There’s a bullshit romanticization concerning childhood, as if it were a lovely period of wonderment and innocence before the world grinds us all down with heartbreak, crap jobs, health issues and any other number of disillusioning, grown-up realities. But looking over the painful, egg-sized, bright purple welts on my chest and legs—courtesy of rascally Texas youth armed with paintball guns and shouting “old-timer” epithets, I’m thinking that Sartre had it wrong: Hell is other kids.
After last summer’s “Klown” canoe misadventure, I’m back in Austin for another outdoor screening and promotional event, this time for “I Declare War,” a rollicking Canadian action-comedy that takes place entirely during a forested, daytime capture-the-flag game between two teams of 12-year-olds. Co-directed by first-time collaborators Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, the film seamlessly blends the interpersonal dynamics of these pint-size warriors (led by teen star Gage Munroe as the cool, charismatic “General P.K.”) and their runway flights of imagination come alive. Homemade twig-guns suddenly become semi-automatic rifles onscreen, and slingshots magically transform into deadly crossbows, but unlike most war movies, the bloodied casualties will simply go home at the end of the day. Most refreshingly, the young ensemble is as realistic as they are precocious, occasionally playing dirty and tossing out as many F-bombs as they do rocks…excuse me, grenades.
It’s a confidently made picture that resourcefully finds the sweet spot between naturalism and fantasy without ever feeling like a low-budget version of today’s CGI-bloated, videogame-like blockbusters. “In the writing process, I didn’t put any limits on myself,” says Lapeyre, who served as writer-director to Wilson’s producer-director, the screenplay largely based on his own experiences. “A bazooka here, lasers there, it didn’t matter. In preproduction, we sat down and said, ‘Let’s talk about how emotionally intense each scene is, and assign a level of reality based on that intensity.”
While chatting with Lapeyre, who has flown into town with Wilson and Munroe for the big show, he beams about the fact that his underage cast really fired weapons: “Not quarter-load or half-load blanks. We used full-load blanks for the biggest muzzle flare and recoil possible, to have the biggest impact on the screen.”
As for their division of production duties, the duo describes them as organic, as if sharing two brains to solve on-set issues. “Sometimes those problems would put us on two different sets with two different camera teams,” Wilson remembers. “But there wasn’t a sense of, ‘Holy shit, the other guy’s over there making a mess of this.'”
Having nabbed the audience award at last year’s Fantastic Fest, the exceptionally curated, international genre-film showcase that’s part of the quickly exploding Alamo Drafthouse Cinema empire (which also includes their flagship theater chain, the limited-edition poster and apparel boutique Mondo, and geek-culture website Badass Digest), “I Declare War” was picked up by Drafthouse Films — the aforementioned empire’s distribution arm — and began a limited theatrical release this weekend.
If you’re in New York City, that might mean making the hike up to Yonkers, the newest Alamo expansion that opened last month and one worth visiting if only for the chain’s zero-tolerance policy on talking and texting. (Manhattan, by the way, will be their next NYC stop, with 2015 plans for Brooklyn.)
Tied to a word-of-mouth preview, a few journalists like myself have been invited to join Wilson, Lapeyre, Munroe and other ticket-buying Austinites for an epic game of capture-the-flag paintball at the deservedly named, DIY theme park Stunt Ranch. Before we’re suited up with pads, facemasks, head-mounted GoPro cameras, and a pocketful of paintballs (if you’re cheating like I did), attendees spend a sweaty afternoon jumping off a 23-foot tower onto a zero-impact high fall airbag, hanging upside-down from ziplines, climbing rock walls, lounging in a saltwater pool, and getting photos taken in front of an “exploding van” rigged with short-burst fireballs. And they call this work?
After a barbecue dinner, Tim League — founder and CEO of the Drafthouse brand and a notoriously puckish showman who has been seen shooting machine guns, winning cricket-eating contests and boxing Michelle Rodriguez at film events—drops a bomb on us just before the game: all the adults will be facing a squadron of prepubescent paintball pros, many of whom have been practicing all day. The trash talking starts right from hello, with one especially wicked brat pointing at me to his friends and bragging that he’s going to “shoot my balls off.” I’m admittedly nervous about the forthcoming pain, less because I’m more destructible than these hellions and more because my glasses are fogging up so much under my facemask that I decide to enter battle without them.
A referee, who later screams at the kids to stop shooting him (or maybe I did that, since I couldn’t see a damn thing in the dark), initiates the game with a four-foot flame in the air. Before I can even spot any of my opponents, the rat-a-tat, typewriter-like sounds of paintballs being fired comes from all sides of the field, and I quickly take cover behind a strategically overturned wood table. As long as the paint pellets don’t bust open when they hit, players are allowed to stay in the game, but by the time I’m flanked and painfully blasted three times, I’m secretly wishing I was covered in bright blue splashes (or maybe I was, since I couldn’t see a damn thing in the dark). As quickly as it began, our arguably more mature team nabs the flag, and again in the second game. We beat those cruel little imps, USA! USA!
I don’t get a chance for post-game chatter with Munroe until much later, as I’m curious how he fared after inadvertently wearing a bright green t-shirt. “I got shot a lot,” he says. “I didn’t use as many tactics as I thought I should’ve. My plan before the game was to stay behind the wall and not get shot, and I still didn’t accomplish that.”
Next: The next steps for the Drafthouse empire.
Immediately following the match, however, everyone settles in to watch the film on a giant inflatable screen — a staple of the Alamo’s “Rolling Roadshow” open air screenings — but having seen the film already, I sneak away to sit down with League for an interview. Having just flown back into town that day after supervising the Yonkers theater launch, League finds out that Entertainment Weekly’s two-page profile on him and his company’s ambitious endeavors has hit newsstands, so he’s in great spirits — even if he’s a little bummed that nobody shot him during the game, the madman.
“That totally surprised me, I thought we were going to get destroyed,” League jokes, before reflecting on how it’s used as a publicity stunt. “It’s like a low-budget Hollywood junket. It’s taking you out to a dude ranch for ‘The Lone Ranger,’ but on our kind of budget. We’ve been doing these outdoor screenings for over ten years and it’s part of my DNA now, so whenever there’s a movie it makes sense for, I’ll do it.” He’s not too concerned with the price tag. “I don’t know how it’ll wash out,” he adds. “We’ll probably be fairly break-even when all the costs are considered, but it’s not that expensive for us.”
League has so many irons in the proverbial fire, I ask him about his expansion plans. “By the end of next year, we’ll probably be at 25 locations,” he says. “Then a few years later, if all goes according to plan, we’ll be at 50 locations. If you have those, you can play ‘We’re the Millers’ and ‘2 Guns’ and make a lot of money.”
That’s not quite what he has in mind. “There are companies that do that, but I have a semi-lofty goal to leverage the infrastructure of a larger company to promote movies I love, and to build a younger cinephile audience who should know that foreign-language or black-and-white movies are awesome, that musicals can be fun. All of these things are going the way of opera and ballet, that’s a crying shame for this particular art form.”
Future Alamo locations have been announced in El Paso, Lubbock, New Braunfels, Kalamazoo and San Francisco, but League says his main goal now is to make sure he’s not spread too thin. Over the next couple of years, he’d like to step back from some of his many ventures, and develop them into self-sustaining companies. We discuss next month’s edition of Fantastic Fest, temporarily relocated far enough north that South Austin residents are sure to bug out, but how can anyone complain about a super-fun, incredibly communal festival that is rumored to have a guest appearance (and heavy-metal karaoke judging) by Metallica? But that’s another story.