WRITE, DIRECT, REPEAT: Chris Sparling on How Directing Made Him a Better Screenwriter

Originally posted August 6, 2014

UPDATE: Writer/Director Chris Sparling’s new movie, MERCY, premiered at the L.A. Film Festival on Saturday, June 4th, 2016.

lafilmfestTwo sets of brothers, tied by their mother but with different fathers, return to their childhood home in the woods to be with their mother on her deathbed. Estranged and antagonistic, the lines are clearly divided between brothers, fueled by old hurts and current strains and heightened by the presence of a seething father and an inquisitive girlfriend. As the night stretches on, old family secrets begin to surface, testing all of their bonds and setting up almost unbearable tensions in this home invasion thriller.

Writer/director Chris Sparling builds on the tightly calibrated distress showcased in his award-winning script for Buried and directorial debut The Atticus Institute in this compact thriller that is as nuanced as it is tense.
–Drea Clark

*****

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I remember when I first heard news about a new film coming out in 2010 called Buried. I saw it go by on Twitter and the conversation quickly morphed into questioning whether the filmmakers had truly made a film that was set entirely inside a coffin. One man in a coffin for the entire ninety-minutes. No cut-aways — just man, coffin, buried.

Screenwriter and director Chris Sparling

Screenwriter & director Chris Sparling

I won’t give anything away because I then saw the film, got my answer, and I highly recommend you watch it for yourself.

As big a story as that film was in my filmmaking circles, I’ve since discovered there is a more exciting story hidden within Buried that speaks directly to the ambitions of Script magazine readers.

That story is about Chris Sparling, the writer of Buried, and his gutsy journey to getting the film made. But Chris isn’t one to rest on his laurels (even if those laurels include Sundance) and through his continued intelligence and drive he has capitalized on his success with Buried and established himself as an up-and-coming writer and director to watch today.

I had a chance to talk with Chris about his path leading up to Buried and what it means to then turn pro. After talking with him, I am more motivated than ever to do the work, learn the craft, take risks and never give up. I hope you too can find a glimmer of that inspiration for yourself from our discussion!

Kim Garland, Script magazine: How did you get started as a writer? You were an actor first, correct?

Chris Sparling: Right. I was living in L.A. and it was during that time when I started writing. When I moved back East, I started to focus more on writing than acting because this was before indie filmmaking became so accessible. There really weren’t many indie films being made in this part of the country where I live [in Rhode Island]. It’s probably different now, but at the time I felt writing was something I could still do from here.

I was a struggling writer at that point, I wasn’t getting paid to write, nothing like that. I would just write script after script after script.

It had always been my ambition to do what I do now for a living. It just was a matter of finally getting that proverbial break.

Kim: You came into the industry as an actor and then began writing. When did you decide to become a director as well?

Chris: For me, directing and writing was something I could wrap my head around as a way I could control my own destiny, at least to some extent.

As far as the creative side of directing, for me, there’s a natural association — a natural progression — between writing and directing. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive in any way. I think you can be both or be just one.

Writers should think cinematically and write cinematically and at least see the movie in their head. It doesn’t seem like a major leap forward to want to — or be able to — direct a movie. Especially one you wrote because you already saw the movie as you were writing it.

Kim: A screenwriting teacher I know has said that every writer should try to direct at least one short film for the learning experience, even if they have no interest in directing professionally or on bigger projects. I have to say, I agree with that.

Chris: Yes, I totally agree. Before The Atticus Institute, which was my first real foray into solo feature directing, I co-directed a no-budget feature [An Uzi at the Alamo] and then I directed a short [Balance]. Those first two films for me were my film school. It was completely trial-by-fire, learning how to do this with very little money.

The take-away I got from that [no-budget feature] is you realize it’s easy to write something on the page but it’s another thing for it to appear on screen and not appear contrived or any of the laundry list of negative ways it could turn out.

But on top of that, even from a logistical and budgetary stand-point, you realize all of this stuff costs money. Like if someone punches somebody — ‘John punches Steve’ — that’s easy to write.

Kim: And it’s fun to write!

Chris: Yeah, it’s fun to write and you say, ‘yeah, punch him again!’ [laughs]

But you realize it’s not that simple when you put it into practice. You have to stage it, that takes time. You have to maybe have a stunt person and all that goes with that.

In the case of my no-budget feature, I used a lot of characters. I also had a lot of locations. I’m amazed I even finished the movie with what was involved. I mean, it didn’t turn out well, but how could I possibly be surprised it didn’t turn out well given the budgetary constraints and, honestly, my ignorance as a screenwriter to think what was on the page was feasible with the money I had. That’s a huge lesson that can be learned from actually directing something, from seeing the words you write and seeing what the weight of those words actually are.

WRITE, DIRECT, REPEAT: Chris Sparling on How Directing Made Him a Better Screenwriter by Kim Garland | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Actor Ryan Reynolds in BURIED (2010), written by Chris Sparling

Kim: From what you learned co-directing your feature and directing your short, do you think there was a direct path to what you accomplished with Buried as a writer?

Chris: Yeah, there was. Those three projects in a weird way are very much related.

Writing and then making both of those movies played very much into what Buried became. If nothing else, it had to do with the logistics and the budget again. I knew I had even less money this time. I planned to make Buried myself for like five thousand dollars. I was going to direct it and, naturally, I was going to write it.

Learning from the mistakes I made in my first feature, I knew I’d used way too many characters and locations. So now that I only had five grand to make a feature, I was going to do the exact opposite.

I planned to make as small a film as possible with as few characters and locations as possible. Few characters became one character. Few locations became one location. That greatly informed what Buried became, those takeaway lessons from my films prior to it.

Kim: That makes so much sense because it doesn’t feel like a script or a film that would come without prior filmmaking experience. It feels like a project that was very much intended to be produceable.

Chris: That’s exactly it. It was ten years of learning finally culminating in that project. And I think it turned out well. Thankfully, on top of it, it became a bigger thing than just being a five thousand dollar movie, so I really lucked out in that regard.

Kim: Buried was your first screenplay sale, right?

Chris: Right.

Kim: How did that sale come about?

Chris: After I made my film, [An Uzi at the Alamo], I did a lot of research about who might be willing to take a look at it when it was done, that is, any agents or managers or even producers. I sent like 50 [queries], maybe more, and I heard back from maybe 5 percent. And a few were just, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not interested,’ or some sort of form letter. But there were two or three people that were willing to look at the film.

One of the people I heard back from was Aaron Kaplan who is now my manager. He wasn’t then. He watched the movie and said, ‘I liked it, I laughed’ — it was a comedy — and he asked, ‘what else are you working on?’

I thought, great, I just opened a door. And so I sent him a script that I had, that I had already written. I’d say that process went on for three years, where I would write a script, I’d finish it, I would send it to him. I would do that over and over and over again. Thankfully, every one of those scripts was at least good enough for him to say they were pretty good, not right for me, but let’s keep talking.

So I’m sending him script after script and it kind of stayed that way, and I got to the point where I wanted to direct a feature again. I finally felt I was in a position where I knew how to do it right, as a writer, as a director, I felt I could do it. But the crazy thing was, I didn’t send Aaron this script. I worked really hard to build and maintain that relationship with him, and in my head I was thinking, he’s a Hollywood guy, a manager and a producer, and he’s not going to care about my little movie about a guy in a box. I didn’t want to ruin this relationship by wasting his time to ask him to read this.

Six months went by, and I’m in pre-production trying to figure out how I’m going to make this movie, and I had one of those moments where you question where your career is going. And I decided to hell with it, I’m going to send [the script] to him, and if it destroys that relationship, I guess so be it.

I sent it and two days later I heard from him, and he just flipped for it. He signed me and then I got my agent like a week later, and he asked me if I would be willing to go out with it as a spec and give up directing. I said sure, of course.

The crazy thing about it is it got made about four months after that. The script went out in March 2009 and then [the film] was in Sundance in January 2010. It was shopped, cast, shot, edited, ready, and premiered within that amount of time. It was pretty wild.

Kim: Looking back, do you think having made those first films on your own — your no-budget feature and your short — was a necessary step to getting Buried made and to getting to where you are now?

Chris: Oh, yes, absolutely. I don’t regret making those films for exactly that reason. I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation with you right now if I hadn’t done that. It was very important to my career. On the creative side, it helped me figure out the right way to write a script for it to be a movie, and from a business perspective, it absolutely was vital.

Kim: I’ve found personally that it is so much easier to get someone to watch a ten-minute short than even to read ten pages. Just about anyone I’ve asked has been willing to watch a ten minute short.

Chris: People just don’t read scripts, it’s a sorry thing, but they don’t. There are so many scripts floating around and today it’s assistants reading them and it’s only certain scripts from certain people that get read. That’s the reality. Where as you said, it’s easier to just pop in a movie and decide within a minute or two whether you feel like watching anymore of it.

Kim: How many feature scripts did you write before Buried?

Chris: My very first script I wrote my sophomore year of college. I had no idea how to even do that, and I decided to just do it over the course of a school year. And that’s what I did, I was done with it maybe a week before school ended. And I have it, I’ve never looked at it since, and it was atrocious. [laughs] So I wrote that, and then another one, and then another one, and I’d say I wrote six or seven [feature screenplays] before I wrote Buried.

Kim: I love to hear that because you’re one of those guys who feels like you came out of nowhere. But it seems like no one really does, and I feel that’s so misleading, like Buried was the first script you wrote and then, boom, you have success.

Chris: It is misleading because it’s the old ten-year, overnight success. It was a long process and screenwriting in particular is difficult that way. You can feel like an island a lot of the times and feel like, when is this ever going to click? When do I stop writing scripts where I write fade out, [and then] put this one away, and start the next one because I don’t even know who to send this to? Especially then. Today, what I think The Black List is doing is fantastic. And in a way I’m so angry because I wish something like that had existed for me back then. [laughs]

Kim: How were you able to set up The Atticus Institute, your first directing job in your post-Buried career?

The Atticus Institute, written & directed by Chris Sparling

The Atticus Institute, written & directed by Chris Sparling

Chris: As I continued to have success as a writer, I met more people who wanted to work with me. I knew I wanted to direct again, and I felt this was the time for me to push for that.

There were projects I had written where the question kept coming up, especially with the smaller projects, about me directing them. It was always talked about but then when a project became closer to being real, it was like, it will be tougher to get the financing for a first-time director. I’m not knocking anybody, that’s just the reality that it is a lot tougher.

I’m not the type who just sits around and let’s things happen on their own schedule, so I thought I need to direct something, I need to have a real project that I directed, even if it’s small, if I ever expect to direct a bigger project that I write.

I conceived the idea for The Atticus Institute. I pretty much tried to retrofit it thinking about what makes a movie difficult for financiers [to say yes to], or at least more difficult.

I needed to make it a safer bet financially. I knew it had to be a thriller or a supernatural thriller. I knew for it to be more appealing, it had to be made for very little money, and I knew how to do that after having written Buried and having learned from my past movies what not to do.

And the last piece was taking advantage of all the contacts I made, and with that, I [tried to] make them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

I approached Peter Safran who I have a pretty long working relationship with. I sent him the script and told him I wrote it as a pseudo-doc. There’s a lot of it that’s talking head documentary-style, and I knew that would occupy at least fifty-percent of the movie. I knew that would make shooting the feature very doable on that kind of budget.

I told him my vision for it, he read the script and said, alright let’s do it. And so that summer, which was last summer [2013], we started shooting.

Kim: Now that you’re in a very different place in your career than where you started, what are you seeing for your career goals moving forward? A lot of beginner screenwriters can only see to that initial breakout, as you had with Buried, so I’m curious how your goals have shifted now that you are a working professional.

Chris: As far as where I’m heading, Sea of Trees opened up a lot of doors.

Kim: Sea of Trees… so if IMDb is to be believed, that will be directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe?

Chris: Yes, that’s right.

Kim: Wow, congrats!

Chirs: [laughs] Yeah, it starts shooting on the 28th of this month [July 2014].

Kim: Was that a spec sale?

Chris: Yeah, that was an original spec I wrote about two years ago.

And even before the movie was being made, when the script was just getting out and people were reading it, it opened wider people’s perception of me as not just the guy who writes small thrillers. It’s giving me opportunities to write bigger movies.

It’s a business, and you start to wrap your head around it being a business and find there’s kind of a ladder that exists, and there are different tiers of a writing career. By the top, those are people who basically just get phone calls from a studio president saying, hey, do you want to write this movie, yes or no? There’s no question of other people [competing for the job] and, truth be told, that’s my goal.

I didn’t get into this to just kind of cap out at a certain point. I got into this to go as far as I can with it. And I don’t have any shame saying that — I don’t know if I should — but I don’t.

Kim: Do you find it’s even more motivating now that you have an actual taste for what the career is like? Is that a fire that will be forever burning now that you’ve gotten in and know what you’re working for?

Chris: Yes, it’s like this, it’s a combination of both really. I used to write scripts for free all the time that — if not literally — almost no one read. I would do that all the time. So now you put me in a position where I don’t have to find time to do it, where this is all I have to do work-wise, and whatever I write people are going to read? There’s no way I’m going to slow down now, and I’m going to become more prolific than ever.

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Both Buried and ATM, written by Chris Sparling, are available to watch now. The Atticus Institute, written and directed by Chris, is expected to be released in early 2015. And keep your eyes open for more news on Sea of Trees.

And lastly, be sure to follow Chris on Twitter! @chrissparling

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