Those are both movies that feel dangerous. "Over The Edge" is definitely a flawed movie, but there is a real tangible sense of chaos and anarchy. And "Kids" as well, when people watch it, there's a sense of "Oh my god, this is going on?" Not to say the kids in my movie are nearly as rambunctious or out-of-control, but both these movies ooze authenticity in a way that represents teenage anarchy. And it was important than "Kings of Summer" had an element, not nearly to that degree, but an element where people watched those movies and felt it was like a wake-up call. Like, "Oh, this is going on right now, this is this generation." I wanted to approach something like that in a less shocking way, and in a more heartfelt way. Like "look at this disconnect." But still getting at that rawness and rebellion. Both those films are very exposed in different ways.
With "Kids" in mind, I wanted to ask if there was any talk at any point of aging the roles up or down. Any older, and sex becomes a much bigger part of the equation, any younger and girls don't really factor in.
Initially, I actually envisioned them as being slightly younger. But what you don't realize is that there's almost no middle ground between the types of kids who are in the movie, and the kids who are, like, nine. That age, they grow up so rapidly. When we shot, they were between 16 and 17, playing 15. And when you look at kids who are like 14, they look like 7. When [screenwriter] Chris [Galletta] was first writing the script, he kept getting these notes like, "age the kids up, age the kids up, it'll make it more accessible." And, we always joke about how creepy it would be if those kids were like twenty and running away to the woods. So my first blanket rule was that I didn't want to see anyone who's over 18. And even then, we're trying to get younger. And that creates all kinds of union issues, when you go that young. But there's a huge difference between the mind of a 13-year-old, a 15-year-old, an 18-year-old and a 20-year-old. Those are all such different points in your life, not just mentally, but physically. I think we caught these kids when they were going through their growth spurts, and their bodies were changing, and I think they were pretty close to what those kids were going through. Sexuality is a sort of looming threat. It's the first time a woman has come into play. The snake has come into the Garden of Eden. I don't think that you could age it too far either direction without it getting creepy.
The kids in the movie have previous credits, but they're not really names, as such. Was that always the plan?
Yeah, I wanted it to feel like a discovery. First of all, there aren't really movie stars who are that age. The movie lives and dies by these kids and their dynamics, that's what guides you through the whole thing. The plot is relatively thin, and I'll be the first to admit that, but ideally it doesn't take away from the movie, because you feel like you're existing with the kids in these moments. They all had worked, but it was less like if they were famous or unknowns, and more about if they were right for it. Once I found kids, it was about putting them together to see if they had chemistry together, and then the next stage was putting them through improv training. Not so they could be quick and witty and funny, but so I could enlist them to try and bring their teenage brains to the project. The script was great, and we had a lot of awesome components coming together, but I needed them to be able to bring little tics and mannerisms and ad libs and things like that, not for the sake of being funny, but for the sake of being 'what a dumb teenager.' And I think those are my favorite moments, and the moments where when the audience reacts, that's the most exciting thing for me.
Both Malick movies, obviously, both sort of coming of age movies in entirely different ways, and yet there's almost a universal similarity to all Malick movies, a purity to them. They were not only very important movies to me, but also to me prepping for this production. Because as soon as I got this script, I was really fundamentally interested in this idea of, and I describe it in a sort of joking way, but this idea of, "Can I make a really dumb Terrence Malick movie? A funny Terrence Malick movie?" Taking these elements that are impressionistic and ethereal and lyrical, and that elicit feelings, because I wanted to use the visuals of the movie to elicit the feelings of freedom in the woods, and have that feel very palpable to the audience, but also mash that directly against comedic beats. I was genuinely curious if you could do that.
And part of that was my feeling of, "Right, we've seen a billion coming-of-age movies before, so how do we try and add something new to the equation here? How can I add something to the conversation about what these types of movies can be?" I mean, "Tree of Life" has singular shots in it that, whether it was the intent or not... Malick's so good at creating one shot that you look at, and you're like, "I know exactly what that is." There's like a shot of a dog in that movie that's diseased or something, you see it for ten seconds, and it just filled me with that feeling of when you're a kid and you're around something that you're not supposed to be around. I loved the idea of accessing moments like that in this movie. Using the visuals to help tell the story, using slow-motion to relish in them in the same way that, when you're a kid, you think things feel. And "Badlands," obviously there's a lot of stuff when they're out in the woods, but it's just a perfect movie. And I just love the coming-of-age lessons you can take from the two films, because of Malick's universal access points, are almost the same, but they're entirely different. Because they're about life.
You were talking about tone there, and something that impressed me was going back and watching the pitch reel you made (watch below), and seeing how closely it mirrors the finished movie. Did it take a while to get back to the tone when you were the cutting room.
That pitch reel I put together because that was part of the process of me winning this thing as a first-time director, so I spent a month of my life putting together that, and a packet, because I just didn't want to lose the movie. And if I lost it, I wanted to be able to say that I did everything I could, and that someone else beat me because they were better for it, not because I didn't do something. But yeah, that took a ton of refining, because it wasn't really something that was in the script. I was constantly shooting B-roll, and constantly rolling on the kids, and in between set-ups, I'd just take the kids out and be shooting with them, and messing around in the woods, just capturing and capturing and capturing. And also getting a ton of nature B-roll, so you never really had a down moment on set, because you'd always be looking out for something, you'd be like, "Holy shit, there's a cicada hatching over there, Gabe, come over here, we're gonna shoot you playing with this freshly hatched cicada," which happens like once a year. So that took a lot of refining in the edit.
Playing with the tone in general, which took a long time, and which I learned on "Successful Alcoholics," getting the tone right, and getting the audience to ride that roller coaster with you, of funny, then not, then funny, then not, and not having the funny parts detract from the situation, you can only find that via testing. You can have a really funny joke, but if the audience isn't ready for that. it's just going to break the whole world apart. And then you add on that third layer of having an ethereal element, and then it's a whole different ballgame. So you have to gauge people's ability not only to stomach and digest the tonal shifts, but also what could be viewed as a meandering quality, using a tone poem element to elicit a feeling. And that was something I had to really fight for in the edit, and one of the producers wasn't on board with it at all, and literally until the last week was trying to get me to cut, like, the montage of them banging on the pipe, and I was trying to explain how crucial that was. But to me that's also the thing, it took a long time in the edit, and a lot of experimenting, but it's also the most rewarding thing.