Q & A with Director Burr Steers

“Charlie St. Cloud” director Burr Steers

“Charlie St. Cloud” director Burr Steers

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Burr Steers, director of Universal Pictures and Relativity Media’s romantic fantasy drama “Charlie St. Cloud,” opening July 30, starring Zac Efron.

Directed by Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down”), “Charlie St. Cloud’s” screenplay by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick is based on the novel “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud” by Ben Sherwood. It was produced by Marc Platt and executive produced by Michael Fottrell, Ryan Kavanaugh and Ben Sherwood. Also starring are Amanda Crew, Donal Logue, Charlie Tahan, Ray Liotta and Kim Basinger.

The Story (spoiler alert): In “Charlie St. Cloud” Zac Efron plays a young man who survives an accident that lets him see the world in a unique way. Charlie begins a romantic journey in which he embraces the dark realities of the past while discovering the transformative power of love.

Charlie, an accomplished sailor, has the adoration of his mother Claire (Kim Basinger) and little brother Sam (newcomer Charlie Tahan). He also has a college scholarship that will lead him far from his sleepy Pacific Northwest hometown. But Charlie’s bright future is cut short when tragedy strikes and takes away his dreams.

After his high–school classmate Tess (Amanda Crew) returns home unexpectedly, Charlie is torn between honoring a promise he made four years earlier and moving forward with his newfound love. As he finds the courage to let go of the past for good, Charlie discovers the soul most worth saving is his own.

Burr Steers made his feature directorial debut with the acclaimed 2002 offbeat comedy drama “Igby Goes Down,” for which he also wrote the screenplay. It starred Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum and Susan Sarandon. Steers received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay and was honored as Best First Time Director at the 2003 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. “Igby Goes Down” also received two Golden Globe Nominations for its performances by Kieran Culkin and Susan Sarandon.

Steers subsequently co–wrote the worldwide romantic comedy hit “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” which marked the first onscreen pairing of stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.

In 2009, Steers directed Zac Efron, Leslie Mann, Tom Lennon and Matthew Perry in the worldwide box office hit “17 Again.” He re–teamed with Zac Efron for “Charlie St. Cloud.”

Steers’ next directorial project, “Emperor,” is the story of the young Julius Caesar. Based on the first book in Conn Iggulden’s “Emperor” series, it is adapted to the screen by William Broyles and Stephen Harrigan.

Steers has also directed for the HBO series “Big Love” and Showtime’s “The L Word” and “Weeds.” Prior to launching his filmmaking career, Steers was an actor. His acting credits include such films as “The Last Days of Disco” and “Pulp Fiction.”

Q: Tell me how “Charlie St. Cloud” came to be.
A: I had worked with Zac on “17 Again” and they’d approached him about “Charlie St. Cloud,” so he was the first one who brought it up with me. And then I met with Donna Langley (now co–chairman of Universal Pictures and previously president of production) about it. It was appealing because I was going to get to come in and do a rewrite and also just work on a bigger movie and have more toys.

The other appealing thing was that it wasn’t a genre movie. It was one of the only movies at the studio that wasn’t (a genre film) that was getting made because everything was so tight at that point. So that was really attractive to me. It was a really human story that I could sink my teeth into.
Q: When was that?
A: It was a couple of months after “17 Again” had opened (in April 2009 via New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.). Funnily enough, I’d met with Donna on another project and then had lunch with her about this. This was a movie that she was really invested in. I think she’d optioned the book when she was still an executive (in production at Universal). I just got a great feeling about who I’d be working with at Universal. Donna's someone who I really respected and got along with. It seemed like a great situation.
Q: How did the project move forward?
A: Well, I came in and started rewriting the script — doing an overhaul of the script and getting it into shape. A couple of key factors (were involved in rewriting). Zac was much younger than the character was in the book or in the previous three drafts. So I was making it something that would work for him age–wise. Making it more current. Making it fresher. The brothers’ relationship is key and I needed it to feel real. Because it’s such an unreal story, I needed to ground it in reality and have a brother relationship that you could believe was as prickly and as complicated as sibling relationships are. So that’s something I really focused on.

And then, just revamping the script and getting (it in shape). One of the other things I was conscious of doing was surrounding Zac with a bunch of young actors. It’s something that Zac affords you when he’s cast in a movie. You can really cast who you want around him. And so with Agustus Prew, I rewrote the character and cast him as Charlie’s friend and then got Amanda Crew into the movie.

It reminded me of those movies from the ’80s (like) that Richard Benjamin movie “Racing With the Moon,” which was just packed with that next wave of young actors (Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern and Nicolas Cage starred in the 1984 romantic comedy drama). That’s really what I wanted to do — to make one of those movies where you’d look back in a decade or two and say, “God, they were all in that movie!”
Q: Now you re–wrote this script, but didn’t write it initially. Since your roots are in screenwriting, do you feel more comfortable when you actually have written a screenplay from the start?
A: It helps my directing process because then I know the scenes inside and out. I know how to play them because I’ve played them already. I know what they’re about. I know the function of the scenes. So it definitely helps me have a handle on it if I’ve written it. And then I put a lot into the script. A lot of my direction takes place on the page as far as my point of view about what’s going on and about how the character’s reacting. That frees me up as a director to approach it in a fresh way in the moment on the set seeing what the actors are bringing in, what they’re doing and what their point of view is and then being able to get someplace new.
Director Burr Steers on the set of “Charlie St. Cloud.” In theaters July 30th.

Director Burr Steers on the set of “Charlie St. Cloud.” In theaters July 30th.

Q: You didn’t get a writing credit on “Charlie.”
A: I did not.
Q: It sounds like maybe you should have.
A: Well, unfortunately when I did (the rewriting) the threshold was still 50 percent (of the rewrite needing to be new material) if you directed a movie. And the (Writers) Guild didn’t feel like I met 50 percent. It’s always a tricky thing when you have original material, when you’re doing something from a book. Because we’re all using the same source material, there’s going to be a similarity in what you choose from that source material. In this case it was pretty obvious. It’s also a tough thing to gauge. I don’t think it’s easy for the Guild.
Q: Did the threshold change after that?
A: Yeah. Now it’s 30 percent. It just changed as I was coming out of arbitration. So wonderful timing for me!
Q: When did you go into production?
A: In June of ‘09. It went miraculously well. Initially, the movie was set in Marblehead, Mass. Because Vancouver ended up being a better place for us to shoot financially, we went up there to shoot. So I reworked the script for the San Juan Islands off Seattle because Vancouver can pass for that and also because I have a “Five Easy Pieces” obsession (Bob Rafelson shot some of the 1970 classic in Vancouver). That all ended up working in our favor because in the book Marblehead, Mass. is really a character.

Going to Vancouver, we invented a town. We did it using three or four different houses and putting it together. It ended up giving us a chance to really create a new world for the movie and that ended up working out incredibly well for us. I mean, it’s stunningly beautiful. And we got incredibly lucky as far as the weather went in Vancouver. It didn’t rain at all. That was amazing. The movie gods smiled on us.
Q: How do you like to work as a director? Do you do a lot of rehearsing?
A: I do, especially with young actors. I did it with Zac for about a month and a half before “17 Again” and then did the same thing on this with all of the young actors, getting them into the same mode and understanding what I wanted and what I was going for. My background is that I studied with Sandy Meisner and that’s really the way I approach that. (Meisner’s unusual approach to teaching the art of acting was called The Meisner Technique. He once observed that “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”)

(What I do is) breaking them down and getting them out of robotic acting — where they’re hitting lines and you can see the acting and you hear the line readings — and getting them to be present in front of the camera and listening to each other and reacting and not feeling pressure that they have to hit it every time, that there was no “right” way of doing it, they had to be honest and they had to be alive in the moment. So (I was) working with them, improvising and getting them to really inhabit their characters and bring them alive.
Q: Directors who don’t like to rehearse say they like to keep things spontaneous and that sometimes the first take is the best of all.
A: It can be because it’s the freshest take and then the more you do it the more you squeeze the spontaneity and the life out of it and the more it becomes mechanical. Every actor works in a different way so you’ll have certain actors where they’ll get their best takes early on and then they’ll get stale. And then you’ll have other actors who will just get better and better and better as they discover new things in each take.

It’s about keeping it fresh and finding the things you need to do to keep it fresh. And it depends on who you're working with. It really does. You have people coming from really different acting backgrounds and you just have to figure out as a director how best to work with them and get the best performances out of them.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: It was around $40 million. There are not a lot of movies getting made in that range and not this kind of movie that, again, wasn't a genre movie.
Burr Steers, Amanda Crew, and Zac Efron on the set of “Charlie St. Cloud”

Burr Steers, Amanda Crew, and Zac Efron on the set of “Charlie St. Cloud”

Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the biggest challenges?
A: When we shot the sailing stuff towards the beginning of the shoot we had no wind and that makes it difficult to shoot sailing. Figuring that out and manufacturing the excitement of a race posed a lot of problems. I brought in a second unit DP who’d worked on Carroll Ballard’s (1992 action drama) “Wind,” which is the archetype that you go to for realistic sailing movies. We made it work. All the actors learned how to sail and really became proficient sailors. They learned quickly. Amanda Crew is sailing a 50 foot yacht in one of the scenes.

Pretty much, everything was as we planned it. I mean, you always have back–ups in case of weather and for a few days we had to do that. When we did “17 Again,” Zac had an emergency appendectomy in the middle of the shoot. He was out for a few days and then the first few days he was back we had to shoot around him a bit. Not much because he came back almost immediately, but we were told by the studio to take it easy on him. But everything was pretty straightforward on this (shoot).

The boy (Charlie Tahan) that I ended up casting (to play Charlie’s younger brother Sam) was younger than initially written so there was a process of feeling out what would work for a kid his age that you could get away with. It was just really going through the scenes and seeing what sounded okay.
Q: And he must have had shorter hours that he could work.
A: He had shorter hours. Sometimes we’d work French hours — with lunch on the fly so you can power through a shorter day. I think everybody actually prefers that.

The other thing I really worked on was the brothers’ relationship, which they both really cultivated off camera, as well. And you’ll see it on camera. They really have chemistry with each other. All the actors really banded together.
Q: Looking ahead, is there a start date for “Emperor?”
A: We don’t have a start yet. I’m still busy with the last details on “Charlie.” We were initially going to be released in October and we got bumped up to July 30. We tested really well and they moved it up. It’s good, but it meant that everything got very hectic for me as far as finishing the movie. But I am focusing on “Emperor” and that is my next project and an incredibly exciting one. Bill Broyles is such a talented writer.