In 2004, a young man named Brad Land published a gripping memoir entitled “Goat,” a deeply personal chronicle of the vicious attack that left a then-nineteen-year-old Land damaged in ways both physical and emotional, and his subsequent attempts to heal up by joining his older brother’s college fraternity, a choice that only made Land’s life even more difficult to endure. A film version of “Goat” has been in the works for years now, first with David Gordon Green (who still has a screenwriting credit on the feature) and eventually with “Darkon” and “King Kelly” filmmaker Andrew Neel.
For his take on “Goat,” Neel cast rising star Ben Schnetzer as Brad, a sensitive and reserved teen whose world is shattered over and over, along with Nick Jonas as his beloved big brother Brett. The rest of the cast is filled out with a believably beefy lineup of fraternity brothers who, at first, welcome Brad into their ranks, before crushing him with almost unthinkable acts of hazing violence. The film may be a tough and often unflinching watch, but it’s already pulled in some of Sundance’s biggest buzz, which both Neel and Jonas are eager to use to change the conversation surrounding the kind of modern masculinity that permeates their feature.
Neel and Jonas sat down with Indiewire at the festival to chat about the film’s tough subject matter, the weird realities they had to dramatize and why they think “Goat” can change the way people think about men.
During the Q&A after the film’s premiere, you talked about how the film is about the problems that arise from modern masculinity. Was that what first drove you to make it?
Andrew Neel: My reason for making the movie was I felt like Brad Land’s story about fraternities really was an incubator to look at and pick apart masculinity. From the very opening sequence, the slow-motion bit, it was meant to say to the audience “this is conceptual.” Even though it is very much shot in a neorealist style, this is about men with a capital M.
Were those ideas what excited you about the project?
Nick Jonas: My first introduction to the project was I got sent the script maybe about two years ago, maybe a little longer, and fell in love with the two brothers, and really didn’t know, at first, which one I would read for. I read it twice, and was really drawn to Brett, I think because there were a lot of things in Brett I admired, a contrast to my personality in a lot of ways.
Then Andrew and I met for coffee in New York, we just kind of talked about it, and knew immediately that his vision for it was so clear. It was the kind of thing that you have to be fearless in, and he was. He asked me all the questions you have to ask somebody before you even let them read for this: “Are you ready to go on the journey, is this something that you’re willing to take it down to the roots and do this?”
A couple of weeks after that, I went and read, and I was thrilled that I got the call that it was happening. It’s been an amazing project to be a part of.
What was it like the first time you were put together with Ben?
NJ: The first time we met was on Skype.
AN: The three of us Skyped together, I talked a little bit about the movie, but I just let them chat about their experiences and their brothers. Did we do two Skype calls?
NJ: There were two, and they were two, three hours each. And then we did a week of rehearsals in Cincinnati before we shot. Some good days, some bad days. And all of it, I think, was just a discovery. Ben and I were kind of shot out of cannon, “Alright, you’re brothers! Be brothers!” And on the fourth day of shooting, [we did] one of the pivotal scenes for the relationship, in the car at the end of the movie, which I think actually helped inform the rest of the decision-making. We knew where to go. It’s a testament to their creative vision and their direction and overall approach with us.
AN: It’s funny, because that scene was really terrifying to shoot on day four. We had two cameras up, and we were like, “We gotta get this.” They just hadn’t been together that much, we weren’t broken in yet, so I was just sweating it. The end of the movie just sits on those two guys really giving each other something at the end, they just nailed it.
Did you do something like that with the rest of the cast in order to effectively bond them?
AN: We actually did do something really cool — I think also because Nick is a celebrity, I think it was also important to break the ice a little bit and make everyone feel normalized by that, and you’re such an easygoing guy that that wasn’t tough — so we went out to a bar.
AN: Woody’s, yeah. And we just all hung out, we drank a bunch of beers. Beer pong.
NJ: Actually, me and Ben were a pretty epic beer pong team. Two guys who never went to college, just crushing it.
There is a surprising lack of beer pong in the film.
AN: We really tried to avoid a lot of the college tropes, because that’s really the thing that ruins a lot of college movies, it’s just the same shit over and over again. Those big, like booming shots of this mad whatever, and it’s just a bore. We tried to avoid that.
We got just a great group of guys together who could really deliver, and everyone was just balls out, literally.
How do you think this film can help people see what’s happening in fraternities, and maybe help change that for the better?
NJ: The key word has been a “revision.” A version of this that’s different, because by no means is this movie an indictment of the fraternity culture and, in some cases, maybe it is a good thing, maybe there is a brotherhood that’s formed and it’s for life and you feel supported and protected.
I think we’re starting a dialogue and making it okay, as a man, to raise your hand and say, “I’m not okay with X, Y and Z,” that’s the goal. That’s the end game. It should have happened probably many times when people were in situations where things have gotten out of hand and someone is either dead or traumatized.
What I’ve said about this film is that the scariest part for me was how quickly and how easily I got caught up in some of those hazing scenes, just that energy of topping each other and that masculinity and that approach to it all. It’s also that age group, that 18 to 24, the hormone shit is already crazy and you throw that in the mix with power and it’s all kind of fucked. It’s crazy. It really is crazy.
AN: I actually couldn’t have said it better. That sounds like something I would have said. It’s not like fraternal organizations shouldn’t be allowed, this shit just shouldn’t go on. I don’t know exactly what the rules of the Geneva Convention are, but like, they may be getting broken quite often in frat houses. It’s bizarre to me that it’s gone on this long.
But it’s still understandable in the film why both Brett and Brad would go looking for acceptance and safety with their frat.
AN: We don’t have real communities anymore, everything is intentional community. We don’t really have rites of passage anymore. We don’t have a lot of ways to interact with the world in a tactile way, so I think young people are looking to mass media and mass communication culture to sort of figure that out. It’s scary and it’s weird.
Just growing up is the process of creating a role for yourself, and so you need help in forming that. I think fraternities that are really brutal are a really unfortunate answer to manhood.
“Goat” premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.