December 14, 2017
short of the week

How Moral Complexities and National Horror Collide in 'I Was There Too'

Joey Izzo's new short features a man lying about being a mass shooting survivor.

With his two previous shorts, Stepsister and My Daughter's Boyfriend, writer/director Joey Izzo has made a name for himself being a purveyor of concise and compelling character studies. With the director's latest, I Was There Too, Izzo goes a step further, showcasing the collective experience shared in American mass shootings.

Starring DeMorge Brown (Hunter Gatherer), the film is now available online at Short of the Week, and so we took the opportunity to speak with Joey about his aversion to the ravenous consumption of entertainment, crafting complex characters, and what a small crew can accomplish with a single cop car.

No Film School: The ability to identify with something that hasn't happened to you personally is an emblem of our time. I loved the way you showed it: a flawed human being taking the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of the people he loves. And while a mass shooting is a tragedy, it's also a media spectacle. Why was a mass shooting the perfect backdrop for this character's arc?

Joey Izzo: My movie isn't about gun violence. It's really about the reaction to these things. It's about how we see them. It's about how one individual uses a mass shooting as the basis to gain leverage in his own life. The constant onslaught of mass shootings, their ubiquitous nature, has reached such a fever pitch that one can stumble upon one, almost casually and in a farcical manner. We've become unfazed.

There's something to be said about the fulcrum of this character's new life being a mass shooting. The fact that the audience has to accept the film's premise is the political statement. 20 years ago, such a premise would seem so extremely coincidental, almost pulled from a random brutalizing hat, but now it seems utterly contemporary and relevant.

'I Was There Too'Credit: Joey Izzo

NFS: I've always felt an affinity to your work, the way you shine light on the underbelly of relationships. It's the side we're often afraid to confront internally, within ourselves. It's something most American entertainment shies away from.

Izzo: I think this movie has a lot of cultural relevance and a lot to say about its region. I want it to be an American movie. The question of "what is an American movie?" is important to me. We seem to default to genre in America, and I'm not interested in that game. That kind of filmmaking is emotionally closed off. I get very little out of it these days. I feel more and more guilty about the entertainment I consume.

I think the need for entertainment is bullshit now. It just doesn't make sense. When we were in the era of entertaining ourselves and our families once a week, you'd go out to the movies and take your mind off things—that's one thing—but when we're constantly taking an IV drip of entertainment, then I'm somewhat suspicious. I'm suspicious of that old school Sullivan's Travels idea that the thing America needs most is to laugh. When I see a film of pure spectacle and entertainment now, it's a soured experience.

"The thing we did fundamentally right was stay within the character's perspective."

NFS: How did you design the shots driving through the scene of the crime? Where did the choice of utilizing off-screen space come from? 

Izzo: If I showed the act [of the shooting] itself, it would have shed light in the wrong direction and overpowered what I wanted to talk about. I'm also dealing with a character who did not experience the shootings. It's fundamentally the right choice, as a nuts and bolts filmmaker, not to show the event and to personify the experience of the character. The thing we did fundamentally right was stay within the character's perspective [throughout the film]. For the majority of the scene, we never cut outside the car. We found this place in the Crenshaw mall and they had a movie theater. Even though it doesn't show on screen, it was the type of location where this could happen.

We only had enough money for one real cop, one cop car, and four cop lights. So we had the principal cop car stationed out front. Our actor was a retired cop, and so he told us exactly how to stage the scene and what he would say if on duty. He gave us really great insight on how he would direct traffic in this kind of situation. The great trick we subsequently pulled was to take off those four lights and put them on civilian crew cars. Thanks to the strength of the cop lights (and the darkness of the setting), you can't tell which is a cop car and which isn't.

NFS: Your film brings up a lot of problematic questions. It's so dark, so black-hearted, and yet it's beautiful.

Izzo: I come from a place of questions. I have more questions and concerns for our modern reality than I have answers. I wanted to express a feeling that I had. I feel like narrative is still caught in an old-school [dichotomy] of good or evil, but as we see in our current political climate (and broadly speaking, in all of our heroes and monsters), there's so much darkness hidden behind all the things we take for granted. 

NFS: How do you go about creating a protagonist who lies to create a platform for self-improvement?

Izzo: I was never really interested in exposing him as a liar, because it seems like the world we live in doesn't care whether he is or not. That old school trope of waiting to see if he's going to be caught or not doesn't apply to our modern world. I was more interested in exploring the murky area, where the lies and truth commingle and we're left with this moral grey zone. There are positives and negatives to this scenario. There's an argument that he is creating a net good through this, that he's becoming a better family man as a result of a farcical greed, but he's also lying to everyone in order to accomplish those things. A choice we first find to be obviously wrong is up for debate by the film's conclusion. 

When someone wants to share a post about a mass shooting, even if fully well intentioned and good hearted, the social networks increase your own brand value. In a way, that's what this character is doing. Providing a more sympathetic take, DeMorge's character is a guy who feels like a survivor. The reason he's able to pull off this lie is because he identifies with survivors; his entire life has felt like an accident. He feels victimized, and so he adopts this false persona. At his core, he finds a lot to relate to. He yearns for family and community, and that's something he never realized before he went down this dark path.

"While a real shooting had just occurred, we were also doing a scene about survivors of a fictional shooting."

NFS: I've been making a new film too, and I think we're on similar trajectories, exploring some of the year's themes in the midst of them actually happening. We harvest from these events just by making films about them, and that's problematic too.

Izzo: It's totally problematic, and I don't think that's something to run away from. I wanted to express that. For example, we had a five day shoot, and on our fourth day, we shot the scene where he's in the kitchen lying to his family. That was also the day Orlando happened. Some people got texts during the shoot about it, but since we didn't have any details, were like "Oh, another mass shooting, great" and went on with our day. It wasn't until later that night that I was able to read about what occurred.

We shot our candlelight vigil scene the next day. We had seventy extras. Some people who came knew people involved [in the Orlando shooting] and there were real tears shed. We had a moment of silence, but even I didn't know if that moment was real or not. While a real shooting had just occurred that real people were appreciating in a shared moment of silence, we were also doing a scene about survivors of a fictional shooting; it just became this ouroboros. What you see in those reaction shots is real. That's a real document of our times and it hit real close to the bone. I appreciate that people were able to share that, and I feel a sense of responsibility. It leveled me; everyone's real feelings around these scenarios were a true north of how to navigate that scene, and what you're seeing is the final result.      

I Was There Too is now available online at Short of the Week. 

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