Plus: Why the director shot with Servos to go for a neorealist documentary style.
Flash back to winter 2016. Hurricane Jonas rampaged up the East Coast while a very different Jonas took Sundance by storm: the heartthrob singer/songwriter Nick Jonas, now the star of Andrew Neel’s Goat, which premiered at the festival and was purchased by Paramount on the spot.
As crowds gathered outside the exclusive Goat premiere party at the Chase Blue Sapphire Lounge on Park City’s Main Street, the similarity to an actual frat party was both obvious and ironic. Party hopefuls endured the cold for hours in a long winding queue, only to get turned away at the door by a beefy bouncer.
"Are you on the list, bro?" "Which Jonas brother do you even know here?"
"The indie market is so glutted, so competitive, that you may have to make three films before anyone knows you exist. So take a deep breath. You’re gonna eat yourself alive if you don’t pace yourself."
Why all the excitement? Neel and his lead actor Jonas have focused their microscope on a particularly raucous and highly infectious cultural organism: the American college fraternity.
How sick is frat culture? And how did Neel make his film feel so intensely real? No Film School sat down with him to find out.
Artists need to examine the human experience
Neel doesn’t mince words. "Fundamentally, we’re animals," he declared. "As a species. A lot of our violent tendencies are thinly veiled under the rule of law and order— thank goodness, most of the time. Whether it’s the dissolution of a country like Syria, or gang warfare in America, or a bunch of kids in a frat house, those things all come from somewhere deep in our nature."
"And that means that bad things can happen. Very quickly. One charismatic or convincing person with bad ideas can incite an entire country to chaos and murder. Genocide." He paused for emphasis. "It’s important to remember that."
"I think that’s what Lord of the Flies is about," Neel continued. "For me, that book is a cautionary tale about that part of our nature. I wanted Goat to be the same thing."
Based on a memoir by former frat boy and No Film School writer Brad Land, Goat is the story of a younger brother who pledges his older brother’s fraternity, vying for a new level of brotherhood with strangers. In the process, these blood brothers witness the spilling of real blood.
The story has multiple layers. On its surface, Goat delivers a chilling indictment of fraternity culture. Below the surface, it’s an even darker take on masculinity: the expectations and pressures that drive today’s males.
“I didn’t make this film to stop hazing. I made it for aesthetic and artistic reasons.”
"I think our culture’s attitudes towards men are largely unhealthy," Neel said. "We aren’t encouraged to express our emotions. Sensitivity is generally considered a weakness. Too often, we’re admired for our brute force, be it physical or interpersonal. Dominance over others is valued. Violence—at times—is not only condoned but encouraged. And that’s not just in America: I think that applies worldwide."
In other words, we’re stuck in a loop: our basic nature is animalistic, and that shapes our culture. Does Neel hope to change this?
"Let me be clear: I’m not an activist, and I didn’t make Goat to stop hazing," Neel said. "I made it for aesthetic and artistic reasons. Obviously, I hope it will lead to a larger discussion, but I don’t pretend to be an authority on male healing. I make movies to promote dialogue, to ask questions. To get people talking."
"I wanted this film to be guttural, gritty, sweaty, and visceral, from production design to wardrobe to cinematography."
"What we do need," he suggested, "is an examined life. Most people try to avoid the darker side, but if we all try to examine things we prefer to avoid, we will surely understand ourselves better, and perhaps lead a better life."
For Neel, that’s the job of all artists: "to pick apart and examine the human experience."
He cites another artist to prove his point. "As the painter Francis Bacon said, ‘I paint to excite myself, [and] to bring one nearer to the actual human being.' A lot of his paintings are really brutal, even scary, but they hold an important truth. And that’s what I aimed for with Goat."
Goat is indeed painterly. The film opens with a beautiful, extreme slo-mo shot of shirtless frat bros roaring and applauding in an abstractly savage outdoor assembly. It immediately sets the tone.
"In the second act of the movie, in the frat house during hazing, it sort of becomes a horror film."
Visual energy is clearly important to Neel. "I wanted this film to be guttural, gritty, sweaty, and visceral, from production design to wardrobe to cinematography," he said. "When I think about those hazing scenes, the energy, the sweat, the testosterone you see roiling around in the frames, those images excite me like works of art. They have layers of meaning."
Neel describes his cinematic approach to Goat as "Neorealist verité."
"I wanted Goat to be a gut punch," he said. "I wanted to deal with the violence at a very close range. So for me, the most effective way to do that— to create the illusion of really being there— was to adopt a neorealist documentary style: real locations, handheld camera. Non-actors in supporting roles. Flexibility."
The handheld camera in Goat has a very specific function. "During a good part of the film’s first and third acts, there is very little handheld," Neel continued. "Whenever we’re in the world of adults, dealing with grown-up violence, people in jail, a carjacking, a line up at a police station, we stay mostly on sticks. But in the second act of the movie, in the frat house during hazing, it sort of becomes a horror film. My co-writer, cinematographer, and I wanted to enhance that element, so we went mostly handheld."
"If you establish a looser editing style, you can get away with more."
According to Neel, going handheld also helped during post. "Sometimes matching up handheld footage in the edit can prove to be difficult, if you don’t always have consistent takes," he admitted. "But if you establish a looser editing style, you can get away with more."
Another technique that added to the film’s realism was Neel’s use of Servo zoom lenses. Citing Lars Von Trier’s work as a major inspiration, Neel described this look as "how we see the world these days, our mediated reality. We see so many zooms in home videos, reality shows, that we now associate this camera mechanism with the real. The language of neorealism has been perverted and twisted into a user-generated look."
Neel laughed at the thought, then got serious. "I also like Servo zooms for other reasons. Because they lead to fewer lens swaps, they speed up production. And because they’re so smooth, they don’t call attention to the camera operator. You can have your cake and eat it too. And finally, because they manipulate perspective. They can focus the viewer psychologically."
Controlling the uncontrollable
Another documentary technique in Neel’s toolkit is flexibility. "I’m not scared of an uncontrolled set," Neel affirmed. "I’ve learned the hard way: shooting a documentary is completely out of your control a lot of the time."
Documentaries have been an important part of Neel’s learning curve. Darkon, the documentary he co-directed with Luke Meyer, became a cult hit. Like Goat, it was about neo-tribalism: adults obsessed with LARPING (Live Action Role-Playing).
"Sometimes, you have to kick the audience in the nuts."
"The main thing I learned from Darkon was to prepare as much as possible… and to expect the unexpected," he said. "Basically, you learn to improvise. And if you’re afraid that too much preparation will kill spontaneity, you’re wrong: spontaneity will exist whether you like it or not. Invariably things change, things go wrong—but all that preparation will increase your ability to adapt."
So, what went wrong on Goat?
"One really happy accident was that we didn’t have time to shoot a scene we really needed in the back of a Jeep," said Neel. "It was simply too dangerous. So instead, we came up with a sequence where Chance gets really drunk and has this meltdown about his father. It’s now one of my favorite scenes in the movie: it enriches emotional connections and humanizes the guy who is kind of a villain. That wouldn’t have happened it we hadn’t been flexible."
At times, Goat veers so far into sadism that empathy is hard to maintain. But a lot of it is hauntingly authentic. Neel, who has been through "a lot of career ups and downs," has finally hit a narrative sweet spot.
Manage your expectations—and kick the audience in the nuts
When asked what advice Neel has for aspiring filmmakers, he said, "Try to be humble. Try to manage your expectations. And keep going. I always tell my interns, ‘It’s gonna be a long road. The indie market is so glutted, so competitive, that you may have to make three films before anyone knows you exist. So take a deep breath. You’re gonna eat yourself alive if you don’t pace yourself.'"
"Don’t get me wrong," he added. "Pacing yourself doesn’t mean that you should betray your instincts. Sometimes you have to kick the audience in the nuts." Neel laughs. "Intellectually-speaking. Just to get them to notice you."
Make the 'lunatic' movie you want to make
"Sometimes you just gotta say, 'Fuck it,' and do what you think is right, even if you know people are either gonna be pissed off or not get what you’re trying to do," said Neel.
In fact, that’s exactly what Neel did before making Goat.
“The film was King Kelly, an incredibly acerbic movie, with all the blood and guts I thought it should have," Neel remembered. "A lot of people really liked it, critically it did pretty well—and a lot of people literally wanted to kill me for making it. For a while, I thought 'Okay, this is my first fiction film, people think I’m a lunatic and I don’t know how I’ll ever make another one.'"
"But then it trickled out into the world," he added. "Some of the people who liked it had some influence, and bizarrely it did more for me than some predictable, more traditional indie movie. It paid off because I got to make Goat."