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Living the dream

After toiling in Hollywood with writing partner Hawk Ostby for more than a decade, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Mark Fergus (Children of Men) makes his directorial debut Friday with the release of First Snow. The film stars Guy Pearce (Memento) as a salesman whose life is turned upside down when a small-time psychic reveals his imminent death. Taking a break from working on next summer’s highly anticipated Iron Man, Fergus spoke to the Oracle about his new film, his writing process, and why he hopes to never feel secure in the business.

The Oracle: What was your first directing experience like? Had that always been a dream of yours, to direct films?

Mark Fergus: Yeah. You always want to be the storyteller, and at some point, my writing partner and I wrote something that I always had in mind to do, which was First Snow, just to write something small enough and focused enough that you could get some backing and also be able to control it and have it not be a logistical nightmare.

So we weren’t really sure what to expect. We just hired the kind of people we wanted to work with, and I think that’s 90 percent of the job: picking really well who your collaborators are, from the DP (director of photography) to the stars. You kind of build a team, and you feel pretty invincible when you have a great team around you. You feel like you can’t screw it up; you just have to tell the story. So it was quite a surprise how natural it felt.

Mark Fergus made his directorial debut with First Snow which opens Friday. Special to the Oracle

The Oracle: What was your inspiration for writing the film? Have you ever visited a fortuneteller, and do you believe in that kind of stuff?

MF: No, I don’t really. It’s one of those things you do that you fear or you have a strange suspicion about, but you don’t actually believe. My writing partner, Hawk, has lived all over the world – in New Orleans for a number of years – and he definitely had a number of strange experiences that creeped him out or things that made him kind of wonder about the spirit world and whether or not forces out of your control are really running your existence.

So I think the two of us, (between) my skepticism and his sort of belief, were able to come together and play with the issue. Instead of trying to answer things or pose clear-cut questions, you just put it out there, the idea of fate and free will, which I think everybody ponders at some stage or another. You let them play out instead of trying to be clever and cute or be pat about answers that you have no right to give in the first place.

The Oracle: And the fortuneteller is the perfect medium to address all those issues.

MF: Yeah, because it’s entertainment and feels a little bit phony and a bit like an amusement park thing. It’s a pretty innocent way to enter that world, but we always figured the story had to work even if you take the fortuneteller out, with the character just really needing to purge himself of guilt and a lot of other stuff going on inside. Sooner or later, something was going to be the catalyst for this guy to collapse on himself. Certainly, Guy’s performance was all about getting to that place where there’s this guy who’s basically poisoning himself inside and had to change one way or the other.

The Oracle: Did the production go smoothly, and what was it like working with Guy Pearce?

MF: Well, mainly I made this movie because of Guy. He is just such a pro and such a friendly, down-to-earth, hard-working individual. I was really intimidated to meet him because I just figured he would be steely like a lot of his characters, just really tough and cool and critical, and he turns out to be the sweetest person ever, just a completely down-to-earth person.

We had 29 days to make a really tight schedule, and we just were able to pull it off. He’s in every single scene in this movie, so it was critical that he had the ability to come in there and conquer it and let me know if he had problems. So the production was really hard, but generally, we just felt like we were kind of in the zone. We were getting it all done. You felt at some point that you’re pretty unstoppable and that we were going to finish this movie on time and under budget, and we did.

Again, I just have to say the cast was the key reason for that because technical problems can be worked out, but if the actors aren’t feeling it or getting there – that can kill you. So, we were blessed in a lot of ways.

The Oracle: When did you decide to become a screenwriter, and how did you break into the business?

MF: I met Hawk Ostby 12 years ago. We were working at Showtime, and we just wanted to write original stuff. Meeting him and basically working together as a team, which I never thought I wanted to do, really allowed us to push ourselves in ways that we both needed but we both didn’t know we needed, and it just really came out of that.

I was a script reader for HBO, and we wrote some thrillers and started throwing them on their pile. One of them got made, and we were able to then get an agent. Writing started out as a real passion and then led to the first script that we were able to get to somebody who could get it made. Again, I worked for HBO, and there was a great guy over there who sort of took us under his wing and was able to push us to be better. And we just wrote a bunch of more scripts and then got a little tired of trying to sell something, so we wrote First Snow really just to make it. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen In the Company of Men, the Neil LaBute film. This amazing, sort of really low budget, beautifully written, beautifully acted film made us realize that you don’t have to wait around for a big budget. You can try to write that kind of powerful material.

It set the bar pretty high to try and write things so powerful and so pointed that you would not need a lot of money to pull these things off. That sort of led to us writing First Snow, to make something where all the power of the story would be in the silences and wouldn’t cost a lot of money, and that turned out to be the best script we had written because we stopped trying to please the world and sell a script.

You get sort of brainwashed into trying to write a script that’s going to sell, and you don’t do good work under those circumstances. You’re always trying to second-guess yourself. We haven’t learned anything in this business other than “just write what you want to see yourself, and that’ll be the best stuff you do.”

The Oracle: What’s your writing process like? When you decide to write a script and you come up with the initial concept, how do you progress from there?

MF: When you’re under assignment, it’s a beautiful thing because you’re under deadline and you’re getting paid. The thing I would say, first and foremost, is that pressure is a great thing because if you don’t have that, you endlessly kind of want to explore the ideas and play with them and research.

Essentially, what I love to do is just brainstorm the hell out of an idea and outline it, and Hawk hates that. He can’t stand that; he’s antsy to just dive in. So, I will usually take that phase of it, and I will throw it over to him. Then, I will go away and let him write a first draft – let him just plow through it. Then I will take it away from him and make him go away, and I will do the next draft. We live two thousand miles apart so it’s really easy to do that. It’s also fantastic to write without sitting over each other’s shoulders, editing each other’s work or thoughts all along.

A lot of writers work together in the same room, and I find that really difficult. We just really enjoy throwing it back and forth and writing it separately. Then, at the end, we can kind of come together and plow through it together and try to make it feel like one voice. The greatest thing ever is to do what you think the story is, throw it over to a partner you trust, and let him just tear it apart and put it back together, and then he lets you do the same thing. We go back and forth as many times as it takes to crack the story. It’s just this sort of peeling-away process and eventually you find it.