When I first meet I Declare War writer and co-director Jason Lapeyre, we’re both armed. It’s okay, though–we’re on the same side. We’re running through the woods on part of a ranch just outside of Austin, Texas. And we’re being hunted by children.
And the children are kicking our asses. It’s all-out paintball war, an hour before a screening of Lapeyre and co-director Robert Wilson’s film, sponsored by the Alamo Drafthouse, whose Drafthouse Films imprint is also I Declare War’s distributor. The grown-ups team includes me, Lapeyre, Wilson, a bunch of rubes who bought tickets to the event, and a handful of people who were either involved in the film or who are covering the event, intended to promote I Declare War before its theatrical debut on August 30th. The other team consists of a group of kids who play paintball at the ranch every weekend, who were invited to play against us and teach us the power of youth.
They’re led by a ringer, too, in the form of Gage Munroe, the 14-year-old star of I Declare War. They’re a fierce opponent, and I’m covering Lapeyre as he storms the tower. It’s a tension-packed several minutes. I get lost in the action, mostly laying down cover fire at the little bastards who are trying to protect their flag. And–whether, through the fugue of war, my contributions made a difference or not–we end up claiming the flag for Adulthood. The kids, understandably, are devastated.
That’s the way war games work, especially when you’re young, and it’s at the heart of how I Declare War works as a film: The movie is about two groups of pre-teens who, in the midst of one of those endless childhood summers, take each other on in an epic war game with a small handful of rules. They’re armed with toy guns, sticks that look like rifles when you squint, and balloons filled with red paint that explode like grenades, rendering a player out for the rest of the day upon impact. But visually, the film represents this more viscerally. It’s like Calvin and Hobbes or something, where the imaginations of the people in the game are represented to us by showing them carrying real weapons. The right log, in the hands of a kid who wants desperately to win a war game, carries the same emotional impact as a rocket launcher–if getting hit and losing is a form of death, then it doesn’t matter whether you’ll go home to play video games or not afterward. In war, there is no tomorrow.
It’s an effective gambit that helps lodge I Declare War in the class of movies about adolescence that capture the emotional truth of being a 12-year-old in ways that might make parents uncomfortable, but which actual young people recognize as authentic and non-condescending. Think movies like Stand By Me and The Bad News Bears. Lapeyre laments what he calls the “Disneyfication” of childhood, and the movie that he and Wilson made is intended as an antidote. So how do you use fantasy to capture the emotional truth of a situation?
There’s a lot of fucking swearing in I Declare War–the kids drop “fucks” like spent shells from a belt-fed weapon–which is jarring at first. Maybe it’s the Disneyfication that Lapeyre talks about, but it’s been a long time since we heard young kids swear like that in a movie. The effect is weird–it’s more realistic to how kids actually talk, but it transports the viewer into an alternate reality where it’s okay for movies to actually acknowledge that. And Lapeyre says that was part of the goal.
“When I sat down to write the script, I said I wanted to tell the story about what it was actually like to be that age, and I decided that if I was going to do that faithfully, then I would have to write the dialogue the way that kids actually spoke,” he says. “When kids are that age, they swear. They’re experimenting with language and having fun with it.” Lapeyre, whose daughter is the age of the I Declare War cast, didn’t just want to be another grown-up dictating what childhood is like, though, so he also turned to one of the film’s natural resources: its cast. “Some of them were really good at swearing,” he says.
Munroe, who stars as the “good” team’s general, PK, says that he was empowered to change the script in order to make it feel authentic. “We changed it all the time,” he says. And he wasn’t worried about what his parents thought, either. “They were cool with it, because in the end, it was going to make the movie the most authentic and real it could be.”
“Childhood is like everybody’s little Vietnam,” Lapeyre says, though he’s quoting 12 and Holding director Michael Cuesta when he says it. Still, it’s a line that resonates with him when he explains why he made the movie. “I wanted to make a movie about how it felt to be 12 or 13 years old,” he says. “A lot of the story is autobiographical, but all of the events that I chose to write about were things that I knew were archetypal adolescent experiences–betrayal, friendship, love, disappointment, jealousy. Those are also things that you find in a war movie, and so the idea was to overlay the two of them and tell a story about growing up that was also a war movie.”
For Munroe, that meant boning up on the classics of the genre, from Patton to Saving Private Ryan. “I watched some war movies before this,” he says. “I tried to get into a commanding role.” He also led the actors who would play his teammates in a game of laser tag, against their onscreen opponents, before shooting–anything to develop the relationships and backstory.
The cumulative effect of the film’s attempt to tell a war story with children is that it keeps the stakes high, in a way that comes close to matching the experience of adolescence. If childhood is your own personal Vietnam, then you have to come out traumatized. For Wilson, that’s never more clear than when talking about the film’s antagonist, a friendless bully named Skinner. “He’s in a place where he feels up against the wall, because he think he’s stuck this way for the rest of his life,” he says. “That sense of permanence at 12, that these things will never change–I’m not sure you ever really get over that.”
The guns that the kids fire at each other in I Declare War are essential to the movie, but they’re also controversial. As infrequently as we hear kids swearing at each other in movies these days, we never see them shoot at each other with “real” guns. It’s something that set off a panic on conspiracy forum Godlikeproductions.com in July, after the trailer launched. “Do they make these movies just for more ‘ammunition’ for the gun grabbers?” one poster asked; “The liberal MSM will have a field day!” another declared. Whether it’s actual concerned parents or people convinced that public outcry from hypothetical concerned parents will result in bad press for gun owners, one thing is clear: showing young people firing guns at each other makes people uncomfortable.
For Lapeyre and Wilson, that’s not exactly the point, but they’ll consider it a bonus. “The gun metaphor raises the stakes for the audience,” Lapeyre says, “But one to the level that the stakes actually are for a 12 or 13 year old. The stakes go much higher when you’re that age. If a girl walks up to you and says, ‘I don’t like you,’ it feels like the end of the world.”
It’s unlikely that any “gun grabbers” are going to use an independent film that blurs the line between fantasy and reality–but never truly confuses the two–as an tool for stricter gun control laws (if Newtown couldn’t do that…) but it might be worth giving the adults in the audience a reminder of just how tough adolescence can be.
Just ask Munroe, who turns 15 next January. “All of the characters, all of the arcs that happen to the characters–whether it be a 12-year-old, 13-year-old, 14-year-old–every kid at some point in their life will lose a friend, or a girl doesn’t like you, or you’re betrayed by someone,” he says. “It’s all very relatable to kids my age, and I think adults as well. When they look back on how their childhood was, maybe it wasn’t as awesome as people make it out to be.”
And if that all sounds like some weighty issues to convey in a movie about kids playing war, turning found sticks into rocket launchers, and dropping 47 “f-bombs” in 94 minutes, well, the point of I Declare War is that maybe only a movie that uses those fantasy elements is able to tell that kind of truth.
[Photos by Jack Plunkett | Annie Ray]