It’s still early in the year, but one of the more auspicious directorial debuts is Mark Fergus’ First Snow, co-written with writing partner Hawk Ostby. It’s a moody and atmospheric crime drama starring Guy Pearce as Jimmy Sparks, a fast talking New Mexico salesman who discovers that his days may be numbered after having his fortune read by a roadside mystic. This sends Jimmy on a desperate mission to make amends with the people he’s wronged while trying to prevent his predicted demise.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Fergus about this original film, as well as about a few of the other projects he’s written with Ostby, including the first draft of Alfonso Cuaron’s award-winning Children of Men and their upcoming work on Jon Favreau’s take on the Marvel superhero Iron Man.
Fergus and his writing partner are a classic example of how hard work and perseverance in Hollywood can finally pay off, and there are some great things to be learned from their story. As Fergus told ComingSoon.net on a recent return to his New York home, First Snow is what started most of it.
ComingSoon.net: Was the script for “First Snow” something that you and Hawk had finished a while ago before it finally got made?
Mark Fergus: Yeah, ’99 we wrote that actually. It was sort of the script we wrote to save our career, which was going nowhere, so we had to write something that we liked and to hell with what might sell, because we couldn’t figure that any more than anybody else could. So we just said that this was our last hurrah in terms of “let’s do this and see if we can get something going.” I always wanted to direct it, because I figured that if no one else was interested in it, I could always just go out and do it on a wing and a prayer. Why we thought we could do that was because we saw “In the Company of Men,” a Neil LaBute film, which was his first film, and it was so damn powerful and so simple and spare, and you figured, “Okay, if you could write something with that little actual need of moving around, just people in rooms talking, then you can actually go make your own film. So why are we acting like there’s no way to do this? Why don’t we just write something that’s good?” That became the impetus to write it and direct it.
CS: Did you try shopping the script around a bit before it came to that?
Fergus: What happened was that as soon as we finished writing it, suddenly we got an agent. That’s what finally got us representation and then through that script, we got other work to adapt books. I think Miramax wanted to buy it and then they backed out, so for a minute, we got into that spec fever. “Oh, we’re going to send this spec for a million dollars.” We were so poor at the time, and the idea of a million dollar spec sale was like beyond belief, so for like a couple of hours, we were in that ridiculous euphoria of selling the script, then it didn’t happen. So I said, “Okay, now that little fantasy bubble is popped, let’s go back to the original plan. I want to direct this thing. Let’s figure out how to get it made” and that took six or seven years. It was almost going to go a couple times, but it’s very fragile and as all the stories go, things happen and then they unhappen. It’s going and then it’s not. In the meantime, we just became working writers. “First Snow” became one of our samples that we could send around, and we started getting book adaptations and rewrite jobs, and we just tried to keep working. That’s pretty much how we spent the last five years while this other thing was bouncing around trying to find home.
CS: Since it was always your intention to direct it, was that sometimes a dealbreaker or did it make it harder to get the movie produced?
Fergus: No, it actually wasn’t as scary as I thought. Probably in a few situations, it never progressed beyond the first stage, but I think maybe some people just wanted the script and didn’t want me involved. I don’t know how you’re supposed to get a directing gig, but I thought my attempt was going to be that if you have a script, they like it but they can’t have it without you, that they’d be more inclined to give you a shot than not. My feeling was that if it wasn’t a bluff, if you really were open to someone else directing it, they’d probably smell blood, so you had to approach it like that. Then you have to prove to them why you should direct it. It wasn’t just a matter of “I’m going to protect my script” ’cause that’s what they’re afraid of, that writers want to direct their scripts so they can protect their words, ’cause their scripts get trashed by other directors, whatever. I think that’s what scares them because then maybe you’re talking about someone doing it for the wrong reasons. I think the right reason is that I know how to tell the story as a writer and as a director. The cool thing is that once actors got involved and actors started coming in, they’re putting the most risk on a first-time director than anyone. If you can go in and meet with actors and have them go out saying, “Yeah, I think this guy knows what he’s talking about” then they’d go out feeling a lot more confident and DP’s would feel confident. The more people you can get who really knew what they were talking about to think that you’re not a yahoo, then they would start feeling confident. So we just kind of built that up, but I think the key thing was just saying that you were directing it and weren’t interested in talking about another scenario. Then everyone was kind of cool with it once you made it really simple and clear that we weren’t going to give it up. Everyone kind of resigned themselves to it and then you can move forward.
CS: Was Bob Yari (producer and distributor of the film) involved very early on in the process?
Fergus: No, he was involved more to the tail end. We had a bunch of other scenarios, which I’d forgotten. People came and people went, and it was getting exciting, but you’d also get exhausting because it would get exciting and then not happening. He came in sort of a year and a half before it started going forward. He was totally cool with me. I gave him my sales pitch about myself and then it was just a matter of finding the actor and putting it all together, which was a million planets having to line up. It’s a miracle that anything gets made. I’m just amazed by it.
CS: I thought that Guy Pearce was pretty amazing in this, so how did you know he could pull off such a character and how did you connect with him in terms of getting him your script?
Fergus: He was always someone on your dream list or wish list, I’d never seen him do anything quite like this before, but I think he’s capable of anything, especially this year, he’s done “Factory Girl” and this and “The Proposition” and the Houdini film and they’re all so different. I really felt like he was the type of actor who can just go in and have at a character. Some people asked if he could do this “a$$h*le fast-talking salesman thing,” because we thought of it not like a “Glengarry” type of cliché thing, but all those salesman type of American stories, to kind of blend elements of that. I just think he’s not afraid to go to really dark places. He’s not afraid to be unlikable or truthful. I think a lot of jerk characters in movies like to wink at the audience, so you can still love them. They want you to hate them but love them at the same time. He just wanted to be really blunt and truthful about this guy. He wasn’t afraid to play that absolutely straight and that character demanded your respect on its own terms. He wasn’t going to beg for it. By the end of the movie, you really admire him. It’s amazing to really love that character at the end, but he’s a bastard. He’s a mental manipulator. I think Guy can do that. I just thought if we were lucky enough to get him, I just knew that if he liked this script, I knew there’d be a reason why. He reads everything and he says “yes” to very little. I don’t even know if he can articulate what makes him dive in. We did finally get it to him when Yari got involved and we were able to offer it to him as a potential job as opposed to “just read this script.” That’s the nice way to be able to show up at someone’s door with an actual job offer, then he read it, he really dug it and then I guess he wanted to see what my deal was, because he’s taking a huge chance. I met him and was kind of intimidated because I thought he was going to be really tough. He said that he read the script and thought I was going to be a lot like the character. We were both kind of terrified meeting each other and then we met and he’s the sweetest, down-to-earth guy and we just clicked right away as people. We barely talked about the movie and just got comfortable, chatting about life for four hours. That’s when I thought that this might have a shot, because he trusts me as someone he can do his thing and I’m protecting him as a director and be open to what script changes he might need to make. I just think he immediately knew we could trust each other and that’s a big thing for him. And that was it, it was a pretty fast process once he came on board.
CS: Was it hard changing things in the script since it’s such an intricate story?
Fergus: I think he just changed the texture and 90% of the changes were dialogueless dialogue, tweaking dialogue, maybe a few scene cuts that were repetitive. I think there was a lot of overwriting in the script, a lot of words that sound really fun. Like if you’re in an acting workshop, you like the scenes to roll on and on like your wannabe David Mamet monologue, and you get a little carried away. The words look good and sound good on paper, but then a really great actor comes along and he only needs a third of those words. They don’t need all of that. Some stuff is really cool sounding but they can’t make it their own. It sounds great, but it’s phony, and they call you on that, and you have to look at it and say, “Here’s why I need it.” 95% of the time they’re dead right and a line is repetitive or it’s excessive or it’s phoney. Actors with a great radar for the truth, just by reading it, you’ll see what doesn’t work because they’re not connecting with certain lines. Actors will tell you when you’re emotionally repeating yourself, when you’ve already been here and now you’re coming back later. It’s great because you see the script finally like a new piece of material. You’ve already gotten so used to it, that you can’t see outside it anymore, and they come in and they show you it as a brand new thing.
CS: I think cutting down the dialogue helped give the film a very atmospheric feel, which I enjoyed. It’s strange to have a movie that’s essentially a thriller not having the Hitchcock type over-the-top scoring, with scoring that’s mellower and more ambient.
Fergus: Yeah, we went for Cliff Martinez, who did some of the scores for Steven Soderbergh and “Traffic” and “Narc” and things like that. What I like about it is that it’s really spooky and minimalist and it’s underscored, it’s way way down, it’s just an element, and that’s just what he does. I listened to some beautiful composers trying to decide and the other guy I really responded to, which is funny because he’s kind of like Cliff, was the guy that won the Oscar this year for “Babel”, Gustavo Santaollala. You listen to that and it’s just textures and wind blowing. It so weaves around the story and not a lot of guys like to do that. I guess bigger and better and with a thriller you want to have really aggressive music. A lot of people were pushing for the Hitchcock in-your-face score like Bernard Hermann, and that’s beautiful because those movies, they have a different vibe. I think for this one, we wanted it to be low and a lot of people said they didn’t even notice we had a score because it didn’t get in your face, but I bet they felt it. He used all sorts of instruments I never heard of. He has a whole studio in his house and it’s littered with all these instruments and drums and strange mallet instruments. The key was to tell the story in a really subconscious way like the landscape, like everything else, just to have it all come together. You really weren’t supposed to notice it.
CS: Can you talk about that landscape and location, because Albuquerque, New Mexico really adds a lot to the vibe of the film. Does it really snow there?
Fergus: Yeah, it does. Well, I’m from New York and I moved out there for a couple of years right about the time we were struggling with this script and finally, I really understood what we were trying to do because the landscape there just blew my mind. I had never seen anything like that and yeah, just realizing that in the desert there’s four seasons and that it snows in the desert. Just something about the image of snow in the desert is such a beautiful image, it just didn’t seem possible. We wrote the script very specifically to be in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the state’s been very aggressive about getting business there so we were able to eventually convince everyone that we should shoot the film exactly where it’s supposed to be. Then we went there and they have tons of great crews there now. One of the cool things about ours was that it took place in their city so we didn’t have to hide anything and everything was real and on location. We wanted to make it like the score, make it a character in the film that’s telling the story in some way. I’m so glad we got to film it there, because that’s where we wrote it to be done, and it was really fun to be able to go back and pull it off there. Here’s the kicker. Most of the film has to have snow or otherwise, the story doesn’t work and then in the last week of the shoot where we needed snow, we had all sorts of plans to do snow blankets and CGI, and one night, it just poured 12 inches of snow, the last week of the schedule, covered everything and we just used it. It doesn’t usually snow in late March, and we just got a gift from the Gods.
CS: How do you and Hawk go from making movies like this to writing things like “Iron Man” and “John Carter of Mars” and some of the other things you’ve been writing?
Fergus: I think we like everything. Most of our early scripts when we were trying to get work was like a thriller called “Consequence” that ended up on HBO. We love “Marathon Man”, like ’70s paranoid thrillers. We love supernatural thrillers. Our first job was a version of “A Scanner Darkly” which Richard Linklater ended up doing his own script for that. We were going to do it, and that was our first paid job, but we had elements of thrillers, sci-fi, paranoia and humor. The Philip K. Dick stuff was hilarious. “Children of Men” was a book that no one knew what to do with and they said, “Give those guys a crack” because they thought we had done a really good job with “A Scanner Darkly” in terms of making it a movie, so that’s why we got “Children of Men.” We love science fiction but more the ones that are 99% reality and 1% sci-fi, that really works out for us. Then “John Carter” is complete fantasy, 100% on another planet with creatures.
CS: Is that how you first started working with Jon Favreau?
Fergus: Yeah, he brought us onto that. He read our other stuff and really liked what we were doing and he chose to bring us on, which was great, because he could have gotten anyone he wanted. We were probably a lot cheaper, but he could have gotten expensive people, and he could have gotten a lot of writers for that. He just read a bunch of our samples, like a prison movie we wrote and “First Snow” and “Children of Men” and three or four others. He liked our voice, and that one was just a matter of taming this beautiful sprawling mess that the series goes in. It was the first book, which was “The Princess of Mars” which they were calling “John Carter of Mars.”
CS: And did you just stay with him when he made the jump to “Iron Man”?
Fergus: “John Carter” was how we met him, we worked with him and we had a great time, and that was sort of about to take off or not and that didn’t quite go. They were wooing him for “Iron Man” so he was ready to rock right into that and he just pulled us onto that one. So for the first time, I got a job by doing nothing, just got pulled onto a job and then that was just a matter of working with Marvel and with them. I think the key thing was that we just got along working. We were really sharp working together, Hawk, me and him working together.
CS: Did you go back and read a lot of the comics to get up to speed on the character and his history?
Fergus: I did read a ton. I knew a little, but they sent me this huge primer on him, and I read through it and read more and I went online and read more. I felt at some point that I really knew what this universe was, and it was time to stop and looking at the story elements and that was it. Very quickly, I became pretty adept at what the universe was. I’m glad I was coming from the outside, because I could look at it as a story and not something precious and be concerned about breaking certain rules or going certain places, you might be terrified of. Marvel’s at the center of it, so they’re not going to let you mess with their characters in any significant way they don’t like, because they know everything. They’re the best benchmarks of knowing “we’re not going there.”
CS: Between Jon and the script, you got a pretty amazing cast for it, so have you sat in on rehearsals with Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow?
Fergus: Yeah, and that’s amazing to watch and they’ve been all rehearsing, improvising, playing with the scenes, trying new things out. You realize that the class of actor you’re looking at and the precision that they work in is just incredible. The reason the actors are coming is that Jon is an actor and he’s such an inspiring director. Anybody who sits in a room with him is going to want to do the movie by the time they walk out of that room. He just inspires you to want to be a part of it, and I think because he’s such an actor’s director, these actors are thinking that they can really go to great lengths, even if it’s a genre thing or a comic thing. They’re going to really do some interesting stuff, because Jon understands what actors need and the challenge they’re looking for, and there’s no doubt that he keeps getting top notch people. He’s just pulling one great element after another, and it is the allure of the project, but Jon pulls everybody into his orbit, not by any kind of trickery. He just makes you want to be a part of this. You’re like, “Aw, man, this is going to be great!” ’cause he’s at the helm. Something really cool’s going to happen with this group of people.
CS: What about this second movie you want to do “Switch”? Is that on the backburner while you finish up “Iron Man”?
Fergus: Just until “Iron Man” is finished. That’s really just an idea we got obsessed with. When we wrote “First Snow,” we had nothing else going on, so we could really focus. We wrote it pretty fast, but we had nothing on our plate other than our day jobs. We were trying hard to prove ourselves, because it was a real impetus to kick ass and break through. So this one, it’s just a follow-up on that fate as determined between people and their relationship with each other. I think “First Snow,” the vibe is that fate is a force outside of us, and what we wanted to do with “Switch” is that we are all each other’s fate, all our collected actions are creating each other’s destinies. Not to get vague about it, because I love those multi-character stories, but I feel that it’s been beaten to death where there’s a bunch of intersecting characters. I love that archetype, but I think it’s been done to death. It’s more like “The Vanishing,” the Dutch film, that kind of two-character [story where] two people are intertwined, they just don’t know how yet.
CS: “First Snow” reminded me of some of those modern European dramas in a way.
Fergus: Yeah, I think I like that sensibility. I like that slow burn, and I know that’s been lost to American movies, where you feel you have to take the audience hostage or what? They’re going to run out of the theatre? They already paid their bucks. If they’re sitting, you’ll probably be able to hold them until the end. Hitchcock always started after a half hour, you’re like “Nothing’s happening!” It’s like a fuse burning and “The Vanishing” certainly is one of the best character-based thrillers I think I’ve ever seen. That kind of idea, what I like about it is that you get to shift point-of-view. This movie was selfishly one point of view, it had to be to tell the story. I’d like to see a relationship movie between two strangers that have a secret that they don’t understand yet. The interplay of two people as opposed to just one person vs. the uncaring Gods, but definitely the slow burn, that whole thing did you see “Cache” last year?
[At this point, the interview went into a long conversation about the pros and cons of Michael Haneke's work, as well as Fergus' thoughts on Alfonso Cuaron telling CS last year that he had never read Mark and Hawk's version of the "Children of Men" script, both of which will just have to be left to the imagination.]
Fergus’ directorial debut First Snow opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, March 23 with plans to expand into other cities in the weeks to come. Also check out this exclusive clip from the film only here on ComingSoon.net!