Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson‘s I Declare War received the Audience Award at last year’s Fantastic Fast, and that’s a tough crowd. Other festivals may celebrate softer, more easily-digestible fare, but Fantastic Fest is where the cinephile crowd goes, and they voted for a unique coming-of-age story where personal rivalries and betrayal between pre-teens begin to overshadow the carefree fun of capture-the-flag. You can click here for my review.
A couple weeks ago, I went to Austin as part of a press day for the movie, and I got to interview Lapeyre and Wilson along with star Gage Munroe, who plays the reigning champion and war-obsessed PK. During our conversation, we talked about the challenges of making the movie, nostalgia, the relevance of the story, how kids play today, and more. Hit the jump for the interview. I Declare War opens in limited release tomorrow.
GAGE MUNROE: It was a pretty physically draining movie, actually. At the end of the day after we’d done all the running around, and as fun as it was, it was pretty tiring after that.
JASON LAPEYRE: We were outdoors for 21 days in a row, and so we were victims at the mercy of the elements, but I didn’t really think of the shoot as work because I’d been dreaming of it for a decade. It was such a pleasure working with the kids and everyone. The hardest part of the shoot doesn’t really register with me.
ROBERT WILSON: It was a difficult shoot though. There was a lot of catharsis going from beat-to-beat-to-beat-to-beat. It’s hard because you have one chance to get it right. You have 21 days; you don’t have a big budget; you’re not re-shooting anything; you have a young cast that’s sometimes ahead of where you are with things and smarter and can grasp stuff while you’re still mired in the adult explanation. And I guess the anticipation of it. I remember the scene where it’s “Blow ‘em a kiss or blow ‘em away,” and [Jason and I] felt that we had to explain almost that was the innuendo that was being thrown across from Skinner to Mackenzie. But that was a great moment too because we had decided, “We’re not going to say this. We’re not going to come out and explain this to the audience.”
You have the war in terms of the guns and the explosions. Was there anything else you wanted to add but weren’t able to due to time and budget limitations when it came to expanding that imagery?
WILSON: [joking] Yeah, uniforms. [laughs] No, not really. More explosions are always nice. More gunfire is always nice. But the thing about the movie is the movie doesn’t really call for it as much as you’d like to do that stuff. I don’t feel like the challenges in the budget made us miss out something that should have been there to make the moviegoing experience enjoyable. We even argued the lasers. We wanted them to feel kind of lo-tech and rough imagination from a boy rather than X-Men-level quality effects. You struggle to keep it “real” in that sense. That was the intention and it was kind of with the paintbrush of a 12-year-old’s mind.
LAPEYRE: That was the fun of it, in fact. On the page, it was the unlimited imaginations of the children. But to make the movie, it was “How do we cobble this together, and bridge that to the audience,” like the kids’ imaginations and what they’re actually seeing. The blood grenades are a good example. It’s a water balloon with red paint in it. But this was another thing I was saying at the Q&A last night. It’s kind of a testament to the magic of movies. When you explode red paint on someone and couple it with a sound effect, that’s 95% of what’s happening in a big budget movie. Your brain does the rest of the work. It’s the imagination of the audience as well to fill in those gaps. So yeah, there was nothing we wanted to have that wasn’t in the movie.
WILSON: Helicopters. [laughs]
MUNROE: Helicopters make everything better.
WILSON: I only went into film because I wanted to be in helicopters more often. It hasn’t happened yet.
One of the things that really worked better for me on a second viewing was the Frost-Sikorski relationship. Was there anything in these character relationships that you went through personally when you were around that age?
LAPEYRE: Uh…yes. The movie is completely autobiographical. I mean, I didn’t go through exactly what was happening, but every character is a part of me. There are several things that in the movie that are inspired by real life.
WILSON: I would say that the Frost-Sikorski relationship was closer to 16 or 17, but you’re aware of it. When you move from the “Old Frost” to the “New Frost”, that’s something that sticks with you.
LAPEYRE: There are archetypal adolescent experiences. I only decided to write about something if I was sure it was something that everyone had gone through at some point.
Gage, were you 12 when you made the movie?
MUNROE: We show in the summer of 2011, so yeah, I was sort of the younger member of the cast. I think some of the older kids were 14.
So because your character is also 12, did you feel like you were sharing the emotions of PK personally?
MUNROE: Yeah. I think especially boys have a competitive streak when they’re 12, and I think that’s really represented in PK because his thirst to win takes over anything. Some people more than others, they take things very seriously.
Do you think PK and Skinner are more alike than Skinner thinks because winning is so important to both of them?
MUNROE: I guess so. I guess they’re the same because one always has to be on top and there can’t be two, so I guess they’re more alike than they’d like to think.
LAPEYRE: I don’t want to speculate on that, because were just talking about this in the prior interview. The film intentionally takes place in a hermetically sealed universe so part of the point of that is this is everyday to these kids.
WILSON: The next day is a reset, right?
LAPEYRE: Yeah, it’s a reset. Kwon’s last line of the film is “Maybe tomorrow.” It’s the idea that at that age, days disappear into one another. The events of the film are not supposed to be a particular day. They’re more like an everyday thing.
WILSON: And in terms of the approach we’re talking about in terms of being nostalgic because we’re not 12 anymore, there was a time when you didn’t run home –unless you were going to the hospital—to have your problem solved. There was a principal at school, but when you weren’t at school, you resolved these problems by yourself. And you did go to school the next day with yesterday’s stuff kind of there but not really there. Nothing changes.
I’m going to sound a bit crotchety, but I’m wondering for Gage, do you feel that this is still really relevant? Because Jason and Robert, when you were kids, there weren’t really video games at the level they are now, and there’s so much more today in terms of entertainment. So did you feel the notion of kids playing outside was quaint?
LAPEYRE: Nope. At the table read, they were like, “We do play capture the flag, but we won’t play with the girls because the girls cheat!”
MUNROE: I do go outside. My game is “Cops and Robbers”.
WILSON: When it comes to the ratio of playing outside and playing video games, what do you figure?
MUNROE: I think it’s now about 70% indoors and 30% outdoors because kids now play war on their computers and their Xbox.
LAPEYRE: But again I would make the point that regardless of the form of the group play, I still think the same underlying things are happening. Like bullying on Facebook happens. Bullying in real life happens. Whether you’re in a multiplayer game of Call of Duty, there’s still the same level of human nature happening. I think that’s one of the reasons the film has resonated not only with adults, but with young people today. My daughter is 14 and she loves the movie, and her friends love the movie, because they recognize what’s happening even if it’s not exactly the same form.
One of the things I really like about this movie is that it shows a turning point where adolescents develop a self-awareness that creates inhibition. Can you remember when that was for you or do you think it’s something more gradual.
MUNROE: I think that point gets earlier and earlier, and it’s gotten earlier with every generation. Especially with the video games and social media we have now, I think that turning point from kid to sort of adult has gotten earlier with TV shows that are on right now and video games. They all contribute to that.
WILSON: I remember incidents at the time that felt like the end of innocence. They clearly weren’t because another one came along three or four years later, and I look back and go, “Wow, I was a dumbass.” The end of innocence is one that you pray for and you want and you want and you want and you think you got, and look back and go, “Aw, jeez.”
LAPEYRE: I’m still there. My childhood hasn’t ended yet.
Well last night we were all playing paintball and it feels like you can reach an age where you can reclaim it. The self-consciousness fades because all the press people were having a ball. But if we had been in that sullen adolescence, perhaps not.
WILSON: Yeah, but we’re in the wood though and this is it and there’s no looking cool.
I think it’s only looking cool!
WILSON: The usual social…It’s weird. You’re in the trenches and you bump into someone and it’s your team right. And you say, “Alright, I’m going to move. Cover me,” and their instinct was, “You got it, buddy. I’ll cover you. I’ll pop up and lay down some suppressing fire.” And those are the rules. We all know and love it. So yeah, I think you do get back to it.
LAPEYRE: I think that’s one of the greatest things about the experience of the movie so far is that it’s clearly allowing people to do that. People come up to us afterwards and go, “Man, I felt like I was 13 again.” That’s what we wanted to do when we made this film. Let’s try to get back that feeling.
Earlier you said the film was “hermetically sealed” and I was wondering does exist in a particular time, because at one point someone says that no cell phones are allowed.
LAPEYRE: It’s explicitly a contemporary story, so it’s not a period piece because the idea here is that this is universal. It’s not only something that happened in the 80s. It’s happened and always happened with kids.
So you consciously left out lines like, “I’ll see you on Facebook” or lines that you think may have dated the film?
LAPEYRE: One of the greatest reference points was I have a kid and she was that age when I was writing the script, and she doesn’t say “I’ll see you on Facebook.” People don’t talk like that. They do it, but ask an authentic [gestures at Munroe]
MUNROE: I don’t have a phone with me right now, but I can get addicted. I think everyone can.
WILSON: Sure. I think the biggest suspension of disbelief we have in the movie is that kids will go out and play for eight hours, and parents won’t swoop in wondering if they’ve been abducted because they don’t have their cell phones on. But it’s referenced in the film and told to be put away, and I think that is a very intentional stroke to tell the audience to tell the audience, “Time to forget about this for the next hour,” because we totally forget about it. Even if you don’t recognize this in your kid who won’t get off Facebook, it’s important that it’s not there for this. We argued about PK breaking his own rule and going off into the corner to dial some numbers to bring the Asian kid as something we might want to have because it would service the edit. Like we don’t know who he’s dialing or what he’s doing, but now we know he’s sent them all the way to take out the phone and do something. But in the end, we didn’t want it.
Gage, since you’ve been working in films, has any other aspect of production leaped out at you as something you’d like to do?
MUNROE: Originally, I started acting because I showed interest in movies and TV. And I still think I’d like to try maybe writing or maybe directing a short film. We’ll see. If I did get the opportunity to write something cool that people would like, I would jump at the opportunity to make it.
LAPEYRE: Please do. I think you’d be good at it.
LAPEYRE: I’ve been meaning to say to all the journalists that some of the reviews we’ve had say that the kids were all amateur actors and had never acted before, and I just wanted everyone to know that’s totally not true. We have a complete variety of experience levels, and Gage, even at the time we shot the movie, was more experienced that many of the adult actors I’ve worked with previously.
WILSON: We were also in a situation where you could potentially see the more experienced actors less tolerant of the younger actors and some of the first-time actors, but a couple guys had been on stage since they were two or one, but never had been on a film set. But there was no threat of one person’s career doing something faster than my career was. There was no bullshit or ego.
MUNROE: We were in the forest playing war, really.
WILSON: And that mood was infectious. It played into the directors, the cinematographer, etc.
LAPEYRE: We fed on it.
So by feeding on it, did you feel like you were going back to that age yourselves?
WILSON: And one of the better filmmaking experiences.
How did you guys get together on this?
LAPEYRE: I wrote the script and it was picked up by Rob’s producing partner, Lewin Webb, and he brought it to Rob. And then there were a few years of the script going in and out of different avenues, but eventually [Rob’s production company] was able to put the financing together for it, and that’s how Rob and I got together.
WILSON: When the financing finally came together for this one, I think it was January or February of that year?
LAPEYRE: It was really fast. Lewin took me out for coffee in March, and said “We’re doing this in June.”
WILSON: And it took us to July to get shooting.