A visionary author sails to Europe with dreams of ending World War One, while a vengeful banker and scheming politician seek to expand it.
Christopher Saunders is a writer, producer, and cellist based out of southern California who enjoys writing historical fiction, sci-fi, and dark comedy. His scripts have won the Austin After Dark Film Festival (The Express) and the Culver City Film Festival (Lusitania). As a cellist he's toured with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and played with many artists and productions from Mike Posner on Conan, to "Les Miserables" and beyond. Christopher currently lives in Lake Arrowhead with his wife Lisa, and their two (large) German Shepard rescue dogs, Havoc and Astrid. It is our pleasure to inteview Christopher at the Toronto Film Magazine.
What draws you to writing scripts?
My late father was an antiquities dealer and film historian, so I grew up watching black and white films and fell in love with cinema early on. Films to me growing up were an escape, a refuge from daily life. My formal training is as a musician, but I made the decision to formally write after seeing Avatar in theaters – that was the first film that allowed you into the forest, per se, rather than looking at it from the outside. The possibility and reality of total immersion and wonder really changed everything for me. All of my favorite movies are grand, sweeping epics and those are the stories I most want to tell- to transport myself, and hopefully the viewer to a bigger world.
How and when did you start studying screenwriting?
About fifteen years ago I started writing things down, but never in proper format. I retired as a musician in 2011 and moved to California to pursue writing full time – I bought a copy of Final Draft and taught myself the fundamentals from endlessly reading the scripts for The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather. It's been a lot of years of writing, rewriting, table reads, and workshopping to hone my skills to where they are now.
What makes screenwriting stand out to you in the language of cinema?
What the writer puts on the page very rarely is what shows up on screen, even if the writer is also directing. What’s incredible about the process is the imagination throughout every stage of filmmaking, and how collaboration can show you things you never even thought of before. Screenwriting is the foundation upon which the film is ultimately built, but every step of the process can enrich the story.
Do you ever plan to direct and produce one of your scripts?
Yes. We’re in development on a deeply personal short film that we will shoot later this year. I have a lot of learning and collaborating to do along the way, but I have a long-term goal of directing a number of different projects!
Tell us more about your latest script and the inspiration behind the writing of your script.
The Lusitania series is about ordinary people doing the impossible in extraordinary times. I have long had a love affair with ocean liners – one of my earliest birthday presents growing up was a postcard of (and mailed from) Titanic. Lusitania was the reason Titanic was built, and her tragic end had me asking a lot of questions. The fact you had a near 800 foot long ship explode and sink in 15 minutes was baffling – why? Why did this event trigger the major events of the 20th Century, which are still being felt today?
I tried writing this as a feature dating way back to 2011. In fact, it was the second feature I ever tried to write, but it never quite worked. I kept picking it up over the years and dabbling in different things, but it never really came together. Finally, when Chernobyl came out on HBO everything fell into place and I rewrote Lusitania from scratch as a limited series. That format allowed for us all to fall in love with the characters like Elbert Hubbard, a writer himself who genuinely believed he could end WWI just by talking with the Kaiser, or Alfred Vanderbilt, a millionaire playboy who risks it all to train ambulance drivers on the front lines. Lusitania is a story about everyday heroes we all wish we could be, and hope we are when the chips are down.
What were some of the challenges of writing your script and the research that went into it?
For starters, most of the documents pertaining to the ship itself are classified. I managed to get my hands on a few things that really helped shape the story in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Secondly, how do you make a story about an ocean liner exploding in 1915 relevant to today? We’ve all seen Titanic, so how could this be different? I had to really take a step back and use the limited series as a template to tell the story from the human element rather than yet another sinking ship tale. Then, finding key people to tell the story from was also interesting. There are even more stories from the ship that I wish I could have included, but for the sake of keeping the story coherent I had to drop them.
What is your cinematic goal in life and what would you like to achieve as a writer?
I have a secret pet project that I would give my left arm to write and direct. It’s currently parked at Warner Brothers in development hell, and as far as I know there’s no plans to move forward with it. A few other things as well, but mostly I just want to entertain. I’m not keen on preaching from the soapbox – others are far better than I at that – so as long as my films provide an escape, while challenging you to think I consider that a success.
What kind of impact would your work have in the world and why do you think these themes are important in your script?
A major theme throughout everything I do is forgiveness. I don’t think we do that enough in the world. It’s easy to look to the past- and even the present- and get angry, but very hard to look forward and relax. Almost every project I’ve written revolves around forgiveness in one way or another. I love going to the movies and leaving with questions – not questions about the film in general, but ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. If I can do that it’s a win. With Lusitania, there are a few sacred cows that we kill, and I hope the audience leaves ready to go down a rabbit hole to find out more.