“The Chumscrubber” represents a collaboration among two first-timers, director Arie Posin and writer Zac Stanford, and Bonnie Curtis, a long-time associate and protege of Steven Spielberg in her initial outing under a new personal production deal at DreamWorks.
“We [Zac and I] had met at a film festival, actually,” Posin said during a recent trip to Dallas with Curtis, a Texas native. “As we like to say, Zac had what I thought was the darkest short I’d ever seen, that he had written and directed. And he told everyone I had the funniest short he’d ever seen. And we got to talking and it was funny, because so many of our favorite movies really have that swing between drama and comedy–you’re never really sure where you’re supposed to laugh or if you’re supposed to laugh. And it’s fun to see those movies, especially if you see them over the course of years, you bring yourself to it, and what you may have laughed at the first time you saw it, you don’t laugh at the next time. So we were very excited about doing something together. And particularly for me, I’d been writing scripts for years in Los Angeles, and I’d kind of reached this crisis point, [because] I always thought I was a director. I was just determined. I whipped out every credit card they would let me have, and I was shooting shorts. And Zac had just directed this short that we’d met over, and I said, ‘Are you a writer or a director?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not a director. I just don’t know any directors. I’m a writer. I didn’t know any, so I just directed this.’ So we thought, ‘This is a great pairing: he’s a writer who’d been directing, I was a director who’d been writing.’ Early on we got together and we decided, ‘You’ll be the writer, I’ll be the director, and let’s do something and not try to sell it, not try to get it made into a movie. Let’s write it and make it.’ And that was the plan. We were going to pull out the credit cards, shoot it on video with our friends, and just make the movie. And just before we were going to do that, my girlfriend said, ‘Well, before you do that, don’t send it to everybody, but just pick five people that you think would be right for it. And if they don’t like it, then go shoot it on your credit card.’ And that’s what we did. And that’s how we found first [co-producer] Lawrence Bender and then Bonnie.”
The script that Stanford and Posin had fashioned together was a serio-comic one about a suburban teenager who finds the body of his best friend, a drug dealer who’s hanged himself, but is strangely unmoved by the discovery. The event nonetheless forces the young man to take action when a group of school bullies kidnap a boy whom they take for his younger brother in order to persuade him to find his dead buddy’s stash and turn it over to them. But that plot merely serves as an opening to the wider suburban world where parents and children never seem able to connect. “What was really important to us when we first started was not just to make another movie about teenagers, but to make a movie that tries to show the world from the teenager’s point of view,” Posin said. “You know, when you’re young, I think you’re really attuned to emotions and subtext of what’s going on. There’s all those secrets literally in every house, and I think when you’re a teenager you’re really sharp to that–you walk in, and you feel it, ‘Oh, there’s something here that none of them are talking about.’ And it was that kind of thing that we wanted to show in the movie. And also the feeling that each of these kids, whatever they are, you can see a reflection of that in their parents. You can see the road they’re on, because over time most of us turn into our parents, in some form or to some degree.” And Stanford and Posin chose a title that would point up the film’s unusual nature–“Chumscrubber” refers to the central character in a fictional video-game featured in the movue, but it suggests a lot more. “When you look at the culture around us, all of those characters in our pop culture have strange names–Spongebob, Pokemon, Shrek, Tele-Tubbies or Ninja Turtles,” Posin said. “And so we thought it was kind of fitting with that, and the word itself is a little bit of a play on words, because it does mean fish-bait–or it’s actually the bait that’s thrown out to get sharks in the water–but it also means friend, or buddy, or ‘chum.’ And that’s kind of the play on words–a scrubber is someone who looks after, who cleans or takes care of. So there’s a deeper meaning to it.” Still, he admitted that there was talk about changing the title. “There were conversations about that, because obviously it’s not a real word,” he said. “And it potentially may out some people off. But on the other hand, once you’re interested in it, like ‘Shrek,’ or once it means something to you, it’s one of those things hopefully you can’t wait to share with someone. Then you start to get into it. And it was also important the movie have a little bit of its own personality. People say, is it a drama, or is it a comedy? Well, it’s a drama, but it’s got a lot of humor. It doesn’t quite fit into a horror movie or a teen coming-of-age movie. It kind of straddles such lines. And we wanted a title that said the movie is a little bit different from what you’re used to, that what you’re seeing is going to be a little bit unusual, and hopefully intriguing.” (The unusual character of “The Chumscrubber” extends to its release plan. Instead of opening in the standard markets–New York and Los Angeles–first and then expanding into wider release, distributor Newmarket Films is opening it in several smaller regions, like Dallas-Fort Worth, before it hits the coasts.)
Curtis recalled reading the script Stanford and Posin wrote and being impressed by that ambiguous, multi-faceted quality. “That’s what first attracted me to it,” she said. “And that is what was exciting for me, the sort of darker stuff that you hadn’t experienced working with Steven, in this sort of surreal way. That was what really attracted me to the script originally, and it’s really amazing how few good scripts you actually read. I had been six months into my deal, and I read this script one night at home. The reason I love the film and hope it’s effective for people is that I think it’s a different movie with each viewing, and there’s a lot of layers and a lot of things to discover. And there aren’t a lot of movies that do that for you.” She also remembered asking Spielberg’s opinion about it. “He read the script a year and a half ago…and said it was the best thing I’d ever brought him,” she said. “I was exclusive to him until two years ago. I have my own deal at DreamWorks now, but this is one of the first things I brought in as a project I wanted to do apart from him. And we started this process of doing a distribution deal together.” She continued: “And then when Arie showed Steven the movie, I guess about six months ago, probably, it was really thrilling for me, having known him for sixteen years, to get the phone call after he’d seen it, because…in my sort of growing up with him as professional father to me, I’ve been waiting for that phone call. Because I had always sort of felt that I was working for my dad, and now I had a partner in crime and got to show off a little bit to him, to my dad. So when we showed him the movie, and then I called Arie, he said, ‘Slow down, slow down–what were his notes?’ He had a couple of notes about the third act, but he loved it.”
Spielberg’s enthusiasm didn’t mean that it was easy for Curtis to secure financing for the movie, though. “Everyone passed on it,” Posin recalled. We got sixty passes or something. I think we were sort of blessed by Bonnie’s sense because she hadn’t been through it. When a script was put on her desk, the attitude was, ‘We’re doing this.’ There wasn’t any ‘if’ to that– ‘if you can get the money.’ She said, ‘We’re making this–who wants to jump on board?’ And that was the attitude with which we went into it. Since I’d never made a movie before, I was just infected by that. And I think that was a big part of it actually getting made.” Curtis agreed. “My ignorance was somewhat bliss,” she said. “I wasn’t used to hearing the word ‘No.’”
Curtis’ long association with Spielberg did allow her, though, to get the script to actors with whom she’d worked on his projects, and the eagerness of many to sign on certainly helped. “Ralph [Fiennes] was what really kicked in the casting,” Curtis said. “And then when Glenn [Close] came on board, that was a dream come true for me. I didn’t see that one coming. The script had sort of permeated the agency that she’s represented by, and we were getting a lot of positive feedback, but that only goes so far.” It was a single scene between her character, the mother of the boy who’d committed suicide, and the boy who found the body, played by Jamie Bell, that had convinced Close to take the part. Others who were attached but forced to drop out because of conflicts with the extremely tight shooting schedule included Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams. For a modestly-budgeted film, though, “The Chumscrubber” has a powerful ensemble cast. “I like that we have known actors in the roles of adults and most of the kids aren’t known yet,” Curtis added. “I think that makes it a very interesting parallel-world experience for you when you watch the movie.”
Posin added, “It’s about the disconnect between parents and kids, but for kids, they’re going to see a movie, hopefully, that tries to show the way the world looks to them, and for adults it gives them a chance for an hour and a half hopefully to step into the shoes of those teenagers and see the world through their eyes. And our hope is really that in seeing a movie about the disconnect between adults and teenagers, that maybe some of the audience will find something to connect over, something that they can talk about.”