INTERVIEW: Playing With Fire: "Pups" Director Ash
by Augusta Palmer
"Pups" -- the second film by director Ash ("Bang") -- took on the
subject of kids and guns long before Columbine. Twelve year-old Stevie
(Cameron van Hoy) finds his mother's gun and decides to rob a bank with
the help of girlfriend Rocky (played by "The Sixth Sense"'s vomiting
ghost, Mischa Barton). Such topical material, combined with a star turn
by Burt Reynolds (as an FBI negotiator with his own problems), could
have made "Pups" a runaway hit, but the film's all-too-believable images
of adolescents wielding weapons made pussies out of major distributors.
Despite being made on a shoestring budget of $900,000 and shot in a mere
sixteen days, "Pups" made it on to several best of 1999 film lists.
"Pups" opens in New York on Friday at the Village East Theaters and in
Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall on March 31st. indieWIRE ran into
the L.A. based, London bred Ash at November's Hawaii Film Fest and then
caught up with him more recently by phone in L.A., talking about
childhood, low budget filmmaking, Richard Harris, and the origin of the
indieWIRE: I thought that the performances from the two leads in "Pups"
were really on the mark, which is rare because they are in that twelve
to fourteen age range. I'm wondering if you've had the chance to show
the film to kids much and what their reaction has been to it.
Ash: It's funny because when adults first read the script and saw the
film they thought that kids of thirteen really weren't so advanced or
aware; but when we showed it to kids they really related to it. I think
that what's becoming really apparent is that there is some sort of
generation gap growing between this new teenage -- or even younger --
generation and the older generation. The whole Internet factor is much
more significant than I think we're aware. The access they have to
information is so enormous compared to what we grew up with. They seem
to know so much more than I do. . . In terms of their informational
access, their language, their general knowledge and intelligence; it all
seems to have been accelerated -- which probably has pros and cons. Yes,
they have more access to information; but at the same time do they know,
first, what to do with it and, second, does it lead to some sort of
iW: Was it difficult to write and direct for 13-year-olds?
Ash: I think having both a mental age and a shoe size of thirteen; I'm
okay with that. But I did notice that even from an acting standpoint,
that it's much more interesting to deal with them than with adults. I
mean, they don't have these sort of fixed boundaries between reality and
fantasy. For them, the idea that they're playing a part hasn't really
struck home fully. I'd say, cut half the time and the boy, especially
[Cameron Van Hoy] would just carry on in character, which was scary in a
way because he didn't seem to understand where the boundaries between
his character and his real life personality ended. At the same
time, it was definitely intriguing for that point of view, too.
iW: You had a childhood experience of your own failure to recognize
those boundaries, too, right?
Ash: Yes, when I was about five or six years old, I went with my parents
to their friends' house for a dinner party and all the kids were
upstairs while the dinner party took place downstairs. We were trying to
think of games to play -- this was back in the 70's and it was a hippie
environment, so there were candles everywhere. I suggested we play
Cowboys and Indians; but since I was trained to be politically correct
even at that age, I thought it would be more fun to be the Indians than
the Cowboys for a change. And I
just remember suggesting that we build a bonfire and dance around the
bonfire. The next thing I knew we were putting the mother's clothes from
her closet in the middle of the room and we'd set fire to them with a
candle and we were bouncing around. I remember being reasonably happy
with the size of the fire considering the budget we had. . .
But I do remember that my parents dealt with it in a kind of interesting
fashion in that they tried to understand why I'd done it. When I
explained, they didn't really know what to say because they knew it
wasn't maliciously orchestrated. I guess that's kind of what led me to
be able to become a filmmaker.
iW: How's that?
Ash: Well, in the sense that a lot of other parents might have put their
kids away in institutions for that kind of behavior. Especially these
days. Fortunately they didn't crush my creative instincts.
iW: Actually, you have an interesting background in other ways as well.
Don't you have a degree in experimental psychology? Maybe that helped
you understand your young life.
Ash: (laughing) Yes. I can do therapy on myself, which is great. It
iW: You're so frugal. Do you think your next project will be so low
Ash: No, actually, I'm talking right now with some bigger producers
about doing their next project, which is called "The Blind Bastards
Club," for a five to eight million dollar budget, which is obviously a
big step up for me. What they want to do is try and give me the luxury
of having the time and facilities available to really try and not
compromise so much.
There is a really great thing about low budget independent filmmaking,
which is that they're all driven by passion; but the negative things are
that you are constantly compromising. And, hopefully, when you go up in
budget a certain amount, you can compromise less, I'm hoping. Although
I'm sure it will bring new factors into the equation.
iW: Returning to "Pups," the performance of Burt Reynolds is one of the
film's major strengths. I understand you had an earlier experience
getting a well-known actor to perform in one of your student films.
Ash: Yes, I was at film school, at the [Pasadena] Art Center; it was
just before I got expelled. I was making a student film and I remember
walking around one day feeling depressed and wondering whether I was
really on the right track being a filmmaker. . . and I decided to go
into this hotel to grab a swim and sort of pretend that I was a guest
there. As I'm heading towards the pool, I see Richard Harris sitting on
his balcony. So I got on the hotel phone and asked the concierge if I
could have Mr. Harris' suite.
The first thing I hear is this unmistakable grandiose English voice
saying, "Who the fuck are you?" I said, "Look, you don't know who I am.
I'm a young English filmmaker making a student film and I was wondering
if I could have five minutes of your time to get some advice." He said,
"Meet me at nine in the morning, on the verandah, for breakfast
tomorrow," and he hung up the phone.
The next morning I showed up and there he was having his coffee. So I
sat down and we started talking. He started telling me stories and I
started telling him stories and we just got on. After about thirty
minutes he said, "So exactly what the fuck do you want?" And I said,
"I'm making a student film and I was wondering if you'd do a five minute
cameo in the movie. I can't afford to pay you any money. I can't afford
to go through your agent or your manager because I know they'd shut me
down. I just thought I'd ask."
He said, "Look, I'm shooting 'The Unforgiven' right now, but I tell you
what - you write me out a scene and if I like it I'll do it. You won't
have to ask any questions of anyone; we'll just do it."
I went home that day and told all of my friends and they all thought I
was lying. So I wrote out this scene about the origin of the word
"cunt," which came from old English and was in Shakespeare and other
works of English art. The word had been bastardized over the years but
it had originally been kind of an important word. I thought either he's
going to like it or he's going to head butt me and force me to leave the
He read it and he said, "Let's do it. Let's do it tomorrow." I left
there amazingly excited and got a crew together and a camera. The next
day we drove out to Malibu and we shot this scene where he comes out of
the ocean and walks straight up to the camera and delivers the opening
of the student film and then he walks back into the water and
Afterwards he bought us all lunch and bought us all dinner. We came back
to the hotel that night and we were both sopping wet walking through the
hotel lobby. He called up Clint Eastwood and all his buddies from the
hotel room and was boasting about how he'd had so much fun and how this
was what filmmaking was all about. I remember when I left he still
offered me cab fare to go home. . .
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer who also teaches film studies
at New York's School of Visual Arts and is working on her Ph.D. at
N.Y.U.'s Department of Cinema Studies.]