I DECLARE WAR has its premiere today at Fantastic Fest, and my review will go up later this afternoon. All I can say at this point is that this one kicked my ass a little bit, and I have the feeling I won't be the only one here that embraces this wonderful movie. It's not so much a kids' movie as it is a movie about kids, much like STAND BY ME - these are kids dealing with issues important to them, even if the adult world at large doesn't grant them much significance.
After seeing the movie before the Fest, I really wanted to have a talk with the filmmakers, Jason Lapeyre (who actually has another movie playing at Fantastic Fest, COLD BLOODED which I'm very eager to see) and Robert Wilson. These two have crafted an incredibly fun movie that has something to say, and I think audiences will dig it. Thanks to Dacyl Armendariz for helping set this up, and thanks to Jason and Robert.
Robert Wilson: Full load blanks, they did really well. I mean they were excited as hell, but you know I would have been too at that age.
Robert Wilson: He just did. They are good at it, you know? And we even used the full loads too, because it’s all daylight and otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten the real looking muzzle flares, it would have all been digital after the fact. So I think maybe there’s one CGI flash in there and the rest of it is the kids firing blanks.
Jason Lapeyre: You’re Nordling! You just said something nice about our movie like yesterday on the website.
Jason Lapeyre: That’s true. That’s one of the things we’ve always said about the movie, too.Robert Wilson: If you don’t mind my asking, Alan, how old are you?
Robert Wilson: Right on. That’s roughly the same as both of us, so yeah I mean it’s like movies we grew up with, right?
Robert Wilson: I certainly don’t know anybody who is parenting right now who lets their kids come home when the street lights come on and the rest of the day is them out in the field, so things are a bit different.Jason Lapeyre: We actually asked the kids when we were in pre-production if they still played war and they had definitely all played some version of it, like they had played capture the flag or they had played war. One of the really funny things the guys said was “Yeah, we play capture the flag, but we don’t like playing with the girls, because they always cheat.” I think one of the biggest differences between our generation and the generation that’s portrayed in the movie is they have this CALL OF DUTY culture, like this really intense first person shooter thing, and that was one of the funny anecdotes while we were in pre-production as well, which was when we were handing out the weapons when we had our training day, our boot-camps for the kids was they recognize all of… When we were handing out the weapons, the kids all recognized them and were actually able to call out and say “Oh cool, this is the AR-15, great, but where’s my grenade launcher?” That was all from having played CALL OF DUTY, like they recognized the silhouettes of the guns. It was a bit creepy.
Robert Wilson: Yeah, they knew what they were seeing and those aren’t M-16, like it’s pretty specified knowledge they are carrying around.
Jason Lapeyre: Totally, like JURASSIC PARK and dinosaurs, right?
Jason Lapeyre: So we first saw him in an audition from our casting agent, Stephanie Gorin and right after he did his audition I turn to Rob and Lou and I said “Wow, that was like Travis Bickle just auditioned for us.” Right off the top, without any prompting, he totally had this dark intensity and clearly understood the bullying sort of thing really well and as the conversations with him…Robert Wilson: This kid walks into a room and we are sitting behind this table, it’s a bunch of adults, and he’s the first guy we see for Skinner and he walks in and basically it’s “That’s Skinner. He’s crazy. Wow. Travis Bickle” and he walks out, just like that and we have no idea what the guy is actually like. So then you meet Michael and Michael is the sweetest, friendliest, nicest, most thoughtful member of the cast, just like a genuinely nice kid, so wherever he’s finding this… Michael’s not bullied anybody in his entire life, that’s not… I mean we did get lucky and found that guy who connected easily with it, this is Michael’s creation.Jason Lapeyre: And one of the great moments during the shoot for us was when he came up to us one day and said “You know guys, I really feel sorry for Skinner” and I thought that was a great moment, because for me that’s what makes that character super interesting, you get to see a bit of the why of Skinner, like “Why is he doing this?” and there’s that amazing scene where Kwon, his prisoner is telling him that anecdote he’s heard about he himself was made the victim of a prank and you get all of that pathos. I’m hoping it’s a little insight into how bullying works, like nobody is a bully for no reason, and Michael full understood that.
Robert Wilson: It’s got that notion running in there that everyone of these kids has seen a couple of war movies or they’ve watched GI JOE or they have modeled their war persona after things that accentuate their role in the war itself and speak to, not necessarily the person they want to be, but the person they are in war. “In war I’m an alter boy.” (Laughs) I don’t know where I was going with that…Jason Lapeyre: All the movie really does is treat the kids as peers and that was the whole thing from the beginning. It’s like, “We are not going to condescend. We are not going to look down on these young people like lesser versions of human beings, we are just going to treat them like fully realized human beings” and that’s the thing that is consistent with all of the great movies about young people like STAND BY ME, like THE GOONIES, like Truffaut’s movies, you know? It treats these characters on the same level and it takes them seriously. That’s my whole thing, “You should take young people seriously. You can’t just go “Oh, you’re just being a kid,” because when you’re that age it is that serious to you, so it’s valid.
Robert Wilson: And they are intelligent too. I mean they have an adult level perception going on here and they may be trying stuff on at 12, 13, 14 that may not end up as their final personality, but they are trying adult things. I love that about the movie, that all of the tension, all of the drama, all of the interpersonal stuff that comes from the 14 year old and has to be resolved by them on their own for better or worse really.
Robert Wilson: I have never thought of her like that.Jason Lapeyre: It’s true. Yeah, Mackenzie was another one for us that very quickly as soon as we saw her we all silently looked at each other and were like “Uh oh, we might be in trouble man. We’ve got a tough one here.” So yeah, it was super fun watching her do her thing.
Jason Lapeyre: So I wrote the script ten years ago in 2002 when I was living in Japan teaching English and I wrote it because I wanted to tell a story about kids that was respectful, that didn’t treat them like shorter stupider adults, that actually took their problems seriously and I also wanted to tell a story about the emotional intensity of being that age, because I remember when you’re 12 years old when you say you like a girl and she says she doesn’t like you back, it feels like the end of the world, so the idea of having these kids play war, which is something that I actually did and having that be kind of a metaphor for the emotional intensity of life at that age, it just all kind of clicked together and I thought “Yes, this would be a great idea for a story.” So I wrote the script and moved back to Canada and started taking it around and showing it to people and I got the same response over and over again, which was “Love the script. Great idea. Going to be a great movie. I have no idea how I’m going to sell this, so sorry.” Until I finally took it to the producer of the film, Lewin Webb, who didn’t say that. He said, “I love this and I’m going to make it, I promise you.” It took him a few years, but he finally delivered on his promise.Robert Wilson So at that point, Jason optioned the script to somebody else for all kinds of reasons that made more sense and it happens, but Lewin was persistent and he and Jason stayed in touch and every year or so Lewin would call Jason and say “What’s up with the script? What’s going on?” and it would be “Well, we just upped the option,” so finally it came around at the perfect time, the option I think was clear or Jason had it almost clear and we were ready to go on our second feature and it just was “Okay, this is up. We are doing it right now” and that’s what happened.
Robert Wilson: Pretty much zero. I mean we also…Jason Lapeyre: We asked the cast not to post anything on any form of social media. We just kept it under the radar all the way across the board. We were very careful with putting together a training day for the kids, so that everyone would understand gun safety and be comfortable with how we were going to do it, how we planned to shoot it… So there wasn’t a lot of grief in that regard above and beyond the usual grief you get firing automatic weapons in a semi-residential neighborhood, but yeah kids with automatic weapons come out when people start seeing images from the film and the trailer and then the grief starts.
Jason Lapeyre: And we went to great pains as well to sort of try to give a clearer picture of what the movie was about rather than just pasting it with action scenes and machine gun fire and thinking that was the movie you were getting into, because I mean as someone pointed out to us last week guns don’t hurt anyone in this movie. All of the damage is done by everything but the weapons in it and we weren’t trying to sell a kids and gun movie. That wasn’t the story. If that had been the story, we probably would have shied away from the script, because for me anyway it’s not my story to tell. I mean that story might be out there, but it doesn’t resonate with me the way this script did, because of the fact that it was essentially about the characters. I mean it’s got action, but it’s got comedy, it’s got drama… That’s who we were trying to capture, to take you back to being twelve for a little bit and this is a fairly accurate representation of what I remember it feeling like.
Jason Lapeyre: Some of those rules were actual rules taken from… like the “steam boat” thing, that’s a real thing. We used to do that, where if you get shot you have to count “ten steam boats” and then you’re alive again, but some of the other ones were contrived for the purposes of this story.
Robert Wilson: The red stain would have solved that argument.
Jason Lapeyre: But even that rule. I mean initially in the script there wasn’t a single grenade carrier. That sort of developed as we got into preproduction and were digging into the story and it was like “We need a rule that covers off why all of these kids can’t just smash each other with grenades, right?” So we made a “grenade carrier” as a role in your team. So yeah.Robert Wilson: But the grenade paint themselves, that’s not an easy thing to pull off. We spent days throwing water balloons at each other trying to figure out how we were going to make this look the way they wanted to look.Jason Lapeyre: Days. Adults in the office, just trying it.
Jason Lapeyre: Absolutely. I know. I feel so grateful and lucky to be so represented at the festival and it absolutely breaks my heart that I cannot be there this year. It sucks and I was really looking forward to it. I’ve heard so many things about how fun it is and about how great a host Tim League is and unfortunately… Well it’s not that unfortunate, because the reason I can’t come is that I’m directing a TV movie in Vancouver for the next six weeks, so I’m really happy about that as well obviously, but tragically I’m not going to be able to come, so I’m promising myself that I’m going to be able to come next year instead.
Robert Wilson: Oh I’m there, yeah. I mean I’ve got one of those initial invitations to the first four party things, theme-wise for badge holders and it looks like so much fun and so different from the… I can’t wait.
Robert Wilson: I get the sensation we’re looking at a group of guys and girls just like us who have all come together to celebrate the kind of movies that we like and to do it in a fun way that doesn’t have the usual… I’m not bringing my suit with me.
Jason Lapeyre: I saw Tim at Fantasia about a month ago and he said something like that, like he was trying to figure out a way to organize some kind of paintball event or something. I mean don’t count it out, you never know.
Robert Wilson: We were very clear in the casting process that every parent had to read the script before they came in for their first audition, so we turned down the parents who didn’t get the underlying themes of the script right off the top and everybody that came in, the parents were more supportive than anybody else in the process and have continued to be. They loved the script, loved the movie, and thought much like we seem to think that treating their young adults like young adults and not in anyway being condescending to them was a rare opportunity to them, you know? It worked.Jason Lapeyre: The kids themselves, the actors themselves, they loved the script. They had this thing memorized by the time we did our first table read with them and at some point during the filming of the movie each of them came up to us and proposed a sequel for the movie that focused on their character, like that’s how much they loved the script. And so I think the parents saw how much the kids were invested in it and how much fun their kids were having. I mean we got so much amazing gratitude from the parents, like each of them has been so thankful to us, because we basically put their kid through the coolest summer camp month of their life and as a result they have just been incredibly supportive. Just to get specific about Caleb as you said, that’s a similar story to the Michael Friend story where Kolton Stewart, who was the performer is actually… He’s been on Broadway in THE LION KING, like he’s a singer and a dancer and he’s got these YouTube videos with 300,000 hits on them for him doing Jason Mraz songs, so of course we cast him as a kid that doesn’t talk, like idiots, right? All of that charisma is in his eyes and in his look as well and he totally had this great intensity and this ferocious presence. It’s a trope, it’s the kid who doesn’t talk, who’s got the dog, and he totally inhabited that.
Jason Lapeyre: I don’t know what to say to that. That’s a very interesting take on it. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone that their feelings about the movie were wrong, you know?
Jason Lapeyre: No, don’t apologize. Everyone should take away what they want.
Jason Lapeyre: Totally. We all had our favoritesRobert Wilson: Yeah, a lot of the people in the audience over the last couple of screenings have come and said, “I was this character.” It’s nice that the movie is able to solicit a conversation afterwards rather than us saying “And this is what bullying is about and why it happens,” because that really wasn’t the intention of entertaining and it’s great that people are finding their way into the movie through different characters. The script is really interesting in that it’s really not a standard structured script, it’s a true ensemble piece and that’s a difficult thing to pull off and probably even more difficult when you look at the fact that you’re aiming for twelve or thirteen year olds who can deal with this subject matter and deal with it believably and to the actors’ credit, to the writers’ credit, and to the whole team’s credit I think it’s pretty damn close.
Jason Lapeyre: Like what?
Jason Lapeyre: (Laughs) Okay, you caught me there.
Robert Wilson: I still do that.
Jason Lapeyre: If it makes you feel better, you are the first person ever to pick up on the fact that Frost is named after Frost from ALIENS, nice job. (Laughs)
Jason Lapeyre: Thank you so much man, and we really appreciate your support, thanks a lot.
Jason Lapeyre: It was a busy year.
Jason Lapeyre: All right man, well talk to you later. Thanks a lot, Alan.
Robert Wilson: Thanks Alan, I’ll see you in a week.