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Director Adam Sigal on Chariot & bonding with John Malkovich

Adam Sigal’s journey to Hollywood did not follow the typical script. While many actors and screenwriters wait tables or park cars to make ends meet, Sigal became a private investigator at the age of 19 upon his move to Los Angeles. The life of a P.I. can be tiresome and lonely, but Sigal used this opportunity as a way to learn about human behavior and inspire more creativity in his writing.

After writing the script for 2007’s Daydreamer, Sigal wrote and directed two feature films: 2016’s When the Starlight Ends and 2019’s Stakeout. In Sigal’s latest project, Chariot, the writer-director moves into the science fiction genre with his version of a reincarnation thriller. In an interview with Digital Trends, Sigal discusses his love for sci-fi, his past life as a private investigator, and what it’s like to work with and eventually befriend the film’s star, John Malkovich (Space Force).

John Malkovich sitting down and looking at director Adam Sigal in the movie Chariot.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Digital Trends: Your first two feature films were inspired by previous jobs and experiences you’ve had. That’s not the case with Chariot, a sci-fi mystery about reincarnation. Where did the inspiration for making this film come from?

Adam Sigal: I’m through and through a sci-fi nerd. What I’m slowly trying to build my career up to is essentially science fiction. That’s what I grew up on, sci-fi and fantasy. I guess my favorite subgenre is high-concept science fiction done on a small scale. I like Primer, that type of thing, which is an at-risk subgenre. All my stuff had at least the kiss of science fiction. Even this was still sort of science fiction. Everything I do is just building up to hopefully the big science fiction I’d like to do someday.

In a previous interview, you said this film was with you for around five years. Between delays and COVID issues, did anything in the story change? Did you have to add or subtract any characters or plot points? Was this the exact story you wanted to tell?

No, it was the basic story. It did undergo a pretty drastic change three years ago. I simplified it a bit because I kind of came to the realization that it was such a strange story. Telling that kind of story in a strange structure is just impossible. So I was like all right, I can tell the strange story, but in at least a slightly more structured way and against the backdrop of a love story throughout various lifetimes, which is a universal concept to grasp. Whereas before, it was all over the place.

You gathered a great cast for this film, with Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar, and Shane West. But obviously, the name that really sticks out is John Malkovich. How did John get involved, and what was it like working alongside him?

It was a very strange experience. You know, a lot of times at this level of the industry, you kind of beat your head against a wall and you make offers to agents and they get ignored. So with John, I was introduced to him directly by a friend, and she said I’m going to send him the script. I was like, “Oh sure, I’ll hold my breath.” Then she said, “John loved the script and he wants to zoom with you.” I was expecting somebody with a John Malkovich pop-up mask on there, but it’s John.

He goes on for about 20 minutes talking about how much he loved the script. He said, “You know, I get so many crappy scripts, and I always have to rewrite my character. My wife is a Harvard scholar. She read this, and this is her favorite script she’s read in years.” So he expressed an interest in becoming involved. I was like “OK, cool. Should we talk to your agent?” And he responded, “Yeah, go ahead. You know it’s fine if you want to. Just book my travel.” And so we got him to do it.

Whenever you get kind of an older actor who’s done a lot of movies, you just never know what you’re going to get on set. Are they going to be happy to be there? Are they going to be miserable? With John, I had heard rumors that he was difficult, and he couldn’t have been less difficult. He’s so cool, so respectful, so collaborative, just awesome. He and I have remained very close friends since shooting because we just have a lot in common. He’s a really good dude.

Thomas Mann taped to his chair as Shane West points his finger at him in a scene from Chariot.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In the film, there’s the constant use of the color red. For example, Dr. Karn’s hair, Maria’s dress, and the lights in the hotel. You once referred to this project as a “Terry Gilliam-esque kind of look at the afterlife.” Was the red an ode to 12 Monkeys?

That’s a really cool question. It was actually an ode to the first thing I ever wrote, which was a short story. It was about a guy who was a modern-day sculptor. I was inspired after I read The Agony and the Ecstasy. So I wrote this short story about this guy who was a sculptor. He was sculpting a statue and it was driving him crazy because he couldn’t get the face right. He couldn’t remember a woman from a past life and the details of her face. The only thing he could recall was that she had red hair. He would see this red all the time. I think it was a subconscious throwback to the first thing I ever really wrote.

To answer your question though, I love 12 Monkeys. Gilliam is one of my favorite filmmakers. But my using the color red wasn’t evoking his work.

What was the inspiration for the masks?

The most direct comparison is the mask from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. I loved the concept that he had to wear a mask to sort of travel between dimensions. You just put it on, and that was the way he traveled through dreams. So I liked the concept. This is kind of how they step into it and out of our reality, you know. Just from the appearance, that’s the one that it probably looks the most similar to, and that was definitely the inspiration for it.

Thomas Mann and Rosa Salazar sitting at a table and talking in a scene from Chariot.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

You have an interesting career as you were once a private investigator. You don’t see many people go from being a P.I. to a screenwriter. How did you settle on that job? Did you need a paycheck at the time, and that’s why you became a private investigator?

That’s definitely how I fell into it. I moved to L.A. when I was 19 and I needed a job, and that opportunity arose. I would have never thought of it as something that would be creatively inspiring because it’s not. But it did show me so many parts of society and behavior that I would have never seen otherwise, like just people being awful to each other in ways that I never would have even fathomed. It made me so much more cynical, which I think helped a lot with my writing in general. You know, it was a job. I mean, it sucked. There were parts of it that were no fun at all, and there were parts of it that were really interesting. But it definitely led to a really good understanding of human behavior.

In the film industry, you started your career as a writer, and eventually wrote 2007’s Daydreamer. I don’t want to bring up an old wound, but the film did not turn out as you expected. What happened?

No, that’s fine. I mean, it’s true. It’s not a wound. Honestly, it’s not even that they did a bad job. It’s just that my work is so strange and it’s so unique that I don’t just write a horror film or a thriller and hand it to a director. That’s easy. They can just go, “Oh yeah, it’s all here on the page. Done. Easy.” I realized that after the first two things I wrote and handed off, it just was too weird. They weren’t getting it.

So I was like if these interpretations are going to be catastrophically bad, let them be mine. Let my vision be as unfiltered as possible. I actually love the concept of writing a script and handing it off to a director. I love that I still am a writer at my core. I just haven’t quite found that partner yet who can interpret my vision in a certain way.

Could you ever direct someone else’s script?

I had such a sort of aversion to doing that, and I generally hate most scripts that I read, but I’m coming off of that a bit. I’ve always been like I’m just going to write my own thing and not adapt anything, and just do it. But then, my favorite filmmaker is Kubrick, and all his movies are adaptations, and most of them were written in part, at least, by other people. So I’m definitely open to it.

I’m directing my next film. I’m actually leaving on Monday to go shoot it in the U.K. After that, I’ve kind of just been thinking about next year or whenever that I am ready to direct my next one after that. Maybe it will be something that someone else writes.

John Malkovich staring at a man on an operating table in a scene from Chariot.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Since you mentioned it, what is your next project?

It’s a dark comedy, and we have a really big star attached as the lead. It’s a period piece. It’s based on an incredibly strange true story. So it’s kind of a biopic. We literally just escrowed our lead so I think we will announce it soon. It’s awesome. It’s a really cool story. He’s a big, big star and we’re casting up the rest of it now. I mean, it’s going to be fun shooting it. We’re filming in Leeds, which is about two hours outside of London. It’s going to be very dark and dreary and British. It’s going to be awesome.

Saban Films’ thriller Chariot is now in theaters, and  available on demand and digital.

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