The Iron Man writer on his directorial debut
The supernatural element has been flourishing recently in cinema. In the new film, First Snow, there's a certain mystery in that supernatural.
Guy Pearce stars as Jimmy Starks, a jukebox salesman; when he gets stuck in a small New Mexico town, he discovers a lot more about himself than he ever dreamed. On a visit to a local soothsayer, Jimmy finds out his life is about the get a whole lot interesting.
First Snow is directed and co-written by Oscar-nominated Mark Fergus, the same man (along with his writing partner, Hawk Ostby) who penned Children of Men and currently working on Iron Man. The film marks Mark's directorial debut.
Movieweb.com sat down with Mark and Guy to talk about the film; here's what they had to say:
What's the writing process between you and Hawk and then what was it like to go and direct?
Mark Fergus: Yeah, we've been writing for about 12 years now; we met in New York and just started to edit for each other, and we both needed help kind of pushing material to a different place. And then we just decided, 'Oh, let's just write something original.' And we just went from there, and I never thought we could work together because we have very different personalities and sensibilities; but there's something about the back and forth between us that just totally worked for the kind of - things I never would have thought of, things he would have never thought of. We just were banging stuff back and forth, and we pretty much like to - it pretty much started that way because we usually lived in different places, so we were able to not write kind of hovering over each other. We'd each tackle one phase of it, and then bounce it back to the other guy, and then they would do their pass, and then bounce it back; we had this great - we weren't editing for each other, we weren't editing each other before we got a chance to try something. And that's been really helpful for us, and that's how we wrote all our assignments; I was living in, when we did Children of Men, I was living in New Mexico and he was living in New York. Now, he lives in Vermont and I live in LA; it's a real fun way to work, and it's just by necessity. But I think doing the project now, Iron Man, he's had to be out here, and we're in a room together - and it's cool, but it's a different dynamic, and I like the non-editing, loose way that we work. And also, when you get burned out, you just hand it over and let him carry it for a while, and projects move forward much quicker and weird stuff starts to happen in the midst of it. And then directing, I think he's got a family now, and a bunch of kids, and I know he's going to direct one of these days when he gets everything settled. When we wrote First Snow, I always wanted to - I felt like when I saw In the Company of Men, I keep talking about that that was one of those films that made me realize - you can say there's no directing gigs out there, but you can just go and write something or try to write something that fascinating and it's just all about the writing, and there's no big money behind that movie, you can do something like that. That ended up being our reasoning behind writing First Snow, and it was always something to direct; so I always made it clear that I wasn't interested in giving the script up to anyone. And if anyone wasn't cool with that, cool; we'd just walk away there. And that was all that really needed to be said there, and they just wanted to see how committed you were to seeing it through, and that's how we got that first one off the ground. And I think also the casting, that's where the money comes in; but I think if the cast will take a chance, the guys who back these movies are willing to - they feel a lot better when the actor feels very comfortable with you. And it was actually pretty smooth, smoother than I would have expected to get a film put together - and, of course, a lot of luck with that with the Yari Group, and all the factors that collested to make it happen. But certainly, I think the main thing, just to get past the writer thing, I had to show them you could, you had a visual conception of the film, and all the dog and pony that go along with that, the story boards and visual. And I always watch that L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson shows how he pitched L.A. Confidential to executives, even though he had a track record, a great track record; but the way he did the slide show - 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' That's what you gotta do, so thank G-d for DVD extras, you can learn all this stuff, so that's sort of what helped us - the little flip board of influences and sources and things you wanted to do visually.
Did you have a particular experience that influenced this story?
Mark Fergus: Just really, I think, Hawk had dealt with fortune readers in New Orleans where he had lived for a couple of years; and he had a lot of disturbing, feeling like somebody was a phony, but having them say stuff that stuck with you, and kind of lodged into you, that you couldn't really shake. And if people told you, you have a short life line, screw that; but are there people who have access to - people who read energy; I think there are super intuitive people who can feel energy. There's a great documentary - I can't remember the name - but it wasn't so much that gift of sight, but the extraordinary intuition to read people's energy. I just like to leave it as a big 'what if;' I've never gone to, other than recently as a joke, I was put in front of a tarot reader, but I never wanted to know too much about it, because to me, it's a great mystery, and a great 'what if' of life of people who have sight. Is there anything to see, even if somebody had sight? I think we just approached it as it's a drama about somebody who is really poisoned by guilt and really needs to kind of tear themselves down and what would be a catalyst to have them looking; it had to be something superficial from the outside to kind of push them into that. I think I look back at all the characters we've done now, and there's always somebody, some male character with a lot of demons who needs to have a reckoning, and have some kind of redemption. And maybe that's our story; everybody has that one story you're telling over and over, and maybe that's our story which speaks to us. And so, I think the fortune teller was just a simple mysterious way into 'what does it take for people to look inward and solve or unravel themselves and find some grace in life?' What would force you to do that, and I think fear of death is certainly a compelling one.
How do you go about writing these huge Hollywood films?
Mark Fergus: We've only come into them late; we met Jon Favreau on an adaptation of Jon Carter of Mars, and when that one didn't go forward, we jumped onto Iron Man. And I think what he likes is we're going to approach it the same exact way as First Snow; there's a different context and a different - we're just going to write a story about a screwed up guy - same thing, tear himself down and rebuild himself. And that's still the same story, and I think Jon appreciated we were going to approach it that way, as if it were a small story, as it works as a small story - I think it works on a larger scale. And Children of Men, we wrote that as the tiniest, we just saw - it's a Casablanca story in a slightly, in the slightly distant future and a fairly plausible dilemma facing mankind. But all we really cared about is this is a guy with a difficult past, with a woman who now comes asking for help; and just the shear simplicity of 'what would you do in that situation if someone comes back and now needs you?' And the scale of it just kind of takes care of it itself; the project is what it is. And I don't think you need to write it - we never thought of writing any differently given those situations. It just comes down to the simplest human story, and Favreau was amazing in reminding us - when you think you want to go bigger, because 'oh, I just watched Spider-Man last night, and g-d, there's so much of this.' And you start thinking how to get more razzle-dazzle and he kind of reminds us why he hired us was 'just tell me what the human story is like Children of Men,' 'get the girl to the boat.' It's something real simple that translates.
Did you refer to the comics or did you go with a blank slate?
Mark Fergus: It's kind of both approaches, it's the guys who are the Marvel guys; there's a tremendous motherload of history and detail, and being respected and being considered from the whole history of the project to yesterday. And then there's also a tremendous opportunity to look at, from the outside, as a story that needs to do certain things, and to find out what else could be done, and to not let anything be off limits. It's kind of the best of both worlds for the fans, but it's also not going to just be stocking that cage that has to follow everything. Cause the comics evolved, too; everything has been tried in the comics over the years, and they're taking a really broad approach to 'what's the coolest story,' 'what's the most interesting story,' and anything goes that fits into that - that feels right, not just anything. I think it's a smart thing, they're being really open and they're not going anywhere that fans wouldn't be psyched about; I think it's the best of both worlds. And I'm an outsider coming in, cause I'm not a comic book guy, so I'm learning it from the perspective of someone who hasn't grown up with the comics; and there are other writers on it who are comic guys. So they're hitting it from a lot of cool approaches; and Jon is the ringleader, who says 'this is the movie, bam.' And he's great, by the way; it's in amazingly deft hands, so he's a natural story teller and he's going to really knock it out of the park, I believe. So there you have it.
How did you get involved in this?
Guy Pearce: Well, it's pretty straight forward; my agent had gotten a hold of the script and really liked it, and sent it my way. And I liked it, and clearly liked it in the same way; we just met up, and I think at that first meeting it was pretty clear that we probably thought in that same kind of way. It's really important to me - it's really important to make a good film, but probably more important to have a good experience when you make the film. I think if the film's going to be good, then it's going to be good; but to be able to communicate and have great respect for one another and be open enough and honest enough to say what works and what doesn't, and go and say, 'Oh, I'm having a problem with this' or 'I don't really know what I'm doing here.' Whatever, I find that more important than anything, and Mark's clearly someone who is sensitive with that and aware of that.
Mark Fergus: Yeah, absolutely. And I thought I was going to be intimidated, not just by his career, but by his presence.
Guy Pearce: Yeah, my sheer intelligence; but no, he wasn't at all
Mark Fergus: Yeah, it was very important for me to know I was going to be able to gain their trust, to be able to direct the film because you had worked with so many great directors. It was really relaxing and disarming to know that we could just talk as people and connect on a personal level and then the story would come out after. And I thought that was going to be the foundation, but it ended up being really solid working with you.
Guy Pearce: Yeah, and I think it's clearly, it's the best way to work anyway; it's a little like just grabbing your friends and saying, 'Let's go make a short film' and 'what do you want to do?' And just being able to communicate right there and then, and instantaneously, be able to come up with any ideas - but even if everybody thinks it's not a great idea, have enough respect to go, 'Well, no how about this?' I've met lots of directors who have far more experience than Mark and I put together, who immediately I go, 'No, I couldn't come and work for you,' 'because I feel you're not listening to me or you're not actually compassionate enough to want to listen to what I find an issue.' And I clam up pretty easily - I find that I kind of go 'ohh, my g-d' really easily around people. So if somebody's of that kind of nature, I just kind of find that too difficult. With Mark, I knew I could just boss him around, tell him what I wanted.
Mark Fergus: Yes, sir.
Is that the norm with directors?
Guy Pearce: No, not necessarily, I think it comes down to personality types; some people you click with and others you don't. Some people are sensitive to really want to listen to - and I think it's more - if I was directing and I had a bunch of actors in front of me, I would need to know, and I would need them to know that I know exactly how I'm going to support them in what it is they're going to try and do, and how I'm going to try and help them in getting there. And if they don't need help getting there, how I'm going to actually leave them alone as well; where I think a lot of directors just kind of plow in and try and boss their way around. And you suddenly go, 'Am I actually -,' 'Can I actually connect to this' or 'how's this working?'
What's next for you?
Guy Pearce: I finished doing Death Defying Acts with Catherine Zeta Jones in England with Gillian Armstrong directing, which is a sort of fictional story about a woman and her daughter in the 20's in Scotland, who have - funny enough, a psychic act. Houdini, on his world tour, stops off in Scotland and makes this announcement. Which is true, that anybody who could come forward with his mother's last dying words would win themselves $10,000, which was a huge amount of money in that time. So they've taken that idea, and made it as a sad sort of fictional account of these two people coming together, and Houdini becoming a catalyst of what happens to Catherine's character. I play Houdini, but it's not a biopic, or anything like that.
You can catch Guy, Piper, and William Fichtner in First Snow; it's in limited theaters now, and will expand to wide release soon.