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.