Icons of Fright Interview With THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE Writer/Director, Chris Sparling!!

unnamed (7)Chris Sparling turned heads in circles when his 2010 screenplay BURIED was made into one of the most intense films in years. The Rodrigo Cortés-directed and Ryan Reynolds-led film brought the suspense in heavy doses and kept viewers completely on edge until its very end. Following that film, Sparling wrote another confined area film, 2012’s ATM. Not wanting to be know just as the go-to guy for confined area films, Sparling decided to write and direct THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE (out on DVD/Bluray via Anchor Bay), a film, that like BURIED, provides a lot of suspense, but in a way so unique that the faux-documentary elements of THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE are very easy to forget, and Sparling’s knack for creating likable characters and making us BELIEVE in them (a problem that a lot of similar films have is how we never forget that what we’re watching isn’t real). As viewers, it’s easy to allow yourself to be fully engrossed in the film. We spent some time speaking with Chris about THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE, not being put into a box as a filmmaker, and the upcoming Gus Van Sant-directed SEA OF TREES, a film starring Matthew McConaughey that Sparling wrote/produced. Check it out!

How are you doing today, Chris?

Good, Jerry, how are you man?

I’m great. I’m curious about THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE. It has a very unique feeling to it, can you tell me a bit about how it came about, wanting to tell this story??

For a while I had not even an idea, but more of a thought. With all of these stories that you hear about possession and things of that nature, whether in movies or books or supposedly true accounts, the part that always made me feel like it wasn’t real is that I never understood why the government never got involved. When I say that, I mean that in all of these stories, these people have all of their psychokinetic abilities, they can move things, read your mind and even make your heart stop, ALL of these crazy things. To me, if that was something real, the government would use that and those abilities for national security, and they would do something about it.

So I kept thinking about that, how ultimately the possessed stories never felt real. So that lead me to this thought of “what if there WAS a situation where the government DID get involve?”. That’s where it all started from.

While watching it, I found it incredibly easy to get lost within the film, which I think is a good way of knowing if a film works. It never felt like I was watching a film that fell into similar genre film tropes, and I found myself forgetting a couple of times that I wasn’t watching a REAL documentary. Was that style, the faux-documentary element always the approach you were planning on making the film with?

I had the idea I just mentioned, and was kind of thinking it would make a good movie, but didn’t want to do it in a traditional, narrative way, so I never really pursued it. So years later, I saw  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, which if you haven’t seen it, is a faux-documentary about the assassination of George Bush. It came out WHILE Bush was in office, and I remember watching it back then and like you with THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE, I just got lost in it. I mean, I knew it was fake, I mean, he was still not only alive but still in office, but I watched it and was there along for the ride. So years later, when I was kind of pitching the idea I mentioned, I thought “Maybe THAT’S the way to do this movie,” in a faux-documentary, because I found that there were studies where authority figures would do tests and in those studies, they would tell you things and you would begin the believe them as fact. Even in just telling people about it, “I want to make a movie about the only case of Demonic possession recognized by the U.S. Government,” and people would look at me and go, “Holy shit, is that real?!” and I would say, “No, I JUST told you it would be a fake documentary” and it was interesting how people latched onto it because of one element of the government and those authority figures, it gave people some sense of reality.

 Yes, definitely. I like to see what people are searching for when it comes to our site and “Is The Atticus Institute real?” has been typed more than a couple of time at this point, there’s a decent amount of people not realizing it’s a fictional film. 

It’s funny how it’s taken to people where they think it’s real or a thing. I’ve never said that, it’s just part of the movie. (laughs).

You’ve been a successful with writing various films, was writing AND directing THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE the plan from beginning?

Yes it was. What I will say about the previous question though, is that what you CAN say is real in the film, is the stuff with the military, the Psi-Ops stuff, was very real, that existed. But back to your question, yeah, I’ve been wanting to direct something for a while. I’ve been fortunate enough to write and produce, but I started to realize that in order to direct movies, I have to first DIRECT a movie. It’s kind of like a weird Catch-22.

I could definitely understand that. 

So in creating THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE, I wanted to write and direct a movie that was worth taking and would be pretty easy to greenlight. These kinds of films do well, and you can make them with a modest budget and genre fans are loyal and want to see something done right, they just want to see good genre movies. So, I felt if I can do that and deliver on that, even just with producers and financiers, if I could pitch this movie right, then I would be able to direct it.

A film is only as good as the cast that it’s filled with, which made me wonder how difficult it might have been to find the right actress to play the Judith Winstead character? 

Yes it was, and we had GREAT directors. It was a difficult challenge, not just in terms of casting Judith, but in also casting the older versions and the younger versions of the same characters. We needed them when they were in their twenties and thirties, but also when they were in their sixties and seventies. With Judith, it was a very specific thing, I had a very specific look and idea of what I wanted it to look like, when it comes to a realistic look and feel of possession. There were a lot of talented actresses that came in and they all brought parts of themselves, but a lot of the time, it just wasn’t working for me, it wasn’t what I had wanted. And then, we saw Rya (Dexter‘s Rya Kihlstedt) , and she came in and was EXACTLY what we wanted, without me even saying a single word. It was very downplayed and very internalized. It was almost as if she was hiding a secret. That’s what I wanted, and she just really nailed it.

She’s incredible in the film. I really thought so. One thing that I’ve found interesting about you work as a writer, is how with THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE, you made a film completely different than what you’ve been known for. Was breaking out of that “confined space” -type of films important with this one?

It was. Early on, I found myself kind of “Put into a box”, pun intended. (laughs). I was offered these single-location, confined thrillers and it was actually awesome, I think it really helped. I was almost ALWAYS considered for those films, anytime one would come up, I would get a call. So it was great early on, but eventually what I found, was that it was somewhat limiting. So this film was definitely a step in that direction, and the next film I wrote and produced is in fact, a drama that Gus Van Sant directed. That was a TOTAL departure form anything that I’ve done. I just want to make movies, the genre of each film doesn’t matter to me.

That makes sense. I know it might be a bit too early on to discuss this in detail, but you mentioned the next film you wrote, which is SEA OF TREES, a film that I’m very interested in. Is there anything you might be able to tell us about that one? The synopsis sounds great. 

I can tell you that it’s looking like it’s going to be out in 2015. It’s a drama that takes place in what’s known as the “Suicide Forest”, in Aokigahara. Over a hundred people a year or so go there, to commit suicide for whatever reason. The Japanese have their own beliefs about the forest, and what it means. We could have made a horror film there, but it’s like you said, I wanted to make something different, like “what would be there drama that would take place in something like that?”. It just kind of built from there.


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