of their suffering? What if when they touched, they not only felt relief, but their physical sizes equalized?

In this sense, Big Touch is kindred with the recent Afro-Surrealism movement coming from artists like Boots Riley and Hiro Murai (director of music videos This is America, Black Man in a White World, etc.). From D. Scot Miller’s manifesto, “Afro-Surrealism is about the present. There is no need for tomorrow’s - tongue speculation about the future. Concentration camps, bombed-out cities, famines, and enforced sterilization have already happened. To the Afro-Surrealist, the Tasers are here. The Four Horsemen rode through too long ago to recall.”

This is what makes Big Touch magic. It’s all happened. All that matters now is transformation. These COVID pandemic years will be remembered as a time of global suffering during which touch became a risk. Big Touch presciently addresses the importance of transformation through empathy, through touch, by having the courage to say, “I feel you.””

iFilmFestival: What were the key challenges making it?

CT: “There were many conversations during casting about how race could impact the film but we wouldn’t know until we found the right cast. Because the film was first and foremost about the universality of empathy through touch, finding a soulful cast who could communicate that narrative was my priority. Raymond Ejiofor was the only person we looked at who not only understood the character, but could express the emotions with his body. Astra Marie Varnado, who plays Judy, our heroine, was the only one we saw who was bursting at the seams to express love. Suddenly, with Ray and Astra in place, the film took on new meaning. Years ago, I met Robert Altman at the Austin Film Festival and he said that he didn’t cast for what he wanted, he casted for what he didn’t know he wanted. So the palpability and sincerity of the symbolic narrative is evidence of trusting that process.”

Trailer: Big Touch (2020)

iFilmFestival: What’s one aspect that you’re particularly proud of?

CT: “The cast, for sure. Carly Stewart, the young woman at the elevator, is a natural actress with a beautiful face that tells a story with efficiency. We got lucky with Arabella, the girl, because she looked like Carly and was the daughter of a director our film crew knew. So these two were cast first. I had seen the L.A. premiere of Gaspar Noé’s Climax at The Egyptian and there was a Q&A with Sofia Boutella during which she gave a shout out to the choreographer, Nina McNeely. I knew I wanted there to be a dance element in Big Touch, so when I found out that she taught dance classes in L.A., Teck [Siang Lim], my cinematographer, and I coaxed our producer into enrolling. It kicked her ass since it was for professional dancers, but she got to talk to Nina afterwards who introduced us to Raymond Ejiofor, who had worked with Katy Perry, Sia, Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, and he brought the tiny man to life. I found Astra Marie Varnado, who played the giant woman, on Instagram. I DM’d her, I pitched her the idea and she got very emotional because the story was true to her own experience. She had never acted in a film, lives in Long Beach, California and doesn’t drive, so we Ubered her to L.A. to audition and I fell in love with her vulnerability. She was a lot shorter than we thought, so we had to get creative on set to make her appear gigantic, but it was the emotion in her eyes that won her the role and she is an absolute star.”

iFilmFestival: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

CT: “Martin Scorsese’s After Hours changed my life. I saw it when I was fifteen. From her loft window, Kiki drops her keys to Paul. To emphasize the accelerating danger of jangly, spiky metal hurtling towards our protagonist, foreshadowing the debacle that he would endure for the rest the film, the camera becomes our perspective while the editing stretches space and time so you don’t quite know how close the keys are before they impact. That was the single most exhilarating moment I had experienced from a movie as a kid.

After the film was over, I spent hours in the library pouring over articles about Scorsese. He pointed to other films that influenced his visual language, like Shane for the dissolve forward of Paul as he ascends the stairs to meet Marcy, The Red Shoes for the pan to the window as he’s sitting on the bed with her. Scorsese was creating language with existing film grammar and a conceptual continuity linking his work to that of his predecessors, like a tailor who wanted the seams to be visible not only because of his reverence for their beauty but also because of his humility for their history. That’s when I understood cinema. And that’s when I decided, for better or worse, my life would be devoted to it. ”

iFilmFestival: What new projects are you working on or are you hoping to work on in the future?

CT: “If you ask a caterpillar how it walks, it could fall over. I'm hesitant to give too much away but as I mentioned earlier, anyone close to me knows that the subject that interests me the most is intimacy and love. Think Radley Metzger meets Rollo May.”

iFilmFestival: What role do film festivals play?

CT: “The process of submitting Big Touch to festivals has taught me the most about who I am as a filmmaker. I’m learning that the prestigious, legacy festivals right now seem to have a bias towards cinema vérité social realism. I understand what Jean Renoir meant when he said, “Reality is always magical” because when you can capture it, it’s lightning in a bottle, it’s life, it’s the source and it’s very, very hard to do. Just look at the money that pours into visual effects in order to make them look “real.” But that doesn’t interest me. I like seeing the strings of a marionette or the silhouette of a puppeteer and the unbelievability of those puppets; that’s what gets my imagination going and that’s when I participate as an audience member. No, I prefer the quote from surrealist Luis Buñuel, “But that the white eye-lid of the screen reflect its proper light, the Universe would go up in flames.” Cinema is closer to dreams than reality.”

iFilmFestival: What is your advice to filmmakers tackling the festival circuit?

CT: “Squirrel away enough money for two years of submissions. Create a schedule of which films at which you'd most like to premiere and apply to festivals in that order. Avoid monthly and quarterly festivals. Do not be put off by festivals that are young; Big Touch has done best with cash awards at these festivals and these festival founders may go on to bigger things themselves, so these are good relationships to have, but just do your homework. Sometimes older festivals as so set in their ways that they don't do much to promote the film and filmmakers. If you can afford to attend, go. Festivals are about the people you meet, not the laurels.”

iFilmFestival: Which filmmaker do you admire and why?

CT: “My bible is the book Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel. Vogel, as well as Jonas Mekas, started the first micro-cinemas in the U.S. in the Forties. Vogel’s was Cinema 16 which eventually evolved into the Film Society of Lincoln Center. His book is based on the notes he wrote for those screenings. For him, subversion isn’t limited to taboo subjects but it could be a film’s formalism: Michael Snow zooming in on a window for 45- minutes, Peter Kubelka’s film made entirely of single frames of opaque and transparent leader thereby creating a psychedelic strobe confusing the brain into thinking that it’s seeing colors that aren’t actually there or Brakhage’s perpetual play of shapes and colors on the closed eyelid. Vogel’s book is a guide to understanding the entire language of cinema. William Klein, Dusan Makavejev, Vera Chytilova, Jack Smith, Agnes Varda are just a few who became model filmmakers for me, plus it taught me how Chaplin and Keaton were agents of subversion through pathos.”

Christopher Tenzis

iFilmFestival: What film have you recently seen that you have admired in one way or another?

CT: “There have been a few recent queer films that have portrayed couples in love with equality, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire. With equality between lovers comes a much larger canvas of conflicts which are internal. For me, this is what is most lacking in love stories on screen; the equality required for characters, and therefore the audience, to begin the process of having a deeper understanding of self and vulnerability.”

iFilmFestival: Thank you Christopher for answering our questions!


Interview conducted by iFilmFestival on December 7th 2021.


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