Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
In some ways I’m happy it took this long.
They say that hindsight is 20/20, but never does this phrase feel more applicable than to that of the catchy hook in writer-director Oren Uziel’s SHIMMER LAKE. The neo-noir crime picture plays backwards, recounting day by day a reversed series of events that leads up to a small-town bank heist gone awry. It’s a terrific thrilling mystery that culminates in a ultra-clever reveal. It’s surprising that it almost didn’t get made.
As I learned speaking with the affable filmmaker by phone, another common turn of phrase revealed itself all too true in bringing the script finally to the screen: patience is a virtue.
Take me through the history of this script. When were you first struck with the idea for it?
It’s the first script I wrote. I had been working on a novel I had a literary agent for. The writers that I like and who I was thinking about were Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta and I thought I was gonna write a novel and break into the movie industry in that way – like adapt it. It was a time when “chick lit” was a thing and they were trying to make “lad lit,” which didn’t make any sense. I need to write a screenplay and I needed something that can cut through the clutter.
I had this notion that came from when I was a kid watching HBO. I would go to it and whatever movie was on, I would start watching. It doesn’t matter what it was or what part of the movie it was. I had this experience of watching movies that were half over and trying to figure out who was related to who and what led them to each scene while I was also watching the scene. A week later, I would get to the same movie, but half an hour early and suddenly I’d get a lot of the answers to things I didn’t know before. I would watch a movie like that in pieces out of order. I found it to be a way to add a lot of tension and suspense to movies that weren’t necessarily even good when I saw the whole thing lined up.
I thought there was a way that if you did that intentionally, if your goal was to have someone watch it in that HBO experience, but you were putting in set-ups and payoffs into that structure, so it was baked in and not just a gimmick, I thought you could have a lot of fun doing that. I hadn’t seen it before done like that. I don’t think I’d ever write something like that again.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate how challenging it would be. I was too naive. I found out very quickly what worked and what didn’t work. There were things about the characters that were too obvious and then suddenly they would be too random because I’d taken out too much information. It became all about finding the exact right balance in revealing information.
Since this was the first thing you wrote, you took other jobs and this was put on the backburner.
For years and years. It was optioned by Fox Atomic.
Oh my God!
Yeah [laughs]. They had said they wanted to do a little bit of a rewrite and before the check had even cleared, they had gone out of business.
That is crushing!
That was my first and not last introduction to how the movie business works. Then it became this little movie that was at big Fox. Big Fox was never going to make this movie. For years, I cycled through these directors who were interested in it because it was an intriguing, fun script. In the meantime, I was getting sucked into the movie business, working on very small projects working for independent financiers in New York and working my way up the ladder to getting studio work. About four years into the process, Megan Ellison was thinking about making SHIMMER LAKE, but the director she wanted, at that point I controlled the script, the version they were gonna make, I wasn’t thrilled about. I think I was starting to get inklings of wanting to direct it myself.
At another point Matt Tomack, who I had made a movie with at Sony, optioned it. I remember thinking if he gets it done, great. If not, I said to him, ‘Don’t re-option it. If you can’t get this thing going, just give it back.’ At that point, I was just going to do it. Sure enough, 18 months later, he hadn’t gotten anything moving. Very quickly after that, WME connected me to some financiers and I found one that I meshed with and it was oddly smooth after a very long waiting process.
Well, it’s all worked out. A fortuitous turn of events. It’s a great thing to have on your resume.
I’m so happy with how it worked out. I didn’t know anything about how to make a movie at the time I wrote it. I was not gonna be prepared at that time to direct it. To have it still be there and have it be something that I care so much about, when it became the time to do it, I could genuinely and confidently say, ‘I’m the best person for this job.’ In some ways I’m happy it took this long.
There are some great gags woven in: Reed who’s constantly forced to ride in the backseat every morning. Martha’s terrible cooking. Each day begins with a character waking up, gasping for breath. Where did these idea come from?
It’s not a movie that works if you play it forward. It won’t be interesting at all. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a “gimmick.” As I was putting it together, I was thinking about their relationships with each other. Once I knew who these characters were and how they interacted, what would be a fun way to highlight that and take advantage of the time structure. If you’re gonna have partners that are friendly enough to give each other a hard time, but there’s a clear power dynamic, how would that express itself and how can you take advantage of that in a movie that plays backwards? You wind up with things like the backseat and Martha’s cooking. You can even leave in clues. It’s all baked in.
Your cast is remarkable. Did they all line up rather easily for you?
It’s never easy with independent movies. There’s no money so all these really talented people have to be willing to fly to Toronto and freeze their asses off just because they like the project. It started with Ben Walker – he was the first real attachment. And then things started to come together. There’s two things that are happening right now. Because the studio system is detracting so significantly, there are a lot of really talented actors who just want to work. First time and indie directors get the benefit of that.
The other part is once I have say Rob Corddry, Ron Livingston, who was interested in the movie, sees Rob and thinks, ‘I like Rob. I wouldn’t mind working with him. I like the idea of us working together.’ It’s not about the money, it’s about the script, and doing a movie these guys don’t normally get to do. It was a nice combination of very talented actors who liked the idea of working together and working on something like this. I have a comedy background and have such amazing respect for comedic actors. They can do it all. I think they like the opportunity as well.
Has directing changed how you write?
It gave me a real awareness for scenes and scene structure specifically. In that, if each scene doesn’t have a really compelling beginning, middle and end, then when you are on set, or when someone else is shooting that scene, you’re going to have a problem. If it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a really important scene in the movie, I have to think about adding elements. Something has to come in to make it really worthy of being in the movie. I think I pay more attention to that now.
SHIMMER LAKE will be on Netflix beginning on June 9.