A man of many hats, Burr Steers began working in Hollywood in the late 1980s as an actor, appearing in the cult thriller Intruder and, later, in the modern classics Pulp Fiction and The Last Days of Disco, among other films. It was in 2002, however, that Steers stepped behind the camera to write and direct Igby Goes Down before working on more mainstream fare, including scripting How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and directing his first work with Zac Efron, 17 Again.
This Friday sees the release of Steers’ newest film, Charlie St. Cloud, the story of a young man who, brought back from the same accident that killed his brother, continues to speak and interact with either the ghost or the memory thereof.
Steers took the time to have a refreshingly candid talk with ComingSoon.net about the film, future projects and the fine line between independent films and mainstream releases.
CS: I heard you bring up that, following “Igby Goes Down,” you took a break and I’ve heard from other filmmakers that it’s hard to have that kind of pause before moving into your next film. Is that something you experienced in that period of time before you started these more commercially-minded films?
Burr Steers: It was a different loop there, too, moving from indie movies. I really had to establish myself in studio movies as a viable studio director. It’s a very different business to break into. I did “Igby” and, after, had another movie I was trying to get out called “Lightning on the Sun” which was a tough movie to get going. I was very close to getting it going and it just fell apart at the last second. Then, before you know it, five years are gone and you have no momentum in your career and you really have to get it going again. That’s what “17 Again” was about.
CS: Is “Lightning on the Sun” something that you still return to while you work on these other projects?
Steers: Yeah. Part of the whole philosophy is that, through success, you gain opportunities. You get to do the things that you want to do, hopefully. There’s that old Truffaut quote about how by the time you’re in the position to make the movies you want to make, you’re no longer the person to make them. Which I hope isn’t true. I’m trying to maintain all my core aesthetics and basic sense of rebellion and anti-authoritarianism. But it is the idea of, “one for them, one for you.” Although it’s turning into three or four for them. But through all these movies, you get better. That’s the thing, is trying to get better. That’s what this affords me. Working in TV, I did HBO and Showtime television and everything gets better. You bring those skills and the stuff that you’ve learned to bare when you’re doing an independent movie.
CS: Do you find yourself anxious to, say, do the boat scenes in Charlie St. Cloud just because it’s something you’ve never done before?
Steers: Yeah, it’s all about understanding new things and you have to do them to understand them. It’s great to have a theoretical grasp of things, but nothing beats experience and facing problems just to find out ways to overcome them. Like in the sailing boat race, having no wind. How do you make that work? It’s a great challenge and you come out the other end a better filmmaker.
CS: Is there one thing in particular that you took from “Charlie St. Cloud” that you really wish you had known on “Igby”?
Steers: Oh, constantly. Even with the next day’s work, you’re understanding things that you wish you had done previously. But there’s a purity to certain things and a real roughness. It’s like a great garage rock band. There’s an integrity to hitting the chords no matter how bad a musician you are. Sometimes when you hit those chords, it’s enough that you’re doing it in a sincere way.
CS: Tell me about the on-set experience of “Charlie St. Cloud.” Did the Pacific Northwest come straight from the book?
Steers: No, the book was set in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Then, because of financial reasons, it got shot in Vancouver. So I reset it in the San Juan Islands up in Seattle. Also because of my “Five Easy Pieces” obsession. Vancouver can pass for that part of the country and I kept the same things that were essential to Marblehead. In Marblehead, a working class kid can, through being a great sailor, rise out of his class and get a scholarship to college. He can better his situation. Being a good sailor is a ticket out of a modest background. So that was one of the things I wanted to bring to this. The other thing was a sense of class, almost like in “The Outsiders” or other S.E. Hinton books. These towns with a railroad track in the middle of town and a good side and a bad side, a poor side, rich side. He was from the working class side.
CS: You’re obviously a big film fan. Who would you list as your major influences?
Steers: I was obsessed with Peter Weir and the Australian movies of the 70’s. “Gallipoli,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Year of Living Dangerously,” which is 80s. Bruce Beresford’s movies from that period, I love. I got to work with Mike Newell. I love Mike Newell’s movies. “Dance with a Stranger,” the acting and the subtlety of the work. The way you felt those movies. And also his process. The fact that he could do a movie like “Dance with a Stranger” and then also do “Donnie Brasco” or “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” That was a director I admired and do admire because of the process. He can bring it to any project that he’s working on.
CS: How quickly are you planning to move into your next film?
Steers: Hopefully, quickly. Knock on wood. One of the things I was very conscious of in “17 Again” was to get momentum in my career and to build on it. That’s really what I’m doing, choosing projects that will make me better and will be a step up along the way. Each one a different challenge.
CS: “Emperor” is a big scale movie, right, about Julius Caesar?
Steers: It’s young Julius Caesar, yeah. It’s by Bill Broyles who is just a terrific writer. But, still, you do these historical pieces and it’s not about recreating that time in history, it’s about what it says about us today. Having grown up in DC, the politics of Rome, it’s all the same thing. There’s a great quote about DC and how it was “built to leave great ruins.” You can see it and it is. It will be Rome someday.
CS: How often do you get back to the East coast?
Steers: Not enough. I’m still a DC sports fanatic. Redskins and Wizards and Capitals. Not the Ravens… Some people became Cowboys fans just as a reaction to the hardcore Redskins fanaticsm there. I still listen to old DC punk as well. I’m listening to Fugazi and stuff like that that I grew up with.
CS: Ever think of going back there for a movie?
Steers: I have. I’ve tried to get stuff back there. I mean, there’s so many interesting stories back there in DC. It actually became really tough to shoot there after 9/11. But yeah, it’s really fascinating to me. I remember the first time I saw DC in a movie was in “The Exorcist” and then in “All the President’s Men.” It’s a really cinematic city… I remember [the steps] on M street being a kid and just being completely freaked out by that.
CS: Let’s talk about the supernatural elements of “Charlie St. Cloud.” That’s something you’ve never dealt with before. How does that affect you going in?
Steers: I was really conscious of never saying whether it was supernatural or whether it was him hallucinating and that he’s had a breakdown. I’ve always kept both of those possibilities alive because I felt like if you said it was definitively one or the other, you diminish the possibilities. I mean, what is supernatural? They could be the same thing. It could be that our brains are designed in such a way that that’s what a ghost is. It could be like when you stare at one of those dot pictures and your brain refocuses and you see beyond. Who knows what it actually is? There was a thing on one of the TV magazines about burn victims coming back from Iraq. They put them in a room filled with screens of snowy tundras and things like that. It actually, through the power of suggestion, made them feel like they were cooling down. It’s an amazing thing.
CS: Have you ever had a supernatural experience?
Steers: I haven’t had a supernatural experience, but I am an incredible coward in the middle of the night whenever there’s a bumping around. I’m not terribly brave. If I were to be walking through a graveyard at midnight, I’m sure I would believe in them.
CS: You’ve done a lot of work as an actor. How has that influenced your directing?
Steers: It’s funny because I’m often asked at what point I decided to make the switch from being an actor to a writer and from a writer to a director. It’s all the same thing to me. It’s all part of the same creative process. And the way I approach it is the same. I trained with Sandy Meisner. There’s values there and the methods still inform everything I do. With these young actors, all coming from very different backgrounds, that was how I drilled them. That was how I got them all on the same page as I made the movie. I got them to understand how to listen and not be delivering line readings. To not be product oriented, but to be in the moment and be working off of each other. That was what I worked really hard to instill in them.
CS: Do you think you could step in front of the camera for one of your own movies?
Steers: I don’t know if I could do it myself because I’m not that kind of an actor. I really need to be freed from being conscious of exactly what I’m doing and the idea that you’re responsible for so many things as a director, it’s an amazing thing. You see Eastwood do it. Eastwood just has so much experience with it. He knows it inside and out. There’s such a clarity and a cleanness and effectiveness to his work as an actor and a director. You can see how they’d be an extension of the same thing.
CS: Do you come across projects and say, “This one I want to direct. This one I want to write. This one I want to act in.”?
Steers: I feel like I’m drawn to the same thing as an actor/director. Actually, I take that back. I think there are certain characters I would be drawn to that I wouldn’t really want to make as a director. But your tastes are your tastes. What are you drawn to? There was a John Sayles quote which seems like a simple maxim, but it’s a really difficult one to live by in Hollywood, which is to make movies that you would actually want to go and see. “17 Again” and “Charlie St. Cloud” aren’t really things that, ostensibly, I would be attracted to. So that was the challenge. To take these movies and bring my sensibilities and bring things that would actually attract me as a filmgoer.
CS: You mentioned working with Zac again. Would you ever want to take him and do a complete 180, putting him in a part you would never expect?
Steers: I wouldn’t do it as a stunt. It’s really the material. Attraction to the material and then seeing him in it. But I wouldn’t just do it for the sake of doing it. That would be a lot of effort, just to do it for the sake of doing it.
CS: Do you have that sense on your own, though, as an actor, that it’s freeing to play a part so different from who you really are?
Steers: Sure. I think so. I mean, you see Tom Cruise doing [Les Grossman] and it’s got to be incredibly liberating for him not to have to be the leading guy. The thing I will say is that Zac is capable of doing anything. He’s a star who can act. That’s a rare thing. I think he could do any kind of role.
CS: Any talk of him coming back for “Emperor”?
Steers: No, not yet. I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is. You finish it and you get it in shape and it’s an organic process finding the actors.
CS: Is it set to go soon?
Steers: No, it isn’t. It’s set up in the point that we have a great script by Bill Broyles and a great producer in Gianni Nunnari who did “300.” And me. So, from that standpoint, it’s pretty set. But no studio yet.
CS: And the source material is a book series?
Steers: Yeah, it’s a three-book series. Franchise, baby! (laughs) That is what we’re talking about. It’s a really specific skill to be able to create a movie that leads to another movie. There’s no guarantee. It’s a gamble that you’ve intrigued the audience enough that they’ll want to see another movie. And Bill Broyles has really done it. At the end of this movie, you’ll really want to know what happens next.
CS: So probably no “17 Again Again”?
Steers: We start shooting next week, actually. (Laughs) “18 Again.” You see, it’s endless. As many years as there are. And after that, it’s the prequel, “16 Again.”
ComingSoon.net also sat down with Zac Efron, Amanda Crew and Charlie Tahan to talk about the film. You can watch the video interviews using the player below!