SXSW FILM 2013
By Don Simpson | March 24, 2013
Brad (P.J. Boudousqué) is a troubled teenager who is abducted from his home in the middle of the night — but, don’t worry, his mother has given her consent. He is driven in a van to a reform facility located in the middle of the wilderness. Brad and his cohorts are completely cut off from society, one of many tactics used by the facility to break their spirits. Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns) runs a strict military-like operation, with no room for sympathy or compassion. Fear of punishment is the main motivator to force the inmates to conform with society’s rules; but, because of blind trust, the Colonel is unaware of just how horrendous the punishments rendered by his staff can be.
Vincent Grashaw’s directorial debut delves deeply into the horrors of youth correction facilities that rely more on torture than rehabilitation. We sat down with Vincent Grashaw, P.J. Boudousqué and James C. Burns to discuss what it was like to work on film that deals with such painfully dark subject matter.
Don Simpson: Coldwater deals with a subject that you have been researching for over ten years now. How many of the realities from that research made it into this script?
Vincent Grashaw: I was really young when I started, so I didn’t initially start this with the idea that I wanted to be the “juvenile rehabilitation guy” who knows everything about the subject. But it was something I had heard about and thought it was interesting. I seem to gravitate towards darker films anyway, so I figured this would be right up my alley. I started hearing more and more about these cases, and the deaths. You go online and search for “wilderness camp lawsuits and deaths” and there are tons. You don’t have to look very far at all. What surprised me was that no one seemed to know about any of this. Sure its on the Internet, but no one was talking or doing anything about it. That was just ammunition for me to focus more on the reality behind it. A lot of the cases that you see in the film are based on reality. Everything is based on first hand accounts. The main thing that I found during my research is the lack of accountability, especially in the privatized sectors with camps that function for profit. Obviously this is a fictional film — and I didn’t want to make a preachy film, or else I would have made a documentary that was really in depth.
If I was to base this film on one corporation, there was a company called WWASP that operated out of Utah. They had about 20 camps around the country and outside of the U.S. One of the camps outside of the U.S. was called “Casa by the Sea.” It was shut down in 2004 by the Mexican authorities because of the abuse that was going on there. I had talked to a kid who went there. It is just sad the way things worked there. The kids would get punished for speaking English and then they would fine the parents for stuff like this. I saw invoices sent to parents fining them for the child’s escape attempts, and stuff like that. I could go on for hours about the things that were going on. The sad thing is that these camps would get shut down and then just open again under a different name. WWASP has been completely shut down, so they don’t exist anymore; but this is a big industry that is heavily supported.
DS: During your research did you find any correctional facilities that were successfully rehabilitating the kids?
VG: Yes, some of them — even some of the facilities that were shut down. There were cases of kids actually turning around their lives. That’s another thing. I don’t want people to think that I am saying that all of these camps are bad, I just want families to do more research into where they are sending their kids. There is much more than just the watching camp’s testimonial video — you have to do more investigating, search message boards online. There is quite a bit of information that you could find.
Mental illness is another big factor. The biggest mistake that most people make is categorizing these kids as delinquents rather than trying to help them. Kids just do not communicate the same way that adults do. Parents think there is a magic pill to fix everything quickly — if they send the kid to a correctional facility, then they will be fixed. Instead of putting in a lot of hard work to learn more about the kid’s problems, because no two kids are the same. There are kids who have mental issues before they are even sent to these camps, and they need other sorts of treatment. In the movie, that is what fuels the end result. I based a lot of the ending on my feelings when the Columbine tragedy happened. You have two guys — one is severely depressed and suicidal, the other is a textbook psychopath — mixed together and that combustion leads to that end result. There are not a lot of answers. We just keep seeing these school shootings and its always the same exact results; the response is always the same. We aren’t asking the right questions.
DS: The Coldwater camp only teaches the kids about violence. It is a system that breeds only hatred and violence, not unlike the U.S. prison system and military prisons.
VG: We didn’t want to paint the Colonel as a toxic person. He is not really a bad guy. He has his own demons, his own beliefs, his own agenda. He is firm because he comes from a military structure where you can depend on the people who surround you. In this film, he is relying on former inmates who were previously subjected to torture. You give these guys the power of authority and you are asking for trouble. The Colonel’s mistake is that he relies on people that he never should have.
DS: Can you talk about the symbolism of the cross?
VG: Aside from it being a device that goes full circle, I think the film has a lot to do with choices and consequences; what you have to live with after making those choices. The cross… Well, I feel like when people make tough choices in life they often depend upon religion. I am a spiritual guy, but there is not one thing that I believe in, I accept it all. The cross was not coming from a personal place for me. It was mainly used as a device to show it being passed from one person to the next. At the end of the film, Brad must look back at what his decisions were and will have to live with them. It is a really big gray area. There are no rights or wrongs. There are no black and white decisions. Everything just collapses because everyone has their own shit going on.
DS: You might wonder if the trauma of what happens to his girlfriend wouldn’t be enough to make Brad change his ways.
VG: Kids can figure their shit out. If you can weather that storm as a parent, the kid will eventually figure it out. Brad did. Unfortunately it was the night or so before he was taken away to Coldwater. That’s a big thing for me — parents just giving up and letting their desperation take over.
DS: In terms of the narrative structure, how did you decide which flashbacks to show and what to reveal from the past?
VG: The flashbacks are very specific and appear in very specific places in the narrative. They mostly all take place within the last 24 hours leading up to the tragedy that got Brad sent to Coldwater. In the beginning it is a way to show how Brad lived, then other moments trigger certain memories. It shows that he is dealing with things while he is there. He doesn’t communicate, he doesn’t know how to talk to people; so with the flashbacks, the audience realizes that Brad has been holding on to all of these horrible memories the whole time. Initially, the script had all of the flashbacks told linearly in the opening of the film. During the editing process we changed the structure and that brought the film to a whole other level for us.
DS: James, what attracted you to this role?
James C. Burns: They sent the script to me in April or May of last year. Call of Duty: Black Ops II was in full production at the time, plus I had another feature film that I was shooting in the summer, so I had very little time to prepare an audition for them. I took a meeting with them and I liked Vince right off. He has a strong vision and I like somebody who has a really strong opinion about things. We talked about the character and then I had to go away for the entire summer. I got back from the shoot in Utah — I was hot and exhausted, with another seven grueling days of Call of Duty ahead of me — I drove straight from LAX to Vince’s office where they handed me 12 pages of the script. I could barely even see straight. I couldn’t read the pages I was so tired, so we did a quick improv and talked some more about the character. Then I had to run off to set for Call of Duty. I didn’t hear anything from them for two or three weeks, and I thought I had really fucked up that audition. I was really panicked because I loved the script and really wanted to do the film. About four days before they were scheduled to start shooting, they called me up and asked for my wardrobe sizes.
When I walked on set, they had already been shooting for a couple of weeks — they had shot [Brad’s] backstory. I literally just wrapped Call of Duty the day before, but it was a really easy transition. My character Frank Reichert is basically Frank Woods [from Call of Duty] if he was promoted to Colonel, even the first name is the same. I walked on set, and because I didn’t go to any of the rehearsals, all of the kids just new me from Call of Duty. They were immediately leery of me. In the script, Reichert is a tough guy, he’s scary. They were all looking at me — I was exhausted so I probably looked like a grumpy old guy — but they eventually started asking to get their pictures taken with me. They all started calling me The Colonel. Most of the people on set didn’t even know my real name, I was just The Colonel to all of them.
DS: You really do embody that role.
JB: Because of Call of Duty, I have an opportunity to be around a lot of military personnel. I have traveled with the USO, we’re going to Afghanistan in May. Across the board, they care about each other. There is a certain masculine intimacy about it. They love each other like brothers. There is an almost parental relationship between the officers and their soldiers. It is firm and stern, but they really care about the people under their command. That is what I really wanted to bring out with the Colonel. Everything that happened, he felt that he was doing the right thing. He really believed that he could effect change in troubled youth. He had the capability to do that, but what he didn’t count on is that he wouldn’t have the structure that he had in the Marine Corps. It is all about structure. In the Marines, his subordinates and second-in-commands were good men that he had faith in them to carry out his orders. He tried to replicate that at Coldwater, but when he promoted his inmates, they weren’t able to handle the responsibility that he gave them. In the military, they give you a little more responsibility that you can handle and they force you into it, but they give you the structure and support to achieve that next level of responsibility. At Coldwater, the Colonel is alone. He has no wife, no family, no friends; he is isolated. He has no way to really reenforce this ideal, this ethic of loyalty and self-development.
DS: It sounds like you didn’t have much time to work with Vince on the backstory for the Colonel before production began?
JB: We mainly focused on making sure that the Colonel was developed into a human being. We didn’t want him to be the asshole and for Brad to be the angel, because that wasn’t true. Brad did stuff previously in his life that earned him the right to be there. The Colonel was truly trying to help these kids out, but unfortunately his flaws took everyone down. It was important to establish that gray area. We really didn’t want to be preachy. As soon as the Colonel becomes an asshole or Brad becomes an angel, you lose the ability to remain objective.
DS: In the context of the narrative, how important was it for the Colonel to be alone and isolated?
JB: That isolation is what causes his demise. The same thing is going on with Brad, he is isolated too. The parallels between the two characters are not by accident. They both had boxes that they kept their secrets in. Brad had his drug box, the Colonel had his box of trinkets that he had stolen from kids. There are so many emotional parallels and they are all planned precisely that way. They mirror each other.
DS: P.J., what appealed to you about this character?
P.J. Boudousqué: The most fascinating thing — what really excited me — about what Vince and Mark Penney did with the script was that Brad doesn’t have a lot of dialogue; he doesn’t really talk about his feelings. A lot of the script is really just about Brad going through this experience. That was a real challenge for me. I really had to find a way to carry this burden throughout the film and still showcase what Brad is going through. I think this works well for this character because he is having trouble communicating, he is repressed. Parents wonder why their kids didn’t just talk to someone — why didn’t they talk with a therapist or connect with someone? Often times, teens and adolescents just don’t know how to. They can’t articulate certain adult feelings. That really resonated with me.
DS: It also puts a lot more pressure on you as an actor to not have dialogue as a crutch. You have to rely so much more on your facial expressions and body movements.
PJB: That was something I had to learn during the course of shooting because I had never done anything else like that. I had to use the character’s history, and also just let go and be open and receptive to what the other characters were doing. It was something I really had to get the hang of, and now watching the film I can see where it really started to click for me. The production has so many amazing actors and they all bring something different. They all have these innate abilities that I admire so much.
DS: How much did you work with Vince on backstory and character development?
PJB: A good bit. Vince gave me a lot of leeway and trust; he let me own my character and he was great at facilitating that. Vince discussed certain things about Brad’s upbringing and his relationship with his dad. He gave me a lot ideas on a day to day basis that I would have never thought about. For the most part we were given a lot of room to experiment and we were given permission to fail. It was an incredible experience.
DS: How much of his research into these correctional facilities did Vince share with you?
PJB: A good bit of it. There was one story on YouTube that really moved me and it really snowballed from there. It was a 14-year-old who was in a detention camp. He died but the cause of his death was inconclusive. I think he was suffocated to death. If you watch the video it is such a moving thing to see and then you can read what his parents have to say about having to endure this loss. They were really trying to help him. I read a lot of books about incarcerated men, and took any advice that Vince would give me.
DS: This seems like it had to be a very emotionally challenging role for you. I imagine it had to be difficult to stop Brad’s situation from effecting you personally as well?
PJB: It was weird because I had never done anything like this before. After a while, once I hit my groove, it became a lot easier to just let go. I think, if anything, I would just get nervous. I would wake up and see what was on the call sheet and wonder how I would do it. I was so tired and felt like I was doing a terrible job, so just all of those insecurities. I don’t think it was as much about the emotional content, but it was more about the anxiety of having to do it.