War? What is it good for? In the case of the independently made Canadian production I Declare War (opening this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), it’s good for making a thoroughly engrossing story about two teams of twelve year olds playing an increasingly acrimonious game of capture the flag on a Summer afternoon.
One team led by the virtuous and somewhat brilliant tactician PK (Gage Munroe) and the other by the power mad Skinner (Michael Friend) who assumed command after a coup that breaks all rules of the game, these kids envision their mock battle played out with real firearms, but don’t worry, they aren’t real guns in the film, and they are there to illustrate an intriguing point: that the psychological warfare kids inflict on each other can be far more damaging than any bullet could ever be.
We talked to co-directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson when the film played at TIFF last fall to talk about the concept for the film, the evil that kids can do, and what it was like trying to recreate being twelve years old.
Dork Shelf: Probably the best place to start would be to ask how you guys could take something as simple as a game of capture the flag into something that could become a film?
Jason Lapeyre: I wrote the script about ten years ago and I wanted to make a story about what it was like to be 12 years old. I don’t remember exactly where the idea came from, but I remember when I was that age and I played war, I didn’t imagine that I was holding a stick. I always imagined that I had an AK-47. I was also and army brat and I grew up on a lot of military bases and my dad had a decommissioned bazooka in the basement…
Robert Wilson: But was there really an AK-47?
JL: (laughs) That I imagined? Yeah. There was in my mind. Probably because an uzi was just too small.
DS: Doesn’t that mean when you were growing up you pretended you were a Russian soldier?
RW: Yeah, man, why are you playing for the wrong team?
JL: I dunno. Maybe it was because I was in Germany and I hated my dad? Don’t put that in there about me hating my dad. That’s not true. (laughs) But I wanted to make something that was about kids where they thought they were playing actual war.
RW: Yeah, I could get behind that script. (laughs)
DS: Yeah, it sounds like a pretty great script. The movie visualizes these guns as being real, but I think something a lot of people might not realize or think about is that these guns that they perceive are actually the only things that DON’T hurt the kids.
JL: (laughs) OH MAN! That’s a great line! I had never heard anyone really articulate it like that.
DS: Well, it’s true because rocks and words and sticks and stones are what do most of the damage. It all comes from the tangible things around them. No one even takes the stick version of the gun and hits anyone with it.
JL: Yeah, that’s true, and that’s totally what the story as a whole was intended to be about. When you’re 12 or 13 years old, you are vicious, and hurtful, and you do not have social filters…
RW: Speak for yourself, I was a sweet, sweet, sweet young man.
JL: (laughs) Lies. Lies. In grade seven it’s totally normal for one kid to walk up to another kid and say “I hate you and I wish you were dead.” It’s completely normal and you at times feel like that’s an okay thing to say in grade seven. And I remember that. I had a friend of mind who was of East Indian heritage told me she had the N-bomb dropped on here when she was in grade seven. That happens. It really does. Kids when they are that age can be incredibly hurtful, and you get traumatized from that perspective and that’s what’s happening to these kids here against the backdrop of an innocent looking game that none of them are really thinking twice about.
RW: It’s even more traumatizing then because as adults when someone says something like that there’s often a context to what’s being said, but at the age of these kids they are just trying stuff on.
JL: That’s exactly it. They’re trying to figure out who they are and how they’re going to present themselves to the world. So when I wrote this story, I approached it as an actual war. These kids are going to do whatever they have to in order to survive and their own insecurities are going to lead them to do terrible and hurtful things as a way of trying to protect themselves.
RW: Skinner is almost a schizophrenic and on the edge of two worlds. He’s kind of like the kid who can get straight As in science and math, but socially he’s reached a boiling point.
DS: I think everyone really knows that kind of kid, too. There’s a Skinner in every town and often in every group of friends.
JL: I was literally always thinking of one very specific person when I wrote the character of Skinner. I’m not going to say that person’s name. (laughs) There would be a lawsuit.
DS: And I think now when people grow up a lot of people might realize that they WERE that character without want to realize or admit that.
JL: Absolutely. Members of the crew were always coming up to us and saying that they sometimes saw themselves as being this kind of hurtful kid.
RW: It’s that perspective that you don’t have when you’re between 10 and 12 years old. You think that if you ever want to get what you want, or that you need to be cool enough to get what you want, that’s exactly where those hurtful feelings start to come from.DS: And conversely at that age, when pushed too far, most people think that violence is a good way to push back.
RW: Well, it’s because you’re desperately trying to find a solution. It also manifests itself in the way these guys deal with having a girl around them. These are people trying to find out who they’re trying to be, and when they don’t measure up to their own expectations they get frustrated.
DS: It’s hard to create dialogue for situations like that and make it seem realistic, though. How did you guys try to recapture that?
JL: It was a combination of me remembering how kids talked and mirroring that image. I also have a fourteen year old daughter, so that helps. From there it was all about opening it up to the actors to change a word here and change a word there. We actually gave them a lot of rope and we always said if a line wasn’t feeling right to them that they could change something, but they loved the script a lot. Sometimes there was a slang where they would say “That’s an 80s word. We don’t say that anymore.” (laughs) Because I was thirteen in 1986, so there were a lot of opportunities for them to do stuff like that.
DS: You have two main teams here and every character has a backstory. Was there anything you wish you could have put back into the film at all that possibly needed to be excised?
JL: No, not really. One of the advantages of having had ten years to develop this script is that we had a lot of time to really refine it, and by the time we had gotten together to make the film, so that by the time we came to shoot we knew that it was down to everything that we needed to be in there was still in there. But it could be opened up quite a bit. We had a few people say that there could even be a sequel made from this.
DS: You could even go into the future about ten year and kind of make it like the ending to Stand By Me where we see and hear where these kids ended up.
JL: (laughs) Yeah. That movie was a huge point of reference for us. There was a point where each cast member came up to me or Rob and suggested an idea for a sequel that would only focus on their character. (laughs)