Scott Z. Burns: Writing The Mercy and Working with Soderbergh

March 8, 2018
The screenwriter of The Bourne Ultimatum, The Informant, Contagion, Side Effects and now The Mercy lets us in on his process, and his wide-eyed enthusiasm of working with Steven Soderbergh.

Did you know much about Donald Crowhurst before you started The Mercy project?

I knew nothing. I went to go see a documentary in a movie theatre in Santa Monica, California about nine years ago [Deep Water]. I had read a little blurb about it in the paper, and I walked out in tears. Just stunned. A lot of people in the States don’t know this story.

What exactly about that story that resonated with you?

I think I’m drawn to writing characters who are a bit complicated. I think I had at that point probably started The Informant, which is a movie about another morally complicated and compromised person. To me Donald is somebody who on one hand you can sit there and be very critical of the choices he makes as a father, as a person with a family, as a husband, and yet I find in his words and having looked at his logs and having done the research, there’s something I find very relatable. I think it’s a mistake that I understand, and in the documentary Clare is so forgiving, and I felt that the movie was an opportunity for me to write a little bit about empathy, love and the fact that people make mistakes and that they’re entitled to compassion and forgiveness and understanding. That was really interesting to me, especially in a culture at a time when such shows of emotion were not easy for people to make.

There’s a phrase that comes up towards the end when he talks about the sin of concealment. Could you talk about that and how it relates to him?

Well, the sin of concealment is from the log books, and I tried when I could, to use them. His entries, especially towards the end, are really long, they’re thousands and thousands of words long and they’re very hard to edit because they’re kind of a stream of consciousness.

Have you read them all or as much as you could?

As much as I could. Not everything was available to me, the documentary filmmakers were very forthcoming and very collaborative, so they shared with me some of the logs and a lot of the tapes that he had made for the BBC. To me the sin of concealment in layman’s terms is lying. And I think that hiding the truth as he had done becomes an impossible thing to live in one reality and have invented another, and I think that the dissonance between the two became more than he could bare. I feel like he wanted to come home, but he couldn’t, and that leads to shame, and I really wanted to write a movie that dealt with shame. I think shame kills a lot more people than we’re all willing to acknowledge.

It’s interesting how they talk a lot about heroism in the beginning; they perceive his act as heroic. But even if it was a success, even if he did return home, when do you think heroism stops being that, and starts being stupidity? Because some of these things are really silly things to do.

I think part of it is a moment in time. Americans are going to the moon, and they had lost astronauts on the pad, blown up rockets. One might say that the idea of sending Neil Armstrong to space in a rocket with no good reason is fairly foolish. And yet people considered Neil Armstrong a great hero. I think in the UK especially, with the naval history of this country, the idea of sailing around the world non-stop was very intoxicating to him. This was an opportunity for a guy to distinguish himself. Even though I sail and part of my attraction to this is the fact that I sail, it’s really just a metaphor and it’s about a dream and how far will you go to pursue your dream, and what happens to us when our dreams destroy us?

Where we tried to start the movie is him talking about Hillary and climbing Everest and so much of the world has already been handled and the peaks have been scaled, looking for a way to leave a mark upon society whether you’re an explorer or an artist or whatever, is something that I think is a big part of one’s life if they choose to be. My sense of Donald is that he was a bit of a boffin, and that to transcend that and to be something truly heroic must’ve been interesting to him. There used to be a scene in the script where at one point he talks about having been an actor. I think he clearly wanted to put himself out front and stand for something.

Colin Firth was first on the project, even before James Marsh, is that right?

I think Colin and I first talked about this in Toronto, five or six years ago. He had read an early draft of the script and I had never met him before but I had obviously admired his work and I was really struck by how contemplative he was about this exact issue, about what is OK to go and pursue because you are drawn and driven, even if it pulls you away from other obligations and other responsibilities and what is it like, especially at that point in time looking at even American literature in the ‘60s, the notion of being a house husband and living in the suburbs and never achieving greatness. I think that probably influenced the way I wanted to write about this. But Colin really hooked into some of Donald’s feelings of isolation and loneliness. That was what we really talked about the first time. What happens to a man alone?

When James came on board, how did the script evolve in tandem with him?

I think the really good meeting of minds that we had at the beginning was we all seemed to be very sympathetic towards Donald Crowhurst. So the question became, how do you balance a character in a movie who is going to do things that are controversial and yet we still want the audience to love him? And the great thing is Colin has that inherently. But that was always the balancing act. How do you make the audience feel sympathetic and empathic towards him? So that you don’t just go ‘oh he got what he deserved’. He wasn’t a great sailor and he shouldn’t have gone out on a boat and the sense that the deck is stacked that way, if we can use a guy who is really well intended and makes mistakes then I think we did our jobs.

Do you think that being in the spotlight made him do what he did; to lie and be afraid of failure?

I think he built a trap for himself, unfortunately. You start going down a road and you’ve made a commitment to these people that you’re going to do this and you’re going to build a boat and you’re going to pull off this amazing feat and you suddenly have sponsors and they want you to pull off the amazing feat, and you want to do it for your family and your community and it suddenly gets very hard to back out. I think we’ve all had that kind of experience. The scene the night before where he tries to pull out and says ‘we gave it a good go, we can still do this but let’s do it when the boat is ready, we can still maybe sell a lot of boats’, I think he felt what we would call peer pressure at that point, and there was no comfortable way out. That to me is a theme throughout the movie; that there was no way forward and no way back for him.

You worked with Steven Soderbergh many times; how big a person has he been in your career?

The biggest. I feel really lucky. The first time that Steven and I met I just felt like we understood each other. He is incredibly gracious as a collaborator and has always invited me into the process. I’ve always had a place on set, I’ve always had a rapport with the actors. I’ve learned a lot not just about filmmaking but also about what your responsibility is to your fellow collaborator and a responsible human being.

Are you working with him again on the Panama Papers project?

Yeah, I’m hoping that we’re going to do that in the fall and then there’s a movie that I’ve written that I’m hoping to direct relatively soon and he’s a producer on that.

What’s that about? If you can say?

It’s about the CIA after 9/11. I’m hoping that will all become official in the next week or two. We continue to try and work together.

He’s been trying to change distribution models single-handedly way before the arrival of Netflix and Amazon.

And that also has had a big influence on me and how I think about work. Yesterday somebody was talking to me about why my friend made a movie on an iPhone?

Which is unsane, of course. I said ‘because he wants to do new and different things and he has respect for all of these things’. I remember earlier on I did some work for Ocean’s Twelve and someone made some cynical comment about it being a popcorn movie. And Steven said ‘you know, making an entertaining, cool, interesting heist film is just as hard as making Sex, Lies and Videotape’. None of these things are easy. They all have their own math. You only really get to make them once. You don’t get to do it and learn and do it again. Some of these lessons are applicable, some of them end up being false knowledge that you only realise is a mistake the second time. The fact that he’s still willing to go for it is really inspiring to me. There aren’t a lot of artists I know in any medium who after having that kind of success are willing to, as Steven would say, throw the pizza dough up in the air again, and try and keep going. That has really inspired me. I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to be nurtured and contribute.

Will you be as fast a director as Steven?

No… I mean, first of all, the reason that Steven can go that fast is he edits the movie and he shoots the movie, so he’s cutting it in his head.

You mentioned you like to be on set during the shoot even when you’re the screenwriter. Does being on set help you learn to move on to being the director yourself?

I hope so. Before I wrote screenplays I directed a lot of TV commercials, which is a path a lot of American directors like David Fincher went down. So, I actually was a director before I was a writer. I don’t know if I’ve ever told this but I don’t know if anyone would care, when we were doing The Informant I walk onto set and, there’s usually a little video village and you go there and you watch and you talk to other people who are there, the producers, the heads of other departments, but there was no video village. I came to the producer who was also the AD and I was like ‘where do I go?’ and he said, ‘well just stand around and watch, and help’, and I was like ‘OK, I’m not exactly sure what that means’. I was wandering to go get breakfast and I ran into Matt Damon who I had spoken to extensively about the script, and we started having a conversation about the day’s scene. And then I realised ‘oh my God I’d now created the biggest mistake a writer can make, I’ve spoken to the actor about today’s work without speaking to the director’. I went to Steven and said ‘I’m really sorry but I started talking to Matt about today’s scene and I shouldn’t have done that without talking to you, so if he does something wrong, it’s my fault, I probably steered him in a bad direction’. And he said ‘well no that’s why you’re here, you know more about the script than anybody, you wrote this, you’ve had your head in it. If I shut you up then I don’t get the benefit of your experience. If I shut up the wardrobe people, if I create this culture of fear, then I don’t get the benefit of the other people and their talent and their investment’. He said, ‘if there’s a problem, we’ll talk about it. But you should be allowed to participate’. And it was ethical and kind and generous. I spent probably 200 days close to him while he shoots, and we’ve disagreed, very reasonably, but it’s great. I hope that I get to direct enough so that I have a relationship with a writer that will stand that close to me.

The Mercy is in cinemas March 8, 2018

Read our review of The Mercy.

Read our interview with Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz.

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