When Felix Thompson was growing up, he’d spend his summers in England in the small working class town an hour north of London where his father hailed from. With the parents earning their keep, the kids had the run of the place, a freedom that stuck with the writer/director when he was developing his feature debut “King Jack.”
“It was this time when you realized that a kid left to their own devices can be wonderfully noble,” says Thompson. “They can be silly. They can be cruel. There was no one else around to tell you right from wrong, so those weekends when your parents weren’t around were the weekends that really changed your life. I wanted to tell a story that was about one of those weekends, like when you’re 15 and everything turns on a dime.”
Though he relocates the action to Kingston, New York (population 889 at the last count, according to the U.S. Census), Thompson breathes that same air of possibility into “King Jack,” which has been entrancing audiences since its debut last year at the Tribeca Film Festival where it took home the Audience Award en route to a Someone to Watch prize at this year’s Spirit Awards. There’s a woozy, seductive quality to the way in which he and cinematographer Brandon Roots depict the travails of its title character (Charlie Plummer), a teen with a chip on his shoulder and an ongoing feud with a local bully named Shane (Danny Flaherty) to deal with, following just behind as he runs and rides through the town on his bike with abandon. With his mother (Erin Davie) away at work all the time and no father to lean on, only an older brother (Christian Madsen) with concerns of his own, Jack is required to learn some responsibility when his 12-year-old cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) is dropped in his care. Together, the two play baseball, which of course leads to a broken window, and an even more risky game of truth or dare with a girl from school who likes Jack (Yainis Ynoa), but come under constant threat from Shane and his friends, who want nothing less than to lay Jack low.
This may be well-trodden territory on the big screen, but it feels completely fresh through Thompson’s lens, getting just right the youthful exuberance that can lead to formative experiences while showing the genuine ugliness of actions taken by those too young to understand their full gravity. The film may never leave Jack’s side, but it delves into the generations of social conditioning that shaped him into such an angry young man, and more impressively, still manages to capture his fight to protect his cousin’s innocence and preserve some of his own as his war with Shane leads to nasty confrontations. With “King Jack” finally headed to theaters after a celebrated festival run, the writer/director spoke about the excitement of working with a young cast, the endurance test of making his first feature and discovering how universal the story he told really is.
How did this come about?
“King Jack” was very much based on some of the crazy kids I grew up around. My dad was from this small working class town in England, about an hour north of London, and I would spend my summers there as a kid. All the parents were working, so as a kid you had the run of the streets. It’s like “Lord of the Flies” in some way. It was this time when you realized that a kid left to their own devices can be wonderfully noble. They can be silly. They can be cruel. There was no one else around to tell you right from wrong, so those weekends when your parents weren’t around were the weekends that really changed your life. I wanted to tell a story that was about one of those weekends, like when you’re 15 and everything turns on a dime. At it’s heart, I wanted to explore what I felt growing up was really about — that moment when you learn that you’re not the center of the universe and you learn that it’s more important to care for other people than yourself.
You’re able to also show the impact one generation has on another, even though you only stick with the kids. Was that something that was there from the start of writing this?
Yeah, there are a lot of themes of how to be a man in this movie. All the male characters — with the exception of Ben, who’s the youngest — are really flawed and I think it’s interesting to grow up in an environment where all the male figures you look up to, be that your older brother, the older kids, are who you turn to for guidance, but they’re the worst possible guides you could have in that journey, so I really wanted to explore that — how it’s cyclical with the lessons or the flaws of the older generation coming down on the next generation until someone can break that cycle.
You’ve said when you cast Charlie, it changed your ideas about Jack. How so?
When you go into casting, you have to throw away all the unimportant things about this character you’ve written, which is how you thought they would look and sound and just open yourself up to the spirit of what this person is bringing to the room. What you really hope is someone’s really going to just bring something that you hadn’t necessarily seen in this character, something of they’re own. Jack isn’t your typical outcast. He’s very bold and does a lot of outlandish things. He’s a kid who desperately doesn’t want to be forgotten and he’s not going to be the kid to cower in the corner. So when Charlie came in and he brought that bravado, but also this vulnerability, it just opened everything up in the world. He had this thing about him that just made you feel — he’s a really terrific actor and you could really see the show that Jack was putting on, and that underneath there was something sweet about him.
What was the balance for you in allowing the kids to be kids and bring themselves to the set versus directing them?
We didn’t get a ton of rehearsal time for the film, but I did get a day to get all the young cast together and what was really important was building a relationship between them. The tone that we set at the very beginning was that honesty was of utmost importance in any of the scenes. Having a a good bullshit detector is the most valuable tool for the director, and the most valuable tool for an actor. Any time there was something that felt false or like an off-note, everyone was free to speak up and [say], “I don’t feel like I would say it that way.” We would try and get to the heart of what felt true to these characters and one of the most exciting things about working with a young cast is they haven’t been trained to death yet. They have the spontaneity, which all terrific actors have, but your job as a director is to really set up a frame in which your actor can play and feel safe to try things and take risks. That was a really big thing for the film.
I remember the “truth or dare” scene in particular [where Jack and Ben go over to a girl’s house and end up playing the game], which is terrifying because it was seven pages of truth or dare. If it didn’t work, we were really going to be screwed. I don’t quite remember when we started filming, but we were just playing in the room and [the actors] were having fun taking the rug out out from under each other, really needling each other and we just started rolling. It felt like they were really getting to explore the moments honestly and they took complete ownership of these characters and it was real exciting for me.
Was that actually the craziest day of filming?
It wasn’t necessarily crazy, but it was one of those things where you knew it was so dependent on performance. The craziest day was probably the final climatic [confrontation], because I remember sitting down with our stunt coordinator Drew Leary and the stunt had some rather harrowing moments of violence in it, and it was violence between kids, which was always going to be a challenge. So we were going through all the pieces and I remember he never seemed worried about it. I would be like, “Okay, what about the fight scene at the end?” And he was like, “We’ll get a stunt double.” Obviously, finding a stunt double with the physique of a 15-year-old is difficult, but he said, “Oh, normally in that role you find a female stunt double who has a similar build.” Then I reminded him Jack is in his boxers and socks, and I just saw his face be like, “Ah, dammit.” We had to figure out how we were going to do this very epic climax in a way that was safe but still carried the weight and the punch that we wanted it to have. All credit to Drew — he really had a lot on his plate with this film and he managed to do it all really safely.
Throughout the shoot, was it actually a challenge to keep up continuity with all the bruises Jack accumulates in the story?
Yeah, it was and that was something else we talked about a lot. I can only speak from my experience, but when you’re a kid, but you always have something going on — your knees grazed, a cut on your lip — and from the very beginning, Jack always had to be that scrappy person and have those wounds that come with being a kid in the world, so it was difficult to keep track of.
Did you actually write this with this town in mind?
For me, this was a story about forgotten kids in a forgotten town and I wanted this to feel like a town that is one of many that you drive by on the highway and never think twice about. We wanted something that felt very quintessentially American and I wanted people in Arkansas to feel the same connection to this place as people in Pennsylvania. When we found Kingston, it was one of those moments where it just felt like it had a history and this very classic Americana beauty about it that we really fell in love with.
You shoot the film with what feels like a very intuitive sense of movement – it can be still, but when the kids are in action, it moves with them. How did that idea come about?
Brandon Roots, who is a cinematographer I’ve worked with for a long, long time, this is something we talk about a lot, which is this idea that you want the camera to act as an observer. You never want to move [the camera] to motivate something. You want the move to be motivated by something, so in all the scenes, be they chase scenes or the truth or dare scene, the camera is another actor, another dancer, another part of the choreography in the scene and we want it to be removed enough so it’s not forcing anything on the scene, if possible. Ultimately with a film like this, you’re trying to capture moments — moments of honesty, of beauty, of these authentic reactions — and we wanted the camera to reflect that. We didn’t want it to tell the audience how to feel or to push the acting in a certain direction. It was very much about picking up on these things that the kids were giving us in the room.
Was making a feature any different than the shorts you’ve made?
There’s a lot of similarities in the sense that every film from the biggest to the smallest gets made one shot at a time, one scene at a time. The concentration that you have to have in the moment is still the same, but the difference is the breadth of it. It’s a marathon versus a 5K or a sprint and you have to keep that energy and focus over the number of days. Your prep also has to be that much stronger, because things are going to come up and you’re going to have to make decisions on the fly. On a short film, you can keep 10 minutes very clearly in your head — you can see every shot — but if you have to make a decision on the fly on a feature, you really have to think about, how is this going to affect however many minutes come before it and after? So the prep was definitely more dogged and really, one of the things that was valuable.
What’s it been like bringing this into the world?
It’s been really amazing. This was such a personal film for me to write and it was one of those really wonderful shoots where you just really feel connected with everybody and it was a beautiful experience making it. It really became a family up there, so to have this thing that we all made together go out into the world and to see the reaction to it has been really humbling. I’ve loved seeing how it hits home with high school kids. We’ve had people who have come up to me and said, “Listen…” — and they were in their sixties and they’re like, “I was the only Jewish kid growing up in my suburb of Philadelphia and this film really resonated with me, this sense of being an outcast and fighting back and standing up for yourself.”