In the horror thriller ATM, directed by David Brooks and written by Chris Sparling (Buried), David Hargrove (Brian Geraghty) finally gets up the nerve to ask out Emily Brandt (Alice Eve) at their company Christmas party. But, after getting saddled with their co-worker, Corey (Josh Peck), who asks them to make a late-night stop at an ATM, their impromptu first date takes and unexpected turn when an unknown man appears outside of the vestibule, blocking their exit, and they quickly become trapped in an intense game of cat-and-mouse.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, first-time feature director David Brooks talked about why he responded to the script for ATM, the tweaks they made prior to shooting, the biggest challenges of making such a self-contained and claustrophobic film, finding the right level of violence and tension, getting the three characters isolated without any mode of communication, and deciding how much of the killer’s backstory to include. He also talked about how his love of film developed, why he enjoys working closely with actors, and his ambition to make big films that connect with people. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DAVID BROOKS: As a first-time feature director, coming off of a short film that got me in the door, the prospect of doing something that was contained, where I could be in an intimate situation with these three actors was really exciting to me. Fundamentally, beyond that, the script just took me somewhere unexpected, and that always excites me. Too often, I go and see films where I can see the beats coming. So, if I read something where I don’t see the beats coming and it takes me somewhere unexpected, that’s a great thing to build upon. Within that, it had some great moments. I thought that, within this contained story, we could do something that was hopefully cinematic and bigger, and really get to work with three actors in an intimate setting. The relatability was definitely a part of it, too. That inherent tension was something to build upon.
Once you had signed on as director, did you make any major changes to the script?
BROOKS: (Screenwriter) Chris Sparling is such a great guy and we had a really great collaboration on this. The script was in a great spot when I got to read it in Christmas of 2010, and we spent a month, just going back and forth. When you put two heads on something like this, you just come up with different questions. It was about, “Would they really do this here? Do we need to move this here? Maybe we need to address that in this scene.” It was about trying to plug the holes, as much as anything. Not that there were that many holes, but it’s impossible for one person to think of everything. That’s really what it was. It was about working through that process, talking about the characters and seeing what we could build upon. The majority of it was me throwing out bad ideas and Chris coming up with good ones.
BROOKS: We shot the film in Canada in 20 days, and we knew it was going to be tight and complicated. Despite it being contained, there were some complicated set pieces. It really came down to the prep, which is probably always true. I storyboarded the whole film, and then it really becomes about working with my A.D. and D.P. and the production designer to figure out how we’re going to achieve it and set ourselves up to not fail. A big part of that was with the construction of the vestibule. I always wanted to shoot a real location and build our set. It became this giant prop that really had to move and be constructed in a way for us to be as efficient as possible, in order to achieve this. In terms of the challenges, you really try to get as many out of the way as possible, in how you set yourself up. And then, of course, you get into the reality of shooting and, when you’ve got a limited amount of time, you have to just be on your game, I guess. It’s exciting for a film like this, and it helps that energy, for the actors, the crew and everyone. It creates an energy that goes into the performances, as well.
There aren’t many individual kills in this film, but each one is pretty intense. Did you ever consider making it more violent, or did you find it more effective to have fewer kills with more intensity?
BROOKS: For me, it was always about intensity and really maintaining that tension. If you can have a few bigger, significant, harsher moments, as opposed to lots of kills and blood happening everywhere because, at a certain point, that loses impact. So, I wanted to be focused with it, and then really use that to keep the string tight and the tension up. We were certainly deliberate about that. That was all stuff that Chris [Sparling] and I talked about, and things that were in the script. That’s something he was very deliberate about as well.
BROOKS: We definitely had discussions about it. From the first time I read the script, I thought, “Is this really where we want to go? Do we need to show more?” In talking about it and in working with the script and clarifying certain aspects, we just decided that that was the film we wanted to make. We wanted to go in that unexpected direction where it’s not necessarily all wrapped up in a neat bow. That’s something that was exciting.
How difficult is it, in this day and age, to get people vulnerable without any mode of communication?
BROOKS: The first thing you’ve got to deal with are cell phones, yeah. You try to make it as organic as possible. I thought we did it in an organic way, and I think it worked, but it’s a challenge, for sure. Chris [Sparling] obviously said, “You have to deal with that.” It was something that he had dealt with already, in the script, and I thought it was effective. And then, you get to shooting it and you have to really sell those beats. You don’t want to be too heavy-handed with it, but you certainly have to make it clear. But listen, that’s just one of the challenges that you have to deal with, in these movies. We did it the best we could.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next? Do you already have something ready to go, or are you developing something?
BROOKS: Yeah, I’m developing a couple of things that are probably longer-term plays because they’re from articles and books, and things like that. At the same time, I’m reading a lot of scripts and taking meetings and trying to find my next project. I’m still not 100% sure what I’m going to do. I’m still reading, and that’s a process within itself.
BROOKS: I want to make big films. That’s always been my ambition. I grew up loving Michael Mann and Ridley Scott, and films like Heat and Black Hawk Down. It’s almost inherent, but I’m a massive [Stanley] Kubrick fan. I’m a big admirer of what guys like Christopher Nolan have been able to do. For me, to be able to try to make big films that reach a lot of people, and that hopefully have something to say, is a lofty goal, but that’s my goal. In terms of specific projects, there are a couple things that I would love to do, that I think other people are already doing, so I’ll have to find some other ones. But, I want to try to make big films that hopefully connect with people.
When and how did your love of film develop? Was there a point where you consciously decided that this was what you wanted to do?
BROOKS: Yeah, it was very early. From seven or eight years old, I always said, “I want to be a director.” At a certain point, it becomes, “Yeah, maybe I actually do want to be a director. That’s what I’m going to do.” For me, I was really fortunate that I went to a high school where we actually had a film theory program. We had a professor who taught at AFI and another one who was at USC Grad School. I was doing college level theory when I was 15 or 16, through high school. Getting to watch Bergman, and then write 30 pages on it, or whatever, was amazing. Seeing films that I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to see, and then really study the films and study the directors and try to understand why the camera is in that spot, at that time, or why the lighting is doing this or why the intricacies of the performance worked for that moment, really excited me. As a director, I like trying to unlock the subtext of the scene and try to put the camera in a place that helps that. For, me, that’s where it went from, “I want to do this,” to “Okay, through seeing these films, my love has only gone that step further.” And then, it was, “I guess I’ll go to film school.” So, I went to NYU Film School and had a great time there. I was able to come out with a short film that got me this gig.
Have you found working with actors to be pretty instinctive for you?
BROOKS: For me, it’s pretty organic. It just really comes down to trust. It starts in the meeting, and then through the shooting and editing, you try to build that trust. I’m not a kicker and a screamer. I really feel like I’m there to support the actors. If I can support them and try to get the best out of them, that’s really what I’m there to do. It’s really just about always being there to talk things out, and give them the space when they need space, and do what I can to help when they need my help. That’s always been pretty organic. It goes with how you communicate with the crew and everyone else. It’s really about just trying to be open and honest, and doing the best you can to earn and hopefully keep their trust.
ATM is now playing on VOD and Digital Platforms (iTunes, Amazon Streaming, XBox ZUNE, PS3 Video Unlimited) before opening in theaters on April 6th.