Thursday, January 1, 2009

Stefan Schaefer on “Confess”

When did you start writing screenplays?

STEFAN SCHAEFER: I wrote my first screenplay in 1995, and of course like most first-timers I thought, "Oh, this won't be so hard." I'd read a bunch of screenplays and thought I had a decent understanding of structure and how to subvert structure.

I wrote three, maybe four screenplays before Confess, and none of them had been produced and they were basically an exercise how to create a compelling story.

How did you come up with Confess?

STEFAN SCHAEFER: In about 1999, I read this article in The Times about these young hackers who were being hired by security firms and the government to counter-hack and protect corporate and government property. I thought it would be an interesting documentary to pursue. I started meeting with them, and they were all really reluctant to go on tape, to be interviewed. So I thought this was a great world, but it was hard to get access to it.

At the same time I was reading about the revolutionary impulses happening in Southern Mexico and about Subcomandante Marcos, this charismatic revolutionary figure down there. He was using the media in an interesting way, writing these treatises weekly to the newspapers in Mexico City, and he became this underground media figure and revolutionary.

And I got to thinking what could an anti-corporate, anti-establishment quasi-revolutionary movement look like in the U.S.? These two influences led me to the idea that one of the few viable options for voicing political dissent and undermining government and corporate agendas is via the Internet.

So I began sketching out a story about an ex-hacker who begins a series of abductions and forced confessions which, when he broadcasts video clips of them via the Internet, gives him a mythic status among those who are disaffected, disillusioned, angry at the status quo. I talked to people about it and there seemed to be interest, people were interested in the first draft.

We were moving in the direction of going out and creating an investment memo and approaching investors and possible distribution people. And then 9/11 happened and that undercut the whole venture, because of the whole terrorism theme in the movie.

When you started, were you thinking you would direct it?

STEFAN SCHAEFER: No, I didn't necessarily think I would direct it. The more I invested in it and thought about it, and felt strongly attached to it, the more I thought I could direct it. Then, when I thought of it in that way, I thought it would probably be relatively low-budget.

More and more people at that point were beginning to do DV features. And I'd shot so much documentary stuff in digital formats that I felt very comfortable doing that.

When I went and work-shopped it at the Hampton's Screenwriting Lab and Larry Lasker read it, he helped me a lot with the structure of it, but he also said, "Up the stakes. Have him target higher-profile people."

Originally he was targeting people in his world more, and then it took on this bigger dimension following my work with Larry out there. It was such a long development process, that the script went through different iterations in terms of thinking about what the budget would be.

I always thought that this was something I could shoot for not a whole lot in New York, leveraging every relationship I've built up for years. And at a certain point, after 9/11 and after the script was languishing there and I was turning 30, it became "I've got to shoot a film one way or the other. And I'll shoot it for $50,000 or $25,000 if I have to." Which probably would have been unrealistic, but that was my feeling: one way or the other, I'm going to shoot this thing and have a feature under my belt.

What process did you go through writing the script?

STEFAN SCHAEFER: This was a script that helped me come up with the way I write now. I gave myself deadlines that I wanted to meet; I wanted to get a first draft done in X amount of weeks. So I would try to write every morning, five days a week at least.

It doesn't have to be that way. Things have evolved; I have a kid now. Now I go to a writing space, the Brooklyn Writing Space, that's the most productive place for me to be. It's a 24-hour access carrel situation, with no Internet access. I just find that without the distraction of a phone or checking e-mails or going on-line to do research and ending up deep in some Internet tangent, it helps me focus.

I also used an outline/step sheet structure with Confess as we did revisions. I did a lot of drafts of this script. And I would go back to the Step Sheet and try to re-organize things.

At what point did you decide to use narration in the movie?

STEFAN SCHAEFER: I had it in the earlier drafts, and then when we went into production we weren't totally committed to it. And then as we saw the cut coming together, we decided that we should bring it back in. So it was something that was there early on, and then pulled out in some of the middle drafts, and now it's back in there.

I'm not in love with narration as a device, but people seemed to like it in this project.

It what point in the process did you decide to open the movie with the flash forward of the senator's kidnapping?

STEFAN SCHAEFER: That was in post. That was driven by the whole idea of editing and re-editing, and the idea that it's kind of an edited universe and that he's editing what people are saying to make a point. We thought we could also then bring into the narrative structure, to give people a visual appreciation of that, and have that be an underlying idea while they're watching this movie.

That was one of the first structural changes that we made in post. We screened it for a few other filmmakers and that was an idea we had after hearing their comments, and we decided we'd try it. And we like it.

Were there any movies that inspired Confess?

STEFAN SCHAEFER: For this movie we were thinking about, in terms of the building sense of paranoia and the camera angles and the surveillance motif, The Conversation. That's one that we returned to the most in our discussions. But I also looked at a lot of tech movies, to see what I wanted to do and what not to do. Movies like pi I thought were interesting. Then there were movies where I didn't want to go in that direction, like Hackers.

I wanted to have the technology be central to the story, but also not date it too immediately. In writing it, and then in shooting it, I tired to be aware of that.

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