I Declare War hits the big screen this week and sees Robert Wilson & Jason Lapeyre team up in the director’s chair for the first time: Lapeyre also penned the screenplay for the film.
We caught up with both of the directors to chat about the film, what inspired the script, and bringing together a very talented young cast.
- I Declare War is about to be released here in the UK, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
Robert Wilson: I Declare War is a flashback to growing up in the seventies in and eighties, in a weird way: however, it is current and is not set as a period piece. It is about a neighbourhood war that is fought in battles once a week: generals pick their teams and they clash.
It is on the edge of more adult concerns and your childhood coming to an end. In this particular portion of the story, rules start to get broken.
- Jason, you have also penned the screenplay for the film. Where did the idea for the story come from? And how much of it is autobiographical or nods back to your own childhood?
Jason Lapeyre: I wrote it because I wanted to tell a story about what it feels like to be a kid: that is very much where the idea came from. Yeah, it is totally autobiographical: each one of those kids is me in some way. I played ‘war’ as a kid, and my dad was in the military. One of the funny stories of my childhood is that we had a decommissioned bazooka in the basement, and I would whip that out when we played ‘war’. There was a little bit of that in there for sure.
When I met up with Robert and Lewin Webb, their immediate reaction to the script was ‘we did this too’. In fact, where we shot the film is literally where Rob played ‘war’ when he was that age. During the shoot Rob would be like ‘yeah, that was my bunker’ (laughs).
One of my favourite stories about shooting is because our location was a little bit outside of Toronto, for convenience sake, Rob was bunking at his parent’s house: which was near where we were shooting. It was this epic autobiographical time warp for Rob and me, I think.
RW: I would do it again.
JL: Oh yeah, me too.
- Robert, the movie sees both of you in the director's chair, so how did this collaboration come about? And what was it about Jason’s script that sparked your interest?
RW: Jason’s script sparked my producing partners’ interest about eight years ago: however, it was optioned so he chased it from that point on. The first time I read it, I read it and went ‘wow, this is exactly what it was like growing up. We should just buy this and make it exactly as it is, don’t touch a thing’.
It really was a genuinely fun look at… it spoke to you as an adult, given that you have watched war movies, and comic books.
All of that stuff was in there, but there was a really true sense of the way childhood worked, and how a girl not liking you that day would be the end of the world and you were never go live through it, but tomorrow would be a different day. The ability to bounce back from these epic and monstrous traumas was in the script and it was how I remember growing up.
- That does lead me into my next question. Despite the fact that Jason did pen the screenplay, I wondered just how much of your own childhood you saw in the pages of this script?
RW: We grew up on different side of the planet: he was an army brat and moved around, and I grew up in Toronto, however, it was like we had the same childhood. Strangely enough, Lewin Webb - who is Welsh - had the same childhood as well.
It really was a universal thing where we went ‘I knew that kid and I knew that kid, this is amazing’. Then it became more ‘which kid were you?’
- There has been a little bit of controversy and discussion about the play weapons used in the film. How have you found that? Surely, any discussion & debate about a film is nothing but a good thing?
RW: It is a great thing. We have actually bee surprised that the discussion wasn’t further: most of the people’s complaints that we have read seem to be from the people who have seen the trailer and not the film. However, I do understand that.
If someone had suggested to me that there was going to be a movie with kids with live machine guns shooting at each other in the current climate, I would have thought ‘wow, that is particularly opportunist and a shit thing to do’. However, that is not what the movie is about, and that is not what happens in the film. I have watched people defend the film after seeing it. No one gets hurt with guns in this film.
It is weird, because when I was growing up we had holsters - they sold them in the store - and there was no orange cap on the end of your cap gun: you had toy guns and you played war. The conversation never goes to why that is super interesting for twelve year olds: which is also disappointing. I don’t know the answer, but I would love to hear some opinions. In the long run, we are happy that it does spark some conversation.
- I Declare War sees you team up together in the director’s chair for the first time, so how did you find that experience?
RW: It was awful.
JL: It was so close to a double homicide, you have no idea. It was bumpy at first. Whenever you go through the process of making a film, it is always so intense as there are bit highs and big lows. However, by the end of it, it was like combat, as you are patting each other on the back and we are definitely much closer as a result of having made this film together.
RW: Aside from stylistic choices, we wanted the same thing from the script: I think that was because we had all had this same experience. Everybody knew what it was about. I don’t think Jason every worried that I was going to go out and shoot some artsy whatever. It was a war movie, we understood it. In that capacity, co-directing was a little bit easier.
JL: From day one, we always used the same references when we talked about the film, as we talked about Stand By Me, The Goonies and we also talked about Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. Everyone was on the same page form day one.
- Can you talk a little about the casting process and what you were looking for when you were casting the kids - there is a varying degree of experience between them.
RW: We set out thinking that we were going to open up casting and be searching drama classes and going far and wide. There was a healthy working population of actors that our casting agent could reach out to and put in front of us: she specialises in young adult casting. We really wanted a sense that these were real kids, and we thought that that would be hard to get: as it turned out, it wasn’t.
Michael Friend - who plays Skinner - walks through the door, smiles at you, turns into a psychopath, and then walks out. You have no idea what you are dealing with because you didn’t expect a twelve year old to be that visceral with it (laughs). We immediately knew that he was Skinner and he was in for sure. You then had this experience where you got to know him as you are prepping and shooting, and he is the sweetest kid that there ever was.
Nobody was worried about where they were going to go next in their career of have bills to pay, so they were able to create characters. There wasn’t a ‘real life’ to it for them, they had the best summer they had had, and they were free to play around and have a good time. Boom, they were best of friends.
- They always say that you should never work with children, so how did you find that experience? And how much were they able to bring to the roles themselves?
RW: They brought everything to their roles. When the script popped, bullying had quite become a topic yet: we green lit this, we went into this, and we shot a movie. As we were in post-production this whole bullying thing came out as a very relevant social concern, which it is.
We never said on set ‘Michael you have to bully him more’, I use Michael as an example as he is the antithesis of the kid he plays in the movie, and yet the themes were something that he understood. The themes were something that they all understood, had all experienced, and were something that they latched on to and brought everything that they could to the table. We didn’t have to do a huge bunch of work.
JL: They brought everything. It was amazing to work with them.
RW: I know that they always say don’t work with kids, but this was the best shooting experience that I have had in twelve years and since. It was a joy.
JL: I would agree with that completely. We were optimistic and hopeful going in, based on the auditions, but on the set we were frequently looking at each other with our jaws dropped. Particularly in the case of actors like Michael Friend and Mackenzie Munro, we just got 500% more than we were hoping for.
- You shot the film in a very swift twenty days - how did you find working under such tight time constraints? Or do you like working like that?
RW: No one likes working like that.
JL: It certainly was what we were able to get away with, rather than what we chose to do. I think working at that budget level that is actually a little bit generous. What Lewin Webb and Robert were able to put together for that budget level was pretty good.
One of the whole ideas behind the script having that particular concept was that it was something that was contained and relatively limited in scope. When I sat down to write it, I wrote it knowing that it would probably be one of my first films, and something that was a little more limited in scope would be a little more achievable practically.
RW: I love how you thought that an imaginative play with twelve twelve year olds and a dog is limited in scope (laughs).
JL: (laughs). Right. It was all intended to be in essentially one location, but not feel like one location.
- This is an independent, and we are always hearing about how difficult it is to get films like this made at the moment. So how difficult was it to get this movie made?
RW: It was difficult. The nice part about this film was the fact that the script was so good, that we just ploughed forward - this is Lewin, myself and Patrick Cameron in a producing capacity - we never had any questions. We made the film with no distribution in place, no nothing, just simply because we believed in the words and had shared this experience.
As I say, kids, guns, and bullying hadn’t really hit that headlines, and so it wasn’t opportunistic: it really was the honest mistake of three dumb guys thinking ‘this is so good. We like it, how could this be hard? We are lucky to have this’. It was difficult and harrowing at many stages along the way.
JL: I wrote this script back in 2003, and I heard ‘no’ a lot: I met with a lot of people and many of them said ‘this is a great story and I would love to see it, but I cannot take the risk’.
God bless Lewin Webb, as he was the one who stepped up and took the enormous risk of making the film. It was challenging - certainly to get someone on board with the idea - but it was Lewin who finally stepped up for sure.
- The movie hits the big screen in the UK Late this week, so how have you been finding the response to the film so far?
JL: That has been the most fun part, as the response has been so overwhelmingly positive. Particularly in the U.S., which as Canadian filmmakers, you hope you get a bit of attention in the U.S. For us, the film had gotten primarily its greatest response in the U.S. The festival circuit has been great, we have won a few awards, and the U.S. press has been incredibly positive about the film.
We have also seen a great response across all age groups as well. Young people love the film and are repeat watching, we also have people who played the game when they were young and a nostalgic. It has been a career highlight in that way.
- Finally, what's next for the pair of you?
RW: I am writing and working on a couple of television things at the moment. I don’t want to get into budgeting and independent film in Canada, but it is hard to find ideas that you want to make, within a certain bubble. I think when you have one that you really love and is working, you just relax and wait to get lucky again. Or maybe I am just being lazy (laughs).
JL: I am also writing at the moment; I am paying the bills in television as well. Rob and I don’t have any hard plans to work together again, but if the opportunity came up I think we would be both into it - or am I speaking out of term there Rob?
RW: No, no I would go for it.
I Declare War is released 6th June.