I Declare War is arguably the best movie you'll see about kids this year. That doesn't mean it's a kids' movie, though. Jason Lapeyre's script, which he codirected along with Robert Wilson, tells the story of a group of kids playing a game of capture the flag. Their cinematic twist on a kids' game of war, though, is that the film often goes inside the minds of the kids. Sticks become rifles, water balloons become grenades. We see their innocent game as they see it in their minds: a bloody, life-or-death game of wits, honor and courage.
It's not just that cool gimmick that makes I Declare War so great, though. It's how Lapeyre and Wilson tap into the mindset of what it's like to be a young boy (or girl) coming to terms with certain feelings and realizations. This isn't a coming-of-age story in the typical, sappy sense. This is a snapshot into the adolescent mind; a glimpse into that moment in all our lives when there was nothing more important than an afternoon spent with your best friends and your raw imagination.
Drafthouse Films wisely picked up the film after it took home quite a few awards on the 2012 festival circuit, and now that it's available to watch in theaters and on VOD, we highly, highly recommend you do. A few weeks ago we got to attend a one-of-a-kind screening of the film that involved a paintball game (adults vs. kids) and an outdoor screening of the film with a bunch of action-movie-obsessed kids. The following day we got to sit down with the filmmakers and star Gage Munroe to talk about how this funny, smart, unique film came to be.
Movies.com: What was it like the first time you screened the movie in America at ActionFest 2012?
Robert Wilson: It was a work-in-progress screening. We sent it down because, given our budget, we couldn't afford to do a test screening, and we certainly couldn't afford one to do it south of the border. For us it was important to see it with an American audience because we didn't even realize that we were going to end up with a movie where 12 year olds had machine guns and swore their heads off until after we had that movie, and then the climate sort of changed around those things. So we wanted to see it with an audience and were totally taken off guard by the reaction at ActionFest. I don't think we considered it a genuine entry into competition at ActionFest so much as a, "Let's hop in our car and drive to Asheville and watch the film."
Movies.com: One of the great things about the film is that there are no adult characters. How early on did you make that decision or did you just realize at some point there were no adults in your story?
Jason Lapeyre: It was part of the conception of the film. It was always going to be a hermetically sealed world where it was only kids, and in fact it was something that Rob and the other producer, Lewin, really liked. There was a scene early on in the drafts where one of the kids imagined seeing his parents and killing them with his laser vision, but we decided to take them out because we so strongly felt we should keep it a hermetically sealed world with only kids.
Movies.com: Gage, for you as an actor, is it easier to be around just kids?
Gage Munroe: It didn't change anything, per se. It was really fun. It made it feel almost like not work. It's been said before, but it made it feel like summer camp. It was a bunch of kids running around in the forest and I just had fun. It was awesome.
Movies.com: When did you first have the germ of an idea for this film?
Lapeyre: I first wrote the script in 2002. And I first met Lewin, the producer, in 2006 or 2007, and it still was going through the system.
Wilson: His script had been optioned by someone else. Before that you'd gone through some workshopping and it was one of five or six films you were working on at the time.
Lapeyre: And then we finally made it in 2011. So, from conception to execution, it was nine years. That sounds like a long time, but that's totally standard.
Wilson: But, from when the option became available to execution? Four months.
Lapeyre: Yeah, that's remarkable actually. From the moment Lewin could make the film, it was a matter of weeks.
Wilson: And he told him that in 2007. He said, "I am going to make this movie. Get it for me." And at the time it was impossible to make that work.
Lapeyre: He promised me in 2007 he was going to say, "I told you so, and he sure as hell did."
Movies.com: So how did you two meet?
Wilson: Well Lewin and I had been in business together in one form or another since 2006. We consummated the relationship officially in 2010 when we opened our own shingle, and this was a thing that we read as a property to make for sure. Jason and I had met a couple times in passing. I had a music video company and Jason wanted to make some money to pay his rent, so we did some music videos together and found out about these scripts. And it just clicked. Next thing we were in a room together, then we were saying "We're doing this." There wasn't a lot of discussion, really. It was like, "Okay, you guys are married, go deal."
It's kind of funny, because we are different people, but we've never been different about this. It was like he got my life like he was in my neighborhood with me.
Lapeyre: We're almost exactly the same age. During preproduction we were constantly making these discoveries about our upbringing, whether it was like the same comics or the same movies.
Movies.com: The movie has a very timeless quality to it, but how often did the kids have to say that something didn't match how kids are today?
Munroe: There wasn't too much we had to point out, but on the few occasions that we did these guys were super open to us making adjustments. Jason said earlier that the script is almost a foundation.
Lapeyre: Yeah, being authentic to the experience of kids today was more important than any fidelity to the screenplay.
Movies.com: What was the training process like for the kids?
Lapeyre: Our stunt coordinator organized a boot camp day for our actors to teach how to properly and safely handle the weapons and how to do some basic military movies.
Wilson: And stunt work too, like falling and rolling, because we were dealing with a cast that ranged from having done three features to someone's first time on a set. Everybody was there, but there needed to be a shorthand between.
Lapeyre: It was a super-fun day. All the boys gathered around to watch the one girl in the cast use a laser-sighted crossbow to nail three bull's-eyes in the row and turn around to face them and this hush just fell over the boys.
Wilson: Yeah, there are no blanks when it comes to firing a crossbow. The characters in the movie are imagining that they're characters from other things they've seen. They were thinking about the Call of Duty sniper moving through the bush, and we wanted that to translate, and to counterpoint when they weren't playing the game, when they're just suffering the atrocities of adolescence.
Movies.com: Who do you foresee becoming the biggest fans of this movie: adults or kids?
Lapeyre: Both. It's been a really pleasant surprise. The reaction has been strong from both older and younger audiences. There was a very conscious choice from the beginning that we were not going to make a movie for children and we weren't going to make one that was safe for children. It was for an older audience that remembered doing this stuff, but from the very first sort of test screening with kids it was very apparent that they loved the movie. We want them to sneak in to the theater to see it.
Movies.com: How much did you guys tweak along the way because of those screenings?
Lapeyre: Well, when it won Best Film and Best Screenplay that maybe it didn't need much fixing.
Wilson: And it was at a work-in-progress stage at that point, but the only work to be done was on the title sequence and a few things we wanted to trim and alter. We were close, but it wasn't there, and we really used it as a "Hey, we should keep our hands off this." And, we were also in discussions with distributors at the point, and there were some who were like, "Oh, it's too long or it's too this or that" and so it was a nice, "Hey, hold on. Shut up, this works."
Movies.com: What was the casting process like? Did you hold auditions for all of the parts and place from there, or did certain kids only audition for certain roles?
Lapeyre: We auditioned for specific roles. Sometimes we'd have an actor audition for two roles, but they weren't given just generic dialogue. They were given lines from the movie. You have a funny story to tell about that.
Munroe: I auditioned for both P.K. and Skinner. I think it was the second audition and I went in and I ran the P.K. lines and then I asked if they wanted me to run the Skinner side, and they said "No, it's okay." And that can either be a great thing or it can be a really bad thing if I don't even get to run the second sides. But I think it turned out okay.
Wilson: As filmmakers you really want to have that amazing story where you searched far and wide to drama classes across the country and auditioned 6,000 kids and that it was such perfection it was almost like it was based on a true story. But we don't have that story. Our casting director told us to relax and at least let her show us some people because that's her job.
Lapeyre: Yep, that's the story. Our casting director was excellent.
Movies.com: Has this movie opened any doors for the three of you? What's next?
Munroe: I finished filming two movies up north in Ontario, Skating to New York and Christmas with Tucker.
Lapeyre: Have you heard anyone say, "Oh I heard about I Declare War, we really wanted to meet you?"
Munroe: Yes. I've had mostly people contact me through a social networking site and they'll be like, "I was at a screening of I Declare War." It's nice to know that people like it. And sometimes they just have questions about it, which is also nice.
Lapeyre: TIFF was a great moment. I think there was a heightened awareness of me as a filmmaker and screenwriter. I got an American agent as a result of last year, so that's opening some doors. Right now I'm just writing and deciding what I want to do next.
Wilson: Right as all those doors were supposed to open at TIFF, I had babies born 10 weeks early. So the past year for me has been a little slushy, a little sleep deprived. I'm just trying to figure out what to do next with Lewin and our little company, and I'm really hoping the work the actors did pays off for them. That's what I'd like to see most.
Movies.com: Do you feel a stewardship over the kids in the film?
Lapeyre: Oh yeah. We all hang out. We're all friends on Facebook. We got together about a month ago and got some ice cream. And I'm always pushing these kids on other filmmakers to get them work.
Wilson: I didn't have kids before this movie, and it was this group of people that reminded me of the potential your life could have. Just seeing them able to go anywhere and do anything, and knowing that you were a little part of that, kind of kick-started my starting a family. I'm not saying they're completely connected, but you can't ignore the correlation given how I feel about working on this movie.
I Declare War is currently available on iTunes, VOD and digital download. It's also playing in select theaters starting August 30, 2013. You should really check it out, and to entice you even more, check out this scene from the opening of the movie. Warning: It's NSFW for language.
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