Chris Sparling burst onto the thriller scene with his Rotten Tomatoes’ Certified Fresh breakout film BURIED, which is as claustrophobic as it is intense.
On November 22nd, Netflix will release his latest thriller, MERCY, a home invasion thriller, which debuted to strong reviews at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film follows four estranged brothers who return home to say goodbye to their dying mother, before hidden motivations reveal themselves and a restless night turns into a fight for their own survival.
OnWriting spoke with Chris about how he got his start as a screenwriter, the importance of locations and being a writer based out of Rhode Island.
How did you get your start as a screenwriter and filmmaker?
I started as an actor. In the business of acting, there was a lot out of my control. You can be too tall, too short, too ugly, too this, too that. That is all separate from your ability to act.
My first goal was to create something for myself – to write something for myself as an actor. I think being an actor does help writing dialogue. At a minimum you know what lines you absolutely would not want to say yourself.
I was living in L.A. doing the whole struggling actor thing. I moved back east to Rhode Island where there wasn’t much film or television work to be had. I was able to focus on writing. That really started a shift for me. I made a few low-budget projects based on things that I had written. That started to crack the door open and get some attention from representatives. Once that relationship was established, I would write scripts and send those finished scripts to a few individuals.
Finally, after three or four scripts that didn’t amount to anything, I wrote the script for BURIED. The door had been cracked open and BURIED opened it.
When you’re writing, what’s your starting point of creating a captivating thriller? Do you start with the location, as that seems so central to your films? Or character…. or concept?
It really depends. With BURIED, it was weird because it ended up being more of an economic decision.
Before BURIED, I made a movie that I wrote, co-directed and produced. I didn’t have any money to make it. I had all these locations and all these actors and the movie did not turn out well. I didn’t go to film school either, so basically that was my first year of film school. I learned a lot from that. Truthfully, when you don’t have any money, you can’t have things like actors and locations.
I was determined to make my next feature. That first experience naturally informed what that next feature would be. It became, “This time I want to have one actor and I want to have one location.” BURIED was born out of a financial decision at the outset.
After that, ATM started with the idea of wanting to be in the ATM vestibule. That was born out of location as well. Not from a financial reason, but from a narrative standpoint.
With THE SEA OF TREES, I learned about this interesting place and I set the story around this interesting location. I said, “What would a drama be in this location?”
It’s sometimes born out of location; sometimes it’s this high concept idea. For me, generally, I don’t start with character. The characters are obviously vital to these stories, or anyone’s stories, but narrative features are usually more about plot or a location or something to hook on to.
What was the genesis of MERCY?
It’s a story that tells and retells a narrative from different points of view. I wanted to do that, not just because it was a gimmick, but because I wasn’t familiar with any thrillers that did that except for VANTAGE POINT, which was more of an action thriller. MERCY is a home invasion thriller that leans into the horror space. I’d never seen that.
In movies, you need your protagonist / antagonist. We care about why the protagonists are doing what they’re doing and how they do what they do. How they manage to go from point A to point B and everything in between.
Generally, our antagonist, we may know something about them, but they mainly just keep showing up. Here they are, then you don’t see them, then they pop out of the closet, then they pop out of the shed. You don’t really even understand how they get to these places. I wanted to pull back the curtain on that and try to reveal both sides of the story so that it’s not clear anymore who the protagonists and who the antagonists actually are.
What’s your writing process? How do you put together your scripts?
I’ll have an idea, write it out in two or three pages with a very direct beginning, middle and end. If I still think there’s something there, I’ll do up the larger macro beats of the story. By then, it’s getting more flesh on the bone and from there I can tell if it’s something I want to pursue or not. After that, I’ll work on the character outline and character bios for the main characters. I make them a little more nuanced and real. I also will be working on a step outline at that point where every single scene is highlighted and describes what’s going to take place.
I know there are plenty of people that can fly by the seat of their pants, just open a Final Draft and go. I never worked that way.
What’s a scene from MERCY that you felt translated well from the page to the screen?
The one that went from my mind to what’s on screen is the moment at the end where you see the masked men and you start to understand that there are probably far more of them than you realized throughout the movie. I always had that specific vision. Brad and Melissa’s reaction to going back and forth and “Shit, there’s even more of them.” Basically, revealing to the audience – and to Brad and Melissa – that they never stood a chance.
It’s also that you don’t know who you want to root for because everyone’s obsessed with greed or grief. How do you bring those qualities out in your characters?
I don’t want to reveal too much about the twist of the movie. Everyone’s motivations are pretty clear and in line with one another. It is not ideal as far as I’m concerned when everyone wants the same thing. In this case, it’s about getting that inheritance money. What I wanted to do and hopefully this came across, is that I didn’t want to make these people seem like heartless sons of bitches. Where they’re just, “We want mom to die and that’s that. We want to get her money.” I wanted people that were really torn because they love this woman and, at the same time, she’s dying and let’s let nature take its course. We can reap the benefit of nature taking its course.
As opposed to saying there’s this other option suddenly. It’s like purposely turning a blind eye or finding a way to neutralize their guilt. That’s where they became somewhat distinct and different from one another, some of them were at least more honest with themselves and saying, “I’m not going to go through that charade.” Like Travis is basically saying, “I know you want to go through the charade, Brad. Go ahead, but I know you’re basically at the same place I’m at. I’m just being more honest. I know it’s the wrong thing and I’m admitting it.”
In that way it was drawing characters who all wanted the same thing. At the same time, I couldn’t make them mirror images of each other.
Is there a line of dialogue that you think speaks to the heart of the film?
There is actually a line that didn’t make it into the movie. There’s a scene in the barn, after Travis comes in and drops the wood that he just chopped. Ronnie went up to him, “I talked to my dad, he’s cutting everybody out of the will.” After Travis leaves, the scene continued and T.J. went up to Ronnie and said, “What the hell are you doing, why would you tell him that?” Basically, Ronnie just tells T.J. “I know what I’m doing. You heard what dad said …” He’s basically saying, “We have to wait our turn. Dad is going to blow all this money. We still have to wait our turn. This is bullshit we’re not going to get anything T.J., so we better start mixing things up here. We can’t rely on dad after all.”
After Ronnie said that to T.J., T.J. says “It is what it is.” Ronnie just looks at him and says, “Until it isn’t.” As if to say, “this isn’t a situation where you can just let the cards fall as they will because things have just changed. We came into this thinking our dad had our back. Now we know it is what it is until it isn’t. Which is right now. We got to do what we got to do today.”
How do you work on pacing when you’re writing the script?
I love slow burns. I love being able to really draw attention with those quiet moments, those long uncomfortable stares that people hold on each other and making the audience uneasy. Then, once you’re up and running, the pace is very clear juxtaposition between that very moody atmospheric and audible tension. Then once you’ve now reached the point in the movie where shit is really starting to hit the fan, I feel like it creates nice contrast where you very definitively turn the page and the movie is that powder keg that has finally gone off. There’s no turning back at this point.
How do you know when you’ve hit that point where you’re going to give your audience chills?
The strange thing is that people that are familiar with me personally, they’re like, “Wow, you don’t seem like the type of person that would write this weird, creepy stuff.” I’m not. I’m really surprised this is the type of stuff I ended up writing. At the end of the day, I know what creeps me out.
The other day, I was at my sink. There’s this picture window above my kitchen sink and I’m looking out it at the woods behind our house. It’s broad daylight and I’m just looking out the window. That is fucking creepy as hell. If I was staring out this window and in the distance in the woods I saw someone, that would be creepy. It’s those moments, that’s where I know where I’ve achieved something on the page and hopefully in the movie where I think it’s creepy.
The true barometer is when I’m looking at it. I’m not using a Ouija board in my house. My threshold for scary is not above the average person.
Is this the genre that you find yourself watching now or have you grown up watching these kinds of movies?
MICHAEL CLAYTON is a great thriller. I feel like that’s an adult dramatic thriller that operates at a very intellectual level. I love movies like that – THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR – conspiracy thrillers. Those movies always spoke to me and continue to.
Horror is something that I came into more as I’ve gotten older. When I was a kid, I was terrified of horror movies. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve stopped being so much of a chicken shit. I really enjoy a good horror movie.
Tell me about your script for THE SEA OF TREES, which Gus Van Sant directed and which starred Matthew McConaughey.
It was a long process. I was a producer on the film, but I wasn’t the driving force behind it. That was basically Gil Netter and then later Ken Kao. Those two guys were the true forces behind the project.
I’d written a pretty strong draft of the script and Gil really responded to it. He had some notes and I addressed his notes. We get the script to a place where we felt really happy with it. That’s when we started showing it to people. I was really humbled by the fact that people were responding from the talent side and from the filmmaker side. It was humbling to have people like Matthew and Gus on board.
Once we started showing it to people, it came together quickly. The financing came in quickly and then we were making it before I knew it.
There are a lot of people involved in making a movie and sometimes you end up in this log jam where different ideas and different opinions are all going in the same general direction but at different speeds and different ways. You end up with this bottleneck. That’s kind of what happened, unfortunately. We had an opportunity to screen at Cannes and we weren’t really done with the movie, we were still testing the movie and were faced with a decision: Do we play at Cannes or do we turn them down? It’s a tough thing to say no to, so we played Cannes.
Unfortunately, we showed what was – for all intents and purposes – an unfinished film. Fast forward to the release that it received and it is unfortunate that again, we had to meet obligations for foreign sales and everything else. People start to want their movie. That became the movie, so there it was.
I’m a grown up, I’m not going to pretend I don’t see what people are saying. It’d be stupid to pretend, “It’s been great, the whole thing’s been great.” It hasn’t all been great. I would have loved for the movie to receive the great response that everyone hoped we were going to get when we were making it.
It is what it is, until it isn’t.
As a writer and director, does this make you want to have more creative control over your work?
It does, but that doesn’t mean it’s a major catalyst for me to say, “Forget it!” It’s one of several things that, over time, has made me want to direct material. You’re always directing the movie as you’re writing it in your head. You’re seeing the movie. I don’t see why it’s such a big leap to then be the person that directs the movie. You have such a clear vision for this thing that you’ve written and if you have the desire and if you have the support of people who are allowing you to see your vision to fruition, why not go for it?
With MERCY, do you feel you were able to bring your vision to fruition?
I’m really happy with MERCY. Like any film, there are certain sacrifices you have to make. I was thrilled to be able to work with Netflix. They financed the film. They were awesome, the producers were great. Andrew Corkin, Robyn Bennett and XYZ Films. Everybody involved was excellent.
In post, you have to let certain things go. That’s the sort of thing that unfortunately is the nature of the beast.
A movie starts to tell you what it wants to be and maybe it doesn’t always coincide with what the script wants. That’s a unique experience where you have a vision as a writer and you see a movie a certain way and you want to see that vision all the way through. Then all of a sudden when you get in post, you realize it isn’t about the vision I had for the script anymore. This is now the vision for what the movie needs to be. Then you have to make certain concessions, some of which I’m bummed didn’t work out 100% the way I wanted. By and large, I’m really happy with the way the movie turned out, I think it’s a good movie. I’m proud of it. It’s going to premiere on Netflix on November 22nd.
Can you talk to me about how different it is working outside of New York City or Los Angeles? How does being in a different environment affect your writing?
I think there are more pros than cons to living in Rhode Island, believe it or not. For example, tomorrow I’m getting on a plane and flying to L.A. for a meeting. Not a big deal. If I have a phone call, I would have a phone call or on Skype. I could be down the hall right now and you wouldn’t know. The technology bridges that gap.
From a writing standpoint, I would say breaking into the business from outside of L.A. or New York is probably tougher because the number of opportunities to meet people in the industry obviously become greatly diminished. That’s how you make connections, how you network and how you get jobs.
Nobody around here does this for a living. I come from a working-class background. I grew up going to work every day. That’s what you do. I’m going to work from my home office, I’m going to go to a Starbucks and I’ll put in a solid seven, eight hours of writing.
I’m able to get a lot accomplished versus when I’m in L.A. or in New York. I think people can relate to taking not just meetings but meeting someone for coffee, meeting someone for lunch, and whatever else. At the end of the day, that’s not working. Writing is working. If you’re not writing, in my mind anyway, you’re not 100% working. That’s career stuff. And don’t get me wrong, it’s important for your career to take meetings, have coffee and have lunch. It’s important.
But, we’re writers. Our job is to write.
I noticed that in the industry there’s this notion of being “just the writer.” I’ve been very lucky that I’ve never had that attributed to me. I’ve been on the set of every movie I’ve done. I’ve been actively involved in every movie I’ve written that has been made. Never once been treated like just the writer.
But there is an old studio mentality where the writers are typists. There is that old saying that “The writers are the most important part of this process but we can’t ever let them know that.”
The sentiment that you’re “just the writer” is such bullshit. The fact that the writer is not so actively involved in features is crazy to me. The idea of passing off your work, and I don’t mean passing to a director, I mean as if to say your script is purchased and at that point you have no more value to what the movie becomes, that’s nuts to me.
TV is really doing a great job of making the industry realize there is a lot of value to keeping the writers actively involved. They’re the people that conceived this stuff. It’s a mentality that I think has unfortunately been what it is for so long now that some people are okay with it. I don’t think it’s something that we should be okay with.
You can follow Chris Sparling on Twitter at @