Multi-hyphenate actor Clark Gregg understands that hard work and perseverance don’t necessarily pay off in Hollywood. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1992, the star of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has directed two feature films and scripted three, none of which are the work he’s best known for. Gregg knows that the films he wants to make are not exactly commercial projects, and that in his own work, creative compromises aren’t necessarily the way to succeed.
When Gregg tried to make a film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke in 2006, potential financiers said his script was “execution-dependent.” Reading between the lines, Gregg says he took that to mean, “We won’t put in any money, or will only put this amount of money, not that amount. . . . We wish you had a director with more experience with this material.” Gregg understands why he got this note. Choke, his directorial debut, is a black comedy about Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex-addicted con man who may or may not be Jesus Christ’s bastard son.
Gregg is happy that Choke made enough money to compensate its backers. But he’s even more grateful that he was able to make sophomore feature Trust Me, a new dark comedy about child stars and their agents. Trust Me originated as a subplot within an unrealized 500-page script about, in Gregg’s words, “innocence, and the loss thereof, in Los Angeles.” The drastically streamlined film follows Howard Holloway (Gregg), a small-time talent agent, as he desperately rides the coattails of an aspiring teenage actress (Saxon Sharbino).
Trust Me was an even harder sell than Choke. While he was no longer an untested newbie, Gregg was still told that his movie was too weird to make money. He says many suggestions “missed the point of the film”: Potential backers objected in particular to its dark tone and show-biz-centric subject. But Trust Me‘s unnerving qualities are what made it such a vital project for Gregg.
“I had spent time on the outside looking in, and thought, It’s never going to happen for me,” he says. “That’s an idea that’s always interested me, that there is this barbarism inherent in the American dream. Everyone thinks they’re going to achieve it, but they’re really just grist for the mill. It’s kind of a myth.”
Gregg’s bleak fictional vision of Hollywood is not, of course, a direct reflection of his career. In fact, Gregg was only able to pursue filmmaking after struggling to find work as an actor. In 1994, Gregg, a founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company, directed Samuel L. Jackson in an award-winning theatrical revival of Kevin Heelan’s Distant Fires, a drama about racial tension within a Delaware construction crew. His production was staged in a Los Angeles public park as a response to the 1992 South Central riots. Gregg’s agent then urged him to make a movie by “[writing] a script that’s so good that they’ll overlook the fact that you’re attached as a director.”
Over the next few years, Gregg wrote Fate, a quirky thriller (still unproduced) about a con man who sells stun guns by using them on himself. It’s a project Gregg can’t even synopsize with a straight face; he laughs helplessly after he explains that Fate follows “a serial bigamist that goes on vacation and falls in love.” Fate was passed around Hollywood, and eventually grabbed the attention of producer Nina Jacobson, who later produced the Hunger Games films. “She really likes your writing, more than she likes that script,” Gregg remembers being told. And after meeting with Jacobson, Gregg collaborated with director Robert Zemeckis on the sorely underrated (but financially successful) ghost story What Lies Beneath.
For Gregg, an untested screenwriter, working with Zemeckis was an invaluable experience. “I wrote the film I wanted to see, what was more of a psychological, indie,” Gregg says with a laugh. “It was a more character-driven version of the film. Thankfully, Zemeckis helped me to expand [the script], and remake it in the style, and scope of a Dreamworks film. He kept me on. He didn’t replace me with a more experienced writer. He turned it into this amazing film school, and got [the screenplay] to a good place.”
Since then, Gregg has single-mindedly worked to make his films with the resources available to him. He shot Choke in a hectic 25 days on a tiny budget of $3.4 million. And Trust Me was made with even less money over 20 days. Faithful collaborators like Rockwell, who co-stars in Trust Me, and Mary Vernieu, Choke‘s casting director and Trust Me‘s producer, helped Gregg create the environment he wanted to work in.
For Gregg, good collaborators are the ones who will say “no” to you, and won’t sell out at the faint promise of future glory. “I’ve seen people get to the point where they think compromising will help them seal the deal that will determine the rest of their lives,” Gregg says. “That fearfulness creates a toxic dynamic between two [collaborators], and makes working together feel like a paranoid thriller from the ’70s where nobody knows who to trust. That’s just negotiation, or capitalism. But it feels so odd — and this is going to sound naïve — in a creative context.”
So, trust him.