Naked Singularity tells the story of Casi (John Boyega), a promising young NYC public defender whose idealism is beginning to crack under the daily injustices of the very justice system he’s trying to make right. Doubting all he has worked for and seeing signs of the universe collapsing all around him, he is pulled into a dangerous high-stakes drug heist by an unpredictable former client (Olivia Cooke) to beat the broken system at its own game.
Based on the PEN prize-winning novel A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, a former Manhattan District Attorney with first-hand knowledge of the everyday travesties of justice in city courtrooms, this genre-bending film is both an ambitious, razor-sharp indictment of legal dysfunction and an entertaining, high-stakes heist.
I had the opportunity to speak with writer/director Chase Palmer, co-writer behind It: Chapter One, about tapping into the essence of the author's voice and story when adapting novels to screenplays, approaching his new film Naked Singularity through a director's lens, and what piqued his interest to select this adaptation as his feature directorial debut.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: The script is adapted from a book, how did that book come across your desk, and what initially piqued your interest to write and select this as your feature directorial debut?
Chase Palmer: A producer that I'd known for a very long time named Tony Ganz had sent me the script and the book. He had been developing it for probably seven years before it got to me. There was a script by David Matthews that was developed with other directors attached. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who you'll see have executive producer credits, were sort of initially attached. And so, they sent me the script to take a look at for a rewrite. And I thought David did some really good work and I was super interested in the social justice aspect of it and the fact that the book was written by a public defender, but I hadn't read the book yet. And then once I read Sergio’s amazing book, this incredible wild work, it's like 700 pages and, there's chapters of court reporting, it was outraged, it was absurdist it was kind of darkly comic, it was kind of out there. He was juggling genres and there was sort of a metaphysical element I found really appealing, despite how complex the book was, there's a simple kind of underlying voice to it and an attitude that I thought would be a fun and unique way to explore this frustration with the criminal justice system, in a way that's kind of fun and entertaining, but that's still grounded in a well-observed experience from somebody that has been fighting this fight for 20 years. It was Sergio’s voice in that book that got me hooked. And David did some really great groundwork, and it was basically going back into the book and then exploring it and kind of mining it for what I loved about it, and essentially writing it for me to direct.
Sadie: Did collaborate at all with David Matthews or did you fully take over from that point forward?
Chase: I just took the script over and did a pass, about a year's worth of work through my own lens. But David's work is definitely represented there well. It's fun when you already have some strong work in the script, and you have a really strong book you're dealing with - your job as a screenwriter is often the assembly and edit and being editorial and trying to figure out how to take gold and shape it so you can tell a story with it.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. The movie itself, you kind of touched on, there's a great line in the movie "One can break the law and still believe in justice" and I thought that was just such a great literary and thematic through line that was carried through the whole movie. Was that like a North Star in terms of grounding the theme, character development, and plot?
Chase: Yeah, that was important. If somebody who's seen the movie, we're obviously juggling three distinct genres. We're juggling the kind of courtroom drama that you get from Sidney Lumet in New York, and then you're dealing with the crime class sort of Shaggy Dog heist movie that's in the Jackie Brown world. And then you have this whole other metaphysical element that's kind of meant to be metaphorical but it can also maybe get into the emotional state of our character through cinema and with a lot of complex things going on trying to boil those complex ideas down to a line like that, so that it gives some gives folks something specific to hold on to in the wildness of all the philosophical talk and the metaphor is something I think that is essential with screenwriting, right? Trying to boil things down to the essence, because you don't have a lot of time to let it sink into people.
Sadie: How did you approach those three very distinct and different movie storytelling styles with a metaphysical spin? Were you mapping that out in the screenplay or as a director through your storyboards to make it feel very cohesive?
Chase: I think part of it is tone is the hardest thing I think for a writer to kind of get and I think part of it was making sure that the tone of the legal drama was heightened. Like, there's a little bit of an absurdity, there's something a little elevated there for when the high stuff comes in. And if you play that straight, then maybe they even out a little bit, tonally. You're trying to make sure that the beginning and the end coexist nicely. With the metaphysical stuff, that was in the script and also just shooting and editing. There were more things in this script than were in the movie and there are also things that were different that we changed in post, because as we were testing the movie and trying to figure out how to balance that stuff you kind of find new places for it so it feels sort of like it is dropped in on a consistent basis through the movie. But there's certain ideas that we shot, and they didn't work as well and so we pivoted and came up with a better idea. You just have to be flexible and keep writing the movie until the movie is locked, basically.
Sadie: The joy of moviemaking and movie magic. Taking a step back, tell us about your filmmaking journey, especially what gave you the itch to become a screenwriter and diving into directing.
Chase: My approach has always been from that of a filmmaker, both not just as a writer but as a director as well. I started my career shooting short films, and sort of writing off the backs of those. I think it's all kind of all cohesive and I tried to write, not just for the page or for the read, but also for the practicalities of production and for what might be more interesting on screen, versus what reads well because I think those are sometimes two different things. I've been lucky in my career to work with really good directors and a lot of them are writers themselves and watch how they rewrite with me or through the lens of their experience, knowing what works and doesn't work just on a practical basis. They shot a bunch of scenes and you'll write something and think it works and they will have had an experience where it didn’t, and they will certainly modify it. I learned a lot of that. I think on this, my first feature, was of tricks I may rely on from a screenwriter might not translate as well when you're actually shooting. [laughs]
Sadie: You’ve definitely come out swinging on this movie. Any general advice to screenwriters who are looking to adapt a novel into a screenplay?
Chase: I think the starting point is you're always trying to adapt the spirit of the thing, not the thing itself. And so, if you can kind of internalize what made you react to it, and what makes it specific and unique and exciting - and often it's the voice of the author or there's specific set pieces or moments - don't be locked down in the plot mechanics of the adaptation, you want to get the spirit of the thing. Starting with those essentials and then the rest of it you can play with and you can consolidate, and you cut and you can come up with your own stuff that is still in the spirit of the thing. We did that with the adaptation of It – it’s a big book and we're trying to get this spirit of that. Pick your battles - that would be my number one bit of advice.
Sadie: Tapping into the spirit of the book and author, wonderful advice. Chase, thank you so much and I hope there’s more directing on the horizon for you.
Chase: Thanks, me too.
Naked Singularity is available in select theaters August 6, and opens wide and On Demand on August 13.