At 28 years old, working in the film industry was becoming a dying dream for Chris Sparling. Multiple stints in Los Angeles trying to make it as an actor had produced little, and his work was only being seen at small, independent film festivals. Then, upon returning home to Rhode Island, Sparling wrote “Buried,” a screenplay about an American civilian truck driver working in Iraq who is captured by extremists and buried alive in a wooden coffin. Unique and witty in its claustrophobic setting, the film, which debuted in 2010, went on to star Ryan Reynolds and was a big hit at Sundance, winning multiple awards and thrusting Sparling into the life he had envisioned for himself since youth.
Since, Sparling has written, directed and produced a number of films across a wide range of genres, and his family-centered, apocalyptic thriller “Greenland” starring Gerard Butler will release digitally this year and move to HBO Max in 2021. In a recent interview, the Providence native spoke about his journey to Hollywood success, working with all-time great directors, releasing a film in the time of COVID-19 and emerging from the box his breakout hit cast him in.
“[The success of “Buried”] was surreal,” said Sparling. “At that point, I had been trying to break into the film industry in some fashion, be it as an actor, then a writer and director, for about 10 years. By this point, I was not even doing it from L.A., I was doing it here on the east coast. So, it felt like a fading dream, you know, it felt like something that was slipping more and more from my grasp. “
Growing up in Providence, early blockbuster favorites like “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” captured the imagination and wonder of a young Sparling. Later, while taking a film class at Providence College (PC), and still unsure how to enter the industry he knew he wanted to work in, Sparling was exposed to a different kind of film. Works such as “The Graduate” and “Black Narcissus” now added to the palette of the burgeoning filmmaker, opening up the doors of what cinema could do as an artform. The effect was significant.
“The class at PC exposed me to a lot of movies that I wouldn’t have watched at that point in my life,” said Sparling. “I just remember it kind of blowing the doors open for me in a certain way. Just exposing me to the types of films that if I were older, may have come under my radar, but at that age, you know, being 18 years old, it was certainly not the type of movies I was seeking out. That was kind of a pivotal moment for me.”
But the film industry is a difficult, highly competitive field to break into. People will say you’re crazy for even attempting to make a living in it, and the real-world pressures of finding a well-paying job upon entering adulthood will deter many from devoting time and energy to such a pursuit. But still, people try. While at Northeastern University in Boston and studying criminal justice, Sparling found a group of like-minded actors from Rhode Island, and eventually moved to Los Angeles. There, in his own words, Sparling did the “struggling actor” thing.
“You know, waiting tables,” he said. “And then I started taking school classes again, and acting classes separate from that. I was kind of not succeeding at any of those things. I decided to just finish college and get that done because I was pretty adamant about wanting to get my degree.”
Sparling moved back home and attended Roger Williams University, where he ultimately finished out his criminal justice degree. Knowing he could use that accomplishment to fall back on, the young actor again set his sights on Hollywood, driving cross country and arriving in Los Angeles for a second time on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001.
“Naturally, I woke up the next day and the world had changed, and the industry had changed, and I kind of found myself out in L.A. for four or five months really with nothing to do in terms of the film industry because it had kind of shut down in response to 9/11,” he said.
“I said to myself, ‘what am I doing?’” Sparling continued. “I’m out here with nothing going on, no auditions. At this point I hadn’t started writing screenplays.”
Sparling packed his bags and headed back to Rhode Island once again, this time with a focus on writing and directing rather than acting. He wrote screenplays and directed small, independent films that made a splash at local and regional festivals, but nothing that would catapult him to the Hollywood success he sought. Then came “Buried.”
“That changed everything,” said Sparling.
“Buried” is an intense, psychological experience of a film. It takes place exclusively in one place – underground inside of a coffin, and features Reynolds in a one-man show as he struggles with his plight of being buried alive and the slim chance of rescue. The barebones nature of the story was the starting point for Sparling’s script, and the writer originally envisioned himself directing the feature.
“It was purely a financial decision,” he said of the film’s premise. “Because in a feature that I directed prior to that, really with no knowledge of how to do that at the time, I had learned lessons from going out and trying to make movies on my own: it was very expensive, especially back then, and then if you want to be able to do something very inexpensive, that means you have to limit the number of locations, you have to limit the number of actors, all the variables that go into making a movie. All those things cost money. I had very little money to make a feature film and I thought, ‘how can I do this?’”
“I decided to limit the number of locations and actors and I kind of kept limiting them until I had one guy in one location,” Sparling laughs. “That was kind of the genesis of it.”
The resulting script, gaining traction, went around Hollywood in the early spring of 2009. It quickly found producers Adrian Guerra and Peter Safran, and soon director Rodrigo Cortes came aboard. “Buried” was shot in Barcelona over 16 days, edited and then premiered at Sundance in January, 2010, less than a year after Sparling initially started shopping around the screenplay. Released to large acclaim, including a National Board of Review Award for Sparling’s screenplay, and an MTV Movie Award nomination for Reynolds in the category of “Best Scared-As-S**t Performance,” the film became Sparling’s key inside a previously locked-down Hollywood.
“Next thing you know, I have an agent, a manager, the whole nine,” said Sparling. “I have a whole team around me, whereas before I was kind of just this one-man show, this struggling artist.”
Sparling, again working with many of the same people behind “Buried,” followed his breakout hit with “ATM” in 2012. Another film defined by setting and minimization, “ATM” centers on three people trapped inside an ATM booth by a hooded killer. After, Sparling made his Hollywood directorial debut with his script “The Atticus Institute,” about a paranormal research institute.
While he was growing as a filmmaker and being allowed opportunities only few can dream of, Sparling couldn’t help but notice a pattern was emerging in his work.
“Because of ‘Buried,’ I got kind of put into this box, no pun intended, of being the ‘contained’ guy, like I’m the guy who writes contained thrillers or stuff like this,” he said. “When you’re starting out in your career as a screenwriter or filmmaker, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While you get the opportunity to maybe go and be hired to write things that aren’t as contained, you definitely get considered for your niche. Early on, it was good. I kind of found a pathway by doing these more contained stories and maybe more with a specificity of place.”
“It’s not as though, from a narrative standpoint, I start with place,” Sparling continued. “I think I generally tend to start with character. But it just became my lane for awhile and I loved it. This is the thing. I liked that lane, it’s not the excuse of not wanting to operate in that lane, because I do like it because you’re talking about a very specific place and moment in time, and because of the specificity of those things, you’re really drilling down on a very specific relationship or character dynamic and you’re able to see things through a very narrow lens to a certain extent, as opposed to the this very wordwide view. I like that intimacy that it creates and allows for. But having said that, you don’t necessarily want to be stuck in that box, or any box, forever. Because at the end of the day, you are going to limit your career choices.”
Then came Sparling’s script “The Sea of Trees,” a 2015 film starring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts that tells the story of an American man (McConaughey) who travels to Aokigahara (“The Suicide Forest”) of Japan where he plans to end his own life. Meeting another with the same intention (Watanabe) within the forest, the two characters embark on a journey of self-realization and confrontation of one’s inner guilt.
Along with writing, Sparling produced the film, and acclaimed director Gus Van Sant, known for films such as “Good Will Hunting,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “Milk,” helmed it. Principle photography was split between Massachusetts and Japan, with post production heading back to Los Angeles. With his producer credit, the dramatic nature of the film and names like McConaughey and Van Sant attached, Sparling thought “The Sea of Trees” would be the next step in his career, a film that would lead to bigger and better and more recognition.
At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, however, where “The Sea of Trees” debuted, Sparling saw those hopes quickly stripped away.
“The movie was absolutely panned by critics at Cannes and they booed; they stood up and booed at the screen,” he said. “It was kind of this weird, topsy-turvy experience to go through. You know, you’re in the south of France, it’s just this amazing, glitz and glamour sort of thing and what you view as this sort of victory, only to have that balloon popped.”
Many critics took issue with the film’s sentimental leanings, tonal shifts and multiple twists and turns. It failed to perform at the U.S. box office, earning under $1 million on a $25 million budget, and currently holds a 17 percent “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“In a lot of ways, [working with Van Sant] was great,” Sparling said. “One of my favorite directors. ‘Good Will Hunting’ remains one of my favorites. Working with him was great. But at the same time, there were elements with what he did with the movie that were surprising. I think it was tonally a bit of a departure from what I had in mind.”
Sparling took to Cannes’ beaches for solace in the hours after the disastrous premiere. Professional writers, their work being public by nature, tend to develop thick skin over time. Now, talking about the critical failure of “The Sea of Trees,” and how he coped, Sparling calls back to that notion and his home state.
“I live in Rhode Island, I’m from Rhode Island, my feet are very much on the ground,” he said. “That stuff helps. I realize that all this stuff, at the end of the day, it’s not real. The world around me, my friends and family, that’s what’s real. So in a way, I’m kind of able to laugh it off because I always feel like I’m playing with the house’s money.”
Now, Sparling is promoting his upcoming film “Greenland,” an apocalyptic tale in which comet shards threaten earth and every human life on it and the only safe space from the pending doom is deemed to be the country of Greenland. Starring Gerard Butler, the film was slated to be released in the summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic, as it did with many other releases, changed that.
“In gearing up for the release, this other shoe drops, the pandemic,” said Sparling. “By no means am I saying ‘poor me,’ because obviously, people have real problems when dealing with the pandemic and me having a movie released is certainly not that much to lament over, but I am human.”
“As much as I would have promoted the movie, ethically I was kind of having a hard time with it, because I knew I would be encouraging people to go to the movies, which is somewhere that, across the board, people are saying isn’t necessarily the safest place to be here in the United States,” he continued. “So I was kind of having a difficult time wrestling with that.”
“Greenland” isn’t “Armageddon” or “Deep Impact” or “Independence Day.” Its aim, says Sparling, is much more intimate. Centered on a man and his wife and child as they race for the arctic country’s safety, the film is less interested in the apocalypse-ness of it all than it is on studying a family as they fight for survival against cosmic forces of nature.
“What I tried to do is generally what I like doing - seeing things through a narrower lens, as opposed to this giant, disaster movie where you’re checking in on what the government is doing,” said Sparling. “To me, that stuff is not interesting. I’m more interested in the very human experience, the every-person experience, in a situation like that. And what I decided to do was focus on this one family going through this cataclysm. They are the lens through which we are watching this experience play out. And I think because of that, the movie has a lot more heart, and honestly a lot more drama, than people would maybe anticipate.”
A larger idea that helped inspire the “Greenland” script was human nature – the tendency to put something off or not say something we feel deeply because we believe our time is limitless and there will be other opportunities – and the kind of event, situation or moment big enough to cause a disruption of that automated mode.
“As we’re learning now, there might not be another time or things might not be exactly as they are now and that’s kind of where I started with ‘Greenland,’” said Sparling.
What’s more, there’s also a thick layer of analogy behind the film. Recently, scientists predicted Greenland would be one of the only safe places on the planet once sea level rise has a devastating effect on coastlines and countries throughout the world, and Donald Trump infamously reportedly wanted to purchase the country in 2019.
“This is something else – this movie, in a way for me, was always an allegory about climate change,” said Sparling. “That’s why I chose Greenland for where the bunkers are, to bring that thematically into the story, the idea being that with comets coming for earth, already we’re scrambling to take action, but we have this massive, massive existential threat facing us but it’s creeping closer. And we think we have all this time, but we don’t. There comes a point where we waited too long.”
In addition to “Greenland,” Sparling’s upcoming work includes the thriller “Lakewood,” which recently wrapped production in Ontario (under strict pandemic guidelines) and will star Watts. Further, his script “Intrusion” has been picked up by Netflix and has begun filming in New Mexico.
“Greenland” has been successful at the international box office and has been met with favorable reviews. The film will release digitally on demand on Dec. 18 and move to HBO Max in the new year.