In First Snow, Guy Pearce is a traveling salesman who, on a lark, stops at a fortune teller. The psychic gives him three predictions: one about a basketball game, one about business and one about Guy Pearce’s impending death when the first snow comes. When the first two come true, Pearce begins bugging out in a very big way.
First Snow is directed by Mark Fergus, and written by Fergus and his partner Hawk “The Slayer” Ostby. It’s Fergus’ first time behind the camera but he’s crafted a very compelling story and stocked his cast with first rate actors, making for an incredibly effective thriller. I sat down with Fergus recently and we discussed the film, his next writing gig, which is Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and his and Hawk’s experience as the writing team on Children of Men just before Alfonso Cuaron came on (the WGA have Fergus and Ostby credit on the final script, a situation Cuaron wasn’t thrilled with).
First Snow opens today.
This is sort of an existentialist thriller, like Jean Paul Sartre does Final Destination. Where did it come from?
We wanted something more like a Hitchcock story, something about what you’re afraid about what you can’t ever know instead of something specific, someone coming at you with a gun. I think the coolest thing in all the stories we like to do is how invisible, unprovable ideas can drive you to behavior far more powerfully than a physical force. I was just reading this book for Iron Man, history looked not just through the idea of evolution but how belief in fate and the afterlife, all this shit, has guided the force of history and yet none of it’s provable, none of it’s quantifiable. And yet it can be more important that food or safety, that control of your destiny is so important to us as biological creatures and we’ll do anything to get back that control. It’s just a theme that obsesses us.
And Hawk actually has lived all over the world and had run ins with seers and card readers and fortune tellers, he’s experienced that. I’ve stayed away from it because I just prefer not to… but he’s done it, and had some disturbing experiences. It’s a joke, it’s a lark, and then you feel a little weird afterwards, like someone has poked a stick inside you. I try to dismiss it as it being someone with good intuition, like a good salesman can read what you need to hear. We watched a lot of salesman movies, there’s this great documentary about Bible salesman in the South and you watch these people trying to sniff out where someone’s vulnerability is. There’s something great about it, they’re just grifters… and then there are people with great intuition who can perceive things about you, but it’s not supernatural. Intuition to the nth degree could be mistaken as ‘seeing.’
We just tried to swirl it all into a Hitchcock kind of shell where it would feel more or less like a thriller but be about things that are vaporous and are about things that can’t be proven or disproven. Hopefully we don’t try to make any glib comments about fate or free will, I think we just wanted to throw out the possibilities of everything and let the audience figure it out.
Where do you stand on that fate vs free will debate? The movie does sort of come down on one side in the final moments.
I kind of see it as this snake eating its tail thing. If you’re driven to go out on an icy road on a bad night in a rural area and you should have maybe stayed home that night, have you invited your own destiny? But if you’re doing it for a really important reason and you feel compelled to go, and yet if you had stayed home you might not have been on that road, and yet if you were a traveling salesman and had avoided that responsibility, would you have been driving down that road anyway on a sales call? Somebody said in one of those How To drama books that character equals destiny. Whether or not fate is a universal force, none of us can act outside of our wiring, and everything we do is only coming from a limited set of choices, and who we are we can’t escape it, so we’re acting on built in fate. And I love synchronicity, the idea that events around you are affected by, in this quantum way, that if you act on the world it will act back on you. Sometimes they overlap and there’s meaningful coincidence or whatever… I guess the way I would summarize is that the universe meets you halfway. All the energy you’re putting out is somehow going to be met by the world at large, and if it’s powerful enough there’s going to be a meaningful moment that seems coincidental but is based on your extreme need. If you’re seeking hard you’re much more likely to find something than someone who is casually drifting through life.
I don’t know if this is a famous quote, but the acting teacher I worked with said, ‘When you’re ready to learn, a teacher appears.’ But it has to be you. They suddenly are there when you’ve done all the hard work and ripped yourself open and made yourself open and the universe delivers someone. I love the idea that it’s a half and half, a relationship between you and the whatever.
Speaking of relationships, how do you and Hawk work together?
It’s something we started about 12 years ago. It was an accident but it worked and we just kept doing it. We met on a project and decided to edit each other and found out that we loved brainstorming. We leave each other completely alone – which is easy now, he lives in Vermont and I live in Los Angeles, so we’re not completely breathing down each others’ necks all the time. I’m an obsessive; I love to outline a story to death and get a general roadmap of where we’re going. He’s way too antsy for that, he wants to dive in and start writing. I keep him away from me while I do that and then I unleash him on the outline and he’ll plow through a first draft really quickly, down and dirty get the story down on paper. I will take that away from him, rip it to shreds and put it in my image, the way I think it should be, and give it back to him. He’ll do the same thing, and we do that until the real story starts to bubble up. What we’re getting at just happens in the back and forth. He has different sensibilities than me, and we push each other out of our comfort zones for sure. Something cool happens when we’re bouncing it back and forth between us, it’s like we become one writer out of the two of us, but it takes a lot of smacking it back and forth.
On Iron Man, because it’s shooting so soon, we’ve been in a room together, and I keep interrupting him because I just can’t shut up and can’t help thinking ideas out loud while he just wants to concentrate. It’s funny – we suddenly realized we have a pretty good system. The separation thing is really helpful because we thrive on coming together and breaking apart.
Jon Favreau is talking about Iron Man as a three film concept – are you and Hawk involved in future films?
We haven’t talked beyond [the first one]. We’re just really happy to have worked with Jon twice now. I would imagine – I haven’t read anything about where they want to take it, but it seems natural since there are so many facets to that story. We would love to be asked back but I have no idea what their future ambitions are, but we did feel like we were part of a unit that functioned well together. We adapted John Carter of Mars with Jon and we got on so well that he wanted to keep it going with Iron Man, and then with the Marvel guys it felt like a good team altogether. There were other guys who worked on the script and we didn’t meet them, but everybody’s best ideas [made it in]. Ultimately the idea was to come in and smooth it out with one vision, but with a comic book with that kind of history it’s hard to choose one story – you want to keep going. Focus was really the key challenge for all that.
This is the first movie Marvel is producing on their own. How does that affect you as a writer – is there more freedom because you aren’t dealing with the usual studio bean counters?
They have their priorities for it because it’s their property, and they have the history in mind. So it was a ton of freedom but also ‘Here’s where we want to go with it,’ but they were open to anything you suggested along the way. It helped to know where they wanted to take it because you look at the history of the character and you feel bowled over by all the possibilities and don’t know where to start. It was helpful to know what their general direction was for the first, and if they plan to do more, the sky’s the limit.
You met Jon on John Carter of Mars, and that never happened. You were on Children of Men for a while and then Cuaron brought on his own writers – are you satisfied to have been in there and gotten paid, or is it hard for you to abandon all that work?
You’re bummed because you want to stay in there and see how it goes. But in [Children of Men] it went off in really cool directions. I look at the final film and I see our work in there, I see the other guy’s work. It feels like one vision of the story. I loved the film. It was a little bit of a shock in letting go of your notions of it, but there’s a beauty in letting go. It’s frustrating to not be able to stay on it, but sometimes it goes away and there’s a good reason for it, and good things happen. That’s a story where an assignment turns into a fantastic film six years later and you’re just glad to have been a part of it and inspire the next guys to come to the 30 yard line and take it and keep going.
I think that with someone like Jon, who I think the world of and who is so talented, we’re helping him get to where he’s got to go. Those two situations are happy ones. I love Alfonso – I know he wasn’t thrilled with the credit situation, but I love the film. Whatever issues he had with the credit situation… it gets messy when you have that many writers. People think it suggests a script that’s going to be a disaster, but not always. It can be a good situation as well.
Is there another directing project for you?
I’m looking to write. We found some cool scripts out there, but they come with history and baggage and drama. The best thing is just to go back and finish the thing we started before Iron Man. It’s another one of these existential thrillers where we’re trying to play with the idea that fate is created entirely between people. That’s a way to flip [First Snow] on its head, the idea that everybody is God to everybody else because we’re only in charge of 1% of our destiny… but what about the other 99% of things guiding us? But not in the Magnolia way – I think people have beaten that archetype into the ground. This focuses on two individuals who have a specific moment, a specific thread between them that they don’t realize yet and when one of them starts pulling on that thread, both of their lives are affected. I want to do a movie where you can cut away to another character. I loved doing First Snow, but Guy Pearce is in every scene. You had to push the other characters to the fringes by necessity, but I’d love to do something where it’s a shared point of view, and you get to leave one guy for a little while and see what the other guy is doing.