Q&A du C-U: Chris Lukeman

“Michigan Fan Stalks Illini Student Body!”
An interview with Chris Lukeman of U. OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY

by Jason Pankoke

Not so long ago, former University of Illinois engineering students Andrew McAllister and Michael Stone launched a club where no-budget digital filmmaking would be the activity du jour. A few sparsely-attended meetings would soon lead to weekly think-tank sessions manned by 20 or more members, along with the requisite casting-call marathons, end-of-semester screenings, and publicity stunts geared towards drumming up awareness amongst the student body. This became the modus operandi of Illini Film & Video until Stone and McAllister’s departure; delineated leadership and stalled projects would soon dull the spark that characterized the club initially. Then, incoming 2004 president Chris Lukeman had an idea for breathing new life into the group.

Inviting all comers to participate in one master production is a novel idea at the University of Illinois, which has never housed a bona fide film school a la USC or UCLA, and whose “Motion Picture Production Center” at the College of Communications (geared towards television-style news documentary) shuttered in 1974. Only one completed feature-length student narrative had existed prior to IFV – SHOT (1973), a blackly humorous riff on THE FRENCH CONNECTION directed by then-graduate students Mitch Brown and Nate Kohn. While they admittedly had one eye on the market and careers – Kohn actually took SHOT to Cannes – Lukeman’s aims targeted the immediate well-being of Illini Film & Video itself. Could a bloody B-movie comedy re-ignite campus interest in the club, let alone attract enough warm bodies into the fold to insure the group’s survival?

The answer, possibly, is “yes.” Although dominating far more than the year’s worth of extracurricular time first anticipated by Lukeman, executive producer Alex Wayman, and numerous cast and crew members, THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY has certainly done its part to pack audiences into campus auditoriums. MUMMY’s belated premiere in spring 2006, neatly coinciding with the club’s annual commitment to tape on-stage talks at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, provided Illini Film & Video with its strongest exposure in many a fortnight. Time will only tell, however, if MUMMY can play Peoria, let alone anywhere else off campus, or if it will aid some of its participants in stepping up to bigger, better, movie-related things.

We now unravel secrets with director Chris Lukeman.

Read on, MacDuff…


Jason Pankoke: Thanks again for agreeing to take part in the second-ever original interview for C-U Blogfidential! I’m sure I won’t be the first or last to congratulate you for simultaneously wrapping up your formal and extracurricular education here at the University of Illinois (UIUC). How does it feel to finally hold a diploma in one hand and a DVD copy of your feature-length movie in the other?

Chris Lukeman: It feels great, actually. I am kind of sad that I’ve lost legitimate access to hundreds of unpaid extras and crew, but the sense of accomplishment from dual, massive, crossroads-of-your-life accomplishments totally make up for it.

On the flip side, without school, [production work on] the movie, or a “real” job, I’m kind of aimlessly drifting like I have no sense of purpose or goal in life … besides to sell UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY DVDs – professionally produced, only five dollars apiece, make great gifts!

JP: That’s a pretty good price for a “real” DVD, not one like you would burn on your home computer. Where are you selling the discs now that the MUMMY campus screenings have come and gone?

CL: Well, I hadn’t meant to totally derail the interview with shameless self-promotion so early, but I guess while we’re on the subject…

Right now, I’m experiencing the joys of independent distribution. Basically, I’m biking around town delivering when people show interest [and I] always have a few copies when I’m out and about town, [although I was] warned to not solicit inside one drinking establishment. Mostly, if I run into someone I know, I guilt them into a purchase. Aside from that, we’ve been taking e-mail orders for mailing all over the country; if you’re in the greater Champaign-Urbana area, we can deliver it no problemo, though.

Hopefully, by the time this goes up, we’ll also have a few copies for sale at a campus bookstore or two. Also, our campus screenings will be back in action during fall semester 2006!

Jenni Kitchka flashes a smile on the set of THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY

JP: Being a filmmaker is being one-part huckster, so I guess I’ll have to allow it since I otherwise don’t own a drinking establishment that I can kick you out of. Besides, many of the movies we’re currently tracking on this Weblog are a long ways from being commercially available, so it’s good for the readers to know that they can check out this seriocomic slice of UIUC campus life – with a mummy – at any time.

Other than your pedal-power distribution method, do you have additional plans to spread MUMMY love through festival play or listings on any “indie movie friendly” Web sites? What about video and comics stores located, say, in other Big Ten college towns?

CL: Umm … now I have plans like that …

The nice folks at That’s Rentertainment [in UIUC’s “Campustown”] have MUMMY both for rent and purchase.

JP: Geoff [Merritt] pointed it out to me when he was putting copies up on the shelves. That’s Rentertainment actually has several Illini Film & Video (IFV) tapes and DVDs in its collection, if you look carefully. How many of the older, pre-MUMMY student movies have you seen?

CL: I emceed the last few club film festivals and, besides that, I’m fairly confident I’ve caught everything the club has put together since its inception.

A few years ago I inherited the presidency [of IFV], and for a while was the sole link to the “old guard.” I took it upon myself to rent the tapes. Hopefully, I’ll be working on a new set of DVD compilations [that will] cover the past two years of IFV. There are some real gems here and there.

Also, I try and catch other indie and student things where I can.

JP: I think it’s pretty remarkable that the film club is sticking it out. I know that it has had its ups and downs, as far as activity and cash flow, but I do remember one of their very first meetings in a slick and un-sexy Grainger Library room several years ago that drew maybe eight people, including myself and the two founders. Compare that with the hundreds of students that have worked on and watched IFV productions over the past two years.

This is probably a good place to talk about the circumstances under which IFV functions. I’m curious as to what your perceptions were of the club when you first got involved compared to right now, as outgoing president.

CL: Well, I like to hope we’re at least as well off as we were when I hopped on board four years ago!

Overall, I think the bar for student independent film has gone up, with more and more accessibility to the hardware and bearable [to use] software coming down in price. This, at least as far as UIUC is concerned, has led to better product being made.

Chris Lukeman directs Jayme Richardson (with cap) and chorus in THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY *

In number, I think we’ll be a little bigger, but since there isn’t a “real” film major on campus the club has always been hardcore hobbyists and non-majors in general, which puts an interesting spin on our projects. We all have different backgrounds of study and are basically self-taught.

JP: It’s an interesting subject, that lack of a film school at UIUC. Once [cinematography professor] Julius Rascheff retired in 2002 and the university ditched nearly all of its film equipment – save for reserves kept for general A/V use on campus – that seemed the end of it. But, with said prosumer digital tools, groups like IFV can at least function and produce. Have IFV and its productions found any friends or champions at UIUC, amongst professors and staff?

CL: Professors here and there have been more than supportive, not only as mentors but “legitimate” (non-college age) actors. One of my advertising professors let me take an independent study where I made a few 30-second commercial spots after a previous semester when he offered extra credit to a 70-person class to hang around a few minutes [on my set] and be extras for MUMMY.

JP: You had taken some “new media” classes that encompass storytelling or expression through video, although not necessarily as a surrogate for film-school equivalent courses. What were those like, and did they help you at all with your work through IFV?

CL: I tried to take pretty much any class where you actually got to shoot and edit something. To that effect, if you really look around for them, there are five or six solid courses on campus with some really great instructors – especially in [the College of] Art & Design.

If I hadn’t been working on MUMMY constantly for the past two years, I really think I could’ve put out a ton of interesting stuff. As is, we did make some great shorts like THE OBLIGATORY TIME TRAVEL DIALOGUE as work for class, and some of the assignment restrictions really helped expand the kinds of things I felt comfortable with on film, like [making] stop-motion animation and a few documentary shorts.

JP: It’s cool that you had instructors that were willing to give your projects the time of day, especially since MUMMY can’t necessarily be accused of being an “art film” or “educational.” What were the struggles in finding people to consistently crew and act in MUMMY, especially given the long haul over which it was shot?

CL: Hardest part of the entire project was holding the cast and crew together. The script was strong enough to hook whoever took a good look at it, and the cast had a great dynamic going as far as mostly becoming friends. I tried my hardest to make the set “fun” as well as “productive.”

As for crew, interested and new IFV-ers combined with a shifting body of production assistants; it was like a revolving-door seminar on how to badly make a good movie. Everyone saw that the movie was going to be great, and so it kind of grew lengthwise [sic] to meet everyone’s expectations.


JP: Can you introduce the perennial crew members who stuck in there to make MUMMY happen? Lest he cross a fist into our faces, we should probably start with Mr. Karpenko.

CL: The entire cast was great. Paul Karpenko (as “Casey”) in particular was … fun … to work with on set. As an old-school IFV-er, he was one of the few people who immediately knew I was winging it all the time and making up our whole process as we went along. That’s opposed to all the other major cast members – Jenni Kitchka (as “Sarah”), Andrea Gordon (as “Jo-Ann”), Marc Morgan (as “Rudolphe”), Alex Wayman (as “Freshman #1”), etc. – who for a while actually believed I had done everything before.

JP: Paul, along with many other IFV members preceding you, had his share of “winging it” with his own productions. I’m sure he performed enough covert operations during the making of ASSASSINS [a dark comedy about lethal water-gun games] to fill a textbook on how (not) to sneak footage at a university.

So, what was it like shooting pretty much everything MUMMY on a college campus? I know you have tales of strangeness to tell, some that you can even reveal without fear of repercussions.

CL: Probably my favorite part about shooting “unofficially” on campus, besides teaching PAs [production assistants] how to break into various campus buildings when we needed to hijack power outlets, would be the mystical, almost cult-like status the production itself had.

Late into the second semester of filming, we had been shooting outside around the Quad quite a bit. With all this exposure week after week, we had answered quite a few questions from and generally confused dozens and dozens of passersby. It got to the point where former cast, former crew, and even people who weren’t in the movie at all would yell at us! Always comforting when someone (happily) screams, “HEEY MUMMMMEEE!!!” out of the darkness from across the Quad.

JP: It sounds like the Mummy, Ted Johnson, has built up a fan base. Not to destroy any sort of mystique, but I find it funny that, in the best low-budget tradition, a number of cast and crew donned the rags at some point during production – an easy scheme to pull off, since you never actually see what Ted Johnson looks like. You also came up with a nice gag poking fun at this – and made a bloody mess in the process – in the “Scooby-Doo” reveal scene.

That does beg the question … why a mummy?

CL: The real question is, why not?

Basically, a mummy was chosen for many of the logistical reasons you just mocked [such as] we didn’t need a set actor the whole time, although this has led to [Ted Johnson] coming off as radically bi-polar from scene to scene, sometimes leaping and flailing around, sometimes slowly zombie-walking.

Chris Lukeman and Alessandra Pinkston on the set of THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY

When I set out to put this whole thing together, I didn’t want to stray into the realm of [having to apply] heavy constant make-up which zombies would have required, or [needing to find] the acting talent to pull off a good vampire. I’d already done “robot horror” [in ROBOTMAN] and have thinly-veiled contempt for the “guy in a mask” subgenre, a la Jason, Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc. So, then it just hit me, “THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY … of course!”

Also, you never really see too many mummy flicks in student horror, and barely in “real” movies. Revisiting an old horror standby was fun, in that we got to create our own ridiculous mythos, totally and obviously contrary to [documented] Egyptian mythology.

JP: So, what you’re saying is, the Mummy that we saw recently in the Stephen Sommers movies with Brendan Fraser is a more accurate depiction of Egyptian mythology, with Imhotep being a half-surfer, half-CGI demigod with legions of scarab beetles at his disposal…

CL: Yep, pretty much. To start out with, they actually had the Mummy be from Egypt [instead of Michigan] … and more than 75 years old.

Well, okay, those movies at least didn’t go out of their way to pretty much lie about the three or four facts we all know about mummies from grade school.

JP: And those movies also never hinted at the potential for a future “versus” skirmish with the likes of, let’s say, RobotMan. Then again, neither did your own MUMMY, technically. Will it happen?

CL: Ha ha, well, there is a “deleted scene” we slipped in [the DVD] with the Maniacal Mechanical. I wouldn’t count RobotMan out of the picture movie-wise; it just takes so freaking many crew [members] to get him ready. We’ll see how unemployed I am come fall semester. [Click here to witness the return of RobotMan. – ed.]

JP: A neat aspect of IFV has been the great trend of club presidents willingly bending over backwards to help out other students’ projects. You obviously were not an exception, and I’m sure your work was greatly appreciated by others. (You did actually go to class, right?) That’s amazing, given the scope of MUMMY.

During your IFV tenure, before and during presidency, what were your favorite non-Chris Lukeman projects that you worked on?

CL: Well, lately I try and make it out to other shoots whenever possible, mostly to offer unwanted/unneeded advice, but my favorite shoots before I thought I was smart were probably a few shorts by Hugo Ong.

My freshman year in IFV, I had a chance to talk to one of the club founders, Andrew McAllister, while being an extra in 2B OR NOT 2B, a talking pencil comedy. It’s basically where I got my feet wet in the club and started meeting the members [including Hugo, director of 2B].

I also had the pleasure of starring in [Hugo’s] latest short, MONDAY THE 9TH, which was filming on the weekends during the first semester of MUMMY. We were sharing IFV’s only pro camera at the time, so I had a vested interest in being active in that production to free [the camera] back up before winter shut us down for a few months.

JP: In fact, you played the lead boogeyman of MONDAY THE 9TH, correct? What did that entail?

CL: It made for a pretty fun set. My character was an angsty teenage version of Jason, so I had on a FRIDAY THE 13TH-style mask the whole shoot. That made the acting fairly simple and the lines could be dubbed over if I flubbed too terribly. Also, we had a few kills that made for a neat time. I had previously somehow avoided being blood-spattered on camera for a movie, so it was fun to be on that end of things.

JP: You even stayed dry during the making of ROBOTMAN? How?! Stuff gushes all over your sets, I’ve noticed.

CL: In my “school” of “filmmaking,” a director/cinematographer has dual purposes on set. First, you have to film a decent movie, but tandem to this is keeping the camera clear of the bloody gushing mayhem.

We had a few great moments during MUMMY where the leads were totally and utterly soaked with Karo [syrup] and freezing and absolutely icky! I had to keep apologizing and pretending to feel bad just to squeeze the extra shots out.

JP: We know you really felt for your drenched thespians. Really.

Believe it or not, this tangentially leads into a topic that we should probably discuss – student immersion in IFV projects and functions. Can you throw down some tips regarding what the kids can do to get involved with filmmaking at this school, and to continue making IFV a super happy fun experience for all?

CL: The best advice I can give is to just take the leap of faith and jump into a project. Seriously, I know of very few student directors who wouldn’t get totally pumped if someone e-mailed them out of the blue, wanting to help. Other than that, just walk the line between being helpful and actually learning something useful via asking lots of questions.

Alex Wayman, Nancy Parman, and Kevin Altier relax on the set of THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY *

The other advice I have is to start small and work your way up. One of the hardest things to get a handle on with filmmaking at UIUC is learning to work the “college system” between fitting a shoot in with all the cast and crew members’ schedules. Do a ton of short-shorts with friends on a cheapie camcorder, take advice and criticism well, and keep making your stuff better and better. IFV, for all of its “prestige,” has only been around for three generations of students. We’re still a new club and [it’s] really easy to make whatever you want from it.

JP: There are, of course, other aspects to helping IFV run and grow, such as taking on a more integral function (president, treasurer, etc.) or volunteering for fundraising opportunities, such as with the services the club provides for “Ebertfest” every year…

CL: Ha ha ha, yeah, lest I forget, all the important stuff…

I usually gauge how the club is doing by the number of cameras checked out at any given time for projects. The way I always figured it was that if members enjoyed making movies then they would naturally put in the hard hours when we needed it.

Also, our yearly “Ebertfest” volunteering barely counts as work. It’s usually a blast for all parties involved.

JP: Can you give us the low-down on what exactly IFV does at the Overlooked Film Festival? (I’m sure it’s not just standing around with your DV toys looking stylish in black IFV t-shirts while thousands of people are seated around you.) Also, what other on-campus groups has IFV worked with in the past?

CL: We capture the before and after conversations Roger Ebert has with his guests for, among other uses, archiving for the College of Communications, one of the main sponsors. To do this, we have quite an elaborate set-up with a live three-camera edit going to our Director/TC in the basement. Basically, we get to pull out all our cool equipment and fake professionalism for a larger audience than usual.

We’ve done production work for money for the Greek Council, the Illini Union Board, and retain a close relationship with ACM, the high-profile computer club on campus.

JP: Maybe this is the point in the program where we should give Roger Ebert a shout-out for a speedy recovery from his summertime surgeries.

CL: Yeah, I’ve been trying to keep abreast of the situation. Speaking of the man, we actually have a clip of him talking about MUMMY on the IFV site. (Click to view) Here’s hoping that he pulls through, regardless of whether he actually takes a look at our train wreck or not.

JP: Oh, have a little confidence. Your “train wreck” is only being lofted high – as a physical DVD, anyway – by arguably the most influential film critic in the world. We know he has his professional rules for what he can officially review and when, but for all we know, he’s kicking back right now with some gourmet popcorn and a soda, allowing MUMMY to take his mind off the health problems.

Andrea Gordon, Kevin Schmitt, and ??? star in THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY

Besides, I’m sure he’s interested in learning about all the 21st century struggles that today’s UIUC students have to go through just to graduate, let alone survive in one piece, that simply didn’t exist when he was in your shoes 40 years ago.

Um, MUMMY is a docudrama, right?

CL: Yeah, it totally is the true-life heartwarming tale of a simple small-town university struggling to overcome the stress of everyday life … and an evil 75-year-old mummy from Ann Arbor.

JP: Obviously, this B-movie tomfoolery of yours predates MUMMY. RobotMan made his debut in a previous short that you created with friends at home, as did something called the Devil’s Throne. How did you first become interested in this curious activity and why do you skew towards a genre filled with monsters, mayhem, and admittedly morbid humor?

CL: Well … I hadn’t even touched a camcorder before a sophomore year high-school English project. We did a miniature reenactment of Pearl Harbor with a set and stop-motion boats and the whole shebang. For whatever forgotten reason, I’d always been fascinated by the medium and a bunch of friends of mine got together to do a television news/variety show on our local access channel. It was mostly DAILY SHOW-esque right before THE DAILY SHOW started being good. Later we did a horror short called DEVIL’S THRONE I: THE DEVIL’S THRONE for a Springfield (IL) High School fest and then jumped right into our first 40-minute opus.

The “horror” movies were great because the genre (in retrospect) has a lot built into it that makes it just about the easiest kind of low-budget movie. For example, the acting can be atrocious here and there and you can squeak by with it a heck of a lot more than with drama. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t even tried to be scary but maybe three times, tops, out of four fairly lengthy movies. The set-up is a great vehicle for comedy, especially the weird über-serious tongue-in-cheek approach I like to take. Also, they’re incredibly fun to film. I mean, when do you [otherwise] get to walk around in an eight-foot-tall robot costume, or have fishing line strung up all over a street so you can hit a Mummy dummy with a truck at 30 miles per hour?

JP: Given what’s under your belt now other than school, what are you looking to do in the long run as far as a career is concerned?

CL: During the course of this correspondence so far, I’ve applied to numerous jobs that are at least remotely applicable to film/video production. Nothing back … but until (and almost certainly after) I find a “real” job in or out of “the industry,” I hope to keep at ultra low-budget projects.


F I V E & O U T
Tell us, Crimson Johnny:

• What you’ve made:

I have proudly written, directed, and edited (with help) THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS VS. A MUMMY.

Also, since entering college, I have two 40ish-minute short horror films, ROBOTMAN and DEVIL’S THRONE 2: RETURN OF THE DEVIL’S THRONE, a ton of instructional videos and DVDs for University Housing, as well as various duties on a dozen or so short movies by others.

• Which do you like best – film, video, or digital:

I’m going to combine the last two and say “digital video” – too poor, and too much of a hack for “film.”

• Where is your geographical preference – Champaign, Urbana, the UIUC campus, or beyond city limits:

Right now, I’m off campus in Champaign and I wish I was still on campus in Urbana. As far as shooting goes, I like to milk the university for all its worth location-wise … because it’s a heck of a lot less risky when it comes to trespassing.

• What is the one movie project that you would like to do someday that nobody will ever see coming:

Well, technically, if I told, your esteemed readers would see it coming, but we’ve got a “real” feature film idea about some lobsters that might just be neat-o.

• Apart from your own movies, the one underappreciated gem that you think people should bend over backwards to check out is:

MAFIA VS. NINJA. That is, if you’d like what is quite possibly the worst/best Kung Fu-badly-dubbed-TOTALLY-RIDICULOUS-you-can-see-the-wires-and-crash-pads schlock-fest. My friends and I found a copy at Family Video a few years back in a tattered case labeled in marker. Before the DVD release last year, beat-up VHS copies were going for 40 to 100 bucks on the Internet. It is that good.


Interview conducted May-August 2006 via e-mail.

courtesy of Chris Lukeman/Illini Film & Video
except * taken by JaPan.

Web Source: Crimson Report [http://www.crimsonreport.com/]
Web Source: Illini Film & Video [http://www.illinifilmandvideo.com/]




CUBlog Interview No.2 © 2006 Jason Pankoke


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