Tze Chun is a talented young filmmaker who first gained attention with his indie drama Children of Invention. Indiewire describes his latest movie Cold Comes the Night, starring Alice Eve and Bryan Cranston, as a “tightly wound noir thriller.” Having screened the movie myself, I concur wholeheartedly. It opens in theaters and on VOD on January 10.
I caught up with Tze as he was driving from LA to San Diego for a screening of Cold Comes the Night. We had a great conversation covering how he wound his way into filmmaking, three of his movies, and his thoughts on the craft of screenwriting.
In Part 4, Tze discusses how he worked with Bryan Cranston in shaping his character in Cold Comes the Night and what it’s like to have a movie just about to open in theaters:
Scott: Let’s talk about the Topo character. What was the inspiration for that character? What was the kernel that led to his emergence as a character in the story?
Chun: We talked a lot about trying to create an “out of the ordinary character” for our antagonist that was special enough to attract a name actor. We talked a lot about Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. How specific his look and diction and world-view is, and how we’d never seen anything like that in any movie before. The amount of press just about his hair is remarkable.
So we just started throwing out ideas. How can we make this character as special as possible, and as a joke one of us said, “well what if he’s going blind?” And we all kind of moved on, but then we kept on talking about it, we kept on returning to it, and we thought about all the things that one detail would say about his character. The guy has this disability but is hanging on to the one thing he knows how to do.
Actually, when we were writing the script, the character of Topo was American. We almost thought of him as an old American cowboy out of touch with the world, like William Holden in Wild Bunch. But Bryan (Cranston) had an interesting point — if we made Topo an immigrant, he would feel that much more removed from everything around him. Topo is already kind of an island. He’s got his own set of morals, his own set of rules, and he isn’t really connected to anything. All he does is bring money from one place to another. So the Polish accent was Bryan’s idea. That’s how he turned into the character that he is now.
Scott: It’s an interesting instinct because it takes that idea of the other, the unknown character, and elevates it because of the fact that he is from a different continent.
Chun: Yeah. I wasn’t totally convinced about it until Bryan, in our private meetings, did the accent, and he terrified me. [laughter] So I decided that it was the way to go.
Scott: That’s so interesting that you were sort of joking, you threw out this thing, well maybe he’s blind. That’s just such a cool dynamic for the character, for multiple reasons. Obviously, he’s desperate, because he’s toward the end of his career. But you explore something that’s interesting, there, where he compensates for his blindness, right? He can interpret people’s voices and their behavior, where he can read their minds, in a way. How did that evolve over the process of the writing and the working with that character?
Chun: I think part of it was, when you have a character have a trait like that, you want to keep emphasizing it, and to figure out all the ways it effects your character and how they can use it to their advantage. One of the things that my co-writer Oz (Osgood Perkins) and I did was to write out all the different ways that Topo’s blindness would affect his daily life and decisions making. That kind of screenwriting homework can be kind of a slog but it helps you live inside the character. We figured Topo could compensate for his blindness by being more attuned in his other senses. He could almost have some kind of sixth sense. The idea is to come up with a little arsenal for him, of things that he has created over his gradual loss of sight, that make him more powerful and dangerous than a normal adversary. It actually remember spending time walking around my apartment with my eyes closed, thinking about how that would make me feel, how powerless it made me feel. For Topo, in the work that he does, one sign of weakness can get you killed, so how does he pretend and how does he compensate?
Scott: It’s tempting to look at him, because he is such a scary character when you first meet him, as providing what we might call a Nemesis function. But as the story unfolds, it really feels like Billy takes on that role. In retrospect, Topo evolves from an enemy to Chloe to almost an ally. Could you talk about what the thought process was about how you handled Topo and Billy in relation to Chloe and her journey?
Chun: After Topo takes her hostage, there’s only so much you can do before you feel like you want to see the power dynamics change. Topo obviously has this vulnerability that he’s hidden from everyone around him as he was slowly going blind, and Chloe, this young single mom, is the one who spots it and pegs him and turns it to her advantage. We thought there was something interesting about that power shift.
Scott: Is this the first project you co‑wrote with somebody?
Chun: No, I’ve had a co‑writer for many years, my friend, Mike Weiss, who is currently a writer on The Mentalist. We have a couple of other projects together, and I have a new feature that Mynette is producing that Mike and I co‑wrote called High Ground.
Scott: OK. So the process from coming up with this idea that you co‑wrote with these two other writers, to the point of the first day of principal photography, how many drafts, and how long was that process?
Chun: It felt interminable, but we finished the first draft in maybe the summer of 2010, and we shot fall of 2012, so a year and a half? Which is actually not that long. And there were many, many drafts, as there always are. But it’s not that bad. I’m not one of these writers who is like, oh, the notes process is horrible, it’s the worst thing, why would they do this to me? I find the note process to be helpful. Even if you don’t agree with a note, sometimes just getting a note makes you think of a scene in a different way.
Bryan, Alice, and Logan were very, very helpful, actually, during the notes process. They came on board and they had a lot of suggestions for their characters. Alice is very very smart. Also, Bryan has worked on arguably the best television show in TV history. He’s very creatively involved in that show, and we would certainly be remiss if we didn’t consider his ideas.
Scott: So, here you are. You’ve got this movie coming out. What are your feelings about that process?
Tze: With Children of Invention, we went to Sundance and did a ton of festivals. We self‑distributed it. Self‑distribution doesn’t necessarily mean you do it all yourself. It just means you sell off the rights to different distributors, not just one distributor. It was a lot of work, but it was nice to interact with the audiences and in the end we certainly made more money than if we had just sold it off to whoever.
Cold Comes the Night is going to be distributed by Sony and Samuel Goldwyn. In some ways, it’s a little hands‑off for me and my producer compared to all the work we did with Children. I’ve been doing interviews, things like that. I try to get people to see the movie. But, it’s definitely a less intense experience than Children of Invention was. I’m trying to move onto the next project, I guess.
Tomorrow in Part 5, Tze answers some questions about the craft of screenwriting.
For Part 1 of our interview, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
Tze is represented by WME.
You may check out the Facebook page for Cold Comes the Night here.