The Reeler

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March 23, 2007

Heavy Snow

Children of Men co-writer (and Astoria kid) Mark Fergus makes directing debut with First Snow

Guy Pearce in screenwriter Mark Fergus's directorial debut, First Snow (Photo: Freestyle Releasing)

Astoria-born, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Mark Fergus (Children of Men) returned to New York to premiere his directorial debut, First Snow, at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. Today's opening of the film, which stars Guy Pearce as a man obsessed with omens that, he believes, predict his death, brought Fergus again to his home turf, but this time, he said, it's different.

"I'm staying at a hotel that would never have been my address before, and have per diems that let me take cabs," he told The Reeler in a recent interview. "This is something new for a near-starving artist. I could get used to it, but it's not essential to my work."

THE REELER: Judging from First Snow, and Children of Men, too, you seem to thrive creatively on dark thoughts.…

MARK FERGUS: Maybe it's because I'm of Irish descent, born of Irish immigrants. But things seems to make sense when viewed against the striking backdrop of your short time on Earth, of dying. Hawk (Ostby, Fergus' writing partner) and I never think about it that way, but we do keep returning to that theme, naturally gravitating towards stories where someone's existence is questioned. In those situations, we think, 'Oh, now we've got a story to tell.' Looking back at our writing, that seems a prevalent idea.

R: So, life's always played against death's backdrop?

MF: Yes, and in First Snow, maybe in a more literal way, with someone questioning his destiny, his very existence. We'd love to write comedy, but we're just not funny. We need a story that gets us over the threshold of our interest, pushes us beyond the ordinary. There're many interesting stories, but if you're spending a year or two on a script, it has to be worth the effort. Stories that meet that threshold for us are extreme. First Snow is about nothing happening to someone who thinks everything's happening to him -- because he's questioning whether he's going to die. That's a powerfully gripping personal scenario, even if it's entirely self-created.

I'm reading The Lucifer Principal, researching a character I'm working on, and the incredible thing that book shows is the enormous power ideas have in shaping behavior. Even if it's illogical, we need the illusion of having control. If we have control, our immune systems strengthen, sense of well-being strengthens, everything strengthens, while loss of control can make you give up and die, even if you have access to food and everything you need to live. Am I answering your question?

I guess so. Sort of --

MF: Well, if I stray, just say, "What the hell are you talking about, Mark?"

R: OK. What the hell are you talking about, Mark? No, just joking. You're expressing your concerns quite clearly.

MF: Well, I wish Hawk were here, too, but he's finishing up Iron Man (the next Fergus/Ostby project). He's better than I am at interviews. I'm gawky, he's gregarious.

Filmmaker Mark Fergus (Photo: Tribeca Film Festival)

When we were writing First Snow, Hawk's obsession was with the occult -- how a Tarot reader might reveal mysteries existing behind the surface of things. He's fascinated by whether a palm reading's an omen of something. I'm more interested in the palm reading's effect on the person's psyche. I don't think about magic, or synchronicity, (but) just about how information you get can mess with your life, or make you see and interpret things you hadn't noticed before -- like you've had a peek behind the curtain and now can't leave it alone.

R: Are you superstitious?

MF: Intellectually, I laugh it off. But I think there're times when it feels like the universe is meeting you halfway on something. Knowing whether that feeling's self-created or not is impossible. Say you're pushing for something and opportunity arises; is it the result of pushing, or is the universe meeting you halfway?

R: When has the universe met you halfway?

MF: I guess people might call that coincidence, but my teacher said, "When you're ready to learn, you'll find a teacher," and I think that's true.

R: Who was that teacher?

MF: An acting teacher named Judith Westin.

R: Here in New York?

MF: In LA. Her book (Directing Actors) is one of the golden standards. You realize it's applicable to life and people, in general -- not just acting, although it focuses specifically on acting. I don't recall who she attributes that quote to, but I think it's beautiful. And when life leads you to a place where you can learn something, you need to be open to making changes. Then, suddenly, you'll find the means. I felt that when I first moved to LA --

R: What year?

MF: In 2001. I'd just been divorced and my life was falling apart. It was a big dramarama. I felt I'd never think clearly again.

R: Were you already writing with Hawk?


MF: Since '95.

R: You met in New York?

MF: Yes, at Showtime. We'd attended Boston University simultaneously, but never met there. We were both working jobs at Showtime so we could write. I was in accounting, he was in another department. After work, we would sit for four hours, writing on our computers. That was an interesting incidence of being stuck, not knowing your next step, and meeting a person who changed everything. One day, Hawk asked me to edit his script. Then I gave him something to look at. Over several months, we realized: Wow, something interesting is happening between us in our writing that we never expected, never anticipated. Then, well, we thought, maybe we'll be writing together for the rest of our lives. But you don't know that when you meet.

R: That's a great partnership. Why didn't you co-direct First Snow?

MF: The timing wasn't right. Hawk had a new baby, and was focusing on family. He might direct in the future, or we might co-direct, if the right project comes up.

R: In New York, perhaps?

MF: Right now, the work seems to be in LA -- with Iron Man in production, and another project we've signed on to write. But I love New York, and I'd love to make a film here.

R: When the universe meets you halfway?

MF: I guess so.



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