BEN COCCIO: AIMING FOR “ZERO DAY”

Where and how did you shoot Zero Day? How long did it take to produce the film? And what kind of a budget were you working on?
I was living in New York when I decided to make Zero Day. I had no money, and no hope of raising any, and I had hit upon the “first person” idea as a good way to approach the subject matter, and, obviously as a way to make it within my extremely limited means. I wrote the script in about a month’s time and then moved up to my girlfriend’s place in Connecticut to cast real kids and use their real suburban surroundings.

I got in touch with every high school in the state and asked if they had a drama class or club or program or whatever and told them very vaguely about my project. I didn’t want to sully the waters of my casting pool by giving too much away about what I was doing. I also put an abortive ad in Backstage saying that I was looking for, “two geeky kids for a coming-of-age movie about teen life.”

I really wanted to use kids who were not child actors, but who were comfortable with acting and role-playing. I also wanted to try and cast two friends for the lead role, two kids who had a chemistry I could read and evaluate up front. I saw a lot of kids over the four days that I had auditions, but there were two that I felt were perfect.

I took the two kids, Andre Keuck and Cal Robertson, and I sat them and their parents down and I explained what I was trying to accomplish and how much it meant to me. I told them there were no guarantees, and that this movie was difficult and that I would be pulling no punches, and that their kids would be doing things like building bombs and shooting real guns with real bullets and so forth. I basically talked till I was blue in the face, my forte. I had auditioned grown-ups to play the kid’s parents just in case their real ones were not willing to participate. Luckily, they were willing, and they turned out to be better than I could have hoped for.

We started shooting on July 4th, 2001. Most days, it was just Andre, Cal and I. I was 25 at the time, and it was like my first taste (just a little taste) of parenthood. Or maybe it was more like I volunteered as a big brother, I don’t know. It was great to work with them, though, and they were very adept and intuitive actors.

Making this movie feel real was very important to me. I cast real people whenever possible, I would tell the supporting roles only what they needed to know to do the scene as it was written or planned out, etc. Using these kind of neo-realist techniques was how I had always imagined approaching this movie.

My plan was to stick the script as far as basic structure and plot was concerned. I had written some key lines that the kids had to deliver verbatim, but essentially, I wanted them to improvise on the material and make it their own. In that regard, my biggest influence was Cassavetes, although I was in no way as free as he was with his films. There are really only a few scenes that were not scripted, but I had planned on there being far more. I had always hoped that good opportunities would present themselves to me, and the fact that I was shooting video provided me the ability to get whatever moments I thought were even slightly interesting.

I watched a lot of movies like “High School” and “Taxi Driver” and “Compulsion” while I was shooting, and that helped me to stay focused on what I was doing.

There were ultimately about 20 – 30 days of shooting between July 4th and October 10th 2001. For most of them, the big unknown was, “Where the hell am I going to shot the massacre?” Every high school in Connecticut had turned me down, even for exteriors. At the last minute, in late August, I secured SUNY Purchase in New York State to do the shooting spree. We shot for just one day; it was all I could afford. We did most of the scenes in order, and the masacre was one of the last scenes I did with Andre and Cal – although we ended up doing two or three key earlier moments afterward. We even ended up stealing some exteriors at the high school in my town – this big, fortress like thing that looks a like a prison with a charming cupola on top. I had always wanted to use it from the start, but had been turned down right off the bat by a very nervous superintendent.

The last scene I did was the last scene of the movie, a sort of coda. It was a month or so after 9/11, and I wondered if anyone would ever want to see this kind of film ever again. I edited for about six months on a G4. Then I spent two solid months working on the titles with a great designer named David Alcorn. I wanted to introduce the audience to this material in a very smooth, reassuring way. By the time I was mostly done, in May of 2002, I had spent about $13,000 and change…mostly on credit cards…to make the movie, and I had just about paid everything off, too. I watched the movie all together for the first time, and I thought to myself, “What have I done?”

I stowed my insecurity and started applying to festivals, and it became apparent that I would be very limited if I did not transfer the thing to film. I knew the major fests like Sundance and Toronto and Cannes project on video in good venues, but there was absolutely no guarantee that I would get into any of those. The other fests, the regional ones, they want film. If you are not on film, prepare to be marginalized. I hadn’t fully made up my mind about what to do when I got into the September 2002 Boston Film Festival. If I went there, I most likely could kiss Sundance good-bye, and I would need to be on film. But if I didn’t, I could still most likely kiss Sundance goodbye, and who knew if I would ever have another chance to play the film in a theater? I told the Boston festival it was on film, and then I went to Film Out Xpress in Glendale, CA, and asked for a rush job.

The transfer was expensive, and I was in debt again, but I was excited to show my movie to an audience. After all, isn’t that the point of all of this?

The interview continues in part four of BEN COCCIO: AIMING FOR “ZERO DAY”>>>




Posted on September 2, 2003 in Interviews by
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