NACOGDOCHES, Texas – The School of Art at Stephen F. Austin State University will premiere a film written, directed and edited by SFA graduate student Armando Silvas Jr. when it presents “The Russian at Christmas” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, in W.M. Turner Auditorium, Griffith Fine Arts Building, on the SFA campus.
The film was selected to be produced as the School of Art filmmaking program’s 2023 SFA summer feature. Silvas’ “The Russian at Christmas” is a feature-length action/comedy holiday film about a Russian hitman who tracks down a mall Santa on Christmas Eve.
A previous Micky Elliott College of Fine Arts Dean’s Circle award winner, Silvas has worked on four feature films and has written and directed more than 10 short films of his own. He’s worked as a camera assistant, camera operator, director of photography and media manager. A love of holiday films was a motivating factor behind the creation of “The Russian at Christmas,” Silvas said.
“I was inspired by my love of holiday Christmas films and the tradition of watching those films annually,” he said. “But more specifically, I enjoy unconventional Christmas films, such as ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘Gremlins.’ Those are films that are set around the holiday but incorporate elements not typically associated with it.”
In “The Russian at Christmas,” Frank, a recently fired mall Santa, is trying to survive Christmas Eve with his friend, Todd, a low-self esteemed man stuck in a loveless relationship. Frank, who is dealing with the recent loss of his dad who passed away on Christmas, witnesses a murder committed by a Russian hitman. Trying to emulate his dad, Frank tries being a mall Santa. But Frank isn’t cut out for it and gets fired with a reminder that he’ll never be like his dad. To make matters worse, Frank learns that his ex-girlfriend has found someone new and that there are loan sharks who are trying to collect money that Frank owes. Along the way, Frank and Todd meet some backwoods loan sharks, two goofy police officers, a one-eyed ex-police officer who is fueled by revenge, an overly eccentric mall manager, and of course, The Russian, who has a deadly passion for hating Christmas and even engages in a musical number. The film includes over-the-top action with absurd humor while keeping the underlying theme throughout that no one should be alone on Christmas.
Although Silvas has directed short films and worked on feature films, “The Russian at Christmas” is his first feature film to direct.
“The film very quickly took over my life, and there wasn’t a moment that went by during production that I wasn’t thinking about it,” he said. “This was also the first time for me directing a large crew. The students that I worked with were very talented, motivated and hardworking, which made my job a lot easier. In the end, I had a great experience directing the film, and I’ll always remember it fondly. It’s a great and surreal feeling to know that this film only started as an idea and then gradually evolved to what it is now.”
Silvas said he learned the importance of being open-minded to changes and of making those changes while on set or during post-production. He said he welcomed input from faculty and students that would allow him to look at certain scenes from new perspectives and improve on them. Learning how to identify problems while on set was another valuable lesson.
“While making any film, problems can arise when you least expect them to, and you need to be able to work around them quickly to find a solution in order to stay on schedule,” Silvas said. “As a filmmaker, you need to adapt to any issues that appear.”
Silvas said he hopes the film shows audience members “the importance of friends and family, and that life is too short to hold onto any grudges.”
“I also hope audiences can recognize the hard work and dedication that our SFA film students have, and the potential that the SFA Filmmaking Program can offer,” he added.
Silvas will graduate in May with a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking. He hopes to teach film production at the university level while also pursuing a career as a director of feature films and documentaries. He plans to submit “The Russian at Christmas” to different film festivals and to make it available to stream on Amazon Prime in the hopes of reaching a wider audience.
Other key crew members included William Arscott, executive producer; Derek Wayne Johnson, co-producer; Brad Maule, unit production manager; Tristen Robertson, director of photography; and music graduate student Jimmy Bartley, music composer.
Key cast members were Drake Willis (School of Theatre and Dance alumus) as Frank; Triston Dodson (School of Theatre and Dance alumnus) as Todd; Bill Small as The Russian; Brad Maule as The Russian’s Dad; and Lloyd Kaufman as Mr. Winters.
A film director, writer, producer and actor, and president of Troma Entertainment, Kaufman was brought in from New York City to act in a supporting character role for the film. He was featured in Johnson’s documentary film “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.” Kaufman’s films include “The Toxic Avenger” (1984), “Class of Nukem High” (1986), “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead” (2006) and numerous others. He helped to launch the careers of James Gunn, writer/director of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise and the upcoming “Superman: Legacy” film, along with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of “South Park” and “The Book of Mormon Broadway Musical.” Kaufman’s film “The Toxic Avenger” is also getting a remake from Legendary Entertainment and stars Peter Dinklage, Elijah Wood and Kevin Bacon.
For more information about SFA’s filmmaking program, contact the School of Art at (936) 468-4804.