Writer/Director Adam Sigal (Stakeout, Daydreamer) takes us on a wild ride with his new thriller, Chariot.
In this dark and twisted thriller, John Malkovich stars as Dr. Karn, an odd, eccentric specialist who guides unknowing patients through the reincarnation transition. When Harrison (Thomas Mann) experiences mysterious recurring dreams, he turns to Dr. Karn for help and reveals his encounter with a woman (Rosa Salazar) he loved in a previous life. Noticing a glitch in the system, the doctor must fix the issue before permanently derailing his patient’s future.
Check out my interview with Adam!
How did you come up with the story?
Adam: The story came about in an odd way. I mean, I love the kind of higher concept science fiction pulled on a small scale. It’s kind of like my favorite, I guess you’d say sub genre, you know, like less Star Wars more kind of Primer type stuff, right? So I love that it’s kind of the type of thing that I watch the most and I love to see people’s attempts to do that. So with Chariot, I always wanted to tell a story about death and reincarnation and I’ve always been fascinated by how death is still the final frontier. Science has explained everything, essentially, and the things that were mythologized by humanity, you know, the sun moving across the sky, or why we don’t float off the Earth into space. Science has solved all these things, but death remains the one thing where nobody can look you in the eye with 100% certainty what’s gonna happen. And so I was fascinated by that concept. And I said, you know, I want to write a movie, just a funny sort of, like, maybe there’s just this corporation that oversees it and kind of do it in a subtle way, but not from the perspective of like, saying that I think that when you die, John Malkovich is going to approach you with a bad wig on. That’s not the case. It’s more like just the idea that maybe it’s something that’s not super scary and is something as mundane as something like gravity. We just haven’t discovered it yet. So that was the way it came about.
Oh yes, John Malkovich’s wig…
Adam: Oh, I know whose idea it was his idea.
Was it his idea to wear a bow in it as well?
Adam: Absolutely. He showed up to set with that on one day and I’m like, I can’t say no to John. And John was amazing. I mean, just such an awesome guy. So passionate about the material, about the character and the process of attaching him was incredible. He was just like, ‘hey, I love the script. And, you know, my wife is a Harvard scholar and she wouldn’t change a word and I get so many bad scripts, and I’m not going to change a word on this one and I’m in and booked my travel,’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, well, we should actually attach you to the project,’ and he’s like, ‘It’s okay. It’s fine. Talk to my agent, but I’m doing it.’And throughout the process, he would call me at random hours and say, ‘I think that this character should wear a wig. He’s a phony. Karn is a phony. And I think he needs a bad wig.’ And I was like,’ you want to wear a bad wig?’ And he’s like, yeah, so I said it was okay. I’m not gonna say no to John Malkovich about a character. That’s my general kind of philosophy on a film, I’m the director and I’m sort of the guiding vision behind it, but I’m working with a bunch of artists who know how to do their job way better than I ever will, like, I’m not going to tell John Malkovich about acting or how to embody a character. I mean, seriously, like, he’s forgotten more about playing characters than I will ever know in my life. So when he made a suggestion like that, it made total sense with the work that we had already done, prep wise, and I was like, ‘Absolutely, man. Get your ugly wig. I’m down. Let’s do it.’
That makes sense, but still, to see him in a bad wig is just really funny.
Adam: I cracked up when he showed up the first day and I just couldn’t stop laughing. My favorite thing was in the trailer that we posted where he’s wearing the wig, one of the YouTube comments, oh they are always the greatest things on the internet, and the top one was just like,’ what did they do to John Malkovich?!’
What was it like working with Thomas and Rosa?
Adam: Amazing I mean, Rosa is awesome. The thing I love the most about Rosa is that she is a true avant garde artist, much like me. She’s very much not in this game for the money, not in this game for the fame, not in this game to work with the hottest stars or actors, she wants to make cool movies. That’s just it. And so she was attracted to the role and attracted to the character and attracted to my sort of vision for it and it’s awesome working with artists who are there for that reason. And Thomas is such a great actor. He’s just so professional and really takes his work seriously and he’s also just the sweetest guy. I mean, he’s a dream to work with, you know, none of the ego is there and everyone loves him, everyone loves working with him. And John, you know, John and I have become really good friends after making this and he brings him up all the time. He says, ‘ oh, Thomas, I loved working with him. He’s such a great actor.’ And he’s approached Thomas about other projects after this one that he’s working on because he just thinks that Thomas is so great. He really is a really great actor.
The Lafayette is a real historic building, right? How’d you get to film there?
Adam: It is. It’s in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. We shot this movie in Arkansas. Indie filmmaking, a lot of it kind of centers around tax credits, and where the film friendly places to shoot are, essentially. And Arkansas is very film friendly and very welcoming and has a very great tax credit. And so when my producers approached me and said, ‘What do you think about shooting in Arkansas?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never been to Arkansas. What the hell’s in Arkansas?’ And they started showing me pictures and they showed me this building and I was like, ‘oh, yeah! I mean, that’s it. That works. If we can shoot there. Let’s do it.’ And it really kind of was exactly what I had envisioned when I was writing it and that was how we ended up shooting there.
Why did you title this film Chariot?
Adam: The title is from the Emily Dickinson poem that I show at the beginning. It’s a poem called “The Chariot” and it is about death, and it’s just one of my favorite poems, and she’s one of my favorite poets. And so, it’s just very pretentious of me, but it was the poem that really kind of was one of the impetus for me writing the script, you know, just like the imagery invoked in that poem. And so I decided to name it that much to the dismay of the other people involved who didn’t understand.
The story is also told in a very interesting way, almost like there are book chapters.
Adam: Yeah, that came along very late in the process, actually. I didn’t intend to make this movie hard to follow. I mean, I didn’t intend to make it not hard to follow, but I never wanted to make a film that people couldn’t understand. And so it’s a strange story told in a strange way. And so, I decided pretty late in the process that I was gonna make this a tiny bit easier for people, like it was my one concession to helping hold people’s hand in general, which I never want to do. I always am just like, ‘oh, well, if they don’t understand, they don’t understand.’ But on this one, I was like, ‘okay, I can guide them a little bit on this one and just help out.’ So that was how that came about.
I really want to talk about the line that Thomas says, ‘we’re just a shadow of a fart in the wind.’ Did you come up with that or had you heard that from somewhere?
Adam: No, no, that was all mine. And that was just, you know, a product of sort of many nights, which I’m sure you’ve had, laying in bed and thinking about existence and everything and just thinking about how massively important we feel in our own mind and our own universe that we create, and just how massively insignificant we are in the grand scheme of time and the universe. So, that’s kind of my commiseration about that and then, sort of like playing that into my own fear, but in a way, like a comfort where, like, this is gonna get a little esoteric and weird, but whatever… if we’re looking at the concept of reincarnation and the concept that we come back, but we don’t remember anything, that in itself was so dismaying. If that was the way that things were, which I’m not even saying it is, who knows, that’s dismaying, like, you’re gonna die and forget everyone that you know and everything you’ve done. But there was some comfort in the concept that you’d still be you and even if you are in a different body and you’re surrounded by other people, you don’t remember anything, you’re still you. You’re not going to go away. So, that was kind of my assurance to myself via the character that I created about that concept.
So, the story starts off crazy and it just kind of takes off from there. Is there something that you want your audience to take away from watching it?
Adam: All I want to do is make movies and make people think. The filmmaker I respect and admire more than anyone else has David Lynch and the reason is because I think he approaches telling his stories in such an odd way in that like, if he wants to make a movie about feeling sad, he’s not going to necessarily do it in a linear way. He just wants to invoke feelings, he wants to convey his theme to the audience without, you know, overdoing it in an obvious way. And so, I just want them to think and try to think, rather than just looking at what’s on the screen and just letting it kind of wash over you. Think about it, just for a second. Whether you agree or disagree or like or dislike, just think about what the artist was trying to communicate and then that’s all.
I just keep thinking about the line, ‘do you enjoy existing?’ So your answer, along with that line pretty much sums up the emotional realm of the movie.
Adam: That is exactly the point is that that does summarize the entire film in that beautifully delivered line by John.