Making a directorial debut is hard, but making one with a story told in reverse is a specific kind of challenge. Just ask filmmaker Oren Uziel, whose directorial debut Shimmer Lake hits Netflix on Friday, June 9th. The film is one of the first scripts Uziel ever wrote, before he’d go on to work on movies like 22 Jump Street and the upcoming Cloververse movie formerly known as God Particle, and it’s a crime story told in unique fashion.
The film stars Benjamin Walker as a local sheriff hunting down three bank robbery suspects, two of which are played by Rainn Wilson and Wyatt Russell. The story unfolds in reverse, beginning at the end, as the audience tries to put the pieces together for this crime that may be more than what it appears on the surface. Uziel fills the cast out with actors who have a solid comedic background like Adam Pally and Rob Corddry, and the result is a dark and moody drama that doesn’t feel overbearingly bleak. The performances are swell, and working with The Witch cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Uziel carves out a foreboding aesthetic that adds to the tense atmosphere surrounding the story.
I recently got the chance to speak with Uziel for an exclusive interview about the film. We discussed the process of writing a movie told in reverse, the impetus behind casting actors with comedic backgrounds, the surprising origin story behind the film, and working with Netflix. Given that Uziel is also busy writing other notable screenplays, we also discussed how God Particle turned into a Cloverfield movie, his take on the Mortal Kombat reboot, looking back on the genius that is 22 Jump Street, and his yet-to-be-made script for a Men in Black reboot.
Check out the full interview below. Shimmer Lake will be available to stream on Netflix starting June 9th.
I hate to ask such a boring question at the beginning, but this idea to tell a crime story backwards is fascinating to me. I genuinely am curious, where did this idea first come about for Shimmer Lake?
OREN UZIEL: It’s funny because I have this story … I wrote the script eight years ago. I have referred to what the origin of it is a million times just in passing. I no longer know if it’s true or not, but I do think it’s true. I grew up watching HBO either at friends’ houses or my parents finally got it when HBO was just a channel that showed movies. It was the only place that showed movies uninterrupted, without commercials, and with nudity and cursing and violence. I would watch anything. I remember that I would flick over to HBO and it didn’t matter at what point of the movie it was on, I would just start watching. I have this memory of watching a lot of movies just completely out of order because I would watch something and then four days later I’d find it again and it would be half an hour earlier. I would say, “Oh! Oh shit, this happened before that other stuff. It’s going to explain why that fat guy hates that other guy so much.” I had no idea why he was so angry before. I found it really compelling. I realized that a lot of times when I finally watched that same movie from start to finish, it wasn’t a particularly good movie, it was just that the tension and the thrill of trying to figure out what leads to the thing I’d already seen, while also trying to keep in my head what’s happening right in front of me, was a really compelling way to tell a story. I thought if it works for that movie, why not construct a movie like that and be able to take advantage of that and laying set-ups and pay off as you go and take advantage of that structure. I really think that’s where it came from.
That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, cause that’s how I used to watch movies. Thinking about it now, it doesn’t … With DVR and on-demand and Netflix and everything, I don’t know if anyone’s watching movies like that anymore.
UZIEL: Definitely not. It’s just not the experience. I watch things with my kids now, and they can’t even … If they can’t watch something right now, they cannot understand that concept. If you’re watching a TV show on network television. They’ve gotten into Survivor lately. Like, “Let’s just watch!” “You can’t watch. It’s not a thing yet.”
Yeah. If it’s not on-demand yet, what’s going on?
UZIEL: Yeah. I always thought it adds a component of active watching, if that makes sense. The goal was to, if you do it deliberately and you make sure the story you’re telling is not one that would function forward, then it becomes more than just a gimmick. If you watch Shimmer Lake forward, it’s not Memento where it would still be rewarding. You’d watch it forward, it’s a movie with no surprises.
How did you go about writing the story? Did you plot the entire thing out forwards first and then write it backwards? Did you write it forwards and then restructure it?
UZIEL: I wrote it the way it is. I wrote the whole thing backwards. I never wrote it forwards and restructured it. I think it wouldn’t have worked that way. For me, it was a matter of starting with an end point. I just knew … The first thing that popped into my head was this notion of this guy with a bag of money, and he’s tired, and you know he’s been through a lot. A car pulls up, and there’s someone that he knows is inside. Someone he’s been waiting for and trusts. But what happens from that moment forward, they betray him, but not what he expects to happen. It just felt like, all right, if that’s where I’m ending up, how did I get there? What is the story? I’m going to lead all those things to come to make sense. As an exercise, it was interesting. It’s the first screenplay I wrote.
UZIEL: I think if I had written … I would not write this screenplay now, because I know how difficult it would be. Back then, I was just too naive to know what the challenges were. I remember when if first started giving it to my trusted friends and readers, it very quickly was like, “Oh, this doesn’t work. It’s way too clear what’s about to happen.” Or, “This doesn’t work. You didn’t make it remotely clear enough. It’s happening for no apparent reason.” Or, “It’s not following.” It took a lot of rewriting and making sure everything adds up and everything is happening for a reason and not just coming out of left field. That’s one of the biggest flaws with any movie in this genre, whether it’s told straight or backwards. You have to make sure that when the things finally happen, they’re not just happening because you want them to happen.
Yeah, yeah. The film its self is quite serious, although not without its moments of humor. The cast is full of comedic actors. I’ve met Ben Walker and he’s hilarious. How did you go about casting this, and what was the impetus behind casting actors who had a comedic or improv background?
UZIEL: I would say it was more comedic than improv, so it was important to me. Some of it is happenstance through casting an indie movie, I will say that for sure. In making Jump Street and making Kitchen Sink, which became Freaks of Nature, I’ve been working in comedy. I think comedic actors are amazing. I think they are capable. When comedic actors play things straight, I think there’s a certain pop to me that always hits me hard. I think that they have an ability that always blows me away. Ben Walker is, I won’t say secretly, because he had some of the comedy show in New York. He seems very straight, but he’s not. He’s a very funny guy, as well. I think all these guys, it’s fun for me to take Adam Pally and his impulses to go big and reign him in a little bit and get the genuine from him. I think he’s amazing. Rainn can be … You feel his pain so much more. I don’t know, cause I think you’re so used to seeing him being funny, it’s like, “Well, no. This is real.” It really had a lot of impact.
For sure. This is also your first movie as a director. The visual aesthetic is very cloudy and moody, reflecting the more somber and sinister actions of the characters. It really gives the film a sense of foreboding. Even though Adam Pally is funny, and I know that he’s funny and he’s cracking some jokes, I feel like something bad is going to happen. Obviously, you see some bad stuff happen at the beginning. As a first time director, how did you go about deciding how you wanted to tell the story visually?