After Chris Fisher spent years poring over every word in his adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel “Meeting Evil” into a feature, it only took one day on the set with Samuel L. Jackson to leave him speechless.
“The first scene we shot was the scene where [Jackson] was in front of the cell phone store,” said Fisher, who still laughs at how low his jaw dropped. “He walks over with this bat behind his back with a clump of hair from the fat lady in the cell phone store and he’s just screaming and yelling. The sound guy had a panic attack because his level’s about 50 times higher than anybody else’s.”
Although that story may need a little more context, it’s properly disorienting for the surreal thriller that Fisher made, a film that positions Jackson as a man named Richie but might as well be acknowledged as evil incarnate who finds a new plaything in a down-on-his-luck realtor whose life is falling apart. Luke Wilson plays the troubled suburbanite who appears as if he’s fallen out of the lyrics of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”
As for Fisher, he’s been working towards this moment over the past decade, first on the serial killer flicks such as “The Hillside Strangler Murders” and “Nightstalker” known for lining the shelves of Blockbuster before moving onto become a go-to director for DTV sequels “S. Darko” and “Street Kings: Motor City” and television series including “Hawaii Five-O” and Syfy’s “Warehouse 13,” which he’s also a producer on. It’s been a motley career, which he was happy to describe in detail when he recently spoke to me about the long road to “Meeting Evil,” overcoming a life thought to be boring as an artist and Jackson’s killer James Cagney impression.
How did you come across Thomas Berger’s novel in the first place?
Another director approached me to adapt it actually and at the time, I had just finished another film “Dirty” and was looking for my next project. So I politely said, I’m sorry, this doesn’t interest me to write something for free for somebody else. I’m probably going to do that for myself.” [laughs] And he’s like, “Well, just read the novel. It’s perfect for you. You have the voice for it.” I read it, and [thought] oh shit, I agreed with him. I couldn’t get it out of my head and it just really got underneath my skin. So I agreed [to] do a quick pass, but [asked him] to get it set up because I [was] broke. After about two months of working on it, I realized he didn’t even own the rights to it.
Then I was put in the uncomfortable position of having to approach Thomas Berger and his agent and get on my knees and ask for a very, very inexpensive option, which they granted. I actually sent him a copy of the script and he was very complimentary and wished me the best and to Tom’s credit, he really made this project happen because he’s had three other novels adapted into movies and big movies like “Little Big Man,” so I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get the option for anything that I could’ve afforded at that time in my life.
Did the story actually have more relevance when you started filming than when you first sat down to write it? There are foreclosure signs all over the place in that opening sequence.
It’s funny you say because we all read great books every day and I don’t first and foremost think of adapting them into movies. But what made “Meeting Evil” an opportunity for a film to me was that here was a book written in 1992 about the meaning of evil. And 9/11 came and changed that entirely. So when I read the book in 2005, it meant something completely different than what it meant to Thomas Berger when he wrote it. Of course, the American mortgage crisis gave it another new touchstone to reinterpret this work. That was one of the fun things and also one of the challenging things about making this movie was giving it a current historical perspective [while] also keeping the language of the original work of art, the novel.
At the same time, you don’t have many tells of a particular era, though there is a pivotal scene involving a cell phone store. There’s definitely a noirish style to it, but was it your intention to make it timeless to a degree?
Certainly, the RKO movies of the ‘40s and the ‘50s are probably the most inspirational movies to me as a filmmaker. I love hard-boiled dialogue. I love antiheroes, I love charismatic villains, I love shadows. I wanted to craft a movie that at least on a visual level had a sort of nostalgia to it. Even in the first act of the film in order to really sell John’s dream world, we tried to paint it in this Technicolor world and the colors we chose and the lighting we use to paint this opening nightmare in this sort of dreamstate. [which had the] double effect of giving the film a sort of timeless feel to it, which I really enjoyed.
After you got the rights to it, how did this film come together in terms of cast?
When I finished the script, my agent and I took it out to the studios, hoping to get that big sale and not finding that. That process started in 2007 and obviously it took five years to actually get going. As fortune would have it, I came across this producer Mike Callaghan, who really championed me and championed the project and he’s like, “Look, I’ve got a relationship with Sam Jackson and I think he’d really like this.” To be honest, I never thought I’d get someone like Sam to play this role. I was always thinking we’d make the movie for a million bucks and we didn’t make it for much more than that [laughs], but it’d be a very low budget movie because it is somewhat of an amorphous plot. It wasn’t just a straight fastball down the middle thriller that explains everything, so when Sam was interested, I was just like holy moly, this is the holy grail.
He clearly relishes the role, doing a Cagney impression and everything. When he steps on set, do you just let him loose or are there times when he’s too over the top?
I knew exactly what he was going to do. The other thing about Sam that was just phenomenal – he was off-book at the readthrough. He read the novel a couple times. He showed me everything he was going to do at the readthrough. He didn’t show me the Cagney… [laughs] after he did that, I was like yeah, man. That was good because that was a nice little hat tilt to the noir films that we’re trying to pay homage to. But I didn’t need rehearsals with him. He was ready to go and he showed me what he was going to do and he was also very open to discussion on set. There’s a lot of things I wanted that he didn’t and we had healthy discussions about how to find a compromise.
This may be a naïve question, but having recently directed two direct-to-video sequels and television, does it change the way you approach an original production when you’ve been wedded to an already established template in the past?
I don’t think so. Every project is a blank slate and certainly with “S. Darko,” perhaps we bit off more than we could chew there. We were trying to do a sequel to a cult classic and I felt it was very important keep the visual language of the original, so that was its own challenge. “Street Kings: Motor City,” which is another sequel I did, David Ayer [made] an exceptional film, but it didn’t have the extreme fan base of “Donnie Darko,” so I felt a little bit more liberal there to reimagine it. In fact, we didn’t use the original “Street Kings” as a template whatsoever. I had tried to create a very weirdo, sort of sci-fi noir world of ‘70s muscle cars and ‘40s fashion set it in decaying Detroit, so that wasn’t inspired in any way by the original. And then “Meeting Evil,” again, it was a blank slate, we started over. The script dictates what is the story, what is the narrative, what is the best visual language to tell this story and I come to directing through writing. I always start with the script and I respect the script whether it’s mine or it’s a TV writer.
Speaking of starting out, I’ve read before you were a filmmaker, you were actually a lawyer. How did you change careers?
I studied film and philosophy at USC and when I graduated, people always say write what you know about — I wrote a story about my great-grandfather, who was one of the last chiefs of the Chippewa and everybody said it was the worst thing they ever read in their life. [laughs] So not only was I a bad writer, my life was boring. I was devastated and as most 22-year-old men are, I wasn’t as thick-skinned as I thought I was. My dad said, “Well, go to law school. You can still write at night, but you have a degree in philosophy and film, so basically you’re worthless. Go get something that’s practical.” So I went back to law school and when I was 25, I practiced corporate law for six months, thought I was going to die and said I don’t care what kind of coffee I have to serve or cables I have to carry. If I don’t get myself back into an artistic environment, I’m going to die. So my legal career was very short. I wound up in the William Morris mailroom delivering mail at age 26 and spent about three years living on couches and living in cars and struggling to get my first script sold and finally did it at age 29.
Working your way up from an agency, when you see filmmaking through the business side, did that shape how you went about making films?
Honestly, the most important thing you can do from being on that side of it is forget everything you saw. [laughs] And just pretend you didn’t see it. It’s too brutal. It’s okay to have rose-colored glasses as an artist. You have to think a little more optimistically than the reality of the agency business. Still, I think there’s something to be said about this business. Most industries, having a law degree from a top 10 school gets you a great job. In Hollywood, I don’t care what your degree is. Can you do the job? Everybody starts at the same place, so that’s humbling and that humility lends itself to a long career. The job I have now, I’m a producer/director of a TV show called “Warehouse 13,” so I direct six of the 20 episodes and I’m also involved in guiding other directors who guest direct for us. The directors who always do best on our show are the ones who have the most humility and a strong sense of vision, but also an understanding of the compromise and collaboration that has to take place to make a collaborative work of art.
Working in both film and television, is one more creatively satisfying than the other?
You couldn’t pick two different careers. They’re so opposite. A film director is God. It is your set. You’re in charge. You’re going to take all the lumps, you’re going to take all the praise. That doesn’t mean you don’t collaborate and compromise, you certainly do, but it’s your set to run and it’s creatively very, very satisfying in that way. Television, the director is anything but the king. You’re working for the writer, for the showrunner. My job is to make my show as amazing as it can be inside of the showrunner’s vision, so I’m executing his vision and on that level, it is very rewarding and challenging on a craft level, but not to sound too pretentious, as an artist and someone who’s trying to say something about the world that we live in, television is not as satisfying as film. But as a craftsman, as someone who wants to work with technocranes and 360 degree heads and do 80, 90 setups a day, television is a hoot. So I love both of them, I feel very blessed to be able to work in both mediums and I hope to continue to work in both.
“Meeting Evil” is currently available on VOD and will open in Philadelphia at the Ritz at the Bourse on May 4th and in Columbus, Ohio at the Gateway Film Center 8 on June 15th.