Guns R Us The independently funded hostage drama Pups, which opens at the Sony Village East this Friday, nearly became one of the best films you never got a chance to see. The reason: film industry cowardice.
Two days later, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did their Terminator number at Columbine High, triggering mass panic over alleged contributing factors like (1) America's love affair with guns, (2) the high violence content in pop culture, (3) tv news' brainless and amoral thirst for live images of shootouts, chases and hostage situations and (4) American parents' failure to understand their children and the debased world they will inherit.
Pups, which cites all four of these factors in explaining how its young characters ended up in such a tragic predicament, was deemed too hot to handle. Last summer, I wrote a full-length review of the film for New York Press that ended by asking if any major distributor had the balls to release it. For months, nobody did. Allied Entertainment, a small distributor, finally stepped up and did the right thing.
On a superficial level, it's not hard to see why bigger distributors got cold feet: the main character, Van Hoy's lanky, 13-year-old asthmatic loner Stevie, spends much of the film hoisting a handgun sideways like a pathetic gangsta wannabe, baiting the cops, manipulating idiot tv news crews and barking profanity-laced threats at hostages. He obviously learned these facile mindfuck techniques from watching violent movies and local news coverage of hostage situations?Pups pulls the trigger on these influences, so to speak. But the script's intricate exploration of cause and effect is buried deep within the film's unabashed Dog Day Afternoon format; you can see how thickheaded distributors might miss it entirely, mistaking a cautionary fable for an irresponsible how-to movie.
Intriguingly, the loss of a few months hasn't dimmed the relevance of Pups; the media and the pundit establishment continue to churn out kids-and-violence stories and just two weeks ago the Htoo twins became instant celebrities as the front page of The New York Times bore a photo of these 12-year-old leaders of a Burmese rebel group that held terrified adults hostage in a hospital.
Written and directed by one-named London-born director Ash?whose first feature was 1997's Bang, about an abused and mistreated Los Angeles actress who impersonates a cop for a day and digs the rush of power?Pups has the blunt urgency of a statement made under duress. No wonder: In October 1998, the filmmaker wrangled a budget, $930,000, from Team Okuyama, a Tokyo-based film production company, on the condition that he have the finished film in the can before the end of the calendar year. Ash wrote the script in a month and shot it in 16 days on location in suburban Chatsworth, 45 minutes north of Los Angeles. Ray Liotta agreed to play the small but crucial role of the FBI hostage negotiator, but dropped out at the last minute when his wife went into labor; Burt Reynolds stepped into the part, contributing a low-key, heartfelt supporting turn that equals his work in Boogie Nights.
Ash is a tall, skinny, soft-spoken 33-year-old with close-cropped punkish hair and who looks like he could be the bastard son of Jim Jarmusch. He has a history of causing trouble. He got expelled from public school in London for forging absence excuses. Later, he was expelled from the Art Center of Pasadena, where he studied filmmaking; already on probation for other offenses, he fulfilled an assignment to do a 16 mm short documentary by shooting an explicit movie about a dominatrix on used 35 mm film that he obtained from a friend.
Which isn't to say Ash is some kind of single-minded guerrilla agitator. He professes an admiration for the lush, visionary epics of Ridley Scott, particularly Blade Runner, and is currently considering following Pups with "sort of a tribute to Betty Blue." I met with him in Hollywood last month.
Obvious question first: Why didn't we see this film six months ago?
It was a pretty bizarre experience. After the film premiered, we had four or five major distributors who were interested in picking it up. I remember hearing the words, "This could be a commercial film."... All those studios basically stopped returning my calls [after Columbine], or explained to me, "We like the film, but our hands are kind of straitjacketed right now." What was unique about this situation was that [after Pups' premiere] the whole country took a stand against Hollywood, saying it was a major factor in why kids were getting so violent. From what I understand, it was almost like a memo had been passed out through Hollywood that said, "No movies should be made with kids and violence, and certainly not young kids and violence." A lot of major studios had to put films on hold or ice a lot of films that had been shot already. I know filmmakers back in Britain who had produced [similarly themed] films for American distributors who suddenly couldn't get their films released. Even though Pups is a film that at least tries to get into the reasons why kids get involved in this sort of activity, it was put into that general category of films that were deemed untouchable.
I find that bizarre. For one thing, the film is a pretty hard "R," because of the language and the violence, so kids couldn't get in to see it anyway. Secondly, this isn't Rambo IV. To use that gun metaphor again, you kind of pull the trigger on the responsibility issue. You don't blame Hollywood exclusively, but you do come out and say it's a factor.
Maybe as the dust is settling from the whole Columbine experience, we can reconsider that blanket designation.
When the distributors told you you could make any film you wanted as long as it was done in four months, why did you choose to tell the story of a couple of junior high kids who hold up a bank?
The Jonesboro shootings happened earlier that year. I remember being utterly amazed that a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old could sit out there with their grandfather's armory and snipe their own schoolmates at school. I remember talking to people in my circle of friends, saying, "What the hell is going on?" I remember what I was doing when I was 13 and 11 years old: I was dreaming about my first French kiss. I think that was as invasive as I got at that age. A lot of my friends said, "Look, if you feel so strongly about it, why don't you make a film about it?"
Under the circumstances, I'm surprised that having been given a small but workable budget and carte blanche in terms of subject matter, you wouldn't have made something more obviously salable.
I guess at the time I wasn't really aware that it wouldn't be commercial. Dog Day Afternoon was a pretty solid commercial success. I thought revisiting that from a kid's point of view would be, one, relevant, and two, something that kids 18 and older would be interested in checking out.
The character of Stevie plays as if you poured every conceivable negative influence into a big gumbo, and this kid is the result.
He has a sensitivity to him. Even though he's a negative archetype, I hope you can sympathize with him a little bit. Just the fact that the kid is born asthmatic?the idea of being robbed of your oxygen is enough to drive a person to pretty extreme lengths.
The way you shoot the environment kind of implicates the city, or the suburb, as it were, in his asthma.
Yeah. To be breeding kids that can't breathe properly...
Is it overthinking it to say that in Pups the inability to breathe can also be read on a metaphorical level?
No, not at all. Interestingly, Cameron Van Hoy is asthmatic himself.
Was that a lucky accident?
Yes. So was the home movie footage [of five-year-old Van Hoy dressed as a gun-toting cowboy] that we incorporate into the film.
That's a loaded image, and serendipitous, I guess.
There was even more disturbing imagery of him bouncing up and down on his choirmaster's knee, the choir singing church hymns. The next image on the tape was him in the cowboy outfit, pulling toy rifles out [of boxes] at his birthday party.
Talking about the home movies, there's almost kind of a multimedia collage effect in this movie?an idea of pop culture as being a warped mirror of society, and particularly tv news as being a warped mirror. I'm thinking of that wonderful moment when Stevie, in the middle of the bank robbery, looks up at the tv set in the corner and sees a live, real-time picture of himself, and as he moves, he sees the image of himself move. It seems to juice him up even more on the misguided power that he's acquired.
For once in his life, he feels empowered and somewhat relevant. The interesting thing about kids and violent acts?well, I should point out that it's not purely an American phenomenon. This is a global phenomenon. In Japan in 1997, they had a kid who chopped off the head of one of his classmates and put it on the gate of his school. He was 14 years old. In Liverpool, you had that famous case of the two 10-year-old kids who took that two-year-old and put him on a railway track.
Why is this happening now? Because if you actually do the math and look back through your history, even though it's fashionable and a cliche to say we live in more violent times than ever, the truth is that it was much more dangerous to be alive in 12th-century England than in America today.
Most of the kids, apart from the Columbine kids, when quizzed as to why they did it, said they didn't really have a reason why. Having said that, apart from the influence of media seduction, more now than ever there is a set of kids who feel a sense of powerlessness. In that regard, I think the Internet has had a much stronger influence than we're aware of. Kids have home computers and have access to information that was never available to kids of that age before. It's empowering for the kids, and without guidance from someplace, it's not always empowering in a good way.
The Internet makes it nearly impossible for parents to keep kids out of contact with other kids. If they have an Internet connection, they can create a little fifth column of kids in the community who are all talking to each other, and the parents will never know what they're talking about.
It will be interesting to see how this new generation comes up. The characters in the movie are 13 years old. The actors in real life are 13 years old. They already seem to have far more knowledge than I ever will be able to acquire in my lifetime.
What sort of knowledge?
Knowledge of everything from pornography to violence to how to access a website that will show you how to track down and kill a celebrity. The guy who stabbed George Harrison in England over New Year's?apparently there's a website that will show you how to track down, say, George Harrison, stab him and kill him. If that type of access is available to anyone, who knows what sort of kids we're going to create?
But if these two young characters are monsters, they're Frankenstein monsters. You get a sense of them being created by all these other outside forces and turned loose, at which point they have to be stopped.
At the same time, I believe there is an innocence to these kids. All Stevie really wants is to get out and be in nature and be able to breathe. I think he's a Frankenstein monster in the sense that he's been programmed by the system.
What sort of theories do you have about what factors would drive characters like these into a situation like this? Are there definite forces that bear responsibility? And if so, is there anything we can do? Trying to attack the problem of what creates super-violent kids seems akin to trying to attack the weather.
It's a complicated question. The right to bear arms is a part of the American Constitution, and without it, there wouldn't be an America.
There would certainly be more Native Americans.
And probably more British people... But I think somehow separating the access to guns from kids, or putting safety catches on the guns, is a good place to start. When I was a kid, I remember going into my parents' room and turning it over, looking for anything I could find. Except for the occasional porno mag, I found nothing. But if I'd found a gun, I'm sure I would have wanted to play with it. They have a very seductive effect.
Maybe. But I grew up in Dallas, one of the gun epicenters of the world. My stepfather had a gun stashed in every room of the house, I think because he had this nightmare about having to defend us against armed intruders. My brother and I knew where all the guns were. My stepfather showed us where they were. It never occurred to me to take them out and play with them. And, of course, guns have been around for several hundred years. Every household on the American frontier had one, and kids weren't blowing each other's heads off.
I think this generation is more frustrated than ever before.
What do they have to be frustrated about in America, where supposedly we're in a boom economy, and most kids have it cushier than any time in history?
[Kids in earlier eras] never grew up, just hitting puberty at 13 years old, with things like AIDS being an issue. Something as normal as having sex is suddenly a life-and-death issue... You're dealing with mortality right there and then. There's also a sense, as we push into the year 2000, that things are speeding up. Just look at how film has developed in the past 20 years. The cutting is faster, the pacing is faster, and that reflects the velocity of the world. It's hard to keep kids' attention for more than five seconds. They're coming up in a speed-crazy world where there's so much to reflect on but no time for reflection.
My colleague at the paper, Godfrey Cheshire, has written about what they call "the obliteration of space"?the sense of no longer knowing where you are and where other people are when you watch a movie. For instance, when you watch a film like Any Given Sunday, you'd think the first priority would be to tell the audience where they are and where the action is coming from and what, exactly, is happening. But the games are shot as a blur of motion, like channel surfing. I wonder if, for lack of a better phrase, the movies today visually reflect a sense of our not knowing where we are. Maybe that sense of a larger dislocation is coming through in the way films are shot.
There is something in that?the idea of a generation that has a sense of attention deficit disorder as a community, collectively, in general. Couple that with the idea of asking killer kids why they did it and their not knowing why; it's almost like these kids don't remember that they even did it. The two kids in Arkansas, they hardly remembered the actual episode. It's like the intention was only there for that given moment in time.
It's like, "That was then, this is now." A sense of being completely in the moment. No past, no future. What's on the tv now? What level are you at in the video game?
Right. So maybe there's some sort of missing time element. Time is being crunched so quickly for these kids. They miss the critical moment when they're in the moment. I think there's something there. I don't know what it is. Perhaps we need a map of some sort.
Let me propose a theory: On the surface, your two features appear to have kind of a punk, anarchic sensibility. To some degree, they are both about characters who are set up for a fall by these massive social forces they can't understand. All they know is they are abused by these forces, mistreated by them, ignored by them. Yet in your films there also seems to be, in absentia, a kind of old-fashioned yearning for a code, for a grid, for a map. I would see how somebody could see both your movies and think, "This guy is a nihilist punk." But if you're paying attention, you realize the opposite is the case.
I think the new generation of filmmakers, the new generation in general, is struggling to find some kind of code, a new code. We crossed over into the year 2000 and realized the human race has done a pretty good job of screwing up the world. How do we go forward from here? Maybe it's time to look at the map again, or find a map, or generate a new map as a way to move forward. I see myself as someone blindly trying to find my own kind of map, and using film as a medium to chart it.