There’s death. Men on the run. Multiple betrayals. Then, a heist.
So unfolds “Shimmer Lake,” the feature directorial debut from Oren Uziel, a stylish thriller that ups the ante by telling its story backwards. Available on Netflix beginning June 9, the film begins on the last day of the tale, then proceeds to go back and show what happened each day before, until the day of the robbery. And if it sounds like a gimmick, don’t be fooled: Uziel’s smart script only works when told in reverse, revealing secrets and confidences at just the right times. “The problem with a lot of these movies that don’t work is it’s just a gimmick,” Uziel concurs. “Here, there’s no movie if it’s not told this way.” The film is also bolstered by fantastic performances from a cast that includes Benjamin Walker as a small-town lawman and Wyatt Russell as the ringleader of the heist.
If the name of the script rings a bell, it might be because it’s been a hot property in Hollywood for several years. Uziel was a lawyer who quit his day job in 2008 to write a novel, thinking that would be his way into screenwriting. Because chick lit was all the rage, publishers were trying to make “lad lit” happen — something that put Uziel at odds with his agent. “She wanted something sexier,” he recalls. “I finally said to myself, ‘If you want to be a screenwriter, just write a screenplay!’”
Uziel learned the trade simply by watching movies and reading scripts, and “Shimmer Lake” was the first screenplay he ever wrote. “I had no idea what to do with it,” he admits. “So I put it in the mail to the Austin Film Festival screenwriting competition. And I started getting calls: ‘You’re a semifinalist, you’re a finalist!’” Uziel went on to win the fest’s Latitude Productions award.
The script was quickly optioned by Fox Atomic. “Then, they immediately went out of business,” Uziel recalls with a laugh. “It was my first introduction to Hollywood.”
Over the years, the script was optioned by various producers and set up at different studios and different directors expressing interest. In the meantime, Uziel was establishing himself as a screenwriter based on the strength of a script he couldn’t get made. He was brought on to work on “22 Jump Street” and a draft of “Zombieland 2,” and learning his way around a set. “Originally, I didn’t know anything about filmmaking and had no experience,” he says. “So I said, let’s baby step it, let’s learn how to be a screenwriter and learn how movies are made. I had told the last person who optioned it, ‘If you can get this movie made, I’m sure it’s going to be great. But if at the end of the first option period you haven’t made it, please give it back to me because I suspect I might be ready to direct it then.’ And he did.”
Though it took until 2015 to roll the cameras, Uziel says things came together with surprisingly few hiccups once he was set to direct. Netflix had bought the streaming rights prior to shooting, and later purchased worldwide rights. While that means the film won’t be seen in theaters, Uziel knows the streaming platform can help it find a wide audience. “I know how I watch movies and how my friends watch. The movie’s going to be seen on Netflix,” he says. “You lose some things like a theatrical release, but it’s a give and take.”
Uziel had originally spoken to Liev Schreiber about playing lawman Zeke Sikes, but when the actor went on to do his passion project “Chuck,” he met with Walker. “He’s was the first to sign on and he’s so good,” Uziel notes. “And casting him made everything go 10 years younger.”
Rainn Wilson was cast against type as Zeke’s screw-up brother, who gets in over his head on the heist. “I just have so much faith in comic actors, I think they can do anything,” says Uziel. “So when you ask them to play tragic, they’re really good at it.” And Uziel was familiar with Russell, who appeared in “22 Jump Street.” He notes, “I wanted that guy to be someone you could feel for and wasn’t the stereotypical heavy.”
Two fresh faces rounded out the cast: Stephanie Sigman plays Russell’s love interest, and Uziel had caught her in the Mexican thriller “Miss Bala.” And for the role of Chris, one of the robbers who suffered brain damage in a previous accident, Uziel cast unknown Mark Rendall. “One of the editors I was talking to has a clip of Mark on his reel and I said, ‘Who’s that guy?’” Uziel reveals. “And we tracked him down from that one scene.”
The film was shot in 23 days and Uziel credits his cast with making his first time a smooth experience. “I love actors,” he enthuses. “I can’t do that, it’s insane. I respect how vulnerable they are and what a craft it is. Everybody understood what they were doing and the characters and the process. It was so indie they knew we didn’t have warm-up takes, we didn’t have time for take 12. They got it and they got it fast.”
Asked if he ever got confused writing or shooting the film because of the nature of the timeline, Uziel quickly responds: “Always.” He adds that writing the script was a particularly delicate process. “Because it was my first screenplay, it’s the only reason I would be dumb enough to try and write something like that. The first bunch of drafts were a disaster. It’s a hard balance to make sure the audience isn’t ahead of you, but also confused. And to develop characters and set up payoffs in reverse is hard.”
But in the end, Uziel has made an airtight film. “Hopefully it rewards rewatching, as opposed to demands rewatching,” he says.
Up next, Uziel has a film due in October that already has the business buzzing: his script for the sci-fi film “God Particle” was produced by J.J. Abrams and has recently been revealed to be set in Abrams’ “Cloverfield” universe. The film is currently listed as “Cloverfield Movie” on IMDb.
Though he wrote “God Particle” prior to the release of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” Uziel has no qualms about his script being part of this shared universe. “They are smart and savvy and know that the brand of J.J. and the brand of ‘Cloverfield’ are enormous,” he says. “It’s a smart way of being able to make original movies, but have them be a recognizable IP. I understand it and endorse that.”
As for what he can reveal about the film, which stars David Oyelowo and Daniel Bruhl, Uziel pauses before saying, “It’s going to be very fun, I think.”