Available now on VOD and in theaters this week is 13 Sins, a sinister thriller about a good natured, down on his luck everyman who must decide how far he’s willing to go to provide for his family. Elliot (Mark Webber) is expecting a child with his fiancé (Rutina Wesley), caring for his mentally ill brother (Devon Graye), and about to take in his deadbeat father (Tom Bower), so when he’s unexpectedly fired his entire life is thrown into a tailspin. That’s when he receives a mysterious phone call explaining that he has been chosen to participate in a secret game show – thirteen tasks, if he can complete them all he walks away a millionaire, but as each task proves more perverse than the last, he discovers he may not be as in control of the gameplay as he thought. 13 Sins also stars Ron Perlman and Pruitt Taylor Vince.
I recently had the opportunity to jump on the phone for an interview with director Daniel Stamm. He talked about how he ended up at the helm of 13 Sins, the challenges of directing a remake, adapting the original film, using improv in the rehearsal process, BBC America’s Intruders, plans for the future, and more. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DANIEL STAMM: I had a meeting with Jason Blum, who was pitching a couple of projects that he was working on at the time and one of them was 13 Sins. He had the rights for the Thai movie 13: Game of Death. They gave me the movie, and I really loved the movie and because of the way it was structured, it’s so compartmentalized with these thirteen tasks, it just felt like something that for a remake you could really get into and exchange stuff. You could keep the stuff you love and change the stuff where you feel like it doesn’t work quite as well and really make it your own. The producers were like, “Do whatever you want”, which to me is always is the greatest starting point. There’s no anxiety about you changing too much or you going into directions they don’t want to go in, but they were very open to anything. They let me bring on David Birke, who is a genius writer who co-wrote and rewrote The Last Exorcism and since we’ve written three more scripts together, so we just work together really well. He loves the original and he knows every movie that has ever been made. That’s how that all started.
Tell me a little bit about the adaptation process and how you guys decided which parts to change and which to keep the same. You kept a few really iconic moments from the original, but you also changed a lot, especially in the back half.
STAMM: The danger to me- the same reason why I was attracted to it was also why it was dangerous, which was that episodic nature. When I watched the original I thought they did a really good job of avoiding it, but you can still walk into the trap of it becoming predictable, because obviously, subconsciously at least, the audience is aware that the protagonist is going to be successful for the first twelve missions, because otherwise there wouldn’t be thirteen missions. It gives the protagonist a safety net that always keeps the stakes lower than you want them. You want to create this life and death scenario, but the title is already giving away that he is going to survive until the very end, which I know intellectually an audience knows, but you still kind of try to make them forget that. I had the feeling that if we do that halfway throughout the movie and bend the plot just as the audience settles in and becomes comfortable with the structure and go, “Okay, let’s see what happens next. Let’s see what number eight is, what number nine is,” then we’ll have the plot take a complete left turn and bring out a subplot that was echoing there, but didn’t come to the forefront. We have that subplot, which is the other player and all that, then I think we break up that structure really well.
The good thing is that it wasn’t something that was in the original, and I wanted to make a movie that people who had seen the original would be really surprised by, while still giving them the memorable set pieces of the first movie. To me the most memorable set pieces were, of course, the beheading of the bikers, just sheer spectacle and gore, but then also little moments- like making a child cry is such a brutal task and it comes so early on. I remember when I saw it for the first time and I thought “If number three of thirteen tasks is to make a child cry then I can only imagine where this is going.” So I wanted to keep that. Then there was some discussion about the shit eating scene that I loved from the original, but that other people were uncomfortable with. So there was kind of a little bit of negotiation over what to keep and what not to keep. Some of my favorite tasks in the movie now are things that me and David came up with, like the arm cutting off scene. The name of the guy whose arm is getting cut off is actually a bully that always bullied David in school, so I think he always had this violent fantasy of cutting his arm off. [Laughs] So he now finally got to do it. It was an interesting balancing process. You want to justice to the original, but you kind of want to add something new so there’s a reason why there is a remake. I think people initially don’t necessarily get excited about a remake, about something being a remake, so I wanted to make sure that I made it worth their while to check it out.
Totally, I think you guys also have a little advantage in that I don’t know that many people who are aware of the original movie.
STAMM: Right, but I’m always trying to put myself into the shoes of the Thai guys that made the original. If I had made a little movie in Germany, that never got a big release and now Hollywood- no matter how independent, no matter how good their intentions, made a remake and then failed to mention every single interview that it is a remake, that there is an original movie out there, I’d be so pissed. My heart is bleeding for having to admit that it’s a remake, I wish I didn’t have to, but it was entrusted to me. The initial act of creativity, of creating something from complete nothingness from the absolute void. There’s a blank sheet of paper and then you create something, and just because you imagined it, it exists. That, to me, is the real breathtaking part and I miss that. I didn’t get to do that in this project, but because it’s so important, I owe it to original creators to give my thanks and respect for them. I did my best to honor their work in my translation process, but in the end it’s a translation process. I can do that well or I can do it badly, but the initial inception was done in Thailand in 2006. I don’t want to create the feeling that I’m trying to get away with something and sell it as my own initial idea.
Your last two films were shot in the fake documentary, improv style. Can you talk about how it was maybe different for you shooting in the classically framed, scripted format?
STAMM: Well it’s interesting because I went to two film schools. I went to film school for six years all together and we never studied fake documentary filmmaking, it was always classical filmmaking, so the real change for me was to make a documentary style film. That was the real adventure, trying things out, setting yourself up to fail. [Documentary style] is different, not in the way the cinematography works, because in the end you screw the screw on the tripod a little bit tighter, and you go from handled to classic camera, and you light it a bit better, but working with the actors is just completely different. Because being able to improvise something and come up with great lines, and making the lines that have been written for you come to life and feel fresh, are two completely different talents. You need two completely different people for that, and you have to cast them accordingly. For the first two movies I was only looking for people that could make up lines and in the moment make it- the moment of creation was what I was interested in, and for this movie it was [actors] that could read lines and make them feel as if they’re being said for the first time ever. So your audition process is different and then your shooting process is different in how you work with the actors, but I think both have merit and you get different results. I love the fake documentary way of working, but I was also aware that most established, name actors are not doing the improv thing. So if I ever wanted to kind of get one step ahead in my career and work with a little bit of a bigger caliber of names and established actors, then I had to go back to the classic format. We did that and it was really kind of seamless, painless process. I think there isn’t as much of a huge rift between the two ways of working as people think. I know the producers were concerned about me doing a non-fake documentary project. After you’ve done two of them you become the guy who does fake documentaries and it’s considered a real risk hiring you for a conventional movie. So I’m glad that I could show that it’s possible to do that so people can stop being afraid, hopefully.
Did you try to bring any of those improv elements to this film? When I spoke with Mark Webber he told me you guys had a pretty unique rehearsal process.
STAMM: We, did yeah. The amazing thing about really good actors is that they’re all really smart. I don’t know if you’ve come across any good actors that are not that bright, but I’ve never seen them. I’ve never worked with someone that was a really good actor that wasn’t also really smart. There is a lot that they can bring to the process if I allow them to tell me about the character. I think the urge directors have is always to lay as much knowledge on these poor actors as possible, because you want to impress them. Like if you work with Ron Perlman, I am nervous because I’ve never worked with the man and I’m such a fan, and now I want to prove myself and I want to prove to him that I have this under control. So the urge is to impress him through all these insights, and that’s exactly the wrong way to go because you’re just filling them with all this intellectual stuff and they cant really translate it to emotion. So for me that was such a learning process, just shut up and get them to talk and much as possible because its’ such a luxury, as a writer even, if you have the character come to life and suddenly the character can answer questions for you, or the character has questions, or to just observe. Improv is made for that. Just put two people in a room, even during auditions, and you’ll very quickly feel what their natural instinct is. Is there natural instinct going towards aggression? Is it going towards submission? In a power struggle how do they- do they argue? To they try to threaten? You can figure out in ten minutes what otherwise would take you a really long time. Then once they’re open to that they’re not afraid to do it.
I was really lucky with my actors, Mark and especially Devon and Rutina too. They were very willing to jump into it, suddenly that allows you to improvise the back story. We put Mark and Rutina on a bus in the rehearsal room and pretended they were on a bus meeting for the first time. You just improvise that scene once and suddenly as a couple, they have this moment and the memories they can draw from when they act all the other scenes. You’re building the relationship. You’re not showing up on the day pretending there’s a relationship, you create memories. The only difference is that it’s only a couple of days ago. You shoot it and for you they only met two weeks ago, but they genuinely met. For example, we printed out a picture of their unborn child and they made promises to the child. “Here’s what we promise you as your parents.” You create these really tight bonds that you, as a director, are not part of and I think that’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to have the actor have bonds that go beyond the project and go beyond your input that you can always draw on, but the basis of all this is that you are willing to shut up and listen, which is I think not very popular with directors [laughs].
I really enjoyed Mark and Rutina’s on screen relationship, so I think that had a pay off.
STAMM: Thank you, it was a really quick process too, because we only had two afternoons to do it, but with two people who are as open as they were it really only takes a couple of hours and then suddenly they have inside jokes, they feel protective of each other. I don’t know if mark told you about the thirteen index cards.
STAMM: They work wonders. Every project I pull out the same index cards, they’re all yellow, you can hardly read them any more, but they do magic. You just leave them alone with these questions and each of them gets five minutes to answer each of the index card questions or do the tasks that are on them. At first it’s very uncomfortable. The first index card is tell each other a bad joke and then the next one might be to sing a song for each other. It’s all stuff that you don’t do in real life because you’re too inhibited and it embarrasses you, and by forcing them to go through it they break down these inhibitions. One is to touch each other’s face. You probably haven’t touched your best friends face. You might have been friends with someone for eight years, but there’s never a situation where you touch your friends face. So suddenly that creates an intimacy. It somehow kind of sinks in and allows them to really relate to each other, and when you come back in after they spend an hour and a half with these tasks, and tell each other’s secrets that other people don’t know, you feel how protective they feel for each other. They look at each other with different eyes. You are not part of their relationship and that’s the greatest thing to get to.
STAMM: It’s a TV show called Intruders for BBC America. I’m doing four episodes. Eduardo Sanchez who co-directed The Blair Witch Project, he’s doing the fist four episodes and I’m doing the last four episodes. It’s got Mira Sorvino in it and James Frain and Tory Kittles from True Detective and John Simm from Life on Mars. It’s a really nice cast. It’s really great material based on a British book called “The Intruders” and it’s going to be awesome hopefully.
Is there anything else that you’re developing right now?
STAMM: I have this thing that I can unfortunately only focus on one thing, which is why it takes me so long between projects to find a great script. So I’m not developing anything on the side right now. I really should. My agents are going crazy. I think realistically I’m going to do this until June and then I’ll get back to LA and look for a new project that’s going to take another year. So don’t expect another movie within the next fifteen years [laughs].
In a bit broader terms. As a director and where you see yourself going, do you want to keep working in the genre space? Obviously the Martyrs project fell apart, but do you want to stay in the genre? Do you want to branch out?
STAMM: I’m just looking for a good story with good characters and I really genuinely don’t care where I find that. It can be an absolute horror movie. I could be a comedy, though no one would ever let me do a comedy [laughs]. It could be drama. It could be anything, because I have that so rarely. I’m reading all these scripts and rarely do I ever have the feeling that this is an original story that I haven’t already seen. A lot of people send you scripts and say, “We found something that’s Rosemary’s Baby on a boat.” And you read it and it’s exactly that – Rosemary’s Baby on a boat and there’s nothing new, there’s nothing that surprises you. That’s why Martyrs was so great, because it surprised you every ten pages. “I never saw this coming, but it makes sense.” You rarely have that, which is why for 13 Sins I wasn’t crazy about making a remake, but I would rather make a remake of good material than make something original that is not good material. At my level in my career you don’t get a lot of good material. You really have to dig deep to find some kind of seed that you really love and then fight producers to bring in David Birke, for example, and completely re-do it your own way. So I find that I almost don’t have the luxury to decide what genre I want to do. If I find that seed in outer space, in a story that’s set in outer space, then the next thing will be science fiction. If it has horses in it, then it will be a western.
I always have the feeling that in the end people come for real human moments between two people and that all the spectacle – I just saw Captain America. Two hours of special effects and things exploding. Or take Inception, I love Inception as a movie, but my very favorite scene in the entire scene is the scene where Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon Levitt sit on the bench and someone comes by and he says, “Kiss me.” It’s such a refreshing moment. There’s not a single special effect in there. Nothing blows up and it’s my favorite moment in the entire movie. It’s the only moment I really remember other than I just remember things going really whacky. So I think if I can find something that has enough moments like that then I’ll do it. If it’s genre then I’ll be a genre director. I don’t think I’m originally a genre guy. My first movie wasn’t a genre movie. I think I would probably tend towards drama or the dramatic thriller stuff. Probably always dark, because I just always like that. If I could make movies that are a mixture of David Fincher and Lars Von Trier in what the stories are, I think I’m at a good place.
Since you’re a writer as well have you considered writing your own script moving forward?
STAMM: I think I would always do it with someone. I went to film school for screenwriter for four years and it was the loneliest time of my life. Just sitting in a room- exactly what we talked about before. This initial act of inception, where if you don’t have the spark of an idea then nothing happens. The good thing about directing is that there’s always someone to talk to; there’s the writer and the actors, the cinematographer, the editor. You’re never along. There’s always someone you can turn to and say, “I don’t have the answer, what do you think?” As a writer in the initial stages, that doesn’t exist….I always want someone that I’m doing this with. I could totally imagine writing something from scratch with someone like David Birke, but I never want to sit in that room by myself again.