It’s not unusual to see NFL players head to Hollywood when their playing days are done. Some – like Alex Karras, Bubba Smith and Carl Weathers (yes, he played in the pros) – even become decent actors. But what if there was a player who didn’t just star in movies once his knees stopped working, but also wanted to excel behind the camera?
That’s where Chris Conley comes in. The speedy wide receiver was a four-year standout at the University of Georgia, and seems like a sure bet to be taken this week at the NFL Draft, especially after his breakout performance at the Scouting Combine. But he didn’t just spend his time in the SEC catching passes – he also decided to write and direct a Star Wars fan film called Retribution, which, at the time of this writing, is approaching a half-a-million views on YouTube.
Filmed on the Georgia campus, including inside Sanford Stadium, and co-starring Conley, his teammates and Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt (who makes a pretty amazing cameo), the 26-minute feature is an impressive debut for a guy now trying to make a name for himself in two of the world’s most competitive fields: The NFL and Hollywood.
With the NFL Draft set to begin Thursday night, Rolling Stone spoke to Conley about his homage to George Lucas, turning heads at the Scouting Combine and why Jar Jar Binks is cool to seven year olds.
What made you decide to make a Star Wars fan film?
It was just kind of a random idea that I had. I was in my dorm room watching some YouTube videos, and got the idea: “We can make something better than this.” At the time, “we” was just me. So I decided, “I don’t know how to do this myself, I have great ideas that look awesome, but I need people who know how to make this stuff happen.” So I began to write some of the stuff down and reach out to people. I found a lot of people here at the University of Georgia – I network a lot – so I just reached out, tried to find people and eventually had put together a small team.
You felt like you could do better than those YouTube videos, but do you think you actually did?
I feel like if you’re an artist or someone who creates something, you’re never satisfied. You’re continuing to work on it up until it’s released, and the only reason you stopped working on it is because you have a deadline. I believe that anyone else who’s drawn something or created anything understands where I’m coming from. You always see ways that you can improve, things that you messed up and ways that you would do things differently. I’m proud of the project because it literally was fabricated out of nowhere, and everything that you look at and hear in the film is original. And that’s something that we’re proud of.
Given the budgetary restraints I’m sure you had, the visual effects were really impressive, especially that opening scene!
Yeah those opening shots were put together in CGI by Grayson Holt. That guy’s a beast. He was a freshman here at Georgia and just a guy who was born with a laptop. Him and I would get together and talk special effects or about directions for the film and we’d bounce ideas off of each other. He’s just very instrumental in everything that he does. Very talented.
Did your teammates and coaches enjoy being a part of the film?
They loved it. The funny thing was, when we came back and released it, the rest of the team was crying about the fact that they weren’t in it. I was telling them, “I gave y’all two, three opportunities to be in it. These handful of guys showed up, these handful of guys get to be plastered over the Internet.”
What are your thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
I’m trying to find way to go to the premiere. That’s what I want. I’m so excited about that film; it would be a dream just to even visit the set, be an extra in something like that – something you’ve watched your whole life. I’m so excited. I believe that Disney and J.J. Abrams will do a great job. Obviously the project is well funded. I believe that this is gonna be great for another generation of kids to get into Star Wars.
Speaking of that, you might actually be the right age to have seen – and enjoyed – Episode I in the way that George Lucas intended it. What did you think of that one?
It was the first Star Wars movie I saw in theaters, so I didn’t share in the distaste that the older generation may have felt for it. I was still getting into the genre, getting into the story, so I loved all of it. I loved all of ’em. That was right when I was a kid, so when you see someone waving around a lightsaber you’re not nit-picking over this or that.
Did you also like Jar Jar Binks?
You know, when I was a kid I didn’t mind Jar Jar. Now that I’m older I can see why everybody hates him [laughs]. I can share in some of that a little bit. When I was a kid I had no idea. I didn’t care. I was just excited to be there.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – otherwise known as the NFL Combine – you set a wide-receiver record in the vertical jump, and also posted the second-longest broad jump and third-fastest 40 time among wide receivers. Did any of that surprise you?
It didn’t, but at the same time I was excited that I could perform like that on that day because, really, you get one shot to do all of those things and you can’t mess it up. So I was excited to be able to perform and perform well in that one shot that I got.
What part of the last three months has been the most challenging?
I think that, in and of itself. The past three months have been challenging because it’s just a long time where you’re constantly going, you’re always guessing, there’s no consistency in your schedule, you are living on your toes. And when you do it for that long it’s tiring and it’s difficult. You’ve just gotta roll with the punches and do your best to perform whenever you’re asked to. It’s really a five-month process where you’re just hanging on for someone else’s words. Eventually you’ll get there, but it’s a waiting game and it’s a working game.
You’ve said that you believe you’ll probably be drafted in the third or fourth round, but belong with the first-round guys. At the end of the day, does it really matter where you’re drafted?
No, not at all. I don’t believe it matters. The only thing that it matters about is the check you get up front. It really comes down to you making the most of your opportunities and being consistent. Take what you’ve been taught. Learn and get better. Are you gonna help a team win? Those things aren’t determined by a draft position.
When you were making Retribution, did you get the feeling like, “This is what I want to do with my life when football is over”?
I did have a little bit of that feeling. I love working with people. I love creating awesome things, so the fact that you can tell stories visually was something I really latched onto and I really wanted to learn about. You know, football ends one day for everyone, whether it’s 2-3 years down the road or after a 15-year career in the league, you’re still gonna have to do something with your life. So it’s not bad to have a fallback plan when you’re ready to go into the real world.