What were your initial thoughts when you watched the story unfold on TV? And did you see any cinematic potential in the story immediately?
The first thing I thought when I watched Columbine on TV was, ˜I can’t believe this didn’t happen sooner.” It’s not that I sat around up to that point imagining a shooting spree at a public school, and it’s not like there had been no school shootings ever before. There had, of course, been several, and at least one of them involving two shooters who planned it together.
But Columbine was different. The year of planning, the double suicide, the diaries they kept all that information, but no matter how much of it you read or watched or listened to, you still really knew nothing about what would make someone do something like that. It is that inherent difference that, as cautious as I am to admit it, made me see the dramatic, cinematic and tragic potential of that event as soon as I new the basic facts.
I looked at it as some kind of movie I would do if I ever made it far enough to be directing films in my fifties or something. I never thought of this as something I would tackle with my first feature, and I had no idea how I would approach the subject matter other than to concentrate on the plans of the two plotters.
Two years later, after a near fatal car-crash, I decided I should not wait until I reached middle age to make the movie that I wanted to make. I did not set out to make a movie about an issue. I simply wanted to tell a compelling, engaging story that felt real and was hard to look away from. I wanted to tell what I think is the truth of an event like this. I started making this movie right before 9/11, and the real life events that inspired me helped to make a movie that ultimately fit these paranoid and frightful times we live in well.
I decided to go with a first person narrative in the form of a video diary of the two shooters’ year long preparations. This approach allowed me to bring the audience as close as anyone cares to get to these two characters, and still leave you with unanswered questions. Much like I felt when I was researching Columbine – you think you’re getting closer to who these people are, but every time you try and grasp them, they just slip through your fingers.
Doing a movie this way lets you set up an intense and intimate relationship between the characters and the audience. In one scene, they can talk to the audience in a conspiratory tone, in another, the tone is more confessional, and in still another it can be confrontational and threatening.
There are two similar films coming out roughly the same time as Zero Day, and of course Michael Moore had Bowling for Columbine last year. What differentiates your film from the others?
It does not surprise me at all that different filmmakers are exploring Columbine in their own way. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris predicted it in their taped suicide note – they debated over whether Spielberg or Tarantino would make ˜Columbine, the Movie!”
I started making Zero Day in March of 2001, so there was no “Elephant,” or Bowling for Columbine or “Homeroom.” The only movies I knew of about Columbine in specific were Duck, The Carbine High Massacre, which I never saw, and this one episode of “Law & Order” where Lenny bags the crazy teen. While I worked on Zero Day, I was only thinking about my reaction to Columbine and similar events, no one else’s.
I saw “Homeroom” and Bowling for Columbine at the Denver Film Festival in October of 2002. Both of the filmmakers, Paul F. Ryan and Michael Moore, were there and I got to be on a panel discussion with them and the father of a Columbine victim named Tom Mauser. It was quite an experience.
Zero Day is a narrative, fictional movie about two kids who carry out an attack very much like the attack by Dylan Kelbold and Eric Harris. Bowling For Columbine is a documentary, which is not 100% about Columbine. The parts that are about that event try to explain it in a political or social context, where as I don’t feel that school shootings – or school violence or shooting sprees or whatever you’d like to call them – are strictly social or political events, and I don’t think they can be explained that way.
As for “Homeroom,” the big difference between my film and that one is focus and subject matter. My movie is (unapologetically) about the killers. It’s about their plans, their actions and their thoughts and feelings. “Homeroom” is about the aftermath, about what it’s like to be a victim and what it’s like to have to put your life back together.
Without having seen “Elephant,” it’s a little hard for me to describe the differences between it and Zero Day. From what I’ve heard about “Elephant,” it sounds like it is an out-of-the-ordinary day-in-the-life of a high school. I would assume that the attention is spread over lots of different types of characters and events in the school as the movie heads towards its climax.
Again, I would say the difference is in narrative focus and approach. I made a movie where the main character and focus, really, is the evolving relationship between these two, enigmatic people. I wanted to have their interaction with each other be compelling, realistic and at the same time mysterious. I wanted the audience to recognize the intensity of their union, but I also wanted to keep an amount of ambiguity about it.
I wanted to play with the first person technique and really make it my own. I love The Blair Witch Project, but I wanted to make people hesitate before comparing Zero Day to it. Camera work, careful location consideration, lighting, all the things that you normally do when making a movie should not take a back seat to the narrative conceit, and I tried not to let that happen.
The interview continues in part three of BEN COCCIO: AIMING FOR “ZERO DAY”>>>