Welcome to episode 59 of the SYS podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Myers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com.
In this episodes main segment I’m interviewing writer/director Chris Sparling. We’re going to be talking about his latest film, ‘The Atticus Institute’ so stay tuned for that.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m talking with screenwriter and director Chris Sparling. Here’s the interview.
Ashley: Welcome back Chris to the SYS podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show again.
Chris: Thank you for having me again.
Ashley: So I usually start out just by asking film makers to talk about kind of how they started and broke in. Since you were already on the episode we will skip that and dig in your latest film. I will just refer people to episode No. 24 if they’re interested in how you kind of broke in and how you got where you are today.
So let’s go ahead and dig in into your latest film ‘The Atticus Institute’. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick log line for the film, for people who haven’t seen the trailer or haven’t seen the film?
Chris: Yeah, the log line, I guess would be that there is a psychology lab somewhere and they brought a very unique, new test subject. She’s brought in by her sister because she’s experiencing pretty incredible psych abilities.
And the researchers began to understand that this woman is off the charts. She is, you know, far more gifted in that way than any other person that has come through their lab.
And they all start to realize that her ability is above their paygrade; they full appreciate and study. So Defense Department is brought in and that fact confirms the fact that she has the ability but what if there’s a deeper exploration and investment by the government?
So he’s brought in and really starts to study this woman and what they begin to understand that the source of her power is something actually malevolent and they soon determine that she is actually possessed and as the case with these stories go, people that are possessed usually have the similar abilities.
So they soon realize that there is an opportunity here for, to military application. And they subsequently attempt to, you know, neutralize her, this entity and kind of help.
Ashley: Perfect. That’s a good summation of it. So, I’m curious. Where did this idea come from? Is it, the way it’s couched it’s almost like there was some shred of truth; maybe you’ve read some article. But where did this idea, the seed of this idea come from?
Chris: You know, as far as this thing goes, I mean, there are certainly a lot of things that refer to how the government in the 70-ties was investigating psych and exploring military location and that sort of thing.
And there were real efforts made and there are actually documentaries that you can find online that demonstrates that.
But as for the idea of possession and everything else and ‘weaponozation’ of a possessed person it was an idea I had; it was just something for a long time I just thought of and it was related to possession story in general.
So you know, between the books and movies and just person accounts you hear about people saying the real life stories – you hear this people and they seem very truthful and they are maybe not being truthful but they are certainly seem pretty vehement about what they’re saying, that this stuff is real, ‘ I saw it with my own eyes, they exist, they levitated the chair across the room, all these things, they can speak 30 languages.
All this stuff, and like I said, I didn’t, I was always like – I’m not sure if this is real or not, sound real; but the one thing that tipped me at the end of the day that it’s not real is the fact that the Government said nothing.
Because the way that I saw it is that if you had someone that had these actual abilities, levitating stuff, could read people’s minds, stop people’s heart, whatever, that person is like a threat, you know, a threat for national security. They can’t just roll him around. What if they kill the president? You know what I’m saying?
So for me, that Government never glanced on this, never intervene is a proof positive that at the end of the day this stuff is, must be fake.
So that kind of led me to the question – wait on a second, what if there was a situation? What if the Government step in and they did come in and there was a real case of possession and someone could do these things?
And then going beyond that, well I thought what would they do? They would confirm it, but would they attempt to weaponize it? And that’s kind of what I tried to show with the film.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. And what were some of influences going into this film? I mean I was kind of trying to think about it, I mean it’s almost like the ‘Exorcist meets Blair witch.’ What were some of the influences you had going into this film?
Chris: Yeah, certainly it’s unavoidable to not have any sort of possession movies influences; I think any, especially movies great as Exorcist; I think it’s going to be at least a part of that in your work as well.
And what I want to say separated, but what I wanted to try do to with this movie, let’s say to try to make it different from other possession movies, is to look at it from this scientific way.
This wasn’t a movie where you have a possessed person and they call the exorcist right away and do all these things or funny exorcism.
This I wanted to be a scientific exploration of possession – what goes on in the body; it’s logical – what goes in the body? How do you explain, on the quantum level, what might be going on? All this interest, so I wanted to take a scientific approach.
But above and beyond that in terms of documentary style, a couple of things influenced that. There are a couple of movies, first of all, one was the movie ‘Death of the President’ and that was a movie about the assassination of George Bush. It came out while George Bush was still a president.
I remember watching at that time and even though you knew the truth, that George Bush is still alive and was president at the time it was really well done and it was just because it was presented, the information was being presented in the talking heads, by people of authority, you had members of Secret Service, you had someone from the Secretary state, and even though they weren’t the real people, you just went along for the ride and that’s kind of how the military started the way in form of how it influenced this movie and that is where you have authority figures you know, someone from the Government, a scientist, a researcher, people that we tend to believe when they speak; and that why I chose – we tend to believe those people and tend to respect that people and take them for their word.
So like they didn’t kill the President, by filling the movie with authority figures, it made the movie much more believable.
And so that’s an interesting thing and so I kind of wanted that approach where I had a lot of authority figures, scientists, like I said Government people, people in those circles telling these stories which I felt kind of giving credential to what has been told.
And then also, later on in the game, while I was figuring how to make this movie, I remember my agent telling me to check out ‘Lake Mungo’ which was also a documentary which I thought was very well done as well.
Ashleys: Perfect. I’m curious would you consider this movie a found footage film? I mean, it kind of has that mockumentary style and sort of, is there, I mean, when you present this did you present it as this is a found footage film?
Chris: Well, I’m not even, and I’m not alone in this, I’m not even sure found footage is even like the right term even more for those sort of movies. Because, I know this is just kind of term, and I think that everyone by this point understands, there’s no found footage. Everyone realizes these aren’t real movies.
What I’m trying to say – you won’t find footage in the middle of the woods.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I mean ‘Blair Witch Project’ didn’t have any of those cuts away, you know, those documentary cuts that you had, sort of the modern day people, where they were, you know, talking to the camera – didn’t had those.
So this is definitely a different sort of set up conceit.
Chris: Yeah, it’s a different thing for that reason too. You know, what I tried to screen is a cut footage. This is more like normal documentary, where you have any standard, even in Discovery channel documentary, you just have a lot of talking heads and then you put photos and archive footage you might have of things that people are describing.
That’s kind of the form that this movie follows and in gaining access to my earlier point of film footage it’s not – the term film footage is a blank term. I don’t think it really works anymore because of Blair Witch, you know, people saw it on TV; the internet wasn’t expansive as now; this is not a found footage, it’s a movie.
So it seems like the term is pretty antiquated by now and almost feels like first person movie, or PV movie but I feel like The Atticus Institute is sort of different than this kind of movies, different from Exorcist which is a first person movie – we’ll just follow people by cameras the whole movie. And much I enjoy those kind of movies I wanted something different – this is a movie that’s more a standard documentary.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. And just I mean, does part of this, and this is kind of getting more in the nuts and bolts of writing and I guess knowing potentially you’re going to direct it – doing something like this obviously allows you to contain the budget somewhat. And I mean is that somewhat a part of your thinking process or you just thought this was a cool idea and, you know, hey this could be something you could shout on kind of a lower budget as well?
Chris: Yeah, that was part of it. I mean I wanted to present in my efforts to direct a movie that I wrote, I wanted to be able to present a package that was very different to what was known to, you know, the financiers. And part of that was creating something for a relatively modest budget. And so to make that happen, to be able to make that budget achievable, and make that level achievable, myself documentary approach really helped in that regard, because you had in half of your movie at least is going to be a standard just talking head documentary which still isn’t easy.
It can seem like it’s real but it’s cheaper, because it’s very, very straightforward. It was my decision making in terms of, you know, the budget was part of the decision.
Ashley: Let’s talk about, sort of the evolution of this movie and I’m always curious to hear and I’m certain some of my listeners will too; just how does a project like this, sort of, goes from basically an idea to becoming a full fledge movie that you’ve directed?
Maybe, just bring us back. What was sort of the logistics? Did you have the idea, did you present it to some producers and they said – great, we’ll finance this, go write it! Did you write it on speck and then start taking it to producers? Sort of how did the film go from just sort of idea in your head to actually getting produced?
Chris: Yeah, I had the idea and I was just eager to direct something. And you know, it’s always aspiring when you see people kind of directing the movies, the movies that turned out well, and everything else and I was lucky enough to have become a writer by this point and I wanted to break instructing.
And so it’s almost like, I need to direct a movie I mean, that’s what I was finding and realizing more and more that if I ever want to direct a movie I need to first direct a movie, but fate kind of about this test 22 and so I pretty much resolved to say “alright well I’m going to be directing a movie.” I’m going to make a movie, this is the idea, this is how the approach I’m going to make it so therefore, inner genre that generally is you know, it appeals to a very loyal fan base and you don’t necessarily need a whole bunch of money to make you know, from that it’s going to be at least the half of it is going to be talking about documentaries.
And on top of it is that you don’t need A-list actors, or at least totally recognizable actors. In the movie we could actually in a way hurt you because you want it to seem real. So that was all part of what I had in my mind and part of it actually early on with this woman Leigh Medeiros who is also in Rhode Island, she was in Rhode Island as well and you know, I asked for her to come on board as associate producer and so I wrote the script, and it was great to have Leigh on early because she kept me accountable. Instead of just kind of, taking this plan to make a movie down the road and just continuing to write and try to get the assignment work as a writer but no, there’s now someone that’s going to you know, keep me on track of things and I guess, keep me accountable because I now have someone else that I know agreed to this process with me.
And she was great early on to work with and then once I finished the script I looked to Peter Safran who has now produced 2 movies that I’ve written and I have you know, really good working relationship and friendship that he was one of the peers. He was actually the first person I went to you know, typical fact about Peter it’s kind of the way he worked with the 2 movies of mine before this movie is produced were delicate. I met with Peter among you know, the very first one around town you know, there were a lot of producers that were interested, couple of studios that were interested and they all want to change it. But Peter is the only person that come to the first day that I met him, it’s my first time of actually meeting him he said “look I love your script I don’t want to change anything about it, I know the perfect director to do it and I can have you the production in 6 months.” And true to his word that’s what happened and so, the same thing happened with “ATM”. We were in Barcelona shooting “Buried” and we’re in lunch one day and he’s like “Chris, do you have any other containing thrilling movie ideas that you’ve been kicking around?”
And so I told him, I kind of pitch in “ATM” and he’s like, “that’s great then, write it and I’ll make it.” And I wrote it and then he made it. So now it’s almost like, it only made sense to turn to him first, so we sat down for lunch I gave him the script before I showed it to anybody else. I want him to have the first look on and he got it essentially and I was very fortunate that by the end of lunch he was like, I told him how I wanted to make the movie and how I could achieve it for a certain budget level, and it all made sense to him as I hope you know, I kind of hope to position the movie. It made sense to what I thought it did and by the end of lunch we were in pre production essentially.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah okay and take us back so maybe I got her name wrong you say her name is Lee Mineer?
Chris: Leigh Medeiros yes, she was in Rhode Island.
Ashley: Okay, you said she was in Rhode Island and but exactly how did you meet her?
Chris: I didn’t, I don’t think I knew her prior to you know, we’ve both lived in Rhode Island and it actually mean something in terms of, knowing someone or not knowing something because the state is so small. I surprisingly didn’t know her prior to that but I think once I started on Twitter years ago, I think in the beginning I think, she reached out to me early on and I was like, this is the way it is in the small state like Rhode Island. If you don’t know someone you know, someone they know and it just turned up to be the case.
So she and I kept in touch through the years and it’s now it came time to you know, to have someone to work with that typically like I said, you know, someone local that I felt like I could you know, again it wouldn’t be as simple.I couldn’t have done the look of how my reps pay and I want to do this movie and valuing the work with accountability and on top of it I think we could bring value to the project in terms of you know, she’s good at what she does and I know she got some insights into you know, some drafts in terms of the script and everything else that would certainly be beneficial and she did. So it was nice way to this type of project and we at least reckoned and then go from there.
Ashley: And so she didn’t necessarily bring financial resources to the project, it sounds like she helped with the development of the script. That was the main thing.
Chris: She did, she was like you know, like I said she was just pouring in up early in particular order, earlier phases of you know, the script phases. And once was the script was done and everything else and I was able to get Peter on boards to produce and he was able to bring in financing and he questioned who I worked with on “ATM”. He produced that as well, Dan came on board he’s executive producer. Dan very much it was supposed like a baton handing off. So he was kind of who I was working with early on these phase and then once we got into the actual production phase the baton was handed off from her to Dan and to Peter.
Ashley: One thing that I think of a lot of writers and I think its interesting just hearing this story and I think one of the points that illustrates to me. I think a lot of new writers especially they kind of, feel like man if I get the agent or the manager everything is golden. I think it’s interesting here you haven’t even mentioned your agent manager and in a situation like this you’re going straight to the producer. What impact to your agents and managers even have in something like this if any?
Chris: Well they do I mean actually, even I did give them the script to see, even of course you want to get the temperature in terms of, whether or not you think this is a viable product you know, they make, they may as well give in and go, they may just send the script to a producer and it doesn’t really help you as a writer in terms of your place in the market place you know, as far as how you‘re viewed. But they all liked the script, and they also said there was something there. So you know, they were very much on board you know, I was able to get into Peter with ease. I think I dedicated to peter I think my agent meant of giving it to him pretty much maybe the next day you know, it kind of just, so everyone was fine at the idea Peter being you know, hopefully being the producer it’s our first choice. But you know, the reality of to had Peter pass having been busy doing a project or where ever he can be, my reps would have tend getting it out to other potential producers and financiers.
Ashley: And where there any false starts I mean, as I do these interviews you know, there’s a lot of the directors and the producers they think you know, they think they’re going into production and then the money falls through I mean, it sounds like this was a pretty painless process. Did you have any sort of, bumps ups and downs while you’re getting it ready?
Chris: No, no not really you know, It was fortunate it was very streamlined and almost problem free process you know, I think part of that was helped by the fact that there was a relatively modest budget that we get to work with. So in terms of we weren’t talking about millions, millions of dollars the expense is along the line here, so people might get conceit. If you have like you know, a modest budget the numbers worked out you kind of, forecast how the movie could have the very least come close to being profited, come close to breaking even or you know, foresee ably break even, or in potentially make some profit. So it wasn’t a huge gamble and I think that helped.
Ashley: Yeah, and that might even lead into the next question I have. Do you have any advice for writers that you know, want to be directors as well. Did you get any push back from people and say “well I like the script but maybe we could have this other guy direct it.”
Chris: Well that’s not sure with this that’s the whole prompted the whole idea of doing “Atticus” for me was because I was up against that, and won up against that situation you’re describing. Where I had some you know, I was very lucky I’m very grateful. I’ve had success of the writer and had movies made I’ve kind of, established myself as you know, as a professional and a professional who work around town and I do my work and I do a good job, and so I’ve made contacts that way obviously and gotten to know a lot of people that can help get a movie made.
So as I was continuing to write more projects of mine and they were getting closer you know, I would say you know, “this might be the one I want to direct.” And everyone’s on board with it my reps, everything else they were, yeah I think this is something that would be great for you to direct and even early discussions with producers they say, yeah that’s a real possibility that can happen. It just seem like, at that time the project would move closer and get closer to being real and you know, in terms of you know, straining the finance and whatever the case maybe It ties back to the first time you arrived with problems.
You know, you’re a financier is cold feet about a first time director, maybe certain talents have you know cold feet about working with first time director, and I kept realizing that this isn’t going to keep happening. This isn’t just magically one day stops happening at least I don’t think it will. So I have to kind of, have that kind of manifest that change myself and kind of what it was a few earlier were, I had to find a way It wasn’t that Catch 22 and so I had to make a movie and so I did the movie.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah sure. Well how can people see the “Atticus” maybe you could just give us some release dates and tell us where this movie is going to be available.
Chris: It’s currently out on iTunes and ready for purchase and then its going I think on Xbox as well and maybe Amazon for purchase, but it will be on VLDV for rental on January 28th and that’s going to be on DVD Blu-ray, and then I believe March 23rd comes out in the UK.
Ashley: Perfect, perfect so I always like to end maybe you could just tell us the best way for people to kind of follow you if you’re on Twitter, or Facebook, or a have a blog or anything. Maybe you could just throw out some of those legs.
Chris: I’m not on Facebook for better or for worse but I am on Twitter I’m at a, it’s just my name @chrissparling.
Ashley: Okay perfect. I will link to that in the show notes and I will also link to the trail for some people can check that out. Well Chris once again, this has been a great interview I really appreciate your coming on and talking with me, I wish you the best with this movie. I watched it last night and enjoyed it. So, job well done.
Chris: Thank you very much.
Ashley: Thank you, thanks for coming on.
Just a quick plug for my email and fax blast query service. Just on the last 18 months I’ve auctioned eight scripts, sold one script and got one decent paid writing assignment and these all came through the use of my own email and fax blast query service. Here’s how it works first, you join SYS select, then you post your log on inquiry letter in the SYS select form. I review your log on inquiry letter and help you make them as good as they can be. Then you purchase the Blast and I send it out to you. The emails are sent as if they’re from your email address, or replies go directly back to. You can exclude companies if there’s specific companies you don’t want to send to. Just check out www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com to learn more.
In the next episode of selling your screen play podcast I’m going to be interviewing Beau Martin Williams, he’s an actor and a screenwriter who recently completed a feature film called “Americons” We dig in to the specifics on how he got this film made. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. I think the main take away for me from this episode was how he got his script to the producer, was how Chris got the script to the producer. Who could get the financing and could get the film made. This is really the most difficult part of film making and so knowing producers that actually can get this done is really crucial.
Everyone talks about how this business is being about relationships and that’s just so true. Chris took it to a producer that he had a relationship with, he didn’t need an agent for this either and he wasn’t born with this connection. It was connection he got from a previous film and it all started with him writing something good, he send out and got some traction with. So go back and listen to episode 24 where he really explains how he got to this point. I mean, I don’t want to make it sound like he just got it to this producer and it was off to the races. I definitely think listening to episode 24 will kind of give you the back story. It started with him writing a spec script that he was just going go write and direct himself called “Buried” that got some traction. That was the producer who ended up producing this as well. So it really did start though with him just going out and doing something on his own and trying to make things happen for himself and now I’m just a firm believer in that.
Also one key is he made it very important strategic decision to write something that could be shot on a relatively small budget. It’s really unlikely that someone would have let him direct a thirty plus million dollar film. He knew where he could funding for and so that’s what he wrote. This is important to understand, whatever level you are at, if you’re a writer and you want to direct your own material. You should be writing stuff that you actually have a chance to get funding for. He has some great connections in the industry and decent track record as a screenwriter and he still knew that his best chance of getting something made was writing something that could be made relatively cheaply. So for someone that is starting out and who doesn’t have a tract record and doesn’t have his connections I would really be trying to write something that you can go out and shoot yourself without needing anybody’s help.
That’s how you going to ensure that your film gets made. If you get into the cycle of sending it out and waiting for people to get back to you, you could be waiting for a very long time. Anyway that’s the show thank you for listening.