One of the Good Guys

Is Chris Ohlson the nicest film producer in town, or just the hardest working?

Chris Ohlson
Chris Ohlson (Photo by John Anderson)

Chris Ohlson is a great guy. Seriously. Everyone says so. In fact, that's the very first thing they tend to say about this Austin film producer-slash-writer-slash-director.

What they don't say are things like, "He's cool, but if he weren't a Creative Producing Fellow at the Sundance Institute, I totally wouldn't have anything to do with the guy." Or, "Yeah, Chris may be up for the coveted Piaget Producers Award at the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards this February but frankly, I'll be watching the Oscars." And no one, to our knowledge, has said, "He produced the Zellner brothers' new film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, right? I heard it's just another found-footage film."

Yeah, right.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter isn't just another found-footage film, and Chris Ohlson isn't just any producer. Evolving over the course of just under 10 years, the movie is an order-of-magnitude leap for almost everyone involved. Over the course of that lengthy gestation, star Rinko Kikuchi was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Babel and has since gone on to Pacific Rim and 47 Ronin. Certainly though, Kumiko's impending March release is set to catapult longtime Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner – and Ohlson as well – onto a whole new cinematic playing field. (And speaking of trophies: Director David Zellner is also nominated for a Spirit Award for Kumiko, and Kikuchi is nominated for Best Female Lead.)

Partly based on the true story of Takako Konishi, a Tokyo office worker whose body was found in the Fargo, North Dakota, area in 2001, Kumiko toys with the story that Konishi was actually searching for the fictional buried cash that Steve Buscemi's character secreted in a snowdrift in the 1996 Coen brothers movie Fargo. The Zellner brothers, who also wrote and appear in Kumiko, paint the whole sorrowful affair with a sublime coating of drowsy dreaminess; watching the film is like entering another person's life from the wrong end of a telescope. Slowly though, the character and the situation come into focus. But by that point, things have gone from bad to weird. (We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Kumiko's pet bunny Bunzo, who stole the show at the film's 2014 Sundance premiere.)

Speaking of Ohlson, Nathan Zellner has nothing but praise for the producer: "From a producing standpoint, we knew that we weren't going to get a lot of money for it, and we knew we were going to have to keep it very authentic and shoot in Tokyo and in the Minnesota snow somewhere. So David and Chris and I sat down and brainstormed all these crazy ideas over the course of literally years, and eventually it began to come together. It was like having a third Zellner brother.

"Because we were shooting on two continents, and this was one of the most logistically difficult films we've ever done, we had to keep a really tight schedule. There were so many moving parts with things like financing, Rinko's schedule, and especially the weather in Minnesota. We didn't have money for fake snow, and there wasn't a really big window for shooting in the snow. Chris was there with us every step of the way, which is more than most producers might have done."

Inevitably, Zellner adds, "On a personal level, [Chris] is one of the nicest guys I've ever met, and one of the most honest people I've ever met. He's been like a true friend."

Long before beginning work on Kumiko, Chris Ohlson had already earned credits on a gold mine of Austin indie films, among them John Bryant's 2009 comedy The Overbrook Brothers, Bryan Poyser's much-lauded Lovers of Hate in 2010, Paul Gordon's Austin-centric character study The Happy Poet that same year, Sean Gallagher's devastating Good Night in 2013, and 2014's Thank You a Lot from director Matt Muir, with whom Ohlson eventually founded Revelator, a "full service film & video production company" that serves, for want of a better description, as Ohlson's day job when he's in between feature film producing gigs. A self-professed workaholic, he's roundly praised within the tight-knit Austin film community as a producer who gets things done and invariably sees projects through to the end.

Originally from New England, Ohlson received his bachelor's degree from Keene State College and promptly embarked on a country-wide road trip in 1997 that eventually landed him in Austin.

"I'd never been to the foreign lands of Texas," he recalls, "and when I came to Austin I had this really magical week. It wasn't like I met a girl or anything, it was just like, 'This is the place I'm supposed to be.'"

After finishing his wanderings, he returned to New England, saved up some money, and moved to Austin without knowing a single person in town. That was in July of 1998, and he's been part of the Austin filmmaking scene ever since. Within a year he had met Jay and Mark Duplass, the Zellner brothers, John Bryant, and many other key and peripheral members of the film community.

"From that point on," he says, "I began working a lot of jobs in the film and commercial industry. I've been a production coordinator, a production manager, a first A.D. – I did a lot of the jobs to sort of learn the community and navigate things, all the while shooting a lot of my own short films. By 2006 or 2007, I realized that I really wanted to make feature films. I wanted to make them the thing that I am and that I do."

And that's exactly what he's done.

"At the very first I was 'the organized friend,'" Ohlson says, "and then I realized that my personality and my skill sets were working in my favor. I tend to be a serious workaholic with the ability to juggle a lot of things at the same time, and that's what makes me a better producer.

"I also say I'm not a financier – I'm a creative producer, I'm a very nuts-and-bolts producer. I go to every casting session, I go on every location scout, and I'm there every shoot day. The silly analogy I always use is that if the director's the dad, then I'm the mom. That's how I see my role, you know? I'm not long gone, off in a different city while the movie's shooting."

The world of independent film production is a notoriously difficult and time-consuming place, even in movie-mad Austin. Low budgets, short shoots with long hours, and no guarantee that the film will even be seen outside of the festival circuit often make it tough, if not impossible to recoup what little budget filmmakers may have had in the first place, but Ohlson sees it another way:

"People don't make independent films to make money. That would be a silly motive. I realized early on that I damn well better enjoy the process of doing this because it takes a long time and there's not a lot of other reasons to do it. That's why I choose the projects I do, because I want to work with and be around people that I respect that I can also be best friends with, go get drunk with, argue with, and then at the end of the day hug and be happy with.

"I've also learned that making movies is an absolute marathon. I didn't know that going into the first one and now I sort of know and it's something that I talk about a lot. These films are – at the minimum – two-, or three-, or four-year marriages. So I sweat the small stuff, but at the same time my eyes are on the big picture. At the end of the day, these have to be movies that I'm going to fight for, forever."

<i>Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter</i>
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Austin actor/writer/producer/director Jonny Mars has worked with Ohlson on a gaggle of different projects after first meeting him during casting for The Overbrook Brothers. The voluble actor and the rising producer immediately hit it off and, like so many others in the Austin film community, have become fast friends, both on-set and off.

"As an actor," says Mars, "my first physical interaction with Chris was at a reading for The Overbrook Brothers, which I was auditioning for and which he produced. My first phone interaction with him was him calling me to tell me I didn't get the part. But he was a great guy. He's very detail-oriented, he's a man of his word, and he's got a great work ethic. And he's such a nice guy. Doors will open for him, and they should."

Mars continues: "I've always said that you're only as good a producer as your cell phone. Chris has got a really great cell phone. And people will take his calls. Literally, the power of your cell phone is like the weight of your producerial strength."

Ditto Austin producer Megan Gilbride (Gretchen, Lovers of Hate):

"Chris and I have worked on any number of projects over the last 10 years, and I honestly can't say enough great stuff about Chris. But if I had to pinpoint one thing, I think it would be that he has a really unique level of integrity. He sets out a goal and then achieves it, whether it's logistical, whether it's getting a film into the festival circuit, whatever. He's been working with the Zellner brothers on Kumiko for years and years with a lot of stop-and-start, but they just stuck to their guns. I think it's that kind of integrity and perseverance that makes him the great producer that he is. And I have to say, in addition to all that, Chris is just a great guy."

See? We told you everyone says Chris Ohlson is a great guy. Dedicated to his craft, yes, able to corral the wild logistical horses that ultimately are the very nature of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants independent filmmaking, sure, but perhaps more importantly Ohlson is the producer everybody wants to work with, or has worked with, or will likely work with at some point in the Austin film scene's future. Should the release of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter bring bigger and better offers on down the road, Ohlson has no plans to high-tail it to Los Angeles. "I go there when I have to," he says. Spoken like a true member of the 512's hyper-devoted and uniquely intimate film community.

But back to Kumiko for a moment.

"Because the Zellner brothers initially approached me about the project way back in 2006, this really is a movie that's been almost a decade in the making. It was an impossible sort of setup because it was shot on two continents, much of it is in a foreign language, it's physical, and the only way we were going to be able to justify making it was by having a movie star of some sort involved. It was by far the biggest canvas to date for both the Zellner brothers and me. When we first contacted the film's star, Rinko Kikuchi, they went to lunch with her and they had to do the whole thing through an interpreter. And by the time we actually started shooting, she had become completely fluent in English. That's a good measure of how long the movie took to complete.

"Also, part of that was a couple of years of some MGM dealings and getting the rights [to use clips from the Coen brothers' Fargo]. I still don't know to this day if Ethan and Joel have watched it. David and Nathan Zellner and I are huge fans of theirs, so we hope they have. We think they'd appreciate it."

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens in Austin in March. The 2015 Film Independent Spirit Awards will be broadcast on IFC on Feb. 21.

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Chris Ohlson, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Zellner brothers, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Megan Gilbride, Jonny Mars, #teambunzo, Good Night, Matt Muir, Revelator, Thank You a Lot, Lovers of Hate, The Happy Poet, The Overbrook Brothers, Rinko Kikuchi

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