Published on May 31st, 2019 | by gareth0
Chris Retts Talks Screenwriting
If he didn’t know any better, a Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart comedy might have inspired screenwriter Chris Retts’ life.
How does one get into screenwriting? Or let me rephrase that, how did you?
There’s this great scene in that movie CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE with The Rock and Kevin Hart. The whole setup is that they’re friends from high school and that The Rock used to be overweight, but that he now looks like, well, The Rock. When Kevin Hart’s character asks him how he got in such great shape, he replies that all he did was work out “six hours a day, every day, for the last twenty years straight.” My sister and her husband are songwriters and we laugh about that quote all the time. People sometimes act like pursuing a career in these creative fields is some kind of mystery, when, really, all it is, is just hard. I started writing in 2012, and, since then, I’ve written almost every day. Frankly, I’m still not at the level I’d like to be, but the process of writing WADE IN THE WATER, being able to help produce it, finding out the screenplay was a Semifinalist for the Nicholl Fellowship, and then, now, having the finished film get accepted into Dances With Films – it’s been great affirmation of all that work.
And is there a type of story you usually gravitate towards?
I love collaborating with other writers and other filmmakers, so I’ve actually written in a lot of different genres. The experience of buying into someone else’s project, and trying to help make that be the best very best possible version of itself is super gratifying to me. That being said, left to my own devices, I tend toward thrillers and can even bleed (heh) into horror. Sometimes, the things I write have a sort of supernatural edge, or trade in magical realism, but I don’t always go there. I love Guillermo del Toro. I love M. Night Shyamalan. I also love the Coen Brothers. I’m still thinking about NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and it’s been over a decade.
Tell us about Wade in the Water?
WADE is the result of Mark Wilson and I getting to the point where we were kind of got tired of waiting for “permission” to make a movie, if that makes any sense at all. We had been trying to develop some projects together that we could bring to big investors or to producers, who would a) fund our movie despite any evidence we could pull off anything of the scale we had been writing up until that point, and b) take a chance on a (then) first-time feature director to helm it. Turns out there’s not a ton of folks out there willing to roll that dice. So, we finally decided to write something we knew we’d be able to make on our own for almost no money. That was the start of WADE. It’s a dark drama about a man who decides to enact vigilante justice against someone he’s never met.
Being an independent movie, how many hats did you wear on Wade in the Water?
We all wore so many hats. All of our crew – who worked for miniscule or completely deferred pay – were so tireless and so brilliant and WADE would be nothing without them. Our lead actor Tom Nicholson, for instance, is brilliant in the film, but he also AD’d for us. Matt Daniger, who plays the owner of the burger shop, is also the Gaffer. I felt like my role as Producer on this project was to just kind of play clean-up, which was great because it meant that I got to do a little bit of everything, from typical producer-type stuff – pulling permits, wrangling contracts, etc. – to helping different departments on-set, or even picking up food or coffee when we were running low on PAs. Mark runs a very efficient, but also a very inclusive set, as well, so a lot of times I was able to just kind of be his shadow and script-supervise or help block things out. It was exhausting, at times, but also exhilarating, and I’m thrilled with what our team was able to accomplish with this film.
Is there anything about the independent filmmaking business you still struggle with?
Oh, man. EVERYTHING. There’s probably also tons of stuff I’m not struggling with, just because I don’t know enough, yet, to know I should be struggling with them! Mark and I learned a TON on this shoot, and are really excited to apply all of that to our next project. But WADE is still out to a couple of festivals, nationally and internationally, and we’re still working on distribution, so it’ll also be fun to see what happens with it there. As a part of that process, we’ve also gotten to know some folks with whom we may be able to work in the future at different stages of development and production. So, to see the film open up some of those doors has been really encouraging.
Where do you think your strengths lie as a writer?
I think I understand structure really well – not because it was innate, but because I was introduced to some really great mentors at Pepperdine University where I got my MFA. My training there also helped me develop what they call an “audience antennae” – that is, kind of being able to understand where your audience is at emotionally at any given point, what they’re wondering, worried about, expecting, and then being able to play with that knowledge in interesting ways that (hopefully) keep them engaged. I’m also a fairly empathetic person, which helps with character development because it means I’m typically able to see things from my character’s point of view — even if it’s someone with whom I vehemently disagree. I’ve also got a strong work ethic, and with writing that really is 99% of the game – just to keep writing.
How important is marketing? Do you think a project can make any dent without it these days?
I think there are kind of natural things that a film can have going for it – certain cast, an important subject matter or issue, the way it was shot, etc. – that may or may not make your job as a marketer of your own film easier, but marketing is still completely indispensable. I was just chatting with someone the other day about how difficult it is just to get people who know and really care about you to come see your movie, let alone complete strangers. Conversely, it’s difficult even for big films, sometimes, to find an audience, even if there are several known quantities at play. So, even if you’ve got a great film on your hands, which, of course, I think we do, marketing is key. Our strategy has been to energize our network of friends, family, and colleagues, who, thankfully, are incredibly supportive, to kind of get word out about the film on a grassroots level. We’ve also been working with October Coast, which is a PR company that’s been really great for us, to kind of get the word out about WADE on kind of a ten-thousand-foot, more top-down kind of way. Of course, this interview is really great for us from that standpoint as well, so thanks so much!
What do you hope audiences get from it?
I hope WADE IN THE WATER opens audiences up to see the humanity in one another – even if that humanity happens to be covered up in a lot of really ugly stuff. WADE deals with a lot of dark subject matter, but it’s also kind of funny. It also kind of showcases humans at their bizarre best, and I hope this film in some, small way kind of allows those two things to coexist. Because then, maybe we can see it when we leave the theater and go out in the world. I know we can see the ugliness. We’ve had a lot of practice at that. There’s a lot of it going around, and our film’s honest about it. But maybe this film can also help open audiences up to all the humanity that’s going on out the world as well.
WADE IN THE WATER premieres June 19 at DANCES WITH FILMS