Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Interview With Chris Sparling (writer of "Buried")

Can we talk about something for a second? One of my favorite screenplays of the year? A little script called "Buried" about a man who wakes up inside a coffin with no memory of how he got there? Oh yeah, did I mention that the entire script takes place inside that coffin? Still not jogging your memory? Go check out my review of the script here. The script was purchased earlier this year and secured Ryan Reynolds as the one-man lead in the film. Production has since been completed.

Through the grace of one of Scriptshadow's helpful fans who happened to know Chris, I was able to do a little trapping of my own and convince Mr. Sparling to do an interview for the site. Chris was more than happy to help out. A little background on Chris first. He is a writer/director/actor/producer/screenwriting teacher who took matters into his own hands when he wrote/directed/produced his first film back in 2005 titled, "An Uzi At The Alamo." Chris recently sold another script titled, "Mercy," to Gold Circle Films on September 24th. Clearly they must have heard he was going to be interviewed on Scriptshadow. Anyway, I'll stop talking and give the floor to the man himself, Chris Sparling. Enjoy the interview.

SS: How did the idea for Buried come about?

CS: I wish I could say it was some uniquely artistic reason, but it actually was a financial decision. It had been about four or five years since I shot a feature, and I was getting sort of antsy. Anyway, I tried to come up with the most contained story I could possibly tell, in addition to being one that involved as few actors as possible. From there, I felt there had to be a compelling reason why someone would be buried alive, rather than go the straight horror route and chalk it up to some crazy, Saw-like lunatic who just wants to torture someone. After then researching the dangers so many civilian contractors are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the unimaginable conditions those of them who are kidnapped endure, I knew right away I had my reason.

SS: I noticed you were an actor and a director as well as a writer. Were you writing something you could shoot and act in yourself? If so, what made you give up the acting and directing parts?

CS: Although I did initially intend on directing Buried, I never saw myself playing Paul. For one, I originally wrote him as being much older than me (even though Ryan Reynolds ended up playing the role, and we're just about the same age), and second, I've done the DIY, wear-all-the-hats-at-once thing before and the movie suffered as a result. Also, once I saw Rodrigo Cortes' first film, The Contestant, I knew he was the right person to direct Buried. He's incredibly gifted, and unlike many other directors we considered, he was the only one who wanted to stay true to the script by keeping the entire story in the box. And, of course, we were fortunate enough to land an incredibly talented and courageous actor in Ryan, who was willing to take a risk on this crazy movie.

SS: How many scripts had you written before Buried? Which script did you realize that maybe you were getting the hang of it?

CS: Before Buried, I think I'd written about nine or ten features and two TV specs. Truth be told, it didn't start to click for me until about my seventh feature script.

SS: What's your process as a writer? Do you write quickly? Does it take awhile? Do you outline? How many drafts do you write?

CS: I kind of follow a pyramid design, in that I start with the bigger, broader things first and then steadily make my way up to the more detailed aspects of the script. Typically, I'll write a brief synopsis (3-5 pages), then a character breakdown, followed by a thorough scene breakdown/step outline, and then finally a first draft of the script itself. Thankfully, yes,I do write pretty quickly, which helps because I usually write at least two or three drafts of a spec.

Courtesy of Firstshowing.net

SS: One of the things I like so much about Buried is that it seems to follow the generally accepted rules of screenwriting, but like all great scripts, does so without the reader realizing they're there. For example, in my review, I talk about your exceptional use of multiple ticking time bombs and how effective they were. Are you a "rules" guy? Or do you just follow your gut?

CS: Like I said before, it took me writing about seven scripts before everything seemed to click. For me, finally "getting it" meant being able to write from the gut and not having to consciously worry about hitting certain plot points or whatever else, because you end up hitting them anyway.

SS: A mutual acquaintance mentioned that you taught screenwriting. When you go into a semester, what are the most important pieces of information you want your students to leave with?

CS: I only teach from time to time, but when I do, I implore my students to learn how the film business works. Honing their craft should go without saying, which is why I stress the need for them to get out to festivals, make contacts, attend film markets, intern, and do just about anything else they can do to learn about the business they hope to someday work in.

SS: What is the most common mistake you see screenwriters make?

CS: Amazingly, not reading screenplays. This clearly doesn't seem to be the case for the readers of your site, but on the whole, it's a mistake a lot of writers make. How-To books are great, as are classes and seminars, but there's no better (or cheaper) way to become a better writer than to read as many scripts as you can get your hands on.

SS: What do you think the key is, not necessarily to write a great script, but to sell a script? Or are they one and the same?

CS: So far, I've only sold two specs: Buried and, most recently, a horror/thriller called Mercy. What made those scripts sell and not the nine or ten others before them? It could simply be that they were better scripts, but it's probably more do do with access -- access to people who are now actually willing to read my stuff. This is why I think it's so important to understand how the business works. You have to know who the gatekeepers are, how to get to them, how to get them to turn your pages, and then -- provided your stuff is good enough -- you will get read by the the people who have the power to buy your spec.

SS: How did you obtain agency representation and what is your advice for other writers seeking representation?

As I mentioned before, I made a no-budget indie a few years back, which caught the attention of my manager, Aaron Kaplan. He didn't sign me right away, but he apparently saw enough promise in me to continue reading my scripts and watch some things I directed and acted in. Fast forward to just over a year ago, when I was already about six months into pre-production on Buried (the no-budget version I was going to direct), I sent him the script and he flipped for it. Two days later he signed me. From there, he got the script over to the agencies he had relationships with and within a week or so I signed with Charlie Ferraro and Doug Johnson at UTA. As for advice on how to get a rep, all I can say is to be persistent. Not overbearing; persistent. Apart from that, another great way is to connect with a producer -- one who believes in your talent -- and then, when the time is right, ask that person to refer you to some reps they regularly work with.

SS: How important to a screenwriter's success do you think it is to have other things going on besides the writing (ie directing, acting, producing, blogging, teaching)?

I'm not sure doing any or all of these things are vital to being a successful screenwriter, but they certainly don't hurt.

SS: With studios putting more emphasis than ever on adaptations (and hiring guns to write them), it's getting harder and harder to find truly original material. But a couple of original ideas broke through this summer in The Hangover and District 9. What's your opinion on the state of industry?

I think the public wants comfort right now.. We're facing unprescedented economic hardship; we want to escape to the places and do the things we know for sure make us happy. There's no risk there, and that makes us feel comfortable spending our hard earned money at the box office. That's why everything seems to be pre-awareness these days. But, as you pointed out, there have been several original films that have broken through and, subsequently, performed very well in their own right. In my opinion, as we begin to pull out of this recession, I think the flip back to more original content will start to happen. But until then, enjoy the big screen adaptation of Dan Brown's latest release, Iron Man 2, Rambo 5, Battleship the movie.....

SS: What is your opinion on Josh Olson's recent rant that he will not read your fucking script? Would you read Josh Olson's script?

CS: I understand both sides of this debate. From Josh Olson's side, I have personally experienced the "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" backlash from reading someone's script. About four years ago, a woman (a complete stranger, mind you) emailed me and asked if I would read not one script, but two. Evidently, she and her writing partner had written two different versions of a story they came up with, and they wanted to know which of the two was better. Long story short, I agreed, and when I wrote back and told her I thought script B was better than script A, she got all bent out of shape because she wrote script A. Here it was I gave a complete stranger about three hours of my time (I read very slowly) and an unbiased, somewhat professional opinion, and in return she basically told me I was an idiot and that she shouldn't have wasted HER time by contacting me in the first place. Again, that's just one example of why I can see things from Josh Olson's side. However, and this is a pretty big however, I'm not sure I agree with the way he went about saying what he said. I would imagine he was once a struggling screenwriter too, so he should know firsthand how hard it is to get stuff read -- and therefore shouldn't fault writers for trying.

Thanks again to Chris. I hope you guys found some wisdom, motivation, or inspiration from his words. I think one of the common threads I'm starting to see with success is that people who achieve it attack their dream from different angles. Writing is such an invisible pursuit. No one sees you doing it. So if you're out there acting, directing, producing, even blogging. Those things are more visible and give you a stage to promote your writing ambitions. Just a thought.