EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Actor Clark Gregg (“The Usual Suspects“) will travel to Park City with his directorial debut “Choke,” which will screen in the Sundance Film Festival dramatic competition. Described by the festival as a “dark comedy about mothers and sons, sexual compulsion, and the sordid underbellly of Colonial theme parks,” the film, adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, centers on Victor Mancini, a sex-addicted med-school dropout. He keeps his increasingly deranged mother Ida in an expensive private mental hospital by working days as a historical reenactor. And at night, he runs a scam where he deliberately chokes in upscale restaurants to form parasitic relationships with the wealthy patrons who “save” him. In a momentary lucid moment, Ida reveals that she’s withheld the surprising truth about his father, and he must solicit the help of his friend Denny and his mother’s beautiful physician in order to solve the “mystery” before the truth of his parentage is lost forever. Sundance’s Trevor Groth calls the film a “delicious blend of fresh writing, juicy performances and sharp directing. ‘Choke’ is actually quite easy to swallow.”
Director: Clark Gregg
Screenwriter: Clark Gregg, adapted from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Executive Producers: Mike Ryan, Derrick Tseng, Gary Ventimiglia, Mary Vernieu
Producers: Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson, Johnathon Dorfman, Temple Fennell
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Editor: Joe Klotz
Principal Cast: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly McDonald, Brad Henke, Clark Gregg
U.S., 2007, 89 minutes, color, Sony HD Cam
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Clark Gregg. I live with my wife and daughter in Los Angeles where I work as an actor and a writer. My father is an academic and a clergyman, so I spent most of my youth moving to different university towns, arriving finally in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where I went to high school. I spent two years at Ohio Wesleyan University then dropped out and moved to Manhattan in the early ’80s in search of punk rock and good theater. I found both and studied them obsessively, supporting myself by working various jobs around the city. Here are a few of the best ones: I was a bar back at Sardi’s, a security guard at the Guggenheim Museum, and a parking valet at the Water Club. When all that working for a living got old I enrolled at New York University’s Tisch School where I studied drama and English. It took a number of years, but I’m reasonably certain that I graduated.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking or what were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I fell in love with theater first. After college I co-founded New York’s Atlantic Theater Company with friends and remain involved to this day. A first principle at Atlantic was the idea that the company members do everything ourselves — act, write, direct, build sets, hang the lights. I first directed plays there and loved it. I had always loved movies, so when I was given the opportunity to act in them, I immediately wanted to learn how to make them as well.
How did you learn filmmaking?
This is the first film I have directed. About a dozen years ago during a particularly bored stretch between acting jobs, I started writing screenplays. Since then, I have written or re-written probably fifteen screenplays. I never went to film school, but I have acted in a number of movies of various types and budgets and spent most of the last ten years either on a set or working on a script professionally. I took several screenwriting workshops, which were as useful for how they forced me to evolve my own ideas about writing as for any knowledge they variously imparted.
I was very fortunate in college to be in class and later to work with David Mamet who is as brilliantly lucid about the mechanics of drama as he is generous with that knowledge. He and William H. Macy, another mentor and friend, taught me most of what I know about story. My first screenwriting job was writing a supernatural thriller for Dreamworks which became a movie called “What Lies Beneath” directed by Bob Zemeckis. Bob was also very generous with his vast knowledge of screenwriting and filmmaking. I also learned a tremendous amount from my years working onstage as an actor and director. Working on a play allows you to watch the story from beginning to end each night in front of living, breathing bodies. When you can actually feel the audience holding their breath or snoring or laughing or not, it’s difficult not to to learn something.
What prompted the idea for “Choke” and how did it evolve?
I was given the book “Choke” by Chuck Pahalaniuk to consider for a writing assignment in late summer of 2001 and was immediately taken with the unflinching way it dealt with the difficult topics of childhood trauma and sexual compulsion in a way that was both painful and hysterically funny. Chuck is a writer of rare imaginative gifts with a singular satiric take on the American experience. I paired Gary Ventimiglia, who had brought me the book, with my friend, Beau
Flynn, a producer with a strong track record making risky material.
Beau immediately optioned the book and for the next five years I spent whatever time I had between paying jobs attempting to crack the adaptation. That process at first mostly involved figuring which of the surfeit of funny, brilliant parts to leave out. After spinning my wheels in a reverent haze for nearly a year, I finally threw the book in a drawer and decided to write my own personal version of this story, one that Chuck would probably have me removed from. This, of course, is when the adaptation finally started to work and to my surprise, Chuck was extremely supportive of its departures. At this point, Beau and I reached out to another old friend, casting director Mary Vernieu, who came aboard to help us put the cast together. We came close to making the film in 2006, but the television show I was acting on was picked up for a full season so we pushed a year and began principal photography in July of 2007.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences or early inspiration with regard to the casting, technique and approach to the filmmaking.
Once the script seemed to be working, the challenge lay in trying to achieve the piece’s unusual dark comic tone. Some dark comedies have a tone that is more or less sustained throughout the piece. “Choke” has a complex dark comic tone, but also veers periodically into extremely dramatic moments, then into absurdly silly ones. The main challenge from a directing standpoint was to find actors who could play that tone and also make those extreme shifts, sometimes within the same scene. For my money there’s nobody better at that in the world than Sam Rockwell. We had acted in a play together eons earlier and through intermediaries I begged him to consider it. To our great fortune Sam connected deeply to the material and immediately signed on as the lead, Victor Mancini.
When Anjelica Huston agreed to play his mother, I knew we had the core of that team to build around. From there it was all about working with everyone from the DP, Tim Orr, to the prop master to create a world where those two tonal extremes could co-exist in way that felt if not naturalistic, always true. For that reason I drew inspiration from Hal Ashby films like “Harold and Maude” and “Being There,” and from recent films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Secretary.” As we began to work together on the script Sam and I watched everything from “Boogie Nights” to “Bad Santa.” We watched “His Girl Friday,” Tom Jones, various Fellini pictures and basically anything we thought was dark, funny or even just dirty.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The biggest challenge was in getting the script right. Once that was accomplished, we found that the script made it possible for us to connect with the people we needed to be in business with to get the film made. Throughout the process it seemed like the people who responded to the material, from the financiers to the set decorators were always the people who ended up feeling invaluable to the project. In fact, as we moved into production we often hired candidates with less formidable resumes who seemed to have a deeper connection to the material and never once regretted it. In that regard, we were very fortunate that my agents at UTA gave the script to Johnathon Dorfman and Temple Fennell at Dave Matthews‘ ATO Pictures.
They read the script over a weekend and offered to come aboard as financiers and producing partners a few days later. Once we hit pre-production some seemingly insurmountable obstacles arose, mostly when it came to figuring out how to actually make a medium sized indie film on a small indie budget. I constantly found myself in discussions that began with questions like, “Is there any way we could do the big night scene in the daytime, or the zoo scene with no animals?” It was interesting to see that the greatest threat to the realization of the risky material came not from the censorship I had feared, but from the pervasive compromise required by the limited budget. Those difficulties were felt every day in every department. I should say, however, that those difficulties have
been a factor on every indie I’ve ever been involved in, and fortunately for me, my time running Atlantic, the off-Broadway equivalent of an independent film, proved invaluable when it came to finding cheaper alternatives that still achieved the necessary creative objectives.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
My goals for Sundance are to find a great distributor for the film and to go sledding with my daughter.
What are some of your recent favorite films and all-time favorites?
Recent favorites in no particular order: “The Lives of Others,” “Knocked Up,” “The Best of Youth,” “Rushmore,” “Punch Drunk Love,” “Half Nelson,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Breaking the Waves.”
I can’t do my all time favorites list. It gives me a headache.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
All I wanted to do for many years was to make a movie; to write it and direct it and act in it. The simple fact of achieving those three objectives feels like an absurd success to me. If it’s not too greedy to say so, I would like to make another one.
Are there any upcoming projects?
I am writing something new.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.