Burr Steers has had an extensive career in Hollywood as an actor, screenwriter and director. Prior to directing (Igby Goes Down, 17 Again), he starred in The Last Days of Disco and Pulp Fiction. Furthermore, he co-wrote romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and is currently in pre-production for his next film Emperor.
An interesting tidbit is he is the nephew of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
FanBolt had the opportunity to chat in-depth with Steers on his latest directorial effort Charlie St. Cloud. He discusses the production, casting and why he was drawn to working with Zac Efron after 17 Again.
Why did you decide to cast Amanda Crew (who plays Tess Carroll) as Zac Efron’s love interest?
Burr Steers: When you’re casting a couple you don’t want them to duplicate each other. In this case, you want them to challenge the other person, and she did that. It could have been a really superficial part and she brought a lot of depth to it and feistiness.
Was it different for you to take on work that was based on another origin, in this case, a novel written by Ben Sherwood?
Burr Steers: It was a step-up for me as far as the scale of the movie. The opportunity to work with someone I’ve worked with before and have a great relationship with is appealing. There were elements of the movie I knew I could sink my teeth into and do well with.
What were those?
Burr Steers: The emotional aspect of the movie and the sibling relationship, I knew how that worked. I knew I could make the dialogue real, to bring a sense that these guys were actually brothers.
It wasn’t typical in terms of interactions we would normally see in film. It seemed like Charlie (Zac Efron) and Sam (Charlie Tahan) had a unique dialogue between each other.
Burr Steers: They did. That was something they cultivated off camera. That was something I was cautious of, that if you did a Hollywood version of this, and it was super soft and mushy, it wouldn’t work. You wouldn’t care about the kid or the relationship.
How did you figure out how this would be shot and constructed? There’s a romantic sixth sense to it. How did you figure out how much the characters should interact with each other since they may or may not be there?
Burr Steers: Part of that was the decision early on to not definitively say that this was a ghost. It could also be a breakdown that Charlie had, a traumatic event and he was hallucinating. So with that in mind, anything goes if he’s cracked. In each scene, you don’t know. That was really important because if we said it was a ghost, it was diminish the possibilities for what’s going on.
Everyone’s so cautious after The Sixth Sense. Kids will just go back and deconstruct it scene by scene. It was important that we not get stuck in that because they get peeved, these little nerd kids. [Laughs.]
What was the most challenging aspect of filming for you? Was it the sailing, weather or something else we wouldn’t expect?
Burr Steers: Weather was the huge issue when it came to sailing because if there was no wind, that really complicated making the scene exciting.
As naturally talented as Zac, how did you shepherd him into the idea or ambiguity of, “Is he cracking?” To make his performance seem authentic and dramatic…
Burr Steers: From his standpoint, it’s pretty simple. He’s really seeing them. But from his standpoint, what would you do if you really saw them? You’d be asking the question, “Am I losing my mind?” You would also be cautious of that fact that everybody in the outside world would think you’re coo coo for Cocoa Puffs!
What about resetting the film from the east coast to west coast?
Burr Steers: It was initially set in Marblehead, Massachusetts. But for financial reasons, it was shot in Vancouver. I reset it from the San Juan Islands off Washington because the geography matches. I’m still keeping all the things that are inherent to Marblehead, where for a working class kid, sailing can be somebody’s ticket out. It can be a scholarship, a job, just a way to get out of very humble means.
Sam is wearing a Red Sox shirt at one point.
Burr Steers: Yeah, because The Mariners doesn’t really have the kick! [Laughs.] I mean, no offense, but it’s just not the same thing as The Red Sox.
And another thing that struck me about this was that you find things in the script that for some personal reason, stick with you. One of the things for me was the E.E. Cummings poem. I’ve always been intrigued by E.E. Cummings.
In that Woody Allen movie, Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine buys Barbara Hershey an E.E. Cummings poetry book. But E.E. Cummings is a character in real life. All that poetry that came out of that horrific train accident that killed his father – all the work that came out of that—it was something that I was really thinking about. This, being a movie about people who are missing a father figure.
For Zac (Charlie St. Cloud) and Charlie (Sam St. Cloud), their father has gone off. Zac tries to be a father figure to his younger brother and for Tess as well, her father has died. That’s part of the reason she feels this need to go off, prove herself and sail this race. That was one of the things that was working for me that no one else would get watching the movie. It was one of the themes I instilled.
Little brother Sam is an important piece to the story, was it difficult to find an actor who could take on that role?
Burr Steers: They are a dime a dozen. There are tons of really talented 11-year-olds. We saw hundreds of kids and the character was initially written three years older. [Charlie] Tahan came in and I reworked that.
There is something that he brings. You see him and you want to protect him. It’s not because he plays this soft, quivering, sentimental kid. It’s because he’s a tough little pisser! You know, you don’t wanna see him get hurt. That’s what he brings to the part, and it was a huge part why the movie worked.
Amanda mentioned that you showed her various scenes from movies to help her assemble the dynamics of her character. Is that something you typically like to do with actors? Or is that subjective to the individual process of each actor, to help them find their character or feel comfortable opening up on camera?
Burr Steers: It’s something that I do with younger actors. When I was an actor in my early 20s, we all watched movies. We watched The Deer Hunter and were obsessed with it. We watched those performances and that shaped our aesthetic. You don’t really have that anymore, so I was showing them movies and performances, so that it wasn’t just theoretical.
It was funny because I showed them Rent. I come from a Meisner background, and there are great scenes in that where there’s repetition and just finding the moments in front of the camera.
Also, just to expose them. That’s such a key part. For younger actors, it’s developing their aesthetic, then taste and exposing them. And musically, too. That’s another exciting thing about working with young actors, turning them onto the classics like The Clash and The Jam.
Amanda was talking about the three weeks of rehearsals that led up to filming with what she called “actory exercises.”
Burr Steers: Is that what she called them? [Laughs.]
It’s Meisner. It’s about learning how to listen. Especially young actors, they have preconceptions about what acting is. Meisner is about learning how to listen, doing repetition, being in the moment, not getting up in front of the camera and delivering something you rehearsed on your own, but working with the other person. That’s what we’re trying to do, capture these moments in front of the camera.
If you’re working with two actors who don’t have a background in Meisner, what do you do?
Burr Steers: Break them down! [Laughs.]
Break them down and you call them out on it. You don’t want to see them acting. You want them to be in the moment, get their attention off of themselves and onto the actor and not miss anything that’s happening with the other actor.
So much of what you end up using in a movie are takes where they don’t think they are at their best because they weren’t hitting it. Those are those accidents, and there are moments you kill for. Those are the treasures.
Your DP (Director of Photography) was amazing.
Burr Steers: Yeah, Enrique Chediak.
How did you decide on the “look” of the movie?
Burr Steers: We had to create a town out of four different towns and locations. It’s something that evolved through our conversations in pre-production. I felt like it needed the look of a classic 70’s movie.
He is one of the most proficient DPs in anamorphe. Enrique Chediak, he did Repo Men and 28 Weeks Late. He’s an incredible DP.
I was afraid of using anamorphic, like it would inhibit my work with the actors because focus is such an issue with anamorphic, and the lighting could slow me down. These are young actors you have got to prod. You may only get one take, so I didn’t ever want to be inhibited. But it was never a problem. He’s amazing.
Your next project is Emperor. You mentioned how this was the biggest scale film you’ve done thus far.
Burr Steers: I’ve made a cautious decision when doing these studio movies to step up each time, take on challenges and interesting projects. And Emperor really is. Will Broyles is a great screenwriter. This is in Rome [where Emperor is based], but I grew up in D.C., which is the same thing, the politics and human behavior. It was stuff I really related to.
So much of directing is taste and knowing the things you wanna bring into your movie. Looking at other films, plays and figuring out ways to do things.
Going back to Zac, what surprised you about him? Not sure if you had a preconceived notion about a teen idol.
Burr Steers: The thing that surprised me and it was something I discovered during 17 Again, is the drive. You don’t understand it until you experience it. Why he is where he is already and why he’s going to go where he’s going to go–Incredible drive.
When we were filming 17 Again, there was a scene in the cafeteria where he’s spinning a ball on each of his fingers while delivering a speech, and everyone assumed it was CGI. The basketball wizards, none of them could do what he did. He does it on ever finger, even his pinky.
He would practice with the ball very night until his fingers were raw, until he did it. There was no possibility that he wasn’t going to be able to do it. So that’s what you get in him and also, he’s just really sharp!
Zac felt challenged due to the dramatic element of the movie. How did you help him through that?
Burr Steers: It’s what your role should be as a director and collaborator. You give an actor what they need in those scenes. The really scary thing for these young actors is to go into a scene not knowing exactly what they’re gonna be doing and trusting that that’s okay and seeing where it takes them. That’s the exciting part: It’s not knowing what’s coming next, and it’s terrifying the first time an actor does it because what if they suck? [Laughs.]
It’s a really brave thing to do. I think as an actor gets older, they’ll realize that’s what it’s about. It doesn’t matter. They can do as many takes as they need to.
What is a theme in the story you feel is valuable to expose to audiences, something you hope they will get out of the movie?
Burr Steers: I think that you’re not serving loved ones you’ve lost by not getting on with your life. That you can move forward and be alive and still carry them with you. You don’t have to be stuck mourning your entire life.
That’s a good one…
Burr Steers: I think so. I mean, it’s a tough one. There’s sort of that intellectual process of coming to grips with something. But then there’s this emotion, this attachment that’s burned in your psyche. How do you function after somebody that you’re that close to passes away?
We spent a lot of time talking about Zac and Amanda, but what about Dave Franco?
Burr Steers: What about Dave Franco!? [Laughs.] Oh my God!
His brother [James Franco] is definitely a Meisner kid.
Burr Steers: He is, yeah. That’s something I look for in people I can work with.
I actually had to change a line. There’s a line in the movie I wrote for the girls in the toy store. They’re talking about Charlie and how he’s a wounded “James Dean” character. One of the girls says, “James Franco as James Dean.” They made me cut that. But yeah, he’s great. A great fit!
Charlie St. Cloud in theatres now!
Interview by: Jeanette Nguyen