From Getting Into the Box with ‘Buried’ to Breaking Out with ‘The Sea of Trees’: A Conversation with Chris Sparling

A Conversation with Chris Sparling by Sven Mikulec

Back in 2010, I watched a nice little thriller about an American driver who ends up trapped in a wooden box six feet under after being attacked by terrorists in Iraq. I thoroughly enjoyed Buried, but I distinctly remember thinking, one dude in a coffin for an hour and a half, with nothing but a zippo and a smartphone, and it doesn’t get tiring or boring, not even for a minute? Wow, this is some wicked writing. Five years later, I got the chance to express my admiration directly to the screenwriter whose story enabled Ryan Reynolds to deliver the performance of his career. Chris Sparling is now a sought-out commodity, as we wait for his The Sea of Trees with Matthew McConaughey to hit the theaters, and five years upon his screenwriting graduation, we sat down to discuss his career, writing style, sources of inspiration and much more.

What attracted you to the world of film? Was there a defining moment when you said to yourself, yeah, this is what I wanted to do?
Yeah, there was. I mean, besides going to the cinema and seeing The Empire Strikes Back and becoming a lover of cinema in general. I remember being a kid and there was a movie being shot in my hometown, I live in Providence, Rhode Island. I know you’re not from the US, so I’ll tell you it’s the smallest state in the United States. There wasn’t much film production going on in Providence. I remember being a kid and driving by this movie set, and I was just totally enamored by the whole idea of it, that people actually make movies. From there fascination just continued.

Nowadays, it seems much easier for aspiring filmmakers to start up their careers than it was back in the nineties. You have all this equipment available, you have the Internet waiting to present your work to a broad audience… Would you agree the situation is far more comfortable now?
There are definitely fewer barriers to entry, as you pointed out, that’s for sure. Is it more comfortable? I don’t know, I think it’s the trade-off, right? Yes, the equipment makes it more accessible, you can raise money now through crowdfunding, which you couldn’t do before. So yes, the opportunity to create is certainly greater. But I would say that because of that there’s now more content out there. To have content that, at the minimum, gets people to invest their time into, to watch even for a few minutes, that’s the tougher part.

The competition is definitely greater?
Exactly, because there are so many people that are able to do it now.

Five years after your breakout film Buried, how do you feel about the project?
The whole experience of Buried was kind of a crazy whirlwind. Everyone who’s working towards their dream, whatever it may be, and if they are lucky enough to achieve it, there’s always that definitive breakthrough moment. There’s no question Buried was that for me. Prior to that, I’ve been working towards that goal, towards that dream, for good ten years, and really to not much success. I was always a pretty driven guy, and even with that character trait, there were still times when I questioned myself if I should throw in the towel, if I was wasting my time. With Buried, beside it just being a break and the moment the doors started opening for me a little bit, it was probably the nature of how it all unfolded that made it seem even more surreal. It all came together very, very quickly. The script was shown to people, it went out to a few producers and within six months’ time, it was in production in Spain. It was an incredibly fast process and we were into Sundance less than a year later. You can imagine, if you go ten years at this glacial pace with this incremental growth in your career that really isn’t adding up to very much, and then all of a sudden, within six months you have an agent, you have a manager, you have a script that everyone around town is reading, you have meetings, you have this actor that wants to do your movie. You know, it’s completely surreal, it’s a very, very gratifying moment.

And are you completely satisfied with the way your screenplay was transmitted to the screen?
Even more so. The genesis of Buried was that I planned on directing it myself. I was going to make it for like five thousand dollars. It was conceived as a low-budget, or no-budget, indie movie. Thankfully it took on a much bigger life. Rodrigo Cortes and I are very good friends at this point, but frankly, even if we weren’t, even if I didn’t like the guy, I think he’s just a truly visionary, gifted director. He took the material to even greater heights that I knew I ever would have.

Your career sky-rocketed after Buried. Variety named you one of only ten screenwriters whose work should be followed closely. It seems you’re living the screenwriter’s dream. Was your road to success paved with blood, sweat and tears?
Yeah, it was very difficult. I didn’t have any connections in the industry at all. I started as an actor, I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years, auditioning, waiting tables, doing the whole struggling actor bit. It was then that I started writing a little bit. It was a grind, you know? I moved back to my hometown after that and I started writing exclusively, giving up on acting. It really was a grind, I wrote script after script after script. And this was before the Blacklist even existed, and I’m not talking about the Blacklist that scripts get selected for, I’m talking about the submission service they do now. That didn’t exist back then, there was none of that. There was the Nicholl Fellowship, there were probably a few worthwhile screenplay competitions at the time, but that’s kind of it. I would essentially write screenplays and do my best to get anyone to even look at them. That’s was a kind of a Herculean task in and of itself, because no one wanted to read a script from an unknown, unrepped writer.

You wrote six or seven feature screenplays before your success with Buried, facing a lot of rejection on the way. But you never gave up. Would this be your advice to future filmmakers and screenwriters? Persevere, keep your chin up?
Well, I agree with all of that stuff, it’s true, that’s all necessary. But at the same time I’m always kind of hesitant to say that to other people because, if I were in their shoes and I was still feeling that frustration and some guy that was successful was telling me that, I would look at him and say, well yeah, it’s easy for you to say, it’s easy for you to tell me to keep at this. Because you did and it worked for you, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everybody, even if they did this for a thousand years.

It takes a lot of luck.
It takes a lot of luck, but I think that above anything, the idea of persevering is kind of a broad application of how you intend to play out your career because just continuing to do it for a long period of time might not be enough. Because you might tell yourself, ok, I’m going to do this for the next twenty years. Wow, twenty years you put into this. Yeah, but how much did you actually write in those twenty years? How many scripts did you read in those twenty years, how much work did you do on your craft in those twenty years, as opposed to someone who comes along in, let’s say, a year’s time as a break-out new thing. Well, maybe, I don’t know, but maybe that person went about it asking himself how they might get better at this. There’s more than simple perseverance.

How did you get better at writing?
Reading was key for me, reading scripts as a writer. I ended up taking jobs as an intern, and I was older too. I remember taking a job as a reader for a production company, I think at the time I must have been close to thirty. And here I was taking an unpaid internship with a bunch of college students. Why? Because I wanted to be part of it, I felt like as a screenwriter, you’re just a person with a computer, that’s just you, your island. I felt I needed to be more involved, and what that did for me was that it forced me to read more screenplays. It was my job as an intern there. Then I started reading for a script competition at one point, realizing, wow, I need to do this more often because this is making me a much better writer. Then I just started reading on my own, because I realized the value in it. When you’re just starting out as a writer, there’s a lot to remember, there are a lot of balls to juggle. You’re worried about structure and format and all of the things you read in the books or your teachers might have told you, your coaches, friends, whoever. There are really a lot of things to remember, and you’re just sitting there, thinking, how am I doing this? What experience brings you is that all of that stuff becomes almost like a mental shorthand with yourself. I don’t think about format as I’m writing, I don’t think as much about structure. Because it just happens after you’ve done it so many times, those sort of things tend to take care of themselves and you can focus more on the characters, the story and the writing. I’m always trying to improve, just like everyone else, and I can say that in the past year or two I’ve really improved as a writer. Because, I’m very lucky that I get to do it exclusively for a living so I do it all the time, but also I continue to reinvest in myself in terms of reading screenplays and learning as much as I can.

After co-directing a feature and directing a short film, you’ve gained much valued experience which set you on the right path of becoming a better screenwriter. One of the lessons you’ve absorbed is that you should write stuff that’s produceable, that’s going to be able to be filmed. In other words, Buried, a story of a single man trapped in a box, is an idea born out of budgetary restrictions?
Yes, absolutely. The film that I co-directed and the short that I directed, those for me were my film school. I had no idea how to make a movie. I had a pretty good idea by that point how to write a movie, but not how to make it. I just threw myself into it. It’s amazing, you know, that these movies even got finished, especially the feature. For me, those don’t count, but I shouldn’t say that because something did count, and that was what you pointed out. You begin to understand this stuff takes time to go from the page to the screen, it takes resources, it takes money, it takes manpower. So when you look at the script, like I had when I made that first movie, I had so many locations, so many actors, all of these different things that were going on, and I had very, very little money to make it. Like I said, I can’t believe I even finished the movie. No surprise, when I look back at it now, it’s basically like a freshman film school project, which in a sense actually was for me, since I didn’t go to film school. But the takeaway was what you pointed out, that you have to bear this stuff in mind even as you’re writing it. Unless, of course, you have the free reign and you’re working under the studio system so you don’t have to worry too much about budget constraints. But if you are thinking about that sort of thing, yes, it’s going to influence what’s going to end up on the page, or at least it should.

What happened to The Night Chronicles planned trilogy? As far as I’ve gathered, you were supposed to write the screenplay for the film Reincarnate for producer M. Night Shyamalan.
Yeah, I did. I don’t know what’s going on with that. That’s a good question. That’s just kind of the nature of the business, it happens all the time. Projects have momentum, a script will be written, even a director attached, and then for some reason it falls off. I can’t say whether that’s a permanent thing, but at least for the time being it seems to have fallen off. It’s like someone just pushed pause on it, so I don’t know what will happen with it next.

Last year you were hired by Warner Brothers to adapt Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow novel.
Yes, I was brought in to adapt the book. Jo Nesbo is a rather well known Norwegian novelist, you’ve probably heard about him. Are you Norwegian, Sven?

Croatian, actually.
Croatian, ok. So this book was brought to me through Langley Park Pictures, Kevin McCormick brought me in, they were partnering with Leonardo DiCaprio’s company (Appian Way Productions). They just brought me in and asked if I was interested in adapting it, and I was. That script is in Warner Bros at the moment, I’m curious to see what’s going to happen. Daniel Espinosa is attached to direct it. As a writer, you sometimes do your work and then you leave it to the powers that be. Early on, there’s a sense of disappointment when something doesn’t necessarily happen as fast as you hoped it would. But what I learned, by doing this professionally for six years or so, is that this is a horse race. I’ve said that many times, it’s a horse race, and you never know which horse is going to come in. That’s why you just want to have as many horses in the race as you can.

Could you tell us about your first-hand experience of the process of making an adaptation of a novel?
Well, they will have a book that they own the rights to, there will probably be a producer that owns the right to it. So, the producer will reach out to the representatives of a few writers that they think might be right for the job. They will check those writers’ schedules to see if they’re available and then engage the writers’ interest. Let’s say they reach out to five writers, and then they will send the book off to the three or four that are interested. I would then read the book and basically give my take, I come back to them and give them a summary explaining what my version of the movie would be. You know, for different people it’s different things. For someone like Aaron Sorkin that’s not the process. The process is, if he wants the job—it’s his, there’s no real bake-off going on between him and other writers. Writers who are just starting out in their careers, if they’ve broken in enough to be considered for assignment work, it could be them against, like, fifteen other writers for the same job.

Do you know how many writers you had to compete with for the Blood on Snow gig?
I have no idea. It could have been that they went to me first, they wanted to hear what I had to say first, and if they didn’t like the idea they would widen the search. But I just know it worked out. It seemed that Daniel, the director, and I got on really well right out of the gate and we were on the same page, so I feel that if there were other writers they were considering, there probably weren’t that many of them.

I can’t tell you how excited we are about The Sea of Trees. How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Two different ways. After I wrote Buried, I wrote a movie called ATM, which was a Blacklist script that I’m very happy to see got filmed. The movie itself just didn’t connect to audiences. I don’t think there’s actually a writer jail, as there is a director jail, but at the same time I did notice my phone stopped ringing a little bit, you know. And the second thing is, I’ve done two movies in a row that are actually these very contained thrillers. It was great from the outset, and I actually believe that having a niche of some kind is a good thing because there are so many people that are trying to do their work, and having a niche actually separates you from them in a way. So early on it was helpful, but as my career wasn’t progressing as much as I wanted, I found myself constantly falling into that box, no pun intended. I wasn’t getting put up for bigger jobs. People simply don’t know your work in that way because they are only familiar with these small contained thrillers you made. I kind of took a step back and said, well, I need to change things again, always trying to reinvest in myself, as I stated. I had to do something different. Instead of a thriller or a genre movie, I decided to write a drama. I was trying to figure out what that movie might be. And then, just by chance, I found out about Aokigahara, which is the Sea of Trees, a forest at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, where people go from far and wide to end their lives. I don’t know or understand why, but they do. There’s this whole mysticism involved that’s built around the place. At first glance it seems like a great spot to set a horror movie, but again, I wasn’t in that place where I would want to do something like that again. So, what if it’s a drama, I asked myself. We were talking about suicide, about something very dramatic and traumatic, so I tried to figure out what was the dramatic story that could be told there. I actually think I read about it on, a brilliant humor website. It published a list of seven or eight creepiest places on Earth, or weirdest places, I can’t remember. And I thought, wow, that’s interesting. I began reading more about the place, I started researching it, and realized it was a really interesting location to set a movie on.

Probably the first thing I noticed about The Sea of Trees was how brilliant its cast really was. How does it feel to have stars of such calibre bringing your script to life?
It’s great. It’s also an experience I would call somewhat surreal. The film was primarily shot about 45 minutes from my house, so I had a major movie, with Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts starring and Gus Van Sant directing, pretty much happening in my back yard. It’s a movie that I wrote and was a producer on, as well.

What is your relationship with Van Sant like? How would you describe him?
He’s a very, very nice man, that’s for sure. He’s very quiet. You know, it’s weird, people have asked me that question, what’s it like to work with Gus. I mean, we get along extremely well. But he’s just not a very talkative guy and as far as notes he had on the script, they were very minimal. He wanted to shoot the movie I wrote, he simply wanted to make it. He did an incredible job with it, it’s a film, I believe, people are going to respond to. I can’t describe it any other way other than to say that he’s just a very nice, quiet man, who’s very talented and very good at what he does. That’s kind of the best way to describe him.

The Sea of Trees must have opened a lot of doors for you. This is a huge movie compared to Buried, for example. How do you intend to capitalize on this momentum?
Well, I’m already doing it, to be honest. The thing is, within the industry, everyone’s aware of this stuff before the general public is. People are reading the script. Do you follow what I’m saying? Everybody knows about it because the script has been circulating, it was on the Blacklist… So it’s already opened up a lot of doors for me. That’s the reason why I got Blood on Snow, I believe, at least that’s why I was offered the opportunity to get it. It’s done a lot for me. It did what I needed it to do, which was to break me out of that one box I was stuck in, out of being that guy who wrote small contained thrillers. It has already done an enormous amount for my career. You know, I directed a movie that just came out, a small indie genre movie…

The Atticus Insitute.
Yeah, that’s the one. That’s more in line with what I want to continue doing, I have a couple of directing projects that I’m putting together. As far as my gameplan is concerned, I’ll definitely continue writing these bigger projects, if I’m allowed to, of course, if those opportunities keep coming, while at the same try to grow as a director. This will probably mean directing a couple of smaller projects, but growing in scale each time, until I feel ready to take on something that’s big, in that arena too, to write and direct.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to see The Atticus Institute in Croatian cinema. How satisfied are you with the film?
I am, I’m really satisfied. I imagine this is the case with every budget film, where you always wish you had more time and more money. This film was made for a very small budget and we shot it in basically two weeks, more or less. Given those restrictions and everything else, I’m proud of it. I think it’s a pretty good… no, better than pretty good, I think it’s a good movie! I think it stands up to what’s out there.

I’m no screenwriter, but I guess when you write a script, you get a vision in your head of what the film should look like.

How did it feel to finally be in control, in the position to independently transfer the written material onto the big screen, to turn that vision of yours into a real movie?
It felt really good. And this is coming from someone who’s had really good experiences with directors. In every single one of the movies we’ve talked about I’ve had great experiences with the filmmakers. You know, I’ve heard the horror stories about writers not even being allowed on set, being completely cut out of the process. But the directors I’ve worked with have been incredibly inclusive, allowing me to be a big part of the creative process. It’s not even that, I really, really liked the idea of being able to see my vision from the beginning to the very end. It wasn’t like, this is my vision and now I’m going to hand it off to you and now it’s your vision, and that would be that. Well, in case of Buried, that turned out rather well. As I said, his (Rodrigo Cortes’) vision was better than mine, the movie he made was better than the movie in my head. But I realized that was what I wanted to experience—to see how the movie in my head becomes the movie on the screen.

In terms of becoming a better screenwriter, I suppose directing a film must have been very beneficial.
That’s true, it has. It teaches you quite a bit about how every word matters, every word you put on that page. It’s the example I always use: in a script, it’s easy to write ‘they fight’. But although it took literally a second to write those words, the fight could take days in production. It could take weeks. The thing is, you start to understand the weight of these words in terms of their application. Depending on the project, you need to be careful about what you write. If I was writing for something where the budget was of paramount importance, as was the case with The Atticus Institute, I would need to take that into consideration and be very careful to think twice about what I would put on the page. I can’t have a scene with all these extras, I can’t have a car crash, and so on.

Thanks for a great conversation. This was a pleasure, Chris. Best of luck in your future projects.
Take care, Sven.

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