There was a time when a film like The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea would’ve been something Hollywood execs fawned over: Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis and Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams carrying a touching portrait of shattering loss and unconventional friendship set in the quaint streets of New Orleans with a music score by Justin Timberlake, to boot.
In reality, however, director Bill Purple’s first feature film has been a grueling eight years in the making.
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea stars Sudeikis as Henry, a buttoned-up architect married to the free-spirited and very pregnant Penny (Jessica Biel). When Henry’s world collapses after a tragic accident, he finds the internal grit to build life anew by helping scrappy street kid Millie (Maisie Williams) construct a raft she plans to use to sail across the ocean.
After nearly a decade of false starts and a rotating cast, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s no secret that quality scripts get buried under the weight of tentpole productions. Netflix and Amazon Studios have done well to open up new lanes for filmmakers to get their work out there, but when no alternative means of financing and distribution are available, what are the rules for sticking it out?
Purple chronicles his eight-year roller coaster ride and shares insight to how he finally got off.
Back in 2007, a friend recommended a script from The Black List to Purple and his wife and production partner Michelle. They optioned it the following year, and, according to Bill, he was under the now incredibly naive impression they’d be shooting in six months.
“The first person I thought of was Jason Sudeikis. He was still on Saturday Night Live and had just began doing small roles in feature films, but I felt like he was the next guy to come off that show and become a star,” Purple says. “But in the international sales world he didn’t have the value to get it done. So we had to go through this carousel of actors and that always begets the carousel of nefarious financiers who come and go and waste your time and have money but don’t have money. So we went on that ride for six, seven years of, we have the money but not the cast and then we have the cast but not the money.”
Among the names briefly attached to the film for Henry and Millie were Zach Braff and Chloë Grace Moretz, respectively, but Sudeikis and Williams were always at the top of Purple’s list. And like Sudeikis, financiers weren’t initially confident that Williams could have that universal appeal.
“I felt very strongly about it,” Purple says of casting Williams. “Though now she’s this enormous entity with [a million] Twitter followers and Comic-Con people freaking out over her. At the time, she wasn’t quite that–even two years ago. I had to fight for her because there were other actresses that didn’t feel right.”
A big hurdle Purple couldn’t clear for years was finding a backer who believed in power of a “dramady.” With a script void of gratuitous explosions and action warranting a 3-D experience, Purple found himself in an increasingly large gray area.
“When we would take the script to financiers or actors we’d get the same response of, ‘this is one of the most beautiful scripts I’ve ever read–this movie probably will never get made.’ I think because of the complexity of its tone–dramadies are such a specific thing,” Purple says. “It’s easier to market something that fits neatly into one box. When it’s just an action movie, you can sell that. And some of these films that do get made, they’ll be marketed one way and you’ll see the film and it’s totally different. Those challenges that are presented to financiers and studios are very real because we have to make money on these projects. But I think some of these projects are getting missed. There are great movies out there that are worth the risk from a marketing standpoint.”
By 2014, C Plus Pictures finally brought on real money, Sudeikis and Williams’s stars had risen exponentially, and the film finally had the green light. However, much like his initial battle in convincing potential backers that Sudeikis and Williams were right for their parts, Purple was now faced with becoming pliable beyond comfort, making concessions that compromise gut intuition and creative control.
“Every movie takes on a life of its own, no matter how much money you have or time–there are compromises along the way. So it’s never exactly how you envisioned it, sometimes it’s better. You have to be open to this idea that things are going to change and that’s ok,” Purple says. “Right before we began filming we were forced to make a big budget cut. I had to cut about 20% out of the schedule. We had a very tightly honed script and I didn’t want to make any changes to the script to fit that schedule so I just sort of over-scheduled myself and fit it into the days we had, hoping against hope that we would have miracles happen.”
And a miracle did happen: Purple managed to shoot The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in just 20 days, with the characters he wanted and the creative license he felt was crucial to the story. For example, Williams’s character narrates a series of flashbacks that help set up the fable-like plot that is, in many ways, the film’s charm.
“When we had to make those budget cuts, everybody of course was chiming in with, ‘What if we cut this? What if we cut that?’” Purple recalls. “When you spend eight years honing a script you get to the point, not that you’re precious with it, but you know this is what works. You get to a point where you know this is what it is and it’s not worth changing.”
Purple’s first foray into feature filmmaking was a baptism by fire but one that he says has made him a more resourceful director.
“Your limitations can become your advantages–you get very creative when you don’t have a lot of choices,” Purple says. “I learned a lot about the fearlessness of making films. We were presented with a daunting schedule, not enough money, but having the faith that it’ll work out.”