“Wade in the Water”, screening at Dances With Films in Los Angeles on June 19, tells of a rather bizarre man who receives a mis-addressed package in the mail. The unique and very confronting film hails from the pen of Chris Retts, an up-and-coming screenwriter who has been living and breathing the project for the better part of three years.
Recently, Chris took the time to grant an exclusive interview to HVY where he discussed this movie and more.
Meagan Meehan (MM): Tell us about your beginnings, Chris. When did you discover your love of writing?
Chris Retts (CR): I’ve been writing as long as I can remember, really. Even before I could physically “write” my mom would sit down and let me dictate stories to her that I’d then go and illustrate. I was also an avid reader at a young age. Back then, YA wasn’t the phenomenon it is now, obviously, but I still had Narnia and Middle Earth, and my parents were pretty cool about letting me read those amazing thriller writers from the 80s and 90s – Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Tom Clancy. They drew the line at Stephen King early on, but I got to him eventually. Anyway, when you’re reading all this stuff, it’s not long before you try giving it a shot yourself. I probably started fifty novels throughout grade, middle, and high school. I definitely finished none of them.
MM: And what types of stories did you write growing up?
CR: So, because of my experience reading some of these fantasy and science fiction authors, my writing has always kind of tended in that direction. I love collaborating, so coming onto someone else’s project and trying to help make their vision the best possible it can be is something I’m always game for, and it’s meant that I’ve gotten to dabble in a really wide variety of genres – dramas, thrillers, romantic comedies, etc. But from a really young age, I’ve loved stories that are either flat out scary, or that are at least thrillers, with supernatural elements.
MM: Now did anyone else in the family ‘write’?
CR: We’re all writers, actually, just in these very unique, specific ways, and we’re also a pretty artsy family in general. Both of my parents are teachers, which obviously requires a fair amount of writing. My mom teaches science, but had a few of her short stories for children published when I was a kid. She also paints. My dad’s got a doctorate in adult learning and writes and consults in organizational leadership. He pursued cinematography as a young man and has always been a talented photographer. My sister’s a classically-trained violinist and is currently an incredible songwriter and music producer with her husband out here in LA.
MM: Did you have supportive parents, who encouraged you to pursue it?
CR: Absolutely. I can’t imagine having more supportive parents as far as that goes. It’s for sure a big reason why my sister and I were able to persist and find success in these creative fields.
MM: And how did you supplement your income in the meantime? Another job?
CR: Still doing it! So, there are obviously screenwriters out there who are able to support themselves fulltime with their writing, and I certainly aspire to that enviable position. But it’s not true for me yet, and I know it’s not true for a lot of incredibly talented, deserving screenwriters out there. If that’s you, and you’re reading this, we’re not alone! I currently work for a small film school in Los Angeles. Prior to that, I worked for Pepperdine University, which is where I got my MFA in 2015. I’ve always tried to stay connected to educational institutions, because I see mentoring younger writers and filmmakers as an essential part of my vocation.
MM: When did you know the writing was paying off?
CR: Phew. That’s a tough one. I know there’s a lot of screenwriters out there who don’t really like or put much stock in contests, but, for me, submitting to things like Austin and Nicholl and then actually placing in, like, the top 50 or the top 100 out of thousands of submissions helped me feel like, okay, I’m at least competitive. Getting my first paid gig, then, obviously was a pretty-big-clue-things were starting to pay off. Here’s the thing though: it’s so easy, as a writer, to have these monumental highs and monumental lows. You really need to get to the point where the pay-off is the work itself. Everything else is so fleeting, that if the big moments of achievement or recognition are all that are keeping you running, eventually, you’re gonna to stall out.
MM: How long ago did you write the script for Wade in the Water?
CR: I wrote the script in the spring of 2017. (Director) Mark Wilson and I had been developing scripts for a while. In fact, the first time I submitted to any sort of screenwriting contest was when Mark and I submitted a rewrite I had done on one of his scripts to the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. That script ended up being a Semifinalist there and a Finalist at a competition out here in LA called Script Pipeline. But we’d been developing these scripts for these really big movies that someone with money or influence was going to have to buy into in order for them to get made. Eventually, we realized the naivete of that approach and I told Mark I was going to give myself two weeks to write something I knew we could “fall out of bed and shoot” on our own. That was the first draft of WADE, which ended up taking four weeks. Then, of course, we were rewriting all the way up until production in the fall of 2017. Even then, on set, Mark and I would be reworking dialogue and things with Tom Nicholson and Danika Golombek – both of whom are brilliant and made me a better writer.
MM: Are any of the characters in it based on yourself?
CR: I tend to feel like all of my characters are based on myself. Or, at least, in order for them to be vivid characters I need to find some sort of personal entry into their lives. For “Our Man”, it’s his anger — especially when it comes to the moral failure of institutions that are supposed to be making peoples’ lives better. To be clear, I was never abused as a child, and I’m also (I hope it’s clear) NOT an advocate of people going out and enacting vigilante justice. But his anger is definitely something I understand. I think a lot of people do, and, certainly, part of the film is trying to address this question of what we’re supposed to do with that.
MM: It’s got a very unique tone, is that fair to say?
CR: Very fair to say, yes! I’ve heard it described as Coen-esque, which, for me, is just about the highest compliment anyone could pay. But I think what folks are pointing to, there, is a kind of blending of very serious drama with jet-black comedy. That’s something that we knew was just kind of naturally in the script because of some of the more bizarre scenarios it presents, and so Mark and I were very conscious of preserving that kind of endemic absurdity, while also not wanting to seem like we were making light of the extremely serious issues the script addresses.
MM: How hard was it to find your male lead?
CR: Way easier than it should have been. We had an embarrassment of riches during the casting process — so much so that I was initially on the fence about which of the several, super-talented options we should go with. Thankfully, Mark knew right away that Tom Nicholson was, literally, “Our Man”. I think Tom does an incredible job, and now I couldn’t possibly imagine the film without him at the center of it.
MM: And does the movie have a message?
CR: One of my favorite quotes about art is from the Scottish fairytale writer George MacDonald, who said that, “the truer a work of art is, the more things it will mean.” My goal is always to end up with something that kind of defies an “official” reading, while at the same time providing people with enough fodder to take away meanings of their own. That being said, I think WADE’s at least about the importance and the limits of compassion – about how it doesn’t deny the existence of evil or ignore wrongdoing, but also about how a commitment to it eventually necessitates that we’ll have to be compassionate toward people we find distasteful, inconvenient, or even abhorrent.
MM: Where would you like to be in ten years, Chris?
CR: I’d like to be doing much the same thing! Just hopefully on a larger scale: writing a lot, mentoring other writers and filmmakers when I can, and making movies with talented, passionate folks like everyone who worked with us on WADE. I’m really, so excited to be able to celebrate with them at our screening at Dances with Films on June 19th! Thanks to all of them, and thanks to HVY for the thoughtful interview and for shedding some light on our work!