[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Praised by Sundance Film Festival head Geoff Gilmore as, "a modern vision about the contradictions of small-town life," Steve Berra's first feature "The Good Life" takes place in America's heartland and looks at a kid who doesn't quite fit in. Mark Webber stars as the "quietly suffocating" guy in a film that pro skateboarder Berra tells indieWIRE was conceived while he was on tour, visiting a thrift store, in a small town. Executive produced by Bill Paxton, the film was produced by Lance Sloane, Devin Sloane, and Patrick Markey. Other cast members include Paxton, Zooey Deschanel, Harry Dean Stanton, Chris Klein, Patrick Fugit, Drea De Matteo, Bruce McGill, Donal Logue and Deborah Rush.
Tell us about yourself...
I've been a professional skateboarder since the age of 18. I'm 33 now which means I've been pro for 15 years. Wow, where has the time gone. I was born in St. Louis, Missouri but my dad worked for Union Pacific Railroad so we moved back and forth between St. Louis and Omaha, Nebraska quite a few times during junior high and high school. It was Nebraska where I stayed until I moved into Tony Hawk's house in Fallbrook, CA when I was 18. I currently live in LA.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I became a filmmaker through my interest in acting. When I moved to California I studied acting fervently for a very long time, but had my skateboarding career and for a bit I was trying to do both as skateboarding hadn't quite boomed like it was about to. I had starting working as an actor on a short-lived television series for Fox called 413 Hope St. and then had done some work on other television shows.
I liked the atmosphere, I liked the people, but I wasn't that excited about the quality of the work nor was I very excited about the scripts that were currently available for young actors. At the time I was fortunate enough to be around Leonardo DiCaprio and listen to him talk about his reasons for doing one movie and not another and it always boiled down to one thing: quality, never money, quality.
Then skateboarding exploded and I was on tour and busy all year around. I had just gotten my first signature shoe and had to make the decision, skateboarding or acting. Skateboarding had treated me well and I was concerned about leaving it behind. Behind for what? I certainly didn't want to do another television show. Nothing against that kind of work especially if you're a hungry actor, but I was lucky enough to have something else I loved and made money at and I just knew the 16-year-old me would've hated to see a professional skater make that choice and abandon skateboarding. So I put acting ambitions on hold, kind of. I set out to just write material I knew actors would like, material I would like that I could feel proud of and be in myself. And I wrote a lot of bad stuff, but kept at it and now maybe I write not so bad stuff, but in that process I've become more interested in staying behind the camera. I feel like my stories need all my attention and if I'm doing both I can't service either side 100%.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I didn't go to film school. I just studied movies and studied all the screenplays of all the movies I loved and the filmmakers who made those movies. There are such amazing writers out there and I would just pore over their work. I would do this at night, early in the morning, in the afternoon, any chance I could get in between skateboarding. I would stay in my hotel room when on tour while the rest of the guys would go out and have fun after a hard day of skating. I just stayed committed to trying to be good. I'm not saying I am good, I'm just saying I've really tried to be and the only way I knew how to at least try was to study the things I really loved and the filmmakers I really loved. My philosophy was to never have a back-up plan. I didn't have one when I was 13 and decided I wanted to be a pro skateboarder and I didn't have one while I was and still am a pro skateboarder.
A back-up plan gives you an out should you fail at writing a good script or making your movie because inevitably you'll fail at both many times, but that's what should keep you going, those obstacles. So if there's no back-up plan, you can't do anything but overcome those obstacles. You may suffer because of this, but if you're an artist, you can't give up, the world needs you. With enough persistence and enough desire, you'll make it happen because you have to, because there's no option.
Please tell us about "The Good Life," and how did the initial idea come about?
I was on tour and a thing we'd all do was, whatever town we were in, we'd stop by the thrift stores to see if there was anything good. This was the mid '90s. So we're in a thrift store and I see a little book for a quarter called, "In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America" by Ben H. Bagdikian. There was a time when my mom and I would've been considered fairly poor. I liked the title and subject, so I bought it. There are a lot of things I responded to, in particular a paragraph that read: "The American poor are incomparably more lucky than those in Asia and Africa and the Middle East who die by the hundreds in the streets. The American poor live better than the average citizen in many an underdeveloped country. They are better off in important ways than the rich of a hundred years ago and royalty of the Dark Ages. But poverty is not measured by history. It is measured by the standards of a man's own community. If most of America is well-fed, the man who can't find three meals a day for his family is poor. If most of America has modern weather-proof housing, the man whose home is leaky and has no piped water is poor. If most of America has enough medical care to stay alive until age seventy, the man who can't afford to live beyond age fifty-five is poor. Such a man is poor statistically. But he is poor in a more damaging way; he is a failure in his neighbor's eye and in his own."
I found a lot of reality in that last sentence because I walked around most of my life feeling that way. I wanted to write something that would resonate with people as much as this book did with me because I found it so truthful. I wanted to write about a young man that was fairly poor in America and struggled with the things that American culture finds to be valuable; looks, money, material objects etc. Things almost every American struggles with. I wanted him to find that these things ultimately aren't what's valuable and hope that some people will walk away feeling the same way therefore affecting some kind of change in our current culture. And if I could do that, maybe, the rest of the world could start to see that not all Americans are these money hungry, power-loving, warlords that love only one thing, materialism. Maybe I didn't do that, and maybe that's far too ambitious or deep for this movie, but maybe not.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
I was offered a writing job from Warner Bros. that I turned down. Shortly thereafter I met the producer (Lance Sloane) of that project, who wasn't the one who made the offer, and we started talking. A long story short, he asked me, "Why don't you ever take any jobs?" and I told him, "For one, I'm in the middle of a skateboarding video and can't afford the time to write someone else's project, especially on a deadline. I like to write on my own time and if I have a deadline I'll be even more stressed than I already am, and for two, I've been working on this movie called "The Good Life" for a long time, I have a cast assembled and if I don't make it this year I don't know if I'm ever going to make it."
So Lance read it and loved it, and showed it to his brother, and they put the financing together in about a month. Simultaneously Lance brought his family friend and veteran producer Patrick Markey on board.
The casting was something I had worked on for a couple of years. I would get each part of it piece by piece. Zooey Deschanel was first, then she kind of fell off for a bit, then came back. Bill Paxton was second and in fact stepped in as an Exec Producer and helped with some key elements in the 11th hour. Chris Klein was third, then after meeting a lot of really nice and great actors for the lead, I finally met with the one actor I always envisioned for the part of Jason, Mark Webber.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Developing the movie had the constant challenge of, "Is this good enough to let anyone read?" It was torturous because there were some early drafts that were, looking back upon them, not very good. I also remember a pretty well known female producer in her day telling me that I wasn't very good looking, not like Luke Wilson, and that if I wanted to act in "The Good Life" it would be hard. It was very weird. Originally I was going to play Mark Webber's part, but, like I said before, it would have been too challenging, then I saw Mark Webber in "Storytelling" and that was it. I felt like I had seen someone comparable to Leo DiCaprio.
As far as making the movie: making the movie was full of challenges and I'm chalking them up to "new filmmaker" so that I don't carry them around with me. I was really surprised by a group of individuals who had tried to usurp my position as the director. It was not an easy shoot when dealing with that kind of constant looking over your back. My actor's were unbelievable though and I had a lot of support from the producers. I got through it, and when I returned home I told a producer friend of mine the goings-on and he kind of sluffed it off and said, "Tell me something new." So that made me feel a bit better.
What do you hope to get out of the festival? What are your own goals for the experience?
Of course I would like to see my investors make their money back. I have a deep responsibility to them, so it'd be nice if the film was bought. I would also like to see my cast get the appreciation they deserve, as they are all so unbelievable. And for myself, I hope to just meet some of the other filmmakers and get to know them and talk with them, as I don't really know that many. I'd like to know how they work if they're open to talking to me about it and just maybe have a few dinners.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did your react?
I was at my shoe company's office party they were throwing because they opened a new wing. Everyone was around me eating pizza and pasta and salad and my phone rang. It was such a huge validation for the work I've put into the film. After I hung up the phone I told the owner of the company what the call was about and he was happy, but I think he didn't really know what a big deal it was to get your movie into Sundance so it was hard for him to have the same amount of excitement I had. Either way, it was good for him to hear because I had been absent from my duties as a professional skateboarder for quite some time and he was still manufacturing my shoes and paying me all for something he thought was kind of a fantasy. To get that validation from Sundance helped me as it made my company realize that something was happening.
What is your definition of independent film?
Independent film is that thing that takes on the stories that the lowest common denominator may not really want to go see because it doesn't have a lot of catch phrases like "Schaaawing" or "Wuzzzzzuppp!!" or "Yeah, baby!", that unfunny people constantly spout off when drunk at a party trying to impress a girl.
What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2006?
My top ten list for 2006 would be (in no particular order as they are all amazing...):
"The Good Shepherd"
"Last King of Scotland"
"An Inconvenient Truth"
"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
Give back to my skateboarding sponsors what they've given me through this whole process: support. Finish a skateboarding video I'm working on, meaning one that I'm in, not one that I'm shooting.
See my family and be a better friend to the people I've kind of neglected during the process of making "The Good Life."
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