How much of Zero Day comes from Columbine and how much is original material?
: Like Columbine, in Zero Day, there are two kids, they plan for a year, and they follow through. In specific, there are a few moments and ideas taken from real events that I felt were appropriate to use. For example, the idea of a video suicide message, or the fact that one of the kids goes to his prom not long before he carries out the shooting spree. Also, the very end of my movie was inspired by events that happened at Columbine a few days after the massacre.

Beyond that, though, I really tried to imagine how I would go about planning and pulling off this kind of assault, in a strictly nut-and-bolts kind of way, if I were going to do it myself. How would I keep it a secret, what would I tell my partner, what would I tell my family, what would I tell myself? Columbine was a point of departure for me, and a structure, just like Charlie Starkweather’s murderous activity was for Terrance Malick.

How did you direct your two young leading men? Their roles are clearly very difficult, so what was required to keep the balance of audience sympathy without making them too sympathetic?
Let me say up front that I did not want to make sympathetic characters. That being said, I did want to somehow have the audience feel pity and maybe even grief for the kids when all is said and done, even after seeing the very worst of them, especially after seeing the worst of them.

My decision at the script stage was to avoid any scene that felt like an excuse, to make the characters and their actions totally undefendable and to make their lives feel as real and understandable as possible. I also tried to write a relationship between two teenagers that had complex dynamics where you could never be to sure who was in charge or what the source of their intensity for each other was.

At the casting stage, I chose the two kids that were the most witty, charming and interesting kids I could find, and who had a noticeable contrast in their personalities.

When it came to directing the leads while we were shooting, it all depended on the scene. For instance, when one of the kids was around their parents, I would continually remind them to act exactly as they would normally, not in any way to try and look like they are holding back a flood of anger or rage. I would remind them that their character would be very mindful of giving off signs to their loved ones that they are up to something. When shooting a scene where they were alone together, I allowed them to play off of each other and range from dark proclamations of rage to self-conscious bouts of sarcastic teenage humor. And when Cal was alone, I would have him become this person that he never was around anyone else in any other scene.

Finally, during the massacre scene, I instructed them to start off the day as if on an adrenaline rush, something that was very easy to accomplish, considering we were all so nervous about our one shot at this, the most expensive sequence. Also, we had built up to the scene for a little over a month, not sure if we were going to be able to pull it off before school started and we would have to wait till the next official holiday – and I think they were ready to go. After the initial moments of the scene, when they are alone and the spree was over, it required very little direction on my part for them to come down and totally crash. They were exhausted in every way, and it comes through.

I also wanted to introduce the idea that the parents of kids like this are really the most tragic figures of all in these situations; they may have been perfectly good and caring parents, they may have loved and thought they knew their children, but in the end, they lose them, they lose their image of who they were and they lose their lives up to that point. I don’t think you can really blame them. No matter how well you know someone, you can never know them completely, not even a child.

While editing, subtlety and minimalism was my mantra. I tried to avoid any improv that had histrionics and anything that, even for an instant, felt fake or forced. I think that what I was trying to do was to illicit sympathy for these two killers without in any way soft-peddling what they do, and also, without simply stating why they do it. When you say the words, “Those kids did it because of fill-in-the-blank,” they ring false and that tone of falsehood will lose an audience very quickly.

Even when there are clearly stated and simple motives for your more typical and common variety of murder, and I can understand those reasons in a detached manner, I can’t understand why someone would consider those are good reasons to kill another human being. I would not shoot someone to death over money or jealousy, and if you put me in a room with a person who is capable of that, he would never be able to convince me that such an act makes sense. It is this gulf that I set out to explore.

With Columbine, the abyss is even deeper and darker. For me, there is only mystery. No explanation or combination of reasons can bridge the gulf between motivation and action.

Get the rest of the interview in part five of BEN COCCIO: AIMING FOR “ZERO DAY”>>>

Posted on September 2, 2003 in Interviews by

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