Director Oren Uziel Plays With Expectations With 'Shimmer Lake' [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."

Shimmer Lake interview

Rob and Ron are great together. How was it casting those two characters? What were you looking for?

You know, it's an indie movie. It's a low-budget movie, so casting is a tricky process, and a lot of people come in late. We actually didn't have many people falling out, but as the piece just come together and you observe as much control as you can. Zeke was the first person cast, but then Andy is a very needy role for a guy. A lot of the people I met with read for Andy, and then when Andy is cast, it's like, "Would you be willing to play Curt? Would you be willing to play Kyle?" I think Rob and Ron know each other and are friendly and respect each other. Rob was cast first, and then Ron came second. What's funny about Ron is I wasn't expecting to get somebody... I mean, I, like sort of everybody else love Ron Livingston. When he came in to play Kyle, I looked back at the script, and Kurt had way more lines.

I kept having to go to Rob, who I happen to know because our kids go to school together, so I was comfortable enough to constantly go to Rob every morning or the day before and say, "Hey, I got to give Ron some of these lines. I need him saying stuff." What developed out of that is it became more, I think, in the script as written, it was probably like Kyle was straight up more the dumb one. He didn't say as much, but by making them a little more equal partners, they do become, you know, they're finishing each other's sentence. They've been together. They sit in the car all night, and they just know their thoughts before they even get out of their mouths, which is effective, you know, but that's one of those things you kind of stumble into sometimes. I would make a TV show about those guys because I would love to work with them.

They're the characters smart enough to know how dumb they are. They know their limitations.

Yeah, they have no illusions. They're not 25, right? They're not aspiring FBI guys like, "Oh, one of these days we're going to be the guys." They're in their 40s. They're like, "We know exactly who we are."

How did you and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Witch) want to create a sense of atmosphere?

He's amazing. I think he's incredibly talented. I saw The Witch and got very excited when he was interested in the movie. There's two different parts there I guess. One is ... We didn't have a lot of days. We didn't have a lot of time. The movie had, I realized, you know, because I'm a first time director, I wasn't looking at the script in the same way, and I realized late like, "Wow, there's a lot of locations here." There's a lot of small scenes in quick spots that we were constantly having to move locations. The result of that ends up being, you don't get a lot of takes and you don't get a lot of coverage.

Luckily, I had a very experienced cast that caught on very quickly. You can't find the theme, you can't sort of through the scene in the master and expect to find it in the mediums or the close-ups, because a lot of times they're not coming. When I was working with Jarin, and when we were shot-listing and going through everything, it was a little bit, "How do we find a way to economically get every story beat that we need with as few shots as possible a lot of times?" A lot of the things I think we both like are those sort of, I don't know if it's old or current Spielberg, but the way you can kind of start a scene in what would be a master and dial your way into the two-shot or dial your way into the over-the-shoulder shot, and where possible just let them run on the wide, and let the actors just perform and enjoy all of them, and all of their reactions, and all of their gestures and ticks. They're all so talented.

Then, as far as the writing, you make that decision with a script like that where the tone is a difficult one. It's a little bit threading a needle. I don't ... In that way that I'm saying that I'm sympathetic to all the characters and I want to humanize all the characters, they're not goofy, right? It's not shot as a comedy. It's shot as a thriller. I want emotion, and you want tension. I think that affects the lighting. Jarin can light like that, you know, like nobody else. The Witch is a perfect example of what he can do with that. The scene with Dawkins (John Michael Higgins) and the meth kid (Mark Rendall) and Andy in his bedroom is, you know, the references for that are like, well, we were looking at pictures from Fur. It's very moody and sucked the life right out of it and sort of like the entire room, and just feel that kind of dread all over.

I imagine you had a lot of expectations going into Shimmer Lake, being your directorial debut. How did the experience match or defy those expectations?

The biggest one, for me, I was expecting I would constantly be asked questions I needed to know the answer to. I don't know if this is the nature of this particular production, or crew, or time and place, but I found often that people weren't asking me questions. I would have to go and get ahead of things more than I expected, because if I didn't, sometimes something would appear then and I'd say, "Well, I don't know how that got there." Nobody asked me about it. I very quickly learned I need to be much more proactive. Every question that I need to know the answer to tomorrow I realized I needed to know the night before so that I'm not finding out about something late.

I had never directed a short or anything. The first week was pure terror. Suddenly, I had this moment of realization that, once you arrive on day one of production, something is going to happen. Whether you're the worst director that's ever lived or not, the train is moving. You just have to step on and now you're directing a movie. There was something very comforting in that. I had bullshitted and bullshitted enough until the machine was in motion. By that point, you might as well enjoy the process and take part. It took away my fears in a great way.

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Shimmer Lake is now available to stream on Netflix.