By Robin Gregory.
I cannot grow as a human being if I do not observe and explore and attempt to explain my own life to myself, to understand my own patterns of behavior. I think the same can be said of humanity at large.”
We’ve been warned by Hollywood bigwigs that certain rules should never be broken. They say that experimental movies are what open on Friday and close on Saturday night, and stories with religious themes will never get made. It turns out they were absolutely wrong. Among others, John Crye worked on two such projects, Memento and The Passion of the Christ, films that won critical acclaim and made significant profits. Surprisingly, in his upcoming movie, Chance, starring Matthew Modine (TBR April, 2021), John gambles on traditional crafting to direct a true story based on the suicide of an American boy.
For a person with a wide range of filmmaking experience – writing, editing, acting, producing, developing, and directing – John is difficult to describe. I met him at a media conference in LA. During our conversations, he often ticks off literary and cinematic footnotes, academic, psychological, and pop-related, with youthful exuberance and enthusiasm. Which perhaps explains why his new film, Chance, delves into the tragedy of three teenagers in a way that should inform, engage, and resonate with family audiences.
In the midst of the Covid shutdown, John was generous enough to agree to an interview. It may seem an unusual time to publish an article that shares a positive outlook for the future, but much of this interview’s focus is on life’s curve balls, and how stories can help us deal with them.
If the year 2020 were captured on film, it might rival both G.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Ingmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal. Recently, the UC School of Cinematic Arts released an article that said, “The best social impact films and television shows of 2020 put the issues that traumatize, divide, unite and inspire us squarely at the heart of their narratives.” Can art function as an agent of healing?
“Communication is necessary for evolution” is the motto of my alma mater, Emerson College. If I have a philosophy, it is that. Storytelling is how we make sense of our lives and the world around us. I cannot grow as a human being if I do not observe and explore and attempt to explain my own life to myself, to understand my own patterns of behavior.
I think the same can be said of humanity at large. However, there are a few projects that I am putting aside for now because they explore topics and themes that are challenging and uncomfortable. They are not appropriate for current audiences. Some stories are designed to shock the system, but the system is plenty shocked right now. These stories are not required. But that choice is less about the audience than it is about protecting the work. Any work presented at the wrong time, to the wrong audience, risks losing its impact.
Can you tell us about your movie, Chance?
Chance is based on the true story of an Ohio teen who appeared by all accounts to be happy, popular, and have a bright future in baseball, but – for unknown reasons – committed suicide at age 17. Before I even agreed to direct, I visited the town where the actual events took place, and I couldn’t go a day without meeting someone who was deeply impacted by Chance’s death. I sensed that making the film would be an act of healing in and of itself, since many locals who were involved actually knew him or his family. That made it hard to resist.
Chance is not about providing the reason for the suicide – something we can never fully know – but explores questions survivors ask themselves and opens conversation between them and the community.
Given that you’ve proven an unusual capacity for thinking outside the box was it a challenge to stick to a more traditional structure?
The simplicity of Chance’s structure is intentionally deceptive. The events are presented and in a linear fashion, making two leaps in time to age the character from 6 to 12 years old, and again from 12 to 17, so the story appears to be a single narrative in three acts. This is a family film about a painful topic, so we didn’t want to make the experience more challenging than it already is. The jump from age 12 to age 17, however, happens in Act Two and not only replaces the tween leads with older counterparts, but completely drops the “sports movie” tone and shifts into a darker “teen romance” tone.
The point was to create a sense of tension between what we know and feel about Chance as a child struggling with his emotions, versus Chance as a teen acting out those emotions in increasingly destructive ways. I think of the two halves almost as separate pieces that inform and give meaning to the other. Coincidentally, Modine stars in another film with this bifurcated structure, Full Metal Jacket.
In Chance, you worked with a bevy of young actors. Any surprises or funny behind-the-scenes experiences?
There is a fun montage in the first half of the film that shows some happy moments in the life of 12-year-old Chance, including his first kiss. It is a very sweet and pure little moment between the two kids, side by side on a schoolyard swing set. It turned out to be the real first kiss for both actors, too. Jake Hertzman, who plays Chance, took a little teasing from his baseball buddies in the days leading up to shooting the scene, but Jake is a great kid and good-natured and was gentlemanly about it.
I talked to Autumn Bell, who plays Chance’s first girlfriend, and her mom in their trailer that morning. Autumn was a consummate professional – nervous but preoccupied with making the scene work and not wasting daylight. By the time we got to the set, they were having fun. I think I was more nervous for them than they were themselves. They had fun with it – Chance darting in for a quick peck and Shelbi giving an appraising look. The giddiness of the moment comes across on screen.
You were in post-production when the Covid shutdown was ordered. What kind of challenges did this present?
Each and every independent film you make is its own start-up business. Like other start-up businesses, film requires investors. The pandemic dried up a lot of investor pools. As well, the costs involved in protecting and insuring a production against Covid are prohibitive for small indies. It has been very challenging to get projects funded this year. But as Orson Welles said, “The absence of limitation is the death of art.” So I am reducing my production budgets to absorb the additional costs without passing them on to investors, and I am making content that is more streaming-friendly, since that is the only show in town right now.
Virtual theater, VFX, and VOX, they couldn’t have come along at a better time, right?
The evolution of digital sets certainly came at a great time, allowing shows like The Mandalorian to continue shooting without traveling to exotic locations. The digital revolution born in the early 2000s was forced to grow up quickly last year, and I couldn’t be happier. I appreciate film, but I’ve always been interested in digital cinema because it throws open the doors to a lot of storytellers who otherwise could never afford to work in the medium.
Regarding special effects, you were responsible for acquisitions and development at Newmarket Films when they acquired Whale Rider. The project required full-scale whale models and Glasshammer VFX to blend fantasy and mythology in a realistic setting, a kind of story that usually gets told through animation, e.g., Spirited Away, Moana, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
There were two important factors involved in the decision to weigh the magical realism more heavily on the side of realism. First, that is reflective of the source novel by Witi Ihimaera, which addresses a number of very real issues facing New Zealand’s traditional Maori population. It is firmly grounded in those realities. Second, Niki Caro, the filmmaker, tells the story. Had she been an animator, we may have seen the balance shift more to the magical. It is such a wonderful story that I can imagine it working either way.
Similarly, Bong Joon-ho takes technology to a new level in Parasite. As a result, does he succeed in creating a more universal language for film?
I think Bong Joon-ho uses VFX the right way in Parasite, in that the effects don’t stand out as effects. I saw the film twice, the first time on a big screen, and still didn’t notice all of the set extensions until they were pointed out to me. I don’t think this breaks any particular rules.
There are a few filmmakers out there that might still subscribe to “Dogme 95” rules about avoiding artifice, but even Lars von Trier used Deepfake-style VFX to put actors faces onto body doubles for his Nymphomaniac films. As for Bong Joon-ho reaching a more universal audience, I don’t know that I agree there, but only because I feel that film is already a universal language.
Back to bending rules, Whale Rider debuted Keisha Castle-Hughes, an 11-year-old girl with no prior acting experience. It led to an Academy Award nomination, which at the time distinguished her as the youngest ever for Best Actress. Niki Caro, a woman of color, had done only one prior feature film, Memory & Desire, which saw disappointing results at the box office and mixed international reviews. And yet Whale Rider won the Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film. How do you explain that?
We never had a political agenda at Newmarket. I would be proud to say that we were forward thinkers back in 2002 when we acquired Whale Rider, but I am just as proud to say that we fell in love with the film because it is exquisitely crafted. I feel it should be seen by everyone who loves film, regardless of age, gender, or skin color.
As far as gambling goes, I reckon there’s a reason why Newmarket was named after a horseracing track: film investment is always a gamble. At the very same Toronto International Film Festival where we acquired Caro’s Whale Rider, we also acquired Jonas Akerlund’s Spun, Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts and Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-ever. Compared to those distinctly arthouse features, we felt that Whale Rider was a safe bet, and we were right. Like Memento, it was a commercial success that allowed us to continue taking risks.
Memento had its Hollywood moments, too. Brad Pitt withdrew from the lead role. Following a screening, Harvey Weinstein was quoted as saying, “That was the biggest waste of two hours in my whole life.”
Memento was the first feature that Newmarket developed and produced in-house. It became the reason why we got into distribution, because nobody else wanted to release it. Chris Nolan was a friend of a friend and he pitched the idea based on his brother Jonathan’s short story, “Memento Mori” (Esquire, March 2011). From the start, Chris’ intriguing horseshoe-shaped narrative is what hooked me. I worked with him and Jonathan on the screenplay development (which is easy work when the writers are geniuses). My former business partner, Aaron Ryder, produced it.
You have done a number of projects with Chris Nolan. Did he influence your directing?
I had the pleasure of working on Following, Memento, and The Prestige, but for all three I was involved in the acquisition, development, and marketing more than production. That said, I was able to spend time on set and in post-production, and what I observed of Chris’ methods absolutely had an impact on me. As someone who was involved in the “back office” side of filmmaking, I was first impressed by Chris’ ability to come in on time and on budget, no matter how complex the material became. I discovered that this “ability” was the direct result of his meticulous planning. Story wise, Chance is nowhere near as complex as even the simplest Nolan film, but it does feature dozens of child actors and sports action and other elements that were a challenge to manage on a limited budget. Meticulous planning over extended pre-production was the only way we could pull it off.
How were you introduced to filmmaking?
In the way a lot of 50-year-old Americans were: by The Making of Star Wars TV special in 1978. Star Wars blew my 8-year-old mind. That program made me consider for the very first time how movies are made. It had never occurred to me that people could make art for a living until I saw clips of sound designer, Ben Burtt, recording himself hitting a guy wire with a wrench and using that resulting pwang noise to make blaster fire sounds effects. Seeing magic made with nuts and bolts like that was utterly inspiring to me. Why would anyone ever want to do anything else?
Are you currently working on other projects?
I would like to produce several features in the coming year. Also, in February, I will be launching The Elect Stories, a series of 12 fantasy novellas released monthly on Amazon Kindle.
Do you foresee adapting The Elect Stories?
I do. Releasing the chapters as a monthly serial (exclusively on Kindle) has me thinking of filming the story over three seasons of twelve episodes each. The structure already lends itself to a series. I think reducing the story down to feature length would render it too archetypal and plot-driven. As a series, though, it would adapt rather easily, but I don’t know that I’m the one to do it. I’ve already told the story the way that I intended – in non-linear prose – so I’d be interested to see how another screenwriter would approach it.
What is your outlook for filmmaking in 2021? Any survival tips for others in the business?
I think 2021 will continue to be largely about streaming. The major services are spending big money on original content, and struggling studios are starting to dump even their intended tentpole films onto cable and streaming. That is, until movie theaters can safely open. Let’s not forget that theaters were struggling even before the pandemic, and studios were battling anti-trust suits in court so they could buy up the floundering chains.
So, when audiences get back to the theaters, they’ll be paying the same monoliths that charge for home subscription fees. Is that a terrible thing? Naysayers might say that no good can come from monopolizing the business. However, I see it as a necessity. The industry will survive and that is all that matters. Because anything that survives can still evolve and improve. My advice to all filmmakers is to remain flexible. Keep working and evolving with the rest of the world.
Robin Gregory is an American screenwriter, author of The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman, and a contributing writer for Modern Literature and Ginosko Literary Journal. www.robingregory.net