ATHENS, Ga. — Sitting inside the Georgia football offices on this humid July afternoon, Chris Conley is, sadly, not dressed up as a Sith lord. He's not wearing fiery colored contacts or holding a lightsaber.
But that part of Conley is never too far from the surface these days.
The Georgia wide receiver pulls out his laptop and opens up Celtx, a collaborative script-writing software. He's working on directing his second Star Wars-inspired film, this one with a staff of professionals and a $10,000-$15,000 budget (and a Kickstarter). He calls it an action drama, and says the script currently fills 30 pages. He and his colleagues are working on trailers and promos right now, and they'll begin filming in earnest after football season ends.
It's a far more ambitious project than Conley's last, but he hopes it will be as well-received.
Conley wrote and directed a 26-minute Star Wars fan film titled Retribution, which was released last week and already has been viewed more than 350,000 times on YouTube. The film includes a plethora of fight scenes, taking place in Sanford Stadium and around the University of Georgia campus, with Conley himself starring as the villain. Georgia running back Todd Gurley makes a cameo, as does football coach Mark Richt (who is shown listening to classical music, beautifully oblivious to a battle happening behind him).
"I'm not a film major," Conley says. "When I was writing the script (for Retribution), I didn't write in the correct script format. I didn't know about being a director, how you go about doing film. I took a crash course from November to March in being a filmmaker. No film school. I read things online. Magazines, books. I said, 'If I want to do this, I want to do it well.' From there, I had to learn a lot, had to make a lot of mistakes.
"Before this, I wasn't really thinking about this industry that much. Now that I've had a little bit of work in it, I really like it."
Conley is in a unique position; he sits at perhaps the most interesting intersection in college athletics.
He's a star wide receiver for a team — Georgia — that has a realistic shot at participating in the sport's first playoff. He's been a representative on the NCAA's Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), pushing for reform that as soon as next month could bring meaningful change to the lives of athletes. And he's now a film director, a model example of a college student discovering his off-field passion and chasing it.
"The experience I have here with the football team helps me being a director," Conley says. "People ask me all the time, 'How do you work with so many different people? How do you have the patience to do that?' Because I deal with 135 knuckleheads every day as a team captain."
Conley smiles. He's enjoying this double life.
Last season Conley led Georgia in receptions (45) and receiving yards (651), while also catching four touchdown passes as a part of one of the nation's most prolific offenses.
It was a strong follow-up to a 2012 season that had a difficult ending. In the waning seconds of that year's SEC Championship Game with Georgia set up for the winning touchdown, Conley caught a deflected pass on the 5-yard line but was tackled in-bounds. Time ran out. Had the pass fallen incomplete, Georgia would have had one last shot at the end zone.
Instead of letting that moment — that crushing catch — define him, Conley moved on.
"You have no time to sulk in football," Conley says. "In a couple of weeks, you're playing another game. My teammates rallied around me. They let me know, 'Hey, there's more than one play that causes you to lose a football game.' I had to realize that."
He also spent the offseason dissecting his own game, what he did well and where he could improve. How could he have played better against Alabama?
"I think I showed up more in big games last year," Conley says, and the numbers back that up. "I was able to be someone my teammates could rely on when we were hurting, when we were down. I'm proud of that."
Conley will play a similar role this season, albeit alongside a new quarterback in Hutson Mason, who started the final two games last season after Aaron Murray's knee injury. Conley says he and Mason have developed a great chemistry, and he thinks this team can get where it wants to — the first four-team College Football Playoff.
Conley keeps up with news regarding the Playoff, saying he's eager to see how it's run. He's as well-versed in the happenings of college athletics as anyone in the field. He spent the last two years as the SEC's representative on the SAAC, and now he's transitioning to an advisory role.
In January at the NCAA convention, Conley and the other SAAC representatives sat through meeting after meeting about the new NCAA governance structure. There were flow charts and ideas, talk of permissive legislation and debates over who could make which rules.
There was no mention of the players themselves. Then Conley sent out a group text to his fellow SAAC colleagues. Let's do something.
During an open session, Conley stood up in front of more than 800 administrators and asked why the proposed governance model didn't include student-athletes. After initially fumbling through a tone-deaf answer, members of the steering committee changed their tune in the following days, talking about the need for student-athlete input.
"I felt like I had some say in some stuff," Conley says. "It is a pivotal time in the NCAA's timeline and in student-athletes' lives. There are a lot of things that will change for better or for worse. They will change in the next couple of years. I think change is needed. We can't stay where we're at. ...
"It's important people make sure their voices are heard. I think it's going to happen. I believe it will happen. Now, it's just a matter of time."
It's been 15 years since Conley and his brother, Charles, were introduced to Star Wars by their father. Both brothers fell in love with the series when Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999. Conley was 7.
"That Christmas we had a Star Wars Christmas," says Charles, who is 15 months older than Chris. "Most of the things we got were Star Wars action figures or clothing items, bedding items. … That's when everything clicked."
The passion for Star Wars is something the brothers share, and something that hasn't waned. Charles builds screen-accurate armor and says he's the more hard-core fan of the two. Conley won't argue: "(Charles) would go to WalMart in armor. He will do it. He doesn't care." (To which Charles responds: "I wore my Boba Fett armor to the cow appreciation day at Chick-Fil-A, and I got a free meal off of it.")
Charles' costuming skills are on display in Retribution. He designed and made his brother's Sith lord costume. Charles also appears in the film as a Mandalorian.
Conley's film came together in the months following the 2013 football season. The idea originated, as so many do, while watching YouTube videos. He clicked through fan-made fight scenes.
"I'm thinking, we could do better than this," Conley says. "It started out as a small idea, a small project, choreographing some fights, doing some duels in some places on campus that people would know. There were a lot of people who showed support for it so it kind of grew from there."
Conley served as screenwriter, director, choreographer, actor. An important addition to the project was Grayson Holt, who did the film's special effects. Once Conley and company realized Holt's capabilities, they began ambitiously choreographing many of the film's fight scenes. In those, the actors used metallic stunt sabers, which, Conley explains with a wince, do hurt if you're hit with one. Special effects are put over the polycarbonate blade in a process called rotoscoping.
Days were long. Back in February, offseason conditioning drills meant Conley was waking up early for 5 a.m. mat workouts, going to classes, working out in afternoons and then spending two to four hours a night practicing or costuming.
Chris Conley and Grayson Holt, videographer and video editor, discuss a scene on a frigid late Winter day in Athens, Ga. Conley, out of costume for his character Khari Vion and focusing on directing, managed to keep production on schedule despite the unusual weather.(Photo: Jeanette Kazmierczak)
In terms of directing, Conley was learning on the fly. Fight scenes took forever; the film's opening battle inside Sanford Stadium lasts about 90 seconds but took four hours to shoot.
"If everything goes perfectly and everyone does everything quickly and efficiently and lands every hit, you're going to do it about 15-20 times because the camera has to move," Conley says. "We had four cameras we worked with. But with a fight like that where it's very organic, and the fight flows and moves and has a life of its own — the fight is a character — the camera has to follow. You can't use four cameras. … We ended up using one."
Charles says he could see his brother pursuing work as a director in the future. Charles has a background in cinematography and videography, and their sister, Catherine, is a film student and script writer. Creating films could turn into a family business.
It would make sense for siblings who were taught that it's OK to follow their dreams, whatever they are.
"I've kind of tried to live my life with that in mind — realize who you are and where you come from, and not let your surroundings change you," Conley says. "It's something that our parents wanted all of us to realize, that we can be ourselves. You don't have to listen to outside pressure. I enjoy it, and I'm not going to let it go because someone thinks it's dumb.
"You don't have to let everyone put you in a box."