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Prioritizing Theme and Emotion with 'Chariot' Writer-Director Adam Sigal

'Chariot' writer-director Adam Sigal shares with Script his writing process, why he is a heavy outliner, thematic choices, and why he decided to become a director.

In this dark and twisted thriller, John Malkovich stars as Dr. Karn, an odd, eccentric specialist who guides unknowing patients through the reincarnation transition. When Harrison (Thomas Mann) experiences mysterious recurring dreams, he turns to Dr. Karn for help and reveals his encounter with a woman (Rosa Salazar) he loved in a previous life. Noticing a glitch in the system, the doctor must fix the issue before permanently derailing his patient's future.

The complexity of these nuanced characters and the world-building that writer-director Adam Sigal created in his new film Chariot is otherworldly. This is one of those films worthy of multiple viewings - with the hopes of putting the puzzle pieces together in linear form over time. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Adam about his writing process, outlining, thematic choices, and why he decided to become a director. 

[L-R] Thomas Mann as Harrison Hardy and Rosa Salazar as Maria Deschaines in the thriller, CHARIOT, a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

[L-R] Thomas Mann as Harrison Hardy and Rosa Salazar as Maria Deschaines in the thriller, CHARIOT, a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: When this concept came to mind, what was that writing process like for you in terms of fleshing out this story, and this very specific world filled with very nuanced and distinctive characters?

Adam Sigal: I wanted to tell the story in a unique way. The concept that I had is very simple and very universal and has been done before, to be honest - reincarnation, and sort of the concept of reencountering someone from a past life cool. There's nothing mind-blowing about that. It's avant-garde, but it's not Being John Malkovich. But I wanted to tell it in a really unique way, and I didn't want to make anything obvious. So, any obvious choice about how I feel a normal writer or normal human would probably tell that story I shied away from and I just said, ‘OK, how can I depict this theme in various ways?’ And I mentioned this in another interview, but one of my favorite filmmakers is David Lynch. And the reason is that to me, from my observation of his work, prioritizes theme and emotion over narrative. And he's one of the few that does that - the Coen brothers do it a bit at times, and they're not like, ‘Oh, my God, no, I can't do that, because it doesn't really make sense.’ Or it's not linear, or whatever. Like, in A Serious Man, a movie about just how you can't control anything, and just weird things happen - that's the theme - so we're going to end it with a tornado just hitting the school, and that's just what's going to happen. And to me, it's cool. When I think about death and new life and the end of a species of turtles, I'm going to include that in the movie. Does it need to be there? Maybe not. But it's how I want to tell that story.

Adam Sigal

Adam Sigal

Sadie: Are you a heavy outliner? I just picture this very intricate story map on one of the walls in your house.

Adam: [laughs] Not with the story maps on the walls, but I am an intricate outliner. And I'll outline over years, but it's more stream of consciousness. It's kind of more just here's where I think the story should go in blocks. I'm always in awe of writers that I know who are like, ‘Yeah, I just sit down and start writing and it flows.’ I'm like, ‘What? How's that even possible?’ For me, I need to know where I'm going. And my work is strange, and it meanders, but it's going from point A to point Z. I know all the beats of the story that I want to hit.

Sadie: Are you approaching your work visually or from a writer’s point of view?

Adam: I'm a writer before I'm a director, for sure. I generally approach the story more so than I do on how it'll look on screen. And that's just because of my background. I don't come from a film school or a DP background. I'm a writer. I want to write a script I want to read, because that's how I'll get the actors on board. And that's how I'll get people passionate about it. Then the challenge is turning it into a good movie. I've succeeded and failed at times at that. My work is always great on the page. I never really had an actor be like, ‘This is a bad script.’ I've had them be like, ‘This isn't for me, but the quality is good.’

Turning it into a film is another challenge. And honestly, I'm still learning, you know? It's so hard for me as an artist and as a director to sort of come up with ways to tell the story that don't have to do with the script. And recently, I had this mind-blowing moment watching the very famous scene at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where they're preparing for the duel, and nothing happens. I mean, it's an almost a four-minute scene of them just walking and moving, and this unbelievable music, and these incredible wide shots and that clicked for me, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s like a dance.’ This is in the script, there’s one line, these three guys walk around in circles. That's been the challenge for me is figuring out how to make sure that yes, the script is the number one most important thing, but also you're telling a movie, and there's a ton of different aspects that need to come together to make it great. So, I'm always learning.

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Sadie: I sense a lot of writers have trouble visualizing how their scene will come to life on screen and distilling down the words on the page, so that it can be visually translated by a director and DP and the whole creative team, in that matter. In terms of storytelling what was the creative decision behind breaking this up into chapters?

Adam: That came very late in the edit. And that was kind of to me selling the movie and making sure that people would like it and be able to follow it, because the truth is it doesn't go from point A to point Z directly. It goes through a couple of different alphabets. I wanted to not lose my audience. And it wasn't in the script that way. What justified it for me, it was my favorite movie last year, which was the Green Knight and I watched that movie, and I just loved it. And I loved how he broke it into chapters, but it wasn't like a paint by numbers. It was more that it was a creative decision. And I was like, OK, I think I could get down with this and do this in a way that is still cool but helps let the audience know where their headset should be.

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Sadie: I actually love that answer, because the edit is the final rewrite of your movie. And some of the best stuff comes to you after you've sat with it for however long you've been sitting with the material. What was the most complicated character for you to develop through this great medley of characters that you did create?

Adam: Definitely Maria, because I wanted her to be a chameleon and a little crazy. What I wanted to portray with her were like some of the actresses I met when I moved to LA, and I moved from Florida and was like 19, and just had no idea who I was or what I was doing. And I met these beautiful, confident, sexy, insane actresses and women. And I wanted her to have a bit of that sense for Harrison of like, ‘I don't know what this woman is going to say or do next.’ It was hard to get into that mindset and just kind of based it on characters that I've known in the past and reality.

Sadie: When Rosa was playing that character, did she have a lot to say in developing that character with you as well?

Adam: That's Rosa. I mean, she's very passionate, very artistic, very avant-garde. And with her, and with all my actors, kind of what I'll do is, I'll tell them what I want, I'll tell them what I'm intending with that character, I'll tell them who that character is, as I wrote them, and then I expect them to make decisions to distill that onto the camera. And some actors are better at it than others, and Rosa is fantastic. She's very analytical on how she can look at and obviously John Malkovich, nobody's better, but they can look at a character and be and make a practical decision, and it's so useful, because I wouldn't come up with that, but that's why they're actors. I give you this hour-long in-depth, diatribe about who she is and then you come up with ways that we can find windows into that from your performance. And Rosa is fantastic at that.

John Malkovich as Dr. Karn in the thriller, CHARIOT, a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

John Malkovich as Dr. Karn in the thriller, CHARIOT, a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Sadie: She’s so great in this role. We kind of touched on this, but what inspired you to put pen to paper and then become a director?

Adam: I've always been a writer since I was a little kid. I always wanted to be a novelist. And I've always loved movies and struggled to write novels - it's just hard. When I first moved to LA, I was dating an actress, and she would bring home these scripts that she was auditioning for, and they were just awful. And I would read these and be like, 'I can write better than this in my sleep.' And finally, I remember she brought home this one about her being a tennis player. And I was like, 'I've had enough, I've seen enough, I'm gonna write a script, this is unacceptable.' And so, I started writing and made a movie as a writer and producer. And I made two movies, which I wrote, and handed off to another director, which was always my intention. And then I just went, 'These guys aren't getting it.' And I realized pretty quickly that I'm not writing formulaic genre stuff that's necessarily easy to interpret. And so, I was kind of like, if these are going to be weird, and messy, let them be mine, and then it'll be the distillation of my vision, for better or for worse. And so that was kind of the genesis of me, from muggle to writer to writer-director, I guess you could say,

Sadie: As a storyteller, are there specific themes that you're drawn toward exploring in your next pieces of work, or even what you're doing now?

Adam: Yeah, anything that's complicated, and that is not a superficial emotion. I don't want to make a movie that makes someone cry. I want to make a movie about the emotions that we don't even fully understand, because they deal with concepts that are about things that we don't understand, like death. So, my next film, the one I'm doing here, is about religion, and it's about faith and cynicism, and death. Those are the type of themes that really interest me - the ones that people think about, but don't talk about in a superficial way. They're not the casual conversation you have in a bar, but everyone at that bar is thinking about it or has thought about it at some point. That's what interests me.

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Sadie: Any advice for writers that are heavily leaning into the idea of directing their own work?

Adam: If someone's making the transition from writer to director, there's a couple of things I would tell them - first is that writing is great because you write it, you're done, put it down and that's it. Directing, you're going to get very sick of your own material, and when you write something, you don't have to sit there and reread it 500 times - you just don't. You have to watch your movie five hundred times. And I was just talking to this new director about a month ago and I said, 'How's your edit going?' She's editing her first film. And she said, 'Oh, yeah, it's going OK.' And I said, 'Do you hate your movie yet?' And she's like, ‘Oh, my God. I'm so relieved that you asked me that. I feel like a phony because I'm not as passionate about this as I was six months ago,' and I was like, 'Dude, you're human. I can't watch the same movie 100 times and still love it as much as I did the first time, my relationship with it changes.' So it's the truth. It's not writing, you're going to have to truly reinvent your love for that film over and over and over again.

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The other thing is directing, it's managing people, it's managing numbers, it's managing time, it's artistic, it's logistical – it’s everything. I've probably used more lessons I've learned disciplining my children than I have that I would learn in film school on a film set, just like, 'OK, don't fight production designer and DP.' And, 'OK, you're doing a great job. And so are you.' That's what it is. It's truly people management.

Chariot is in Theaters, On Demand, and Digital on April 15th.


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