This summer, screenwriter and co-producer Chris Sparling, a Rhode Island native, and director Gus Van Sant RISD ’74, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, released “The Sea of Trees,” a film with all the trappings of a blockbuster. Starring Naomi Watts and Matthew McConaughey, it had a reported budget of $25 million.
But the movie flopped: It brought in just $2,894 in the first week after its release.
Sparling recently rose to prominence with his screenplay for “Buried,” a 2010 thriller set entirely inside the coffin of a man desperately phoning for help. The film, which Sparling says “broke open” his career, was well received by most critics, with Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian calling it a “chokingly effective scare story.” Stephen Holden, a longtime critic for the New York Times, took a rather different view, one that would foreshadow the reception of Sparling’s latest film.
“‘Buried’ is a horror movie with delusions of moral grandeur,” Holden rumbles at the outset of his review, going on to say of one scene: “with that gimmick, the movie sacrifices its last shred of integrity.”
The derision of Holden and like-minded critics seemed to roll off Sparling, who went on to write the screenplay for “The Sea of Trees,” which was selected for the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
It came as a surprise, then, when it was booed and laughed at during the Cannes critics’ screening. The Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis wrote with less venomous flourish than Holden, but she didn’t hold any punches: McConaughey’s character “soon sinks completely into a soggy swamp of platitudes.”
But at the film festival, McConaughey seemed unfazed. “It’s hands down an exceptional script,” he told Variety. “It moved me.”
For his part, Sparling said the star power behind the film might have worsened the backlash: “There were certain expectations because of the people involved.”
He also said he sees a small difference between the tone of his screenplay and the film. “What I wrote was a darker and grittier story … more of a survival story,” he said, though he acknowledged that “when something goes from script to screen, it usually undergoes major structural changes.”
“I wanted it to be something that everyone could enjoy,” he added. “I’m disappointed that it didn’t connect in the way that … we hoped it would.”
Despite the disappointment, Sparling said there was much to be thankful for. “I’m really happy the movie came out. I’m proud of the movie. … I’m proud of what it became,” he said.
Sparling recently made light of the Times review — which accused him of “bearing most of the blame” for the film’s shortcomings — and remains as committed as ever to his profession. “The truth is it doesn’t hurt me too much career-wise,” he said. Sparling has both written and directed another thriller, “Mercy,” which was bought by Netflix and features Tom Lipinski ’04 as one of four brothers under attack as they visit their dying mother.
As the father of two young children, Sparling is happiest at home in Rhode Island, and on the lookout for projects to make here. “I have two kids, so selfishly I would like to make whatever my next project is here,” he said.
Besides, he added, working in Rhode Island has its perks. “When I’m in (Los Angeles), I end up … taking meetings, stuff that is just part of the job,” he said. “But when I’m here I’m able to treat it like a nine-to-five.”