Oren Uziel interview

The small, friendly town of Shimmer Lake isn’t as innocent as it looks. Neither are some of the characters in writer-director Oren Uziel‘s crafty crime thriller, which shows a crime gone wrong in reverse time. The robbery involves a moralistic Sherrif (Benjamin Walker), a desperate lawyer on the run (Rainn Wilson), two D-list FBI agents (Ron Livingston and Rob Corddry), and more.

It’s an 83-minute ensemble crime story with a surprising amount of intimacy. Few of Uziel’s characters are what their jobs, past, or archetypes imply. He reveals them all to be more than what they seem with his directorial debut, which marks his first time ever behind the camera. Uziel, who co-wrote 22 Jump Street and the next addition to the Cloverfield universe, God Particle, told us about writing and directing his debut film, which is streaming on Netflix right now.

Below, read our Oren Uziel interview [Spoilers ahead].

You create a lot of momentum by going back in time. Was that a challenge?

Was it a challenge? Yeah, it was a challenge. Naivety and stupidity are how you get passed it. It was the first screenplay I wrote. I don’t think I understood exactly what the challenges would be. It was a real process of trial and error. I started with this notion of, that I grew up watching movies on HBO, when that was the only place you could watch an uninterrupted movie on TV, with no commercials or anything. I would just sort of flip over to it and watch whatever movie was on, at whatever part of the movie it was on. I’d sort of be right in the middle, I wouldn’t know what was going on, so I was trying to figure out why everyone was doing what they were doing, while also paying attention to what was happening in the movie.

Then, like a week later I’d be flipping, and I’d find that same movie, but half an hour earlier. All of a sudden I was like, “Okay, this is going to explain to me why that guy had such a problem with that other guy, and what his relationship is what that woman.” I found that, and eventually I’d watch the whole thing, or I’d see it from beginning to end in order, and it wouldn’t be nearly as compelling or tense or as interesting. I thought there was a way to sort of just take that experience of watching a movie, but do it deliberately so then you can put in set-ups and payoffs and stuff. I thought that would be an interesting thing that I hadn’t really seen before.

That was what I was thinking going in, but then actually doing that is very slow and painstaking, and like I said, trial and error. I was just writing, and I’d show it to friends, and they’d say, “Oh, I know everything way too soon.” I’d say, “Okay, let me try this.” And they’d say, “Oh, everything seems to be happening for no reason.” And you say, “Okay, I’m just going to put a little bit more back in.” You know?

What else did you learn from trial and error process? 

It was just a process. Like with trial and error there was, you know, there’s obviously twists in the movie, so there are things that people were just way too far ahead of, or there were characters that just seemed unlikable in a bad way, not the fun way. There’s just nothing to attach to, and you had to find ways to humanize them. That was true in the script, and then once I got it all working, and then everyone who read it, they stopped all having the same note, and things started to come back very positively. Then, when you make the movie, you find that there are visual tells that weren’t there on the page, or things that you could do visually that would alleviate the need to write something, like to have dialog in there. It was sort of the same process in the editing room, if that makes sense.

It does. I realized there’s a lot of very subtle foreshadowing and hints once you replay the story in your head, like even when Zeke says to his niece, “We’ve all made mistakes, including myself.” It’s natural in conversation, so it doesn’t seem like a hint. 

I said this the other day, but I hope that it rewards viewing it a couple of times as opposed to like demanding it. That was one of the things that I kind of had fun watching last night [at the premiere] is remembering there’s a million little lines in there that just go that, like you said, like conversation, but it’s really an important piece of information that you’ll realize later is why the whole story isn’t just like arbitrary or doesn’t come right out of left-field. It’s earned. Zeke says repeatedly, “We all play on the same football team.” When you realize, “Oh, they all play on the same football team.” It’s not something that comes out of left-field.” You’ve been told. They sat and told a story about playing in the same game together, you know?

[Spoiler Alert]

The conversation about the old high school game humanizes Ed (Wyatt Russell), too. You can feel for him there because it’s a surprisingly relatable moment for a character like himself. 

That’s exactly what I want. It’s part of why I cast Wyatt too because I didn’t want some typical, I don’t know, heavy. I just wanted him to be a real human being, and those were his days. Those were the moments before his life went to shit. For him, that’s a really meaningful, powerful moment. Those were the days. There are little things. When we were editing it, the way I intended it to be, Zeke didn’t smile at all, because he knows exactly what he’s about to have to do.

He doesn’t want to deal with Ed as a real person in that moment, and Ed is really vulnerable in that moment. When people watch the movie, just the fact that Zeke doesn’t smile at all was enough of a tell that he was involved in the entire thing. I had to kind of grab a kind of in-between takes little smirk from Zeke just to humanize him a little so that it wasn’t too clear that he was in his own head about what was going to happen. It’s really funny, like a little, even like a frame or two here or there can sway the experience of someone watching a movie.

[Spoiler Over]

Watching Ed or the lawyer in over his head, it was fun seeing how they ended up veering from what we expect from those archetypes. Knowing the genre, did you want to use those familiar elements and characters as a way to subvert expectations? 

100%. I mean, I think about that always in writing. It’s always about subverting expectations. We have a long enough history of movies now, and audiences, myself included, are savvy. If you get too lazy in your writing, then people just get comfortable as an audience and it becomes dull and expected. You set them all up as, “Well, okay, I’ve seen this before. I know this guy.” And then, to me, you sort of, you just shift it a little bit. For me, I grew up on the Coen Brothers, and I love them. I idolized them.

This story is like a … You know, sometimes they can be, for great benefit they can be more dismissive of their characters and less sympathetic. To me, part of what I’m doing here is I’m sympathetic with everybody in the movie. Ed, the Judge, Chris, Steph, they’re all, to me, complete human beings. I wanted to give all of them a little moment where it wasn’t exactly like, “Oh, he’s just the dumb one. He’s just the desperate one.”

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