To make a coming-of-age film in the modern cinematic era is a daunting task to any filmmaker, seeing as how many completely seminal films have come from that particular genre and how badly the failures have been when unable to match those great entries. For any director, one of the best courses of action is to go in a different direction, implying subversive tactics or unexplored subject matter to explore emotional connections that audiences may not see on the surface of everyday life. But even in that direction, a film still needs a heart at the center of the film and a tangible logic to the proceedings, which is even more heightened when set against the backdrop of something crazy or completely visceral.
I Declare War, now in theaters and on VOD from Drafthouse Films, is a film that excels on both levels, providing a heartfelt and emotionally powerful story of friendship, desperation and betrayal during a game of “War”. However, by making the choice of showing the game through the children’s imaginations and exchanging sticks and stone for guns and grenades, the film resonates on a much more surreal and immersive level and the emotional stakes are raised, even if the physical damage is non-existent. Now that the film can be seen on the big screen, Diabolique spoke to I Declare War’s directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson about controversy, creativity and crafting a coming-of-age tale unlike any other…
DIABOLIQUE: I Declare War is definitely a unique and surreal take on the comedic coming-of-age film. How were you able to come up with the concept for the film?
JASON LAPEYRE: I actually wrote the script and the reason I wrote the script is because I wanted to tell a story about how it felt to be 12-13 years old. When I was that age, I used to play “War” in the woods a lot with my friends. That seemed like a good metaphor for the emotional intensity of being that age, so the whole idea was to capture the emotional intensity of being 12 by setting the story during war time, or play “War” time, which allows for that intensity. So that was the combination of the two ideas that led to the script.
DIABOLIQUE: The film is a fascinating project, and it has a lot of funny and affecting moments. It’s also very intense at times and, of course, a major matter of discussion amongst the films critics is the portrayal of the play weapons in the film. What has been your approach to respond to the criticisms and the controversy that may come along with such a depiction?
ROBERT WILSON: I wish there was more of it! To be frank, it’s a good conversation. We grew up watching war movies and we didn’t have toy guns that were painted fluorescent orange, so we imagined we were shooting our friends and that was something that was exciting enough to get us out of the house until the streetlights came on. You played until you dropped and that was it. I don’t think that’s gone away in the digital age, it’s just become the Call of Duty thing. So it wasn’t like we were doing anything for the first time and certainly we’re not even doing it as immersive as some of the video games out there, by far. It’s interesting to talk about.
LAPEYRE: Yeah, I mean, the choice to portray real weapons was not a frivolous one. From the very beginning, the idea was to find a visual correlation to the emotional intensity for the kids. I think anyone who has seen the movie gets that really quickly. In fact, the only vocal criticism that we have gotten come from people who haven’t seen the movie. They’ve just seen the trailer and then they’ll hop on a message board and type up some nonsense. As soon as they see it, they reverse their position, so it’d be nice if people talked about it more because it’s totally worth talking about. But we haven’t received that much in the way of outrage.
WILSON: (To Jason) Did you send me the link to that message board?
LAPEYRE: Yeah, there was a really right-wing, nutjob message board and they went to town [on I Declare War.] Their thing was they thought the movie was advocating another Newtown Massacre. It was nuts.
WILSON: Yeah, with the intention of secretly changing public perception so that [the government] would take their guns away. Yeah, they put us in this weird conspiracy.
DIABOLIQUE: That’s so strange because in the movie, there’s no real advocacy of violence. If anything, it’s the opposite considering Skinner’s treatment of Kwon is emphasized as going way too far. Although, even though you were making this really compelling coming-of-age comedy, you’re also making a satire of the war film genre. Was this your intention? If so, was there any trope you wanted to avoid in doing that?
LAPEYRE: Yeah. [The war film genre] was a fun thing to play with in putting the movie together. I think a lot of that came organically from the kids being so into the “War” game. When you were that age and you were playing “War”, you were just bringing up all the media that you had seen: the movies, the comics, the television. There’s a scene in the movie where PK actually uses dialogue from one of his favorite movies to give orders to one of his soldiers. Rob and I are just grown-up kids so we do the same thing in choosing shots and putting together the narrative. It was just an organic function of “Here we are at war, so let’s speak the language that we know from this genre.”
DIABOLIQUE: Considering they were going to be handling realistic functioning weapons, did this make the casting process difficult? Was there any issues explaining to the child cast how the film was going to look and be depicted as or were you all on the same page?
WILSON: They were 12, man! How it looked was probably 10 levels under how they were imagining it looking when they were firing machine guns. Casting was painfully easy for us, and we’ve told this story a couple of times, but we thought we’d have to do a far-and-wide search for unknowns who had been typecast to make this thing sing and we found a solid group of actors who just understood the material and connected with it immediately. I mean, they got it; it’s not like they had been behaving differently than they had been on the schoolyard. I have to admit they were certainly taking it to extremes, but from the standpoint of directing them, neither Jason nor I had to say, “You have to bully a little bit more, and this is how it has to go.” They understood the world they were jumping into and they understood the place each of their characters had in the story more than we actually had hoped.
DIABOLIQUE: How much of each character did the children bring to the project? Was there anything specifically about themselves that they wanted to inject into the character?
LAPEYRE: We encouraged them to make contributions because we were aware that my slang is kind of like ‘80s slang, at least from the script. So we said to the kids, “You know, if anything feels weird to you and if you want to use your own version of the words on the page, do so.” In that sense, we invited their collaboration. There were definitely moments where they wanted to throw in a thing or two and anything like that we invited openly just because it brought them even more commitment to the project because they felt their opinions were being valued.
WILSON: We could afford to be slightly reactive to [their contributions] because there was two of us [directing the film.] If there was anything happening that we liked, like Frost and Joker, getting into this place, we then could alter stuff and make it bigger. Like the Frost/Joker Laser Beam and the conclusion to that arc being a point of reference. That was not there originally and we kind of baked it up because it made sense and we liked it. So there was a bit of reaction based on what the kids were bringing to their roles; really, a lot of it.
DIABOLIQUE: As independent directors working on this project, was there a certain level of patience that you had to bring to this project considering the amount of comedy, drama and action going on simultaneously?
LAPEYRE: That’s a really hard question to answer. I mean, every film project is so radically different from every other one that it’s actually hard to compare them. I mean, at no point did we have to stop and look at each other and think, “Wow, this is a really hard one because it’s got all this different stuff going on.” You just knuckle down, push forward and get it done.
It was a modest shoot; it was a 20 day shoot, and we had one extra day for weather but yeah, I’m not sure what to say other than we did the best that we could with what we had. I don’t even know how to answer that question; I’m sorry!
WILSON: I would say that this was the first project that I’ve bumped into where all of the actors knew all of the other actors’ lines. You could flip the roles in between takes and they were there. They were probably better prepared than we were to a certain degree because they didn’t have to worry about where the camera was going to be if it rained yesterday. There’s a certain patience in the sense that you’re worrying about shooting for 20 days with no rain cover and you have to expect to get nailed a couple of times. But that was really the most frustrating part of it.
LAPEYRE: Patience is a necessary element of a film director’s repertoire, no matter what you’re working on. But if the question was about whether the kids had enough patience, they actually alleviated so many problems that we just considered ourselves lucky to have that the whole time.
DIABOLIQUE: Was there a line that either of you drew in terms of what you want to depict with the battle elements that, even in an imaginative sense, you might not get away with?
LAPEYRE: Not really; we fired a rocket launcher, man! We got away with everything we wanted to. We wanted the kids to be covered in blood, firing machine guns with gore dripping off of them and we kind of got it. So I don’t think so.
WILSON: From a creative standpoint, everyone was so on board with how they’d imagine things as a 12 year old that we just jumped right in and made it. All of those “Oh shit, maybe we shouldn’t have done that” moments all came up afterwards.
LAPEYRE: [laughs] Yeah, it was too late!
WILSON: It was too late, what are you going to do? There is a version of I Declare War floating out there somewhere that has no swearing in it. [laughs]
LAPEYRE: May it never see the light of day.
WILSON: It never will see the light of day. You can say “thank you” to Drafthouse Films for that, though.
DIABOLIQUE: As you mentioned before, in today’s youth culture, there’s been widespread complaints that kids playing outside has been replaced by video games, and even though there’s a small presence of it, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of technology present in the film. Was this something you specifically wanted to drive towards for I Declare War?
WILSON: Sort of, but when you online, you’ll find groups of kids that are shooting airsoft guns at each other and they’re definitely doing that outside. You definitely have to be a little bit nostalgic for the days where you’d go outside and you wouldn’t be expected to be back until the streetlights came on for dinner, and I think that’s in [the film].
LAPEYRE: Yeah, the movie was written about my childhood, so there’s definitely nostalgia there but we made the effort to set the film in a contemporary time period, so you did see cell phones. All of the underlying themes of what’s happening [in the film] are still just as valid now as they were back when Rob and I were kids. Even further to that, to the idea that kids are all playing video games and aren’t playing outside, I’m not even sure if that’s true because the entire cast, after reading the script, came up to us and said, “Yeah, this is absolutely true. This is what we do at school when we run around at recess and lunch time.” This kind of physical activity is maybe more present than we think it is because of the prevalence of cell phones and Xbox and stuff.
WILSON: Yeah and there’s this weird thing where the parents in the older generation are like, “Oh, the kids are doomed! They don’t go outside anymore! They only went outside for 6 minutes today!” [According to them,] when I was ten, Dungeons and Dragons was going to turn me into a Satanist. But that’s always been there. It was rock ‘n’ roll before that, so I just think that if they have video games now, they have more options. If I had Call of Duty when I was ten, you better believe I would have been playing it.
DIABOLIQUE: I Declare War has been one of my personal favorite films of the year. If the film is a success, do you guys have anything currently prepared for your next project?
WILSON: Well, first we’re going to race our yachts for a couple months. [laughs]
LAPEYRE: Yeah, we’re going to race our golden yachts against each other. Solid gold yachts; Doesn’t that sound like a great idea? They’re going to float so well.
WILSON: We’re both writing and we’re not opposed to looking at stuff in a collaborative sense again, but it’s weird. You don’t expect something that you make to have such immediacy to it. We got the script, started moving and got done shooting within 4-5 months, and then it’s been 2 years getting to the place where it is now, so for me, I just want to sit back and go, “Finally, people are seeing it,” before I worry about what’s next. You don’t realize a few years have gone by, but it has.
I Declare War, directed by Robert Wilson and Jason Lapeyre, is now in select theaters and on VOD from Drafthouse Films; you can read Diabolique’s official review of the film here and for more information on the film, you can visit its official website. For more from Jason Lapeyre, you can visit his official website, check out his official Vimeo and you can also follow him on Twitter: @JasonLapeyre. For more on I Declare War, Jason Lapeyre, Robert Wilson and Drafthouse Films, keep checking back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com!
– By Ken W. Hanley