'It' Screenwriter on Making First Directorial Feature With 'Naked Singularity'

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"Your first movie sets the tone for your career as a director," says Chase Palmer, "so I wanted to the best job possible."

Chase Palmer talks returning to the horror genre, working with Cary Fukunaga and why he’s making his directorial debut (starring 'Star Wars' John Boyega) a heist movie with a message.

It’s been a long journey for Chase Palmer from his first critically acclaimed shorts — Neo-Noir, which premiered at Sundance in 2002, and 2004’s Shock and Awe — to Naked Singularity, his feature debut as a director, which producer, financier and sales house Anton is selling at AFM. In between, Palmer honed his craft as a screenwriter, penning two Black List scripts and co-writing — with Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman — Andy Muschietti’s It reboot, which grossed more than $700 million worldwide, making it the most successful horror film of all time.

Now Palmer has shifted genres for his directorial bow, a crime drama starring Star Wars’ John Boyega as an ambitious and highly successful New York public defender whose life begins to unravel after he loses his first case. He took time out from the final edit to talk to THR about paying his dues, making his mark as an auteur and why his first film could never have been made within the studio system.

You attracted attention with your first shorts, particularly Neo-Noir. Why did it take so long to mount your first feature as a director?

Yeah, my first two shorts got some play on the festival circuit and kind of opened the door for me. I almost had a feature film right out of out of the gate, about a young [Alfred] Hitchcock. It was a really good experience up to the point that it fell apart. But that got me my first studio writing job. And from there I was able to make this nice career working with directors and learning about the craft. Naked Singularity is probably the third film I tried to get made as a writer-director. The other two came close a few times. I think this film does something interesting with genre and plays with the form a little bit. It also has something to say. It has a unique take on what it’s like to be a public defender in the criminal justice system. It’s dark. But it has a wry sense of humor, too. It’s a heist movie, but it’s [also] about getting people out of the system. A heist story about social justice.

Did you write the lead character with Boyega in mind?

Absolutely. Since Attack the Block, I’ve been a fan. And when I saw his work in Detroit, which you know, is an incredible, very hard movie … he’s sort of a life raft in that film. You hold on to some integrity and emotion and stability within him. I felt there might be an opportunity with him coming off the adventure of Star Wars that he would be eager to try something that would be very different. I think he was taken by the character and how he is this mixture of arrogance and idealism. And [Boyega] is very invested in social justice issues. He really does care about that message in the movie.

You had such incredible success with your screenplay to It. Did you feel any pressure to do a horror movie as your directorial debut?

The other movie that I wanted to get made, and that I still want to get made, is called Black Lung. It’s in the horror genre, more the atmospheric horror genre, in the mode of Don’t Look Now or Let the Right One In. Those kind of movies excite me. Like what Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) is doing. So I have no aversion to going into horror.

Could Naked Singularity have been made within the studio system?

It would have been hard, especially as a first-time director. Maybe if you were an established director and you had the right elements, you could have smuggled in a story like this. But it’s also a matter of scale. I wanted to make a serious New York movie, a movie that feels a bit like old school New York. There’s definitely a throwback '70s side to it. Like listening to a modern band on a vinyl record. The studios aren’t making those kinds of movies right now, and it’s a bummer. I think the streamers are probably doing it more.

You’ve been attached to a lot of projects as a writer. What’s up next for you?

I’m working with something for Cary after he emerges from Bond [No Time to Die] and excited to do so. As a screenwriter, there are a couple of projects I’ve worked on that I’m in love with, specifically one called No Blood, No Guts, No Glory, which is with Focus. It’s had an endless array of directors attached over the years. But if that was something I could take and push over the finish line as a director, well, that would be a dream.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 7 daily issue at the American Film Market.