Burr Steers made his feature film directorial debut with the acclaimed 2002 offbeat dramedy Igby Goes Down, for which he also wrote the screenplay. He then went on to co-wrote the hit romantic comedy Hot to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and, most recently directed 17 Again, which was the first time he worked with actor Zac Efron.
Now, he has re-teamed with the popular young actor on Charlie St. Cloud, which is Efron’s most adult and most emotional role to date. Adapted from the novel “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” the story follows Charlie (Efron), who loses his younger brother (played by Charlie Tahan) in a tragic accident that changes his life forever, and explores the impact that grief can have on one’s life.
While at the press day for the film, Collider was given some time to speak with director Burr Steers about how his earlier work as an actor has affected his filmmaking approach, why he identified so deeply with Charlie St. Cloud, how he put his own stamp on the story and what it is that makes Zac Efron so appealing to audiences of all ages. He also talked about what initially drew him to storytelling, his thoughts on 3-D, his rewrite of This Means War and his next project as a director, the period epic Emperor. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: In regard to your work in The Last Days of Disco, what was it like to have been in Whit Stillman’s last movie?
Burr: Yeah, but he’s making another movie, though. I think he’s about to make a new movie. It was cool. It was a really great, young cast, with Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. Whit is one of those people making really specific movies that only he could make, so that was interesting to me. I had already written Igby Goes Down and I was trying to figure out how to get that out, so he was definitely somebody I looked to, as a role model.
Also having acted for Quentin Tarantino, what do you learn from somebody like that? Are there things that you learned about directing that you were able to take with you when you started making your own films?
Burr: I knew what sets were comfortable and which sets were uncomfortable, and tried to create an environment that intentionally felt laid-back and casual, so that people could relax and feel safe.
How did you originally come to this film? Was it because Zac Efron was interested in working with you again, after doing 17 Again?
Burr: Yeah. He was initially attracted to it. The story was something that really resonated with him, as did the character and the relationship with the brother.
How soon after making 17 Again did you start to discuss working together again?
Burr: Pretty soon after, he brought this up. When he got this, he thought it was something specifically that we would work on well together.
Did you then want to read the script to make sure it was something that you could identify with as well?
Burr: Yeah, I read it, and then I worked on it and made it work for me.
What specific changes did you make?
Burr: There were some essential things. With Zac in the lead, the character is five years younger than it had been in the book, and that made a whole bunch of differences throughout the movie. And then, we changed the location because we shot in Vancouver, as opposed to Marblehead, Massachusetts, so we had to rewrite it for that. I made most of the characters younger as well, and made them realistic and made the dialogue work. I wanted to really make the brother relationship feel real and credible.
In going through the source material, were there things that you wanted to make sure you kept, or things you knew would have to be changed, aside from the age?
Burr: I went back to the book and put things into the script. The main thing was understanding what the intention of the book was, and making sure that I respected that, but still made it my own.
Having that source material, did you want to discuss anything with the author at all?
Burr: No. I know what the gig is. I’ve adapted books before, so I understand the process. It’s a different medium and a different category, so you’re turning it into something very, very different, and you’re not serving the book, if you don’t do that. I spoke with Ben [Sherwood], but not about specifics like that. Getting a sense of him really illuminated the book for me. Seeing how sincere he is definitely informed how I approach it.
What did you relate to most with this story?
Burr: I related to the sibling relationship. I had two brothers growing up. I definitely related to the sense of loss, having lost one of my brothers, and I understand how complicated that is to get over or learn how to cope with. And also, just the idea that you have to be alive was something that I could relate to. You have to embrace life and live every minute. You can’t remove yourself from that.
How did you go about finding the balance between making this film accessible to audiences, but not being too overly sentimental and alienating people with that?
Burr: I think, on the surface, it is a very sentimental movie, or it can come across that way, and that was always the battle. I wanted to make it something that wouldn’t feel too sweet, and make it credible and have the characters be real. That’s what I went into it with, and that’s definitely what I think I brought to it. I had the actors really inhabit these parts and make them real people with relationships that are prickly and complicated, the way they are in real life.
Isn’t that also reliant on the actors you chose?
Burr: Yeah, casting is such a huge part of it. Such a big part of directing is just your taste and being able to find people who are going to bring the characters to life and work well together.
Because Sam is such an important piece of the story, was it difficult to find an actor who could take on that range of emotion?
Burr: They’re a dime a dozen. There are tons of really skilled, talented 11-year-olds. We saw hundreds of kids. The character, initially, was written three years older, and [Charlie] Tahan came in and I reworked it. There’s something that he brings, in that you see him and you want to protect him, and it’s not because he’s plays the soft, quivering, sentimental little kid. It’s because he’s a tough little pisser and you don’t want to see him get hurt. That was something he brings to the part, and really is a huge part of why, hopefully, the movie will work.
What was it about Amanda that clicked with Zac, when you were casting this couple?
Burr: When you’re casting a couple, you don’t want them to duplicate each other. You want somebody who compliments and, in this case, really challenges the other person, and she did that. It could have been a really superficial part, and she just brought a lot of depth and feistiness to it.
Did you do test screenings at all to see how the film played?
Did that affect anything with the final cut?
Burr: It was more about what they were following and what we needed to clarify, more so than anything else.
Was it intentional to never really address whether these were actually ghosts?
Burr: It was intentional, yeah. I didn’t want to say, “These are just ghosts,” because then it diminishes the possibilities. I wanted to keep alive in each scene the idea of, “Has he lost it? Is he hallucinating, or is this supernatural?” It makes for endless possibilities, and I thought that was a much stronger choice.
Is that why you also chose to not make them look any different?
Burr: They needed to be real. To have the audience invested in them, everything need to seem real, feel real and sound real.
Now that you’ve worked with him twice, what do you think it is about Zac Efron, as an actor and as a person, that makes him so appealing to audiences of all ages?
Burr: He’s really likeable. He’s really appealing. He’s a really genuine guy and who he is off camera really comes across when he’s on camera. He’s a great young man. He’s incredibly driven and also just has the wheels spinning, all the time, in his head. He really thinks things through and it’s just interesting. He’s just somebody you watch. He’s been really smart in his career and has not necessarily made easy choices. You see a lot of these kids coming out of franchises and going for the big paydays and just attaching themselves to everything. He had that option and he chose to go off and do more substantial work.
What was it like to get people involved the level of Kim Basinger and Ray Liotta?
Burr: One of the great things you find about veteran actors is that they want a show with people coming up. They don’t want them to make the mistakes they’ve made, and they want to impart what they’ve learned. They really do. They’re really generous. It’s something I’ve found invariably, when you bring in older actors. It’s so crucial for younger actors to work with them, to get better and to raise their game. I’ve had to experience an older actor that wasn’t really willing to come in and help and be that mentor.
Having been an actor yourself, how do you think that enriches what you do as a director, in working with the actors?
Burr: I think that the main thing is that you develop your aesthetic for what you like and what you think is good acting, or what works for you. You develop an ear and a feel for it, so I know when something is working or not for me, and what I’m going to use. I can hear honesty. I can hear when somebody is faking or acting. I’ve got a sharp sense of that.
What were the biggest challenges in making this film?
Burr: I had no idea how the sailing race was going to be. I’m pretty confident that I can figure anything out, if I have any amount of time. Just going through the process of how I’ll break something down, I can translate it into whatever I need it to be visually. I storyboarded the sailing race, but then I got out there and there was no wind. That whole challenge of manufacturing the dynamics of that sailing race without any wind was a great challenge. From a filmmaking standpoint, that really challenged me.
Do you have plans yet for the DVD? Are there deleted scenes you want to include?
Burr: Yeah. There are a few deleted scenes. There is a deleted scene with Kim [Basinger] that she was great in, that was too much for the end of the movie. The movie was too lop-sided at the end. It had too much weight at the end. There are scenes with Zac and his younger brother in the glade that are really nuanced and subtle scenes. They’re all good scenes. That’s one of the toughest things, when you make a movie. You realize that, for the good of the movie, you’ve got to sacrifice things.
Would you put out an extended edition, or just put them on as extras?
Burr: They’re just scenes. I wouldn’t do an extended version.
Having directed TV and film, how are those experiences different for you? Do you enjoy coming in and just spending an episode working on something, or do you enjoy having more time to develop something?
Burr: TV is fun ‘cause you get to come in and work with different actors. Working for HBO or Showtime, they just have incredibly talented writers. It’s just great to work with talented people. It is fun. TV can be such a grind and you can get people who aren’t necessarily that receptive to change, and who have modulated and calibrated exactly what they want to do with their character, but it’s great. The movie thing is just intense. It’s wonderful. You get to work on a movie with really talented people and, for that short period of time, you’re doing this intense thing. It’s a great experience. When you do TV, it’s really a writer’s medium. The writers really run those shows and, as a director, you’re surveying them. It’s a different dynamic.
Can you talk about Emperor and what that’s going to focus on? Is it intentional that your career has been an escalation in scale?
Burr: It’s by design. I’ve made a conscious decision, in doing these studio movies, to step up each time and take on challenges and interesting projects, and Emperor really is. Bill Broyles is a great screenwriter, and I grew up in D.C. which is the same thing as Rome, with the politics, the human behavior and the intrigue. It was all stuff that I really related to. And, there’s the fun of doing the action. So much of directing is taste and knowing the things you want to bring into your movie. You have to look at other films and plays and figure out ways to do things.
Is it possible to make a period epic like that, that isn’t focused on spectacle?
Burr: I think you can smuggle in these ideas and still have it be epic. At its core, you better deliver a story with the kind of clarity that’s going to have mass appeal. That’s the spine. On top of that, you can bring in all these interesting ideas, but the spine of it does have to be something that is going to grab people and hook them in.
Do you have your cast yet?
Burr: No, we don’t have a cast yet. We’re just really getting into it now.
When are you looking to go into production?
Burr: Hopefully in the Fall or Spring. We’ll see. We’re not set up at a studio right now. We actually set it up in September and have to figure out where we’re doing it. Gianni Nunnari, who produced 300, is the producer on it.
What was your involvement with This Means War?
Burr: I did a draft of it a few years ago, but I’m not actively involved with it. As a writer, you do that. There are a lot of movies that I’ve come in and done rewrites on, and there are a lot of movies that I’m not credited on, which I have no bitterness about. You do it. But, I much prefer directing and writing my own things. If it’s an interesting project, I like coming in as a screenwriter, but it can be tough when you can’t necessarily write it to please yourself. You’re anticipating what other people are going to like, and that becomes really difficult.
Was there something specific that you contributed to that film?
Burr: It’s a relationship between two guys who are friends, and a woman comes in between them. The one thing I remember that I had in it was that it’s in San Francisco and she tricks them, and they both think they’re getting married to her, but they end up marrying each other and they have to stay married. It was a whole Chuck & Larry thing that I had in it, before Chuck & Larry, but a less broad version.
As a writer, is it difficult to work on a rewrite that you don’t get credit for, but that you see in the final project and someone else gets the credit for it?
Burr: Yeah, that’s really fun. It’s wonderful to make somebody else’s career. It’s a tough thing. And then, deciding who’s getting the credits is such a subjective thing. It is tough.
Is that why you prefer to direct what you write?
Burr: There is that, but there’s also the necessity, as a director, to get a script into a place where it works for you and you understand it. Also, it helps me really know exactly what every scene is about and what my intention is in each scene, so then I can direct it.
What was it initially that led you to want to be a filmmaker and storyteller?
Burr: I’ve always loved stories about the human condition. I’ve always wanted to know people’s stories. I’ve wanted to know who they were, where they came from and why they were the way that they were. As a kid, I was obnoxious about it. I just tried to figure things out and was always intrigued by that. And then, as a kid growing up in D.C., I just started going to the movies at an early age. And, in New York as a teenager, I was always going to the Regency and stuff like that. I loved it. It was just the magic to movies that drew me.
Do you have any ideas for what you’d like to do in the future? Are there any specific projects that you hope you can get done, at some point?
Burr: The movie that I was working on after Igby was a movie called Lightning on the Sun, and that’s very much a movie that I want to get made. That takes place in Cambodia and New York in the ‘90s, and is a movie that I relate to and feel connected to. It also feels like an expression of who I am, as a filmmaker. I feel like I’m in all of these movies. Even though they seem completely different, there’s a style and quality to the acting that is consistent in my three movies now, but they are not necessarily subjects that are representative of what I’m about. Death is interesting to me, in Charlie St. Cloud, and how you deal with that. That’s a big topic for me.
As the films that you make get bigger in scope, do you still want to balance that with doing smaller pieces?
Burr: Yeah, that’s the intention. I want to do movies and, through success, do bigger movies and be in the position to do smaller movies that are less broad and less commercial movies.
How do you feel about 3-D? Is that something you’d ever want to work in?
Burr: I’m getting my mind around it. Jeffrey Katzenberg is really pushing 3-D and apparently he has a version of 12 Angry Men in 3-D that’s supposed to be amazing and that’s supposed to get you into each of their psyches. So, yeah, I’m open to all those things. I wouldn’t do it just for the sake of doing it. I would do it, if it served what I was doing. Style really has to come out of substance. You choose how to shoot a movie by what the movie is about, and then how you can express it the best way.