Burr Steers put acting, writing roots to work on 'Charlie'

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The way directors approach filmmaking typically stems from their own roots.

Writers write scripts or wind up rewriting what others have written. Actors understand acting in a way that helps them relate to other actors.

Writer-actor directors are few and far between but interesting when you find them.

Case in point: Burr Steers, whose romantic fantasy drama "Charlie St. Cloud" starring Zac Efron, opens today from Universal Pictures and Relativity Media.

With acting ("Pulp Fiction"), writing ("How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") and directing ("Igby Goes Down") experience to draw on, Steers is hands-on across the board.

"Charlie's" origins go back to Steers' second feature, the 2009 fantasy "17 Again," which also starred Efron. When Efron was asked about doing "Charlie" he brought it up with Steers. Next step: Steers lunches with Universal production head (now co-chairman) Donna Langley.

"It was appealing because I was going to get to come in and do a rewrite, work on a bigger movie and have more toys," Steers said.

"Charlie's" screenplay by Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick is based on Ben Sherwood's novel "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud." Produced by Marc Platt, it was executive produced by Michael Fottrell, Ryan Kavanaugh and Sherwood.

"It was a really human story that I could sink my teeth into."

That's when Steers' writing roots kicked in.

"I started doing an overhaul of the script and getting it into shape. Zac was much younger than the character was in the book or in the previous three drafts. So I was making it something that would work for him age-wise."

He also wanted to make the story about Charlie grieving for his dead younger brother fresher and more current.

"The brothers' relationship is key and I needed it to feel real. Because it's such an unreal story, I needed to ground it in reality and have a brother relationship that you could believe was as prickly and as complicated as sibling relationships are."

For Steers, writing or re-writing screenplays is a big part of directing.

"It helps my directing process because then I know the scenes inside and out. I know how to play them because I've played them already."
When he writes, a lot of his direction is right there on the page.

"That frees me up as a director to approach it in a fresh way in the moment on the set seeing what the actors are bringing in, what they're doing and what their point of view is and then being able to get someplace new."

Despite rewriting "Charlie," Steers didn't get a writing credit after the usual Writers Guild arbitration process. But, he points out, the threshold was higher then than it is today for how much new material a director must create to be credited.

"Unfortunately, the threshold was still 50% and the Guild didn't feel like I met 50%. It's always a tricky thing when you're doing something from a book."

Why? "Because we're all using the same source material, there's going to be a similarity in what you choose. It's also a tough thing to gauge. I don't think it's easy for the Guild."

Then the threshold changed, but not in time to help Steers.

"Now it's 30%. It just changed as I was coming out of arbitration," he said with a laugh. "So -- wonderful timing for me!"

Production started in June 2009, but not in Marblehead, Mass. where the book was set. Vancouver was a better deal financially for a film with a budget of around $40 million.

"In the book Marblehead, Mass. is really a character. Going to Vancouver, we invented a town. We did it using three or four different houses and putting it together. It ended up giving us a chance to really create a new world for the movie."

They were incredibly lucky with the weather.

"It didn't rain at all. The movie gods smiled on us."

With his acting roots, it's not surprising that Steers likes to rehearse extensively.

"I did it with Zac for about a month and a half before '17 Again' and then did the same thing on this with all the young actors, getting them into the same mode and understanding what I was going for."

Steers studied acting with Sandy Meisner, who once called acting "the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." Meisner clearly influenced how Steers now works with actors.

The goal, per Steers, is "getting them out of robotic acting -- where they're hitting lines and you can see the acting and you hear the line readings -- and getting them to be present in front of the camera and listening to each other and reacting and not feeling pressure that they have to hit it every time."

He also points out that every actor works differently.

"So you'll have certain actors where they'll get their best takes early on and then they'll get stale. And then you'll have other actors who will just get better and better and better as they discover new things in each take. It's about keeping it fresh and finding the things you need to do to keep it fresh."

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