Jeff Ames of ComingSoon recently had the opportunity to speak with writer/director Adam Segal about his new film. Chariot, which is now in theaters, digitally and on demand. Written and directed by Adam Segal, it stars Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar, Scout Taylor Compton, Vernon Davis and Chris Mullinax, as well as Shane West and John Malkovich.
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«In this dark and twisted thriller, John Malkovich plays Dr. Karn, a strange, eccentric specialist who guides unsuspecting patients through a reincarnation transition,» reads the synopsis. “When Harrison (Thomas Mann) has mysterious recurring dreams, he turns to Dr. Karn for help and recounts his encounter with the woman (Rosa Salazar) he loved in a past life. Having noticed a failure in the system, the doctor must correct the problem before completely destroying the future of his patient.
Jeff Ames: I was watching Chariot this weekend and I have to admit that while I liked it, I don’t think I fully understood it. But I’m pretty sure it was intended.
Adam Siegel: [Laughs] Absolutely. So, in my next film, I have a very famous actor that we’re trying to get in a supporting role. He looked Chariot and his response was, «You know, I can’t say I fully understood it, but I really liked the parts that I understood.» This is perfect praise, this is what I want.
Well, to your credit, this is a well-acted, well-shot film that I have the desire to go back and watch again. I thought it was amazing.
That’s good, then my job is done! It’s an ambitious concept and I did my best.
So, I’ll start from here. Where did the Chariot concept come from?
I love high concept science fiction done on a smaller scale. I really wanted to tell a story about death and reincarnation, but not in this big epic, sweeping Matrix-y is kind of a way, but in a more subtle way. So, this is what I set out to do and I may have achieved some of my goals here and there.
The impetus for this story is the last frontier that people don’t demystify, which is death. Throughout history, there have been many things that have been puzzled, from why the sun moves across the sky, to why we don’t leave the ground, to why there are waves in the ocean. We came up with these kinds of mythological explanations for these things that we didn’t understand. Science has solved almost everything except death. No one can look you in the eye with the scientific certainty and accuracy of what happens after we die.
My goal with Chariot not to give my opinion on what happens after we die – I don’t think John Malkovich will find you, just so you know – but to give an idea of what might it’s something commonplace. Something simple. And this is not something to be puzzled or frightened.
So that was my philosophical ambition with the film.
I wonder why you even start with something like this?
Well there are two aspects Chariot. There is a story, and there are such strange transitions to these strange characters. I hope this answer makes sense: some of the directors I really respect are guys like the Coen brothers or David Lynch. When they have a topic they want to express, they don’t necessarily look at [it like]»Ok, I need to take a linear approach to how I’m going to convey this.» Instead, they try to tell a story that conveys emotion and makes you think about the topic.
With Chariot, there are two aspects, there is a story with Thomas and Rose and John – the guy has a dream, he always remembers something from a past life and does not know what it means, it turns out that this is a girl, they reunite, he begins to remember more, Malkovich understands that it’s a glitch and he has to find it. This is the main story, and it’s pretty simple.
Then there are other aspects with these secondary characters. And they do a couple of things. They contribute to the overall atmosphere of the film on a superficial level, but almost tell short versions of the theme of reincarnation and life and the duality of man. I hope this makes sense in the way I created it.
Absolutely, but you also keep the film relatively light with comedy touches here and there.
I think you should. When you’re trying to be this ambitious on an indie scale, you have to be light. Humor is the best way to convey such concepts. If you go too far with it, it’s not only confusing, or not only non-linear and difficult, but hard, and then it’s like, «Oh my God.» Thus, if you are trying to make it lighter, it is easier to digest.
What is the most difficult thing in such production?
Getting funding. I mean, let’s be real… it’s always an incredibly weird journey from writing a script to making it in the indie world. This is the most difficult aspect, especially for someone like me who is not going to be in a thriller, action movie or religious film. I’m trying to make avant-garde films. So I have to be a really good salesman and convey the concept in a way that the producers can understand.
What was the selling point?
This is a universal concept. Everyone thinks about death, about what will happen next, and about reincarnation. Most people have lost someone, so these are universal themes. If you can touch these points, then even the most cold-blooded businessmen will think about these concepts. I am very passionate about my work, so I can share my vision and at least what I am trying to achieve. Then it’s just that they believe it.
It doesn’t hurt to bring in John Malkovich, because then they’re like, «OK, other artists that we respect are into this as well.» Then it gets easier, although it’s still a problem until you get started, and then even harder, but that’s the basics.
You touched on John Malkovich, but you have an amazing cast – Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar and even Vernon Davis, which I, as a Seahawks fan, forgive.
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m not a 49ers fan either. It was such an interesting experience and Vernon was so amazing.
What made you choose these actors for these specific roles?
You know, I wish it was a crazy story where I was at a party and just lured them all in, but the truth is that it happened in a lot of different ways that are pretty boring. John was the first domino and it was just an introduction through a friend. John just liked the script. We had a Zoom meeting and he said, «Adam, I like the script and I’m making a movie,» and I said, «Okay, let’s finish with your agent,» and he said, «Okay, if you want to, but I am making a movie. You can book my trip. He just liked the script. He told me that he usually gets a lot of bad scripts that he has to rewrite, but he liked the script and told me, «I thought he was very smart and I’m not changing anything.» That’s amazing praise from a guy like John.
Rosa was next and it was just an introduction through her agency. She just loved it. Rose looks like me. She is very avant-garde and very independent. Sure, she’ll star in a Robert Rodriguez comic book movie, but she has a very independent spirit. When we attached these two, Thomas was working at the same agency as Rosa and they suggested him. I loved all of his work and I thought he was great in this film.
Vernon and I have a common publicist, and he constantly said that Vernon should be included in this film. I’m like, «This guy is on my fantasy football team,» and he’s like, «No, he’s a very serious actor.» I spoke to Vernon a few times and he was very passionate about it and had a lot of great ideas.
My production designer referred me to Scout Taylor-Compton and she was great. and Shane [West] was my friend forever. He was one of the first people I met here and we always wanted to work together and he was the one.
Is it scary that all these big names are on set?
It’s with a guy like John, but he’s so cool, so sweet, so unassuming and so professional. He was so easy. I had no idea what I would get. I heard that he was difficult, I heard that he was not difficult, but he was a kitten. So sweet and so professional and so in it. If they are passionate about a project, it becomes very easy to work with them. It becomes just a job, you know, let me get the best out of these guys. That’s all.
Is there a specific point you want the audience to pay attention to?
I love discovery. I received a lot of opposition during the preparation and never thought it would happen. But I wanted to establish the timelessness of this story. The timeless aspect of this «corporation» so I really like how the opening turned out with this phenomenal actor named Chris Mullinax – this guy from Alabama who was perfect for this role.
It starts on an interesting note and then you move on to today…
Oddly enough, this sequence worked exactly the way I wanted. That was great.
So, this is the fifth project that you have worked on as a director, after When the Starlight Goes Out, Two Dogs, Ambush and the television series Astral Man. How has your style changed since your first project?
I think I’ve just learned a lot about indie filmmaking and what works and what doesn’t. One thing I’ve learned from all my films, and Chariot especially, is to «simplify.» In general, it’s so hard to make an indie film that the more complexity you bring to any department, the less chance you have of it being amazing. So, if you can simplify, do it!
What upcoming projects can you share with us?
Yes, I’m going to the UK to work on my next project. We have a big star for which I am very happy. We can’t announce it yet, but I’m very excited about it.