Interview with Adam Saunders

ShimmerLake pic

Adam Saunders is the producer of the new indie thriller SHIMMER LAKE, now available to stream on Netflix. SHIMMER LAKE tells the story of a small town heist gone bad, a trail of mishaps and murders like fallen dominoes littering the landscape, and packs a brilliant final twist. With a unique structure and broken into chapters, the films features arresting visual themes and patterns, and the numerous talented cast members who keep you spellbound and guessing until the very end. Providing a beautiful balance of tension and laugh out loud humor, the film accomplishes what few can; A taut, gripping dramedy which keeps you rapt until its final moment. Note to viewers: You will want to be fully caffeinated and stone cold sober for this film as it takes a bit of brain power to follow it’s enticing yet labyrinthine path to its great conclusion! PLEASE NOTE: There are spoilers in the following interview.

Cinemynx:  Hi Adam!  How are you?

Adam Saunders:  Good how are you?

C:  I’m good! I am very impressed with the film and typically, I’m just not that nice a person, so I would never say it if it weren’t true!

AS:  Thank you.

C: I know our time is limited so I want to start by asking how this project became yours. Did Oren (Uziel, Writer & Director) bring the script to you?  And if so, do you two have a history together?  Tell me a little bit about that and if you could then segue into whether there was something on top of its overall quality that really drew you to the project? It’s a good film, it’s a gripping film, it has great structure and a phenomenal twist I didn’t see coming.

AS:  Yes.  So, first question first.  The script was sent to me from WME which is Oren’s agency.  I had worked with them on a movie I did previously a movie called ABOUT ALEX and we were trying to find another project together and they were sending me a bunch of different scripts they sent me the script and they said this script had been around and we were having trouble getting it made, and at this point Oren’s whole thing was he only wants to give it to a producer who will make this his primary focus and will make sure this movie gets made.  That’s it.  You don’t have to have a thousand other credits, you don’t have to be running the studio.  By the way, there were other producers who had run huge studio productions who were interested in this project. Oren was, and is, such a big screenwriter and he had so many projects that were made and so many in the process of being made.  This project was his baby, it was the first thing that he had written, had really introduced him to the business, the only thing that mattered to him was that it was going to get made.  And, so, my promise to him was, “Listen, we are a smaller company but up until this point every project we’ve optioned we’ve made, so if you give me the chance to option this script I promise you, I give you my word, I will make it,” or as I said to Oren, “It’s my job to protect the Ferrari.”  This script I saw as a Ferrari and I will doing everything I can. Or maybe, it’s more specifically a Camaro.  So that was sort of the promise I made to them and I made to him and then I met with him. Its really interesting, I knew at the time there were so many producers who wanted to produce this movie but again I just told him, if you give me this chance, I will make this movie, I promise you that.  They did and they let us option the script and once they did the process was relatively smooth.  Within less than a year of optioning it, cameras were rolling in Canada, and we had gone through a process through which we put the whole thing together in Cleveland Ohio and then we decided to move the whole thing because we thought there was a bigger infrastructure in Toronto so we shot the movie ultimately in Toronto.  All that, we set the movie up twice, essentially, within a 10 month period.  Ultimately we landed in Toronto, we made it.  In answer to your second question, the reason I was so bullish about it, so excited about it, so willing to stick my neck out with Oren and the agency – at the time I felt like it was the best script I’d ever read full stop.  I had read the first 30 pages and said, this was good, good trailer, good thriller, and as we continued on, we said the characters are really deep, I love the specificity of each person, then the last 20 pages, I said, no matter what I am going to do everything I can to make this movie because I think it’s so brilliant.

C:  Yes!  I agree.  And I think that one of the things that I appreciate about it is…well, there are several things.  I certainly want to commend you on it being tight and not overly long.  I think that we are living a little bit in an age and a time where filmmaking has become slightly self conscious and filmmakers have such a hard time leaving anything on the cutting room floor.  Everything is a 2 hour film when it really would be a tighter, more impactful, and more gripping 90 minutes.

AS:  Mmhmm.

C:  You completely cover the story and I’ll say that Benjamin Walker does not give an inch until basically that last scene.  That’s so beautifully done.  I sighed to myself, “WOAHHHHH!”  Oh my God, I would never…Stuff that’s predictable can still be pretty good, but it blindsided me which was a great feeling!!! 

AS:  Benjamin Walker is fantastic and hopefully they’ll see it and respond as well as you to him because he’s wonderful.  The funny thing about the ending was we actually casted various different endings.  We had endings that didn’t end in the bank.  We had endings that I won’t reveal too much of them but there were a lot of different scenarios in how this movie could have ended.  One of which Ben and Stephanie were throwing money on the lake when they drive off together.  We tested all these various different endings and this ending for the movie far and away audiences liked best.  What was interesting to me and to Oren is Ben, having owned what he had done, and saying as far as I’m concerned, he’s already got, and that’s the ending, boom.  Audiences liked him so much more than when he was, kind of…we had a scene where he was pensive sitting on the lake thinking about what he had done.  They didn’t like him as much.  They liked him, boom, the strong, he made a decision, he did it, at the end of the movie.  That’s what we went with.

C:  I think that it’s perfect.  It’s just tight, as they say in the music business, it’s sort’ve right in the pocket, and it’s the perfect note to end it on.  It’s a great karmic circle.  And, because he’s a fundamentally likeable guy, we feel at peace with this vengeful act that was so perfectly orchestrated.  Speaking of Ben Walker, you have a pretty incredible cast of amazingly talented people and they’re sort of varied, but they worked so well together.  I’m a big BLACK MIRROR fan and one of the most powerful ones, I don’t know if you know the  eipsode I mean, but I’ll assume you saw the episode with Wyatt Russell, and of course Rainn Wilson. By the way, I did not recognize him for a while, and I knew that he was in it, and it took me a few minutes fo the film to realize it was him (Wilson) which was really nice because he wasn’t his typical ‘guy’ from THE OFFICE, and Ron Livingston and Rob Cordry as the FBI men make a really good team.  I’m wondering how much were you involved with the casting of the film and did you have certain people in mind, or did you really do an open call and see where the chips fell?

AS:  I was very involved with the casting.  I started as an actor so any movie I produce I’m always very involved in the casting and picking the actors because I feel it is something I know about.  Oren and I really went through – I think we had, in my opinion, one of the very best casting directors in the world in Mary Vernieu.  Mary, who has just done so much, she was just a giant in the casting space.  What she really brought to this was introducing both actors who were well known like Ron Livingtson and Rainn Wilson and sort of allowing us some latitude for finding some new guys.  Stephanie Sigman wasn’t that well known.  Or Russell, who has become more well known since we shot the film.  I think it was working with Mary and working with Oren and capturing the essence of who these characters were, but simultaneously not upsetting the apple cart as to the whole ensemble of the film.  There were some very, very – I won’t name names – there were some very famous people who wanted to be a part of this project.  Oren’s belief was if we have one name that is so, so incredibly that name – if it’s clearly that person’s movie – it’s hard to buy into this town and this world that is it’s own real place.  I think he was very strong about that and sometimes it drove me a little nuts because I was thinking “we could have a lot of international value if we had this person on top of this movie” but he was thinking “The story has to work. This was a thing [sic] that had introduced me to the business.  It is a story that is my directorial debut.  It has to work.  It’s all about the story.”  As a result, I feel like every character in this does that.  And you say, starting with Ben Walker and on down through everybody.  One of my personal favorites in this film is Mark Rendall who was local casting out of Toronto. He plays Chris the guy who is sort of mentally challenged.  I think he is spectacular and I think the cast top to bottom is fantastic.

C:  I agree.  Absolutely.  I do believe that we saw your torso pulling over the blue Cadillac!

AS:  You do see my torso!  It’s a sore subject.  I’ll tell you something.  Oren didn’t shoot my head.  He didn’t shoot my head!  He thought it would be more dramatic.  I wanted to have a big conversation.  Oren and I, we had a talk about this at length.  I play the state trooper.  When we are shooting the shot, I’m like, “My face isn’t in the footage!”  He’s like “No no, it’s more dramatic like this!”  Time is money when you are shooting.  It was a funny little move that he pulled.

C:  It WAS!  He was absolutely right though.  Something that stands out to me in this film – I think these are the things that really give a film a tactile quality that really brings them alive and allows them to get deeper into our psyches – are the recurrent themes.  You have a handful of these recurrent threads that are so wonderful and I’m hoping you’ll talk a little bit about whether they were actually written into the script, or were they things that evolved spontaneously?  One of the simplest ones was that Livingston and Cordry as these inflated but also self-deprecating FBI guys are basically wearing the same tie in different colors which visually gives the message of ‘This is how much we weigh personal individuality in the bureau.’  The recurrent theme of Martha’s cooking being awful.  And, of course, the entire bit where Adam Pally as the deputy sherriff has to keep sitting in the backseat.  I was dying of laughter and I think it’s those little threads that are lucky enough to be included in films and they are what round it out and enrich the whole story.

AS:  I’ll tell you something, it was written into the script and it’s also a testament to how I like having a director that has written the script, but in particular, because it’s moving backwards in time.  The Pally thing – we can talk about that first.  That is an interesting one.  The first time you see him in the movie which is the last time in the story that he doesn’t actually get to sit in the back.  He’s so upset.  He’s screaming, jumping up and down.  When you first watch it, it’s your first viewing of the movie, you think “Wow, is it too much? Why is this guy so upset?”  Then, obviously, it’s one of those moments the very last time gets in, and he says, “Do you notice the smell of dog in here?” It’s the very first time he is caught in the back of the car.  You can have a laugh after the fact.  Oren and I talked a lot about and asked ourselves if it it satisfying for an audience to have a laugh after the fact?  Because, they don’t have a laugh when it actually happens.  They have a laugh when they think back on it.  Oren’s thought is, if the movie is done, and the next morning they’re at the refrigerator, it’s a refrigerator moment.  The next morning, they’re at the refrigerator, and they think of that and they laugh, he says we’ve done our job.  So that was the concept for these motifs having to work in this time structure.

C:  I think he’s so right.  I think humor that has subtlety, that slowly almost imperceptibly builds like that, adds to the intelligence of the film, and it is a really intelligent film. 

AS:  Yes.

C:  In terms of the backwards storytelling, it’s far less excruciating than, obviously, MEMENTO, which ash always been an experience, as much as I love that film, where I feel like I need some Ritalin and a pot of coffee. It’s 11am – Let’s DO this!

AS:  I tell people who tend to be a little “ADD” to hang in there in the beginning of the film.* I tell them that when watching this movie in the first 20 minutes, stay focused.  It does require you stay focused at the top.

C:  It does! I think, because there is subtle humor, but the humor is in no way forced, it’s this great mix of – that first scene where Rainn gasps himself awake, which is the scene for the opening of every chapter, which I totally love – you’re sitting there letting it flow into your eyes wondering, “Ok, my God, where are we going and what exactly is this?  What are you giving me?”  It’s less work and hugely entertaining.  You’re not exhausted and sweaty like you are with MEMENTO when the film is over! [laughter]

AS:  Let me ask you a question.  At what chapter did you realize when you see someone taking that gasp at the start of the day, that person is going to be dead by the end of that day?

C:  At no point.  At no point did I make that connection, to be honest.

AS:  There you go.

C:  Now that I look back on it, I will have to watch it again.  I usually watch it a second time before I review it.  That’s a good tie, actually.  That’s a brilliant tie.

AS:  Those are all the little things.  They take the breath of life, and they are going to be the one to die at the end of that day.

C:  Right.  Let’s talk a little bit about you and your production company. I have to wonder if you grew up on the East coast.  You have a great academic CV having gone to Duke, and you have your Masters from Yale.  Are you an East coaster originally?

AS:  No I Actually grew up in Dallas, Texas.  I was there until I was 18 and then I went to Duke as you say.  My intention when I first went to school was I was going to start a production company.  The goal was to produce films and act in films and write films.  That was the initial concept.  Then eventually we would bring it back to Texas.  Now that I have been removed for the last number of years, I don’t know if we’ll bring it back to Texas, but I do think that concept of creating our own work that I can be creatively involved in is what we’re doing.  It’s satisfying because the impetus was, when I went to Duke, when I was in college, I had run a theater company, which turned into a theater company called ‘Footprint on the Sun’, which meant accomplishing the impossible.  That was the concept for Footprint on the Sun.  Out of that same group, it’s an unbroken chain.  This unbroken chain led to Footprint Features, and now off we go.  It has been satisfying in that way.

C:  I ask only because it sounds like your vision and what you have created is really, I don’t want to use the word ‘incubator,’ but this full service company that, as you said before, will get the movie made and will get it made well.  I think about the Texas connection to Robert Rodriguez that he had this very home-based, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense – but Texas was his space, and he acted and he directed and he wrote and it was his little world, his corner of the world.  Certainly, there’s room for that, and I applaud that.  I think it affords great creative control and certainly a kind of signature look and feel.  Do you think that your company has that signature look and feel and if so, how would characterize that?

AS:  I hope so!  That’s exactly what we’re striving to do.  I’m glad that’s what you are feeling and what you are responding to.  Footprint’s whole concept is character driven movies that’s accessible to the mainstream.  When I started Footprint the movies were THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, and JUNO.  Those types of movies.  THE GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS.  These were the kind of character driven movies that I said I want to see, I want to be a part of, I want to produce, I want to act in.  These are the movies we wanted to do.  As Footprint continues to grow and the business continues to change, whether it’s BROOKLYN, or MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, or THE END OF THE TOUR, these are the movies that I respond to and we are in the business is making.  The business has changed so much and we’ve been making movies almost 6 years now.  We’ve made 4 movies in 6 years.  In that time period, the business has changed.  Now, as you know, the studios are making mostly these big projects based on an IP, and there are these little tiny micro movies. But in the middle, there is this source of character driven movies being bought by – whether Netflix or Amazon or in the theatrical space like Sam Gold or someone like that – it affords us the ability to, as you say, creatively control the project because they are independent.  They are made in that independent Rodriguez mindset.  The idea that this is our safe space and this is where we – where the only thing that matters is the cast, and the only thing that matters is the story – I think it is liberating. And I’m so grateful to the streamers, to the Netflix and Amazon of the world, because I think audiences have always wanted to see these types of movies.  Since studios have become more risk averse, these streamers bring in the audiences and make it available to us.

C:  I feel the same way – it is so needed and so good!  What are you working on next? What do you have coming down the line after Shimmer Lake?

AS:   There is a movie that we’ve just finished which will come out in February called WHEN WE FIRST MET which is a romantic comedy starring Adam Devine from WORKAHOLICS and PITCH PERFECT.  It’s him and Alexandra Daddario.  It’s basically 500 DAYS OF SUMMER meets GROUNDHOG DAY.  Guy tries to pick up a girl and fails miserably, goes back in time and tries the pickup over and over and over.  I’m excited about that, that’s coming out in February.  Then after that we’re doing this movie with Good Universe called THOUSAND MILES TO FREEDOM which I’m really excited about which is a true story based on Ellen and William Craft who were slaves in 1860 and the way that they escaped from Macon, Georgia to Boston with Ellen dressed as a white male and her husband William pretended to be her slave.  It’s a true story, they escaped through steamships and carriages and it’s a really really exciting, edge of your seat, historical thriller.  We’re working on that.  I’m really excited about that.  We are meeting with a bunch of directors right now.  It’s in the early stages.  We are putting that together now and simultaneously with all this we’re raising our film fund which would allow us to make 14 films over the next 5 years and we’re making great progress on that.  Things are growing for footprint and SHIMMER LAKE is a huge part of that.

C:  That’s great.  I love hearing that.  I’m an independent film fanatic and I was a visual artist earlier in my life, although writing too, is an art.

AS:  Absolutely.

C:  I am excited to see all that you have coming.  Finally, I would like to know your favorite film from last year and one or two of your favorite films of all time.  They could be films that you just have an emotional attachment to and love, or films that were the films that made you wake up one day and say ‘This is what I have to do in life.’

AS:  Yeah. I’ll tell you.  My favorite film from the last year was MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.  I’m a huge Ken Lonergan fan.  I loved the plays THIS IS OUR YOUTH and LOBBY HEROES (two plays written by Kenneth Lonergan).  YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, one of the first movies, as I say, when we were starting about, that I wanted to make.  What was so amazing about MANCHESTER was, in my opinion, he was brave enough to stay on things that happen in life, like when they were looking for the keys, we were waiting for them to look – Oh no, the car.  When they think it’s in one direction, then no no no, it’s over there, then they go down the street and start again.  We stay on that shot for a minute and a half.  It’s not something normally in a movie.  Then you are contrasting that with these huge, unbelievably profound moments, of the depth of sadness of that film.  I absolutely love that film. That was my favorite movie of the year.  The movie that kind of got me all the way back in movies, back in the beginning, was A FEW GOOD MEN.  Sorkin (Aaron).  I loved it because – I spent a lot of time as an actor, and did theater and went to drama school – those character-based stories, a lot of which started as plays, which A FEW GOOD MEN was one. Still to this day I can quote every line from that movie. I thought it was a great story about human beings from every character in that movie, obviously Jack Nicholson, and all those guys, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack, Keifer Sutherland, so many great performances in that movie.  That was one of the first movies that got me in.

C:  That’s a great one!  I’m going to go back and watch that again, because you told me that, and it will help me understand you better.  Adam, it was really a delight, and I want you to know I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and I look forward to what you have coming out your production company, and want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me.  It’s really been enjoyable and I’m excited for what you are going to bring us!

AS:  Thank you Amy!  I look forward to it and I appreciate you taking the time.

*Cinemynx has edited original content for greater clarification of Adam Saunder’s answer.

SHIMMER LAKE was written and directed by Oren Uziel and stars, Rainn Wilson, Wyatt Russell, Benjamin Walker, Stephanie Sigman, Adam Pally, Ron Livingston, Rob Cordry and John Michael Higgins. Watch the trailer here:

Interview with Adam Saunders

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