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Netflix Mystery ‘Shimmer Lake’ Opens Up a Conversation About the New World of Film

"Studios are not making these types of movies anymore... and so places like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube Red are coming in and filling the void," says Footprint Features CEO, Adam Saunders.

Prior to becoming CEO of Footprint Features, Adam Saunders was an actor. His performance roots are ingrained within Footprint’s ethos, which places an emphasis on character and actor. “We only make movies that are character driven, that by definition have great roles for actors,” explains Saunders. Shimmer Lake is Footprint’s third feature following Family Weekend and About Alex. It continues the themes of the trials of friendship and family that thread together Saunders’ body of work as producer, yet each film possessing a distinct narrative identity amidst his thematic inclinations.

Writer-director Oren Uziel’s crime thriller Shimmer Lake tells the story of the fallout from a bank robbery gone awry in a small town. Told over the course of a week, the film reverses cause and effect, telling its story backwards.

In conversation with PopMatters, Saunders spoke of how Uziel’s own film experiences influenced his choice to tell his crime thriller in reverse, the contrast of conflicting tones within the film, the uncertainty of the storytelling process and the actors as forces of revelation. Following its exclusive release on Netflix, Saunders also discussed the changing world of film production and distribution, and how tradition is giving way to modernity.

Adam Saunders

Christopher Nolan and Sofia Coppola recently spoke out asking people to watch their films at the cinema, not on Netflix. There was a time when the movie theatre was the heart of film distribution, but online platforms have grown in popularity. What is the place of Netflix in the current distribution model, and is the alluring spell of the movie theater waning?

It’s certainly something we spent a lot of time thinking about. At Footprint Features, we make character-driven movies that traditionally would be these independent releases — these type of platform releases back in the day. Christopher Nolan is a great example of somebody who started with those types of smaller movies before becoming a huge iconic director. But if you look at Memento and some of his smaller early films, those relied on the theatrical distribution models. For me personally, I lament that’s not a bigger part of the release strategy for these types of films.

We just had our premiere for Shimmer Lake, and it was an amazing experience to be able to sit there with a couple of hundred other people in a room and to go through it with them — to hear them laugh at the jokes and to hear the gasps. I love that collective experience of seeing movies together, but that said, I’m realistic about how the world is changing. Studios are not making these types of movies anymore, as we are all well aware, and so places like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and YouTube Red are coming in and filling the void.

On the one hand, I’m incredibly grateful because it allows us to get these movies out, but on the other hand, I just recognise that in the same way there were silent films, then there were talkies. Things constantly evolve and while I would love to always have theatrical releases, I recognise the world is changing, and that’s not the way it seems to be heading. There are also bigger theaters that are making the viewing experience part of it, whether they bring you food, the chair shakes, or they simulate the rain. But it feels like the traditional theatrical model is changing.

Filmmaker David Fairhead remarked to me: “You know there’s a mountain in front of you to climb, and of course, you hope that you’re going to get up to the top of that mountain and I guess come back down again [laughs]. That’s the trickiest bit actually, getting back down. I suppose the coming back down when you are making a film is how do you deal with the distribution. You can make the film, but it’s difficult getting it out there to an audience.”

It’s a faulty logic to assume that the democratisation of distribution through technology has made it easier to reach an audience because the market is now flooded with more competing voices. Technology and these distribution models create opportunity, but with opportunity comes new challenges.

Yeah, I think that’s right. I feel to some extent Footprint lucked out, because when we started our company seven years ago, it was right at the beginning of the democratisation of these technologies. We shot our first movie on Red and it was relatively inexpensive, and as a result, we were able to get the movie made for under a million dollars. That was several years ago and we were able to get a good cast, and we were able to get people to see it.

But fast forward seven years and a lot of people are making these types of movies for much less than we made that first movie. As a result, as you say, the competition is very steep. If you are making these types of films, whether it’s a piece of the cast or a director, it’s critical that there’s some element that separates it from the pack. It’s interesting, it’s almost like a new studio system because whereas five years ago you could just make a movie and sell it, you now need to have some outlet, whether it’s Netflix or Amazon, that’s going to buy it. This is an emergence of a different kind of studio system. I think film festivals are still a place for these films that don’t end up getting the big distribution to be seen, but in terms of having distribution where the world sees your film, I agree with you that the competition is incredibly steep.

One of the immediate connections of Shimmer Lake would be to Christopher Nolan’s psychological reverse thriller Memento. Was there a reason for telling your story in reverse?

If you were to ask Oren this question, he’d tell you that when he was a kid he used to watch movies on HBO, and he’d watch them at different parts — he would come in halfway through the movie, or he would watch it another time and only catch the first half. It would take him a while to watch the whole movie and he always thought it was such an interesting experience, and so he wanted to create a story that told it in parts, that you had to understand out of order.

If you are looking at comparatives, like you say, there is Memento, there are also the John Dahl movies like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, and then there are Blood Simple and Fargo, these bags of money thrillers where the people who are stealing the money aren’t particularly sophisticated. But in this particular one, going back in time is a critical component of the story — it’s not just a gimmick that Oren threw in there. If the story was told in order, it would be far less interesting. It’s only as we go back in time to reveal what actually happened the day of the bank robbery, that the story has its resonance.

I remember being young and curious, asking questions about all matter of things. There’s the idea that as we age we lose that fervent sense of curiosity, yet Shimmer Lake is all about asking questions. It suggests that as adults we are still curious, which we channel through storytelling.

Whenever I watched TV shows with my mom as a kid, because I would be interrupting every five seconds, she’d say: “Write all your questions down and I’ll answer them in the commercial break.” You’re right, we certainly don’t do that as adults. But to your point, films like Shimmer Lake require you to think, require you to pay attention. I tell some of my friends that I think have a little Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to pay attention at the beginning of the film, because if you are not paying attention, you are going to miss what’s going on.

I think we do have a curiosity, and Oren has done such a good job of building in so many little tiny things, that if you are focussed and you think about it, you’ll go back the next day and you’ll have what we call refrigerator moments. There are a thousand of those things in Shimmer Lake and I think it does play to people’s curiosity.

Ron Livingston, Benjamin Walker, Rob Corddry, Adam Pally, and Stephanie Sigman in Shimmer Lake (2017)

In as much as the film appeals to our curiosity, its charm should be credited to the comedy.

Yeah, I think it’s a critical component of what makes a film work, and Oren obviously has a comedy background. He wrote 22 Jump Street and we cast a lot of comics: Rainn Wilson, Rob Corddry, Ron Livingston and Adam Pally. These are all people that have a comedic background, and even though the story at its core is a very serious subject, a thriller, in that way genre, it’s not by definition a comedy. It’s the other side of the coin. You can’t have one without having the other, and human existence is peppered with comedy — it’s a critical component of good storytelling.

The comedy is the glue that holds Shimmer Lake together and hiring actors that understand that is at the base of why these performances work. It’s a small town and there are little quirky and weird things. When Zeke is talking to the FBI guys he says: “We all know each other. We all went to school together. We’ll let you take all the credit, but you just let us solve this problem.” They say: “That’ll work out just fine.” You have to have actors that understand the comedy of that situation to make it work. You could play it straight, but it wouldn’t be as good.

Speaking with filmmaker Babak Anvari about Under the Shadow for FrightFest, he said: “Just a minor adjustment can really transform a scene and so those minor adjustments are how an actor can surprise the filmmaker. And that only comes if they truly understand the characters they are playing, but it needs to happen naturally.” In the filmmaking process is it sometimes the small things that offer the most significant transformation?

Absolutely! Look I started as an actor, and so one of my favourite parts of the process is casting and finding the right actors to play these great characters. At Footprint we only make movies that are character driven, that by definition have great roles for actors. So it’s one of my favourite parts of the process, not only casting, but watching these great actors work, whether it’s Ben Walker and his stoicism, who talks about how Zeke is a man who doesn’t smile easily, or Mark Rendall who plays Chris, one of my favourite performances in the movie. You see Ben bring that seriousness with which Zeke takes his work as sheriff of the town to the table, and Mark just becomes this guy in what is a very difficult role to play.

All these guys bring tiny little idiosyncrasies when they embody the characters — the way they walk; the way they talk; the way they look around. It’s a critical specificity and we don’t know who these people are until the actors embody them. Watching these guys work is a joy for me in putting these movies together.

There’s a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script — the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Do you agree and is the process one of discovery leading up to the final cut?

You don’t know. As I was once said, the best plans don’t survive the first day of battle, but you still have to have that plan. If you don’t, then you run out of time, you don’t know what you’re shooting and it’s chaos. You have to have all the shots shot-listed, everything thought through, and to have developed your script to the point that it’s on the page. They say: “If it’s not on the page, it will not be on the stage.”

But still, the final version is going to be far different than the script, which is far different from the shoot, and then ultimately different to where it lands. Shimmer Lake is a great example of that. We had one of the best screenplays that I’ve ever read, and the director who wrote the screenplay was very respectful of his script, that is to say. that we shot most of the things he wrote. He was also willing and able to let things go that he didn’t think were working on the day, and then in the edit, we had a totally different ending to the one you’ve seen.

When we tested it, the audience just didn’t like it and so we went back to the edit and made this new one, which is quite different from the screenplay. This is now what Shimmer Lake is and when we release it to the world that will make it their own, this different ending is the one they will know. So I think there are three versions and you can almost make a claim that now there is a fourth version because the audience is going to say what they want to say — we are going to see what happens once it is released into the wild.

Speaking with Carol Morley about her film The Falling for Starburst Magazine, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

Yeah, I think that’s right. Once you release it into the world, it does belong to the audience — it belongs to the world. People ask me what that means, but ultimately once a film is released, it’s what your experience was. I was asked the question: “Why did these things happen?” In the end, my answer is: “Why do you think this happened? You watched the movie and anything we didn’t explicitly say is up for your interpretation.” It’s up to the audience in that moment and we have to be okay with that, and I know I am.

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl for FrightFest he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

Certainly, as an artist or as a person doing a specific job, you have learned a lot of things, and you’ve become a different version. That’s true as both an actor and as a producer. When you get to the other end you’ve learned so many things. I’m a different producer after producing Shimmer Lake than I was starting. But your bigger question is: As a human, am I a different person having gone through this process? I think the answer is yes because it’s such an intense time period. You are using every ounce of energy to birth this story you believe deserves to be told, and so I think that process is life altering.