RIDE: Writer/Director Jeremy Ungar On Constructing a Contained Thriller

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Many a prudent young screenwriter spends much of their time struggling to come up with contained stories that can be shot on tiny budgets without feeling either contained or tiny. It’s an incredibly difficult feat, and one that Jeremy Ungar has pulled off in his new film, Ride. In the rush of scripts about Uber drivers from a few years back, Ungar’s story seems to be the one that has come out on top. The story pits a struggling actor who makes ends meet by working as a driver against a charming sociopath who poses as his next fare. Set primarily in a car and shot all over Los Angeles, Ride has all of the structural elements of theater and the dark cinematic texture of film noir.

I recently spoke to Jeremy about the pressure of developing an idea that’s so prominent in the zeitgeist, the challenges and benefits of trapping characters in a car, and the timeless themes of Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Angela Bourassa: I wanted to start by talking a bit about the idea. I seem to remember a year or two ago there was a big rush of scripts about Uber drivers in a variety of genres. Am I remembering that correctly?

Jeremy Ungar: Absolutely. I wrote this script at the beginning of 2015, and I’ve sort of been living in a constant state of fear about doing an Uber movie from then until now.

Basically what I did was, I wrote this thriller set in an Uber, then I did a short to sort of prove that I could do the feature. Then by the time I was out and pitching it – probably early 2016 – I pitched to Unified Pictures, which is the company that ended up making the film, and right after that, two other Uber movies got announced on Deadline. They were both bigger action comedies, and I don’t think either one’s been made yet, but I remember after the pitch being like, “Oh my god, I’m dead in the water.”

But we talked about it, and Unified was super passionate about my idea and felt like it was unique enough to stand on its own two legs, and we moved forward.

Angela Bourassa: Did you feel extra pressure because of all that?

Jeremy Ungar: Oh, absolutely. It was such an interesting thing, because I really feel proud of the dialogue that I wrote in this script and a lot of elements of it, but the idea is such a soundbite-able idea that it almost could seem generic or like, if there’s another Uber movie, what’s the need for mine? I had a lot of sleepless nights like, “I hope they don’t make any other Uber movies…”

Angela Bourassa: (Laughs) Ok, so then it started as a concept, I’m guessing, not with the characters necessarily?

Jeremy Ungar: Well, I’m kind of fascinated by these new interactions that technology has created – things like an Uber ride or a Tinder date – things that, if you pitched someone on this idea before it existed, chances are good they’d say, “You’re insane, I would never do that.” But then it comes out, and because we trust our phones and they tell us that it’s ok, we put a lot of faith in people. And sometimes it makes for amazing interactions and other times it makes us vulnerable in ways that I think we don’t realize.

So that was the genesis of the idea. But – at least for me – when I have an idea like this, I’ll start and determine whether it has legs, and the thing that I came to that made me feel like this was a movie that I really wanted to pursue – you know, put the three and a half years of work into getting made – was that I fell in love with this character of Bruno, who’s the charming sociopath passenger. As I was writing the early stages of the dialogue, it felt like, “Wow, this is a voice that I didn’t know I had in me that I really want to explore.” That was the thing that made me write the movie.

Angela Bourassa: That sort of answers my next question. I was going to ask – you mentioned that this could’ve potentially been seen as a generic idea or sort of a gimmicky idea – and I was wondering how you approached trying to be cognizant of that and avoiding those pitfalls.

Jeremy Ungar: Yeah, the real thing that I wanted to count on to make Ride unique was the dialogue. My background as a director and a writer is in theater, so I wanted to do something that was uniquely cinematic but also could almost feel like a play. I wanted it to be very dialogue driven and be about the anatomy of a moment and how people manipulate each other, so that really relied on the dialogue. The thing that I think – or hope – makes the movie unique is the verbal interactions that I came up with.

Angela Bourassa: Right. Building off of that, a lot of aspiring screenwriters are encouraged to write scripts with minimal casts, minimal locations – they could be plays, potentially – and obviously this fits that mold. But, I’m curious, setting the story primarily in a car… that lets you have a lot of movement in the story while still having a contained location, but I imagine it also creates a production headache. Could you talk a bit about the challenges of setting a story primarily in a car?

Jeremy Ungar: It’s funny, I watched a lot of interviews with other filmmakers who’ve done car stuff as I was preparing for this, and I think everyone said the same thing of, “Well, I set the movie in a car because I though it would be cheap, and then it made it way more difficult and way more expensive.”

I think that’s true of my experience, but also I think it resulted in something that really played to what I perceive my strengths are. When we shot the car footage, we shot eighteen nights and seven of them were on a process trailer – which is the flatbed truck that you strap your car to and you mount your cameras in two positions – and we would run the scenes of driving almost like theater. We’d go for five, ten minutes – whatever the length of the scene was – and then I’d come on the walkie in between, give notes, and then we’d go back and do it again and eventually change the camera positions. That let us work in a way that felt really free to me and felt like I could get a sense of the entire scene, and the actors could vibe with each other and really feel like an ensemble.

Then it also resulted in this whole series of editing challenges, because you can cut really freely between the two cameras that are rolling at the same time, but once it comes time to go to a different performance, you have to make sure that the car is moving at the same speed. So it created a really interesting sort of kill-your-darlings dance that we had to do with the footage where, if I want this, then I can’t have this, which I actually really enjoyed.

Angela Bourassa: Interesting. What about from the writing side of things? The challenge of two characters stuck in a room, basically – how did you cope with that?

Jeremy Ungar: I really love moments in scripts where people want to leave and can’t. And I heard this great quote – I think it was by a playwright – that a good scene could end at any moment, and I wanted that to be true in Ride. At any moment, James (the driver) could pull over the car and be like, “Alright, dude, get out of the car. You’re too weird.” Or Bruno could say, “This is my stop, I’m not interested in you anymore.” And I think, hopefully, I tried to find little reasons to keep them engaged and keep them in the car. Reasons to either keep Bruno interested enough in this guy to want to keep spending time with him or keep James engaged enough to let his guard down and trust this person and be manipulated into doing some of the less wise things that he does over the course of the movie.

Angela Bourassa: So, I studied Shakespeare’s comedies and dramas in college, but not the histories. Are there any themes from Richard II or Richard III that more learned viewers will pick up on in this story?

Jeremy Ungar: Well, Richard III is the master manipulator, so it made sense to me that Bruno would love Richard III. And, you know, it’s a favorite play of mine, hugely influential.

Richard II is a deposed monarch. He was a good king and a kind king but a weak king, and it leads to his downfall. It’s something that… I see a lot of nobility in the struggling artist. I really wanted there to be this sense with James that – I think Bruno means it when he says the line, “You are a king.” There’s this kind of greatness within this guy, and he’s stuck driving a car, which is frustrating but also the reality of the world that we live in right now. That kind of played on why I wanted Richard II, who is this noble tragic figure, to connect with James, the driver.

Angela Bourassa: Right. And he does such a beautiful monologue. I was really blown away by that scene.

Jeremy Ungar: Thank you very much.

Angela Bourassa: Just one final question – what other films did you study or draw inspiration from for this?

Jeremy Ungar: The biggest point of reference was Strangers on a Train. That was one of the early thoughts – “Oh, I could write Strangers on a Train in an Uber.” Even the name Bruno is a reference to Strangers on a Train.

The other big one when I started to really look at contained thrillers is this Spielberg movie Duel, which is also all set in a car. It’s different because it’s almost completely non-verbal, but it’s a beautiful exercise in tension building and a really incredible movie. I was so into it that I actually drop a visual reference to Duel on the back of Bruno’s leather jacket – it says “flammable” in the same lettering from the back of the truck in Duel.

Ride will be in theaters and available on VOD and Digital HD on October 5, 2018.

~

Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

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